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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Thirteen More Recent Graphic Novels for Classroom and Libraries!

Here is another batch of recent graphic novels to consider adding to your classroom and library collections.

March: Book One (March, #1)March: Book One by John Robert Lewis
March: Book One is a memoir of how John Lewis became involved in the civil rights movement. Beginning with his life on the farm tending chickens and working its way through the beginning of the nonviolent protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., March: Book One is a masterful example of how the graphic novel form can be used compellingly to convey important stories. Although it never stops being a comic, March: Book One also never stops being a gripping human story wrapped in historical significance. I highly recommend this for all classrooms and libraries.

March: Book Two (March, #2)March: Book Two by John Robert Lewis
Just as powerfully as in March: Book One, Book Two continues the story of John Lewis’s involvement in America’s civil rights movement.  March: Book Two, despite its title, stands alone as a distinct chapter in America’s long struggle with race, but it also emerges smoothly from its predecessor volume. The book focuses on the Freedom Riders and ends just after the August, 1963 March on Washington.  Although somewhat denser than Book One, Book Two alternates effectively between political discussions among the movement’s leaders and the more dramatic scenes in streets and prisons. The black-and-white artwork evokes the familiar black-and-white newsreel footage of protestors being set upon with fire hoses and police dogs, as well as the well-known images of George Wallace on the steps of the Alabama capitol and Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. When those iconic images show up in comic form, they are simultaneously familiar and new.  March: Book Two is an important contribution to our understanding of America and its history.

Orpheus in the Underworld: A TOON GraphicOrpheus in the Underworld by Yvan Pommaux
Myths lend themselves well to the comic form, and this version of Orpheus in the Underworld does a fine job of rendering the intricate tale of Orpheus and Eurydice into an engaging visual experience. The characters’ faces though, for the most part, lack expression, and the drawings of most of the dramatic settings are gray and muted. So, while the myth itself makes this worthwhile, I hope future installments of the Toon Graphic Mythology series take more risks.

AwkwardAwkward by Svetlana Chmakova
It’s the Science Club versus the Art Club in Awkward. The school’s Darth Vader-ish principal pits the kids against each other as they vie for a table at their school’s club fair. Although that premise is far-fetched, it allows for Svetlana Chmakova’s characters to be mean to their enemies, support their friends, and eventually find some satisfying common ground in ways that resonate authentically. Although the plot of Awkward contains few surprises, its messages are important. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for a graphic novel that presents a principal as something less than a monster …

Dragons Beware! (Chronicles of Claudette #2)Dragons Beware! by Jorge Aguirre
Dragons Beware! has all the cliches of the dragon-slaying genre, but the standard elements are turned on their heads with hilarious characters and dialogue. Claudette is the daughter of warriors (and the sibling of a young chef) who is set on recovering her father’s magic sword from the belly of a ferocious dragon while surrounded by an uproarious supporting cast of princes, princesses, soldiers and servants.  The kid appeal of Dragons Beware! is strong, and the messages about negotiation, courage, and family are subtly integrated into a highly satisfying adventure.

A Year Without MomA Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova
At first I was thinking, “Except for how it’s set in Russia, I’ve read this storyline many times. And the artwork is too drab.” Then it hit me. Yes, A Year Without Mom has a familiar plot–adolescent girl is separated from parents and has to navigate school, friends, and the future more or less on her own–but that Russian setting is what makes it so relevant. Young people all over the world have similar issues and problems like those experienced by young Dasha. Set the story in Russia, and all that changes are the details, and those details are rendered here in washed-out colors with occasional splashes of brightness. This is how I imagine Dasha’s world feels to her.

I can’t speak for all teachers, but when I have students in class who come from foreign lands, I tend to focus on their language. A Year Without Mom reminds me to do a better job of also considering their stories and backgrounds.

Princess Decomposia and Count SpatulaPrincess Decomposia and Count Spatula by Andi Watson
Princess Decomposia is running the royal household while her father, the king … molders, I guess. When the castle needs a new chef, Count Spatula arrives with a full array of recipes, although the king doesn’t want to try anything new. Despite the king’s reservations about Spatula, the princess and the count hit it off, working around obstacles presented by various ghouls and zombies.  This book has an Addams Family flavor with appealing major characters and a fascinating, creepy, sardonic cast of supporting characters. The artwork is spare, letting readers fill in details to whatever level of scariness or silliness their imaginations will allow.  I like how Decomposia and Spatula have their priorities straight and keep their wits when those around them–both above ground and below–make decisions according to their baser instincts. I also admire how this graphic novel is actually a novel, complete with character development, a plot with some complexity, and a satisfying resolution.  Princess Decomposia and Count Spatula can be a part of any Halloween-themed display or promotion but will also be popular all year long.

All You Need Is KillAll You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka
This self-contained epic manga masterpiece contains an interesting stuck-in-a-time-loop storyline, two appealing lead characters, and excellent artwork with battle scenes that the pages can hardly contain. If comics are your thing, you will probably enjoy All You Need Is Kill.


Nnewts: Escape from the LizzarksNnewts: Escape from the Lizzarks by Doug TenNapel
The world of Nnewts is super-complex in the colorful “Book One: Escape from the Lizzarks.” The art is the strongest feature of Nnewts. The story is one we’ve seen before: A youngster finds himself battling invaders with the help of an assortment of supporters, including a elderly master who dispenses wisdom. This adventure with touches of humor will likely satisfy young comics fans who like fantasy series.

Cleopatra in Space #2: The Thief and the Sword (Cleopatra in Space, #2) Cleopatra in Space #2: The Thief and the Sword by Mike Maihack
Cleopatra in Space is an action comics series with the Egyptian icon transported far into the future. I like how it integrates so many Egyptian mythological and historical allusions without seeming overly pedagogical about it. This second volume–“The Thief and the Sword”–does not stand alone at all. It offers very little back-story and ends with a cliffhanger that sets up the next installment. “The Thief and the Sword” reads fairly quickly because so many of the pages are action sequences with sound effects (“Zwaack,” “Wump,” “Brrummm”) but no dialogue or other text.

Hello Kitty: It's About TimeHello Kitty: It’s About Time by Jacob Chabot
I’ll admit that before looking at Hello Kitty: It’s About Time, I only knew Hello Kitty as a face on stickers, lunch boxes, and other products for kids. So, I came at my first Hello Kitty book with very few expectations. This 61-page collection has eleven mostly wordless Hello Kitty adventures, all with the concept of time embedded somewhere. Some of the little episodes are more interesting than others, but I can easily see how these quick stories can appeal to the youngest readers and give them imaginative material to enjoy and interpret.

Baba Yaga's AssistantBaba Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola
Baba Yaga’s Assistant is a colorful blending of a contemporary situation with family folklore. Although visually appealing, this tale never quite drew me in on any level.  The contemporary frame story seemed too melodramatic, and the folklore elements were predictable. The scary parts might have some appeal for the right young readers.

Roller GirlRoller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
Astrid is trying to figure out where she fits into her junior high’s pantheon of identities. She knows she’s not this, and she’s not that, but she doesn’t quite know who or what she is. And then she discovers roller derby. Although Astrid isn’t exactly a natural at the sport, she loves the action, and being on a team, and the way players adopt clever, scrappy names like The Blast Unicorn and Roarshock Tess.  As she works to get better, Astrid navigates some tricky friendship situations and learns the value of how practice and more practice turns into dedication, which eventually becomes something resembling that identity she was searching for in the first place.

I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but Roller Girl feels like both an authentic story with real characters and a comic. Maybe it’s because roller derby is a little on the comic-ish side of the sporting world. More likely, it’s due to author Victoria Jamieson’s understanding of both junior-high life and the world of roller derby.  This is a book that can help readers of all ages better understand themselves and one of the central dilemmas of adolescence. Every kid who has ever wondered where she or he fits into the complex world of shifting identities will probably relate to Astrid and Roller Girl.

Your comments and opinions are welcome below.  As always, thanks for reading!

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Ten More Graphic Novels for Libraries and Classrooms!

After reading so many graphic novels about regular people who also have superpowers, I’ve been seeing superheroes everywhere! Maybe that’s the metaphor of this genre: We’re all superheroes. Sometimes all it takes is to be needed or noticed in order for our superpowers to surface.

Here are a few more selections for libraries and classrooms:

NimonaNimona by Noelle Stevenson
Little Nimona wants to be a badass, except she’s just not that bad, if we overlook how she doesn’t mind killing people and encouraging others to do the same. But then again, Nimona is a shape-shifter, so we’re never quite sure what to think of her.

What Nimona really wants is to be the sidekick of Ballister Blackheart, the nemesis of the all-controlling Institution and former friend of the Institution’s hero, Ambrosius Goldenloin. But maybe she’s a monster who becomes a young girl when it suits the monster’s purpose. After all, she spends a certain amount of time in the form of a ferocious dragon. (My favorite incarnation is Nimona’s comedic shark form.) There are three different stories of how Nimona came to her strange abilities and powers, none of them quite convincing, but the version of Nimona we see is the spunky young girl who doesn’t back down to anyone or anything and, as Blackheart says,”She grows on you.”

I really like Noelle Stevenson’s Nimona, a rollicking graphic novel that keeps shifting and blending genres. Is it a science vs. magic story? A classic good vs. evil tale? A coming-of-age journey? A dystopian vision with a Katniss-like superhero? Yes, Nimona has touches of each of those, but it always avoids settling into any one form, just like its namesake central character.

Give Nimona a try. She’ll win you over, and then you’ll wonder if that’s a good thing. Readers of all ages will find a lot to ponder and talk about in this colorful adventure.

The Lunch WitchThe Lunch Witch by Deb Lucke
The Lunch Witch has some funny bits and moments of appealing grossness, but the story kind of falls apart at the end. The spell at the plot’s center is cancelled through a surprising antidote that comes from nowhere and is explained by a shrugged “Who knew?” The drab color scheme works well with the art, and I especially liked the stains and blemishes on virtually every page. Less appealing are the stereotypical portrayals of teachers and other school personnel. I think some kids will like The Lunch Witch, especially around Halloween time.

Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in WarChild Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War by Michel Chikwanine
Michel’s story is tragic. Kidnapped at age 5 and forced to kill as a rebel soldier, Michel eventually finds his way home only to have his family ravaged by war before he is able to immigrate to Canada. With all respect to Michel and others with similar experiences, Child Soldier doesn’t hold together very well as a reading experience. Although the book is heavy on text, very little of it is directly integrated with the art. The supplementary material at the back is useful but too ponderous for the young readers most likely to encounter Child Soldier. This book can be helpful for students and teachers working on a nonfiction or social studies, but few are likely to choose it on their own or recommend it to their friends. Still, it helped me understand some of the background of international conflicts that I didn’t really know about.

Space DumplinsSpace Dumplins by Craig Thompson
Space Dumplins is pretty standard fare for a science-fiction comic: A precocious but vulnerable youngster and her alien pals attempt to rescue a family member against all odds. In this case, the odds are truly odd: planet-chewing whales and their diarrhea. Yes, diarrhea.

The story has some vague Biblical references, and some left-wing commentary, and some right-wing commentary. I couldn’t put all that together. Maybe I was trying too hard. The art here is both busy and impressive–kind of like Where’s Waldo–but it all comes together in a fast-paced adventure with doses of silliness.

The Golden Compass Graphic Novel, Volume 1The Golden Compass Graphic Novel, Volume 1 by Philip Pullman
I read this in one sitting and was pretty much lost from the get-go, probably because I have no familiarity with the source material, Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass series. I understood that the main character is a rambunctious girl named Lyra who lives at Oxford. Beyond that, I was lost in characters and locations galore, magic animals, magic contraptions, multiple identities, and some armored bears.

Because very few of the fantasy elements are explained here, I assume that this graphic novel version of The Golden Compass is intended for those who already know the story and the imagined world in which it takes place. The artwork is rich, especially in the depiction of the various settings, so I can give benefit of the doubt that those already familiar with Pullman’s plot will find new angles to appreciate in this adaption.

Attack of the Alien Horde (Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape Book 1)Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape:  Attack of the Alien Horde by Robert Venditti
New to his school, 7th-grader Miles Taylor has enough to think about, and then he finds himself suddenly imbued with the powers of Gilded, the superhero everyone relies on to fight bad guys, fend off disasters, and rescue innocent bystanders. Miles Taylor and the Golden Cape: Attack of the Alien Horde is the first installment of a promising new series that shifts from text to comics whenever Miles morphs into Gilded.

An evil alien army fixes its sights on Atlanta, although the first attack causes surprisingly little concern. Miles is more concerned with stereotypical junior high troubles: how to deal with bullies, how to be cool around the school’s cutest girl, and how to deal with the friction between his parents. When trouble calls though, Miles becomes Gilded and does what he needs to do to help goodness prevail.

The combination of text and comics in this series should make it an excellent ladder for young comics fans. The action unfolds with a sensibility that is likely to appeal to them, and several of the characters are also comics fans.

Prison Island: A Graphic MemoirPrison Island: A Graphic Memoir by Colleen Frakes
Prison Island is a graphic memoir from Colleen Franks based on her family’s time living on McNeil Island in Washington state, home of the prison where her parents both worked. This made for an unusual childhood: ferry rides to and from school, inmate-escape lockdowns interrupting birthday parties, and daily encounters with wildlife. Told through a flashback frame of visiting the island as a young adult during ceremonies surrounding the prison’s closing, Prison Island offers a view of an interesting living arrangement from both childhood and adult perspectives.

Maybe I’m a little persnickety about such things, but I was pulled out of the story a couple of times by misspelled words and run-on sentences in the cartoon balloons. Still, I liked the characters and appreciated the insights into what it means to a child to live isolated from classmates but close to prisoners.

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 1: No NormalMs. Marvel, Vol. 1: No Normal and Ms. Marvel, Vol. 2: Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson
Kamala is 16, Pakastani-American, Muslim, and a Marvel comics fan. Then something weird happens, and she finds herself imbued with superpowers she uses for good when transformed into Ms. Marvel!

Volume 1 is engrossing as it introduces Kamala and her family, friends, and enemies. Ms. Marvel will do wonders in Jersey City … when she’s not grounded by her parents or in trouble at her mosque.

Ms. Marvel, Vol. 2: Generation Why“Generation Why” doesn’t carve out as much new territory as the first volume of the new Ms. Marvel series, but that isn’t really a criticism. Kamala Khan is still the first 16-year old “Pak-American” superhero, and in this episode she speaks out about the importance of her generation sticking together and not giving up on itself.

I admire the humor of this series, as well as the inventive artwork that combines text and graphics in new (at least to me) panel formats.  This comic should have wide appeal, and its Muslim superhero is an obviously welcome positive portrayal of a demographic under-represented in literature for young readers

Hilo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to EarthHilo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick
Hilo crashes to Earth wearing only silver underpants and yelling “AAAAHH!” He doesn’t know where he came from or why he is now on Earth, so he spends a lot of time saying “I don’t know.” Hilo is a fast learner though, especially with the help of his newfound friend D. J., a kid who thinks he isn’t good at anything.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth will help younger readers ask questions about what makes us who we are. Is it where we come from? Is it our friends or family? Is it how we learn? Is it our activities, sports, or talents? Or is it something in our hearts?

This is apparently the kickoff of a new series. Hilo and D. J. are appealing enough that they should wear well throughout upcoming episodes, especially if the artwork remains bright and colorful, and the dialogue stays funny.
I hope these little reviews are helpful to you. Another forty or so new graphic novels are in my TBR pile, and I hope to post another installment like this soon!

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Seven New Graphic Novels for Classrooms and Libraries!

As part of my service as a judge for the 2015 Cybils Awards in the Graphics category, I’ve been reading a lot of YA and middle-grade graphic novels. Here are some thoughts about a few of them. More to come!

As always, thanks for reading, and I welcome your comments and questions.

Mike’s Place by Jack Baxter Mike's Place: A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv
Mike’s Place is a strong nonfiction graphic novel centered around the 2003 terrorist bombing of a Tel Aviv nightclub. Documentarians were in the process of making a film about how the apolitical clientele of Mike’s Place was dedicated to fun and music when the suicide bomber attacked. That documentary approach carries through the art and storytelling as Mike’s Place recounts the events before and after the bombing through the eyes of the filmmakers, owners, customers and others associated with Mike’s Place.

Gotham Academy, Vol. 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy
by Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, Karl Kerschl (Illustrations) Gotham Academy, Vol. 1: Welcome to Gotham Academy
Gotham Academy is a new graphic novel series from DC Comics set in Bruce Wayne’s prep school alma mater. A group of student sleuths try to uncover the mysteries within the academy’s halls and walls, as well as their own backgrounds. The most interesting character, Maps, “small in stature but huge in personality,” is one of the two female leads in the group of students.

Much of “Welcome to Gotham Academy,” the first volume in the series, deals with establishing setting, characters, and back story, so it juggles a lot of elements and jumps around in time. Although it’s entertaining, Gotham Academy doesn’t quite all come together in this first volume. I hope future installments will have more clever banter between characters and even more Batman.

The sketches and script excerpt added to the back of “Welcome to Gotham Academy” are likely to be appreciated by comics fans and fans of this series.

Rutabaga the Adventure Chef: Book 1 by Eric Colossal Rutabaga the Adventure Chef: Book 1
Rutabaga the Adventure Chef is an earnest young hero who enjoys cooking with exotic ingredients that he gathers while on adventures which usually involve fighting monsters of various ilk. Volume One includes four different episodes. Rutabaga gave me a few chuckles and some recipes. Thanks to author Eric Colossal and Amulet Books for considering peanut allergies in the recipes!

Macbeth (Graphic Classics) by Gareth Hinds Macbeth
The Gareth Hinds graphic novel version of Macbeth is extraordinary. The graphic novel format allows Hinds to absorb Macbeth‘s compressed time, hallucinatory (or are they?) visions, gory scenes, and blood-soaked imagery and present them in dramatic, colorful scenes.

Thankfully, Hinds also respects Shakespeare’s language. Comic balloons do not always play well with iambic pentameter, and Hinds has abandoned Shakespeare’s line breaks for the most part. Although some scenes and monologues retain Shakespeare’s enjambment, the rhythmic power of the language is present throughout.

Gareth Hinds masterfully conveys subtlety and complexity in his characters. The facial expressions bring characters to life in startling ways, echoing the techniques actors use to engage audiences.

The valuable notes at the end of this edition are comparable to a director’s notes in a theatrical program as Hinds explains how he used history, scholarship, and dramaturgy to inform the choices and compromises involved in adapting Macbeth to a comic form.

Regardless of how well you know Macbeth, this graphic novel version is likely to show you something new.

Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet! by Scott McCormickMr. Pants: Trick or Feet!
Mr. Pants: Trick or Feet! is a wacky Halloween-themed adventure featuring the cockeyed cat Mr. Pants and his sisters. Airport zombie tag, pointless competitiveness, and names of grains all figure prominently in this story. More funny than cute, Mr. Pants will be a favorite with elementary readers.

The Case of the Simple Soul by John AllisonThe Case of the Simple Soul (Bad Machinery, #3)
The British gang of teen mystery-solvers is back in another full-color adventure. This time someone is setting abandoned barns afire, and a fox-loving troll is the most likely suspect. I enjoy Bad Machinery’s British slang and humor, but there might be too many characters. Some of them blur together, like if the Scooby-Doo gang had five more members. “The Case of the Simple Soul” is solid entertainment and has an exciting (and surprising) resolution.

The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Crazy Critter Race
by Maxwell Eaton III The Flying Beaver Brothers and the Crazy Critter Race
I like how these comical critters use their natural abilities to solve the problem created by a maniacal houseboat salesman. For example, the eponymous beaver brothers use their “prominent incisors” to chew through one of their obstacles. The youngest readers will enjoy the plentiful sound effects throughout this adventure. I’ll admit I laughed out loud in a couple of places, although I didn’t quite understand exactly what happened at the end.

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Although I’m about a year late to this bandwagon, maybe that can be overlooked if it brings more eyes to I’ll Be Me, the extraordinary documentary about Glen Campbell’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

I’ve been a Glen Campbell fan for a long, long time–since childhood really, when his “Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” set a new standard for television variety shows. He lost me a little bit around the time of “Southern Nights,” but by then his extraordinary collection of hits had a permanent place in my desert-island list.

But back to I’ll Be Me, James Keach’s tough and tender look at how Glen Campbell dealt with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis. We see Campbell and his wife Kim consulting with doctors who ask him memory-based questions that he cannot answer. When asked who was the first president, Campbell replies, “I don’t care about that.” As the disease progresses, Campbell tries to stay upbeat, but his frustrations boil over in anger a couple of times, and Keach puts us in the room as it happens.

If I’ll Be Me exists only to help audience understand Alzheimer’s disease, it would be enough, but it goes far beyond that to powerfully demonstrate how Glen Campbell’s musicianship interfaces with his disease. Shortly after his diagnosis, Campbell launched a massive farewell tour which serves as the backdrop for most of this film. As he struggles to remember the names of his family members, Glen Campbell can walk out on a stage and put on a great show. Although he needs a teleprompter to help with lyrics–those Jimmy Webb songs have a lot of words!–his tenor still soars. And the guitar-playing? Oh my gosh. Glen Campbell is one of the best guitarists in the history of pop and country music, and Alzheimer’s disease didn’t touch that, at least not during the scope of I’ll Be Me. His playing is incredible.

The film makes the point that the progression of Alzheimer’s begins by attacking memory. But Glen Campbell’s musicianship is so deeply embedded that it’s more than mere memory. As he takes the stage night after night, the sharpness of his performance belies the ways that the disease has ravaged other areas of his life. One of his doctors makes the case that continuing to play and perform music may actually slow the disease’s progression in other areas of his brain. Glen Campbell delivers flawless vocal and guitar performances throughout most of I’ll Be Me, but we also see him struggle on the last night of the tour.

Another important theme of I’ll Be Me is the importance of Glen Campbell’s family support. His wife Kim is patiently by his side at home and on tour. Some Campbell children form his stage band. His daughter Ashley Campbell is a dynamic performer in her own right and an articulate spokesperson for families dealing with Alzheimer’s when she addresses a Congressional committee on the subject.

A who’s who of popular music comment on Campbell’s legacy–Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, The Edge, Brad Paisley, and more–but just as significant are the insights of his family members, tour personnel, doctors, and a fellow native Arkansan named Bill Clinton.

Since the film’s release, news stories have surfaced about Glen Campbell’s current condition as he is cared for at home, currently in the sixth of seven stages of Alzheimer’s progression. Rather than morbidly focusing on what his fans all know is coming, I hope anyone interested in Glen Campbell, popular music, or Alzheimer’s disease will watch I’ll Be Me. It’s currently available on DVD, and it will debut on Netflix in October.

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How to Prepare Students for the New ACT Writing Test

tmb-writing-promptThose of us involved in helping students prepare for the ACT test should know about some significant changes in the writing portion that rolled out in September. ACT calls the changes “enhancements,” and that’s probably a pretty good word because the changes are positive ones, at least in my opinion.

Here are the major changes:
1. The writing test is now 40 minutes instead of 30 minutes.
2. The format is now focused on “contemporary issues” rather than on specifically school-related topics. The first new topic, for example, was “Bad Laws.”
3. While the original ACT writing test asked students to choose and defend one side or the other of a topic, the new writing test has a wider scope. Students are now given brief perspectives on an issue, and they are required to evaluate those perspectives within a framework that includes their own point of view on the issue.
4. The scoring is different. The previous writing test holistically scored essays on a 1-12 scale and figured that into a Combined English/Writing score. The new version will score the essay 1-36, but instead of a holistic approach, the scorers will give separate ratings in four domains: Ideas and Analysis, Organization, Development and Support, and Language and Conventions. The essay score will be part of a new ELA score, which is the average of the ACT English, writing, and reading subscores.

How can we prepare students for these changes? First, we need to familiarize them with the format changes. They should know about the time change, as well as how to use the space provided on the test for planning and pre-writing. The pre-writing questions and blank space can serve as a useful checklist and “sandbox” for writers as they make sure each of the prompt’s expectations is fulfilled.

Second, we need to help students understand that the structure of this essay will be different from those written for the old test. While the old either-or writing test asked students to formulate and defend a one-dimensional opinion, the new test requires students to articulate a more sophisticated thesis. The essay’s main idea needs to be complex enough to allow evaluation of each of the provided perspectives as well the writer’s own point of view. It’s no longer “Here are three reasons why I’m right.” Now it’s more like “I believe because . Therefore, I consider Perspective A more valid, and Perspectives B and C less valid.”

The writing approach required on the new test is more in line with what college writing is actually like. The ACT is a college aptitude test, so it’s now more likely to assess a student’s preparedness for the kinds of writing he will encounter in post-secondary classes. The old version of the writing test always seemed to me like it was a high school achievement test rather than a college aptitude test.

My only concern with the new test is that the breakdown of those domain components doesn’t seem to recognize or allow for writing with exceptional style. If a student’s language is mechanically perfect but otherwise flat, what Language and Conventions subscore should she expect? I’d really like to see the rating markers within each domain of the rubric, and maybe those will eventually be made public.

Click here for ACT’s sample of the new writing test format.

I’m interested in what students have to say about the new writing test and any educator’s opinions on it! Thanks for your feedback and comments.

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Is Ahmed’s Clock A National Teachable Moment?: Review of CREATIVE SCHOOLS by Ken Robinson

Ahmed’s clock may provide just the push Americans need to examine the damage inflicted by the movement to standardize everything that happens in a school. The accountability culture in American schools has, for all practical purposes, declared war on innovation and creativity. If it can’t be counted, tested, homogenized, and duplicated, it’s considered by many educrats to be unimportant and—in at least one Texas principal’s office—dangerous.

In Creative Schools, Ken Robinson illuminates the failures of the standards movement and presents numerous models and examples for replacing it with creativity as the cornerstone of American schooling while still maintaining high academic expectations. What if schools were places where learning is an enjoyable process, where competent teachers have autonomy to make professional decisions, where parents are a welcome addition to classroom activities, where assessment means something more than standardized tests? Robinson shows how these characteristics are happening in high-performing schools  in America and abroad.

I want my own children, future neighbors, and fellow citizens to be independent thinkers and creative spirits like Ahmed, not highly-trained test-takers who only know enough to “meet standards.” I want people like Ahmed to live on my block, and I want people like his principal to live somewhere else.

Nothing excites me more than seeing brave teachers go rogue as they employ project-based learning, conduct Genius Hour, and teach like pirates. These inspirational educators give me hope that the academic pendulum may finally be swinging back toward common sense and thriving curiosity.

skr_creative_schools_3d-coverKen Robinson’s Creative Schools is an enlightening book with many good ideas. Although I agree with every syllable of the book, some of it seems pulled from Robinson’s earlier speeches and articles, and it doesn’t completely hang together with a unified focus. Still, it is well worth the time of anyone who cares about the direction of American schools.

Every school has students like Ahmed, as well as students who are interested in many other worthwhile areas, but they are choking on the test-based, standards-driven curriculum. What if every American child attended a school where the principal and more of the teachers encouraged creativity, innovation, and self-direction instead of schools where the leaders arrest kids who carry around harmless engineering projects?

Ahmed and his clock may have just given us a national “teachable moment.” If we want to seize that moment, Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools can provide a valuable path.

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3 New YA Books for Your Classroom Library

Although no book is perfect for everyone, here are three that will appeal to a wide variety of teen readers. Please let me know if the readers in your world like these books as much as I did!

drowned cityDrowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans by Don Brown: Virtually every page of Don Brown’s Drowned City elicits gasps as we first understand the astonishing power of the storm and then the inept responses of local officials and the Bush administration. Heroes are few in this tale, but credit is given to law enforcement officers who stayed on the job (while some of their colleagues resorted to looting), individual rescuers who saved neighbors and strangers, and the people of New Orleans who did what they had to do to survive the storm and its aftermath.

Readers of this graphic novel/journalism masterpiece are guaranteed to be emotionally moved.

backlash coverBacklash by Sarah Darer Littman: After being publicly dumped by a boy on Facebook, Lara attempts suicide. Her neighbor and former best friend Bree then posts on Facebook a photo of Lara being loaded into the ambulance on a stretcher. All of this happens in the first few pages of Sarah Darer Littman’s Backlash. I can’t say much more about the plot of Backlash without revealing spoilers galore, but I can say that Backlash is much more than an “issue” book. Yes, cyberbullying is at the heart of the story, but Littman gives us authentic, complex, compelling characters that leave us wondering how people can possibly be so cruel. I’ve dealt with any number of situations where a young person mistreats someone else and offers as a defense, “I was just kidding, “ or “It was a joke,” or “I thought it would be funny.” By focusing on one such realistic situation Sarah Darer Littman has given us an important book. I hope Backlash finds its way into the hands of many, many young readers. Dramatic without being graphic, Backlash is appropriate for grades seven and up.

trashedTrashed by Derf Backderf: Derf Backderf’s Trashed is an appropriately grimy follow-up to his graphic-novel-memoir My Friend Dahmer, Backderf’s recounting of his high school acquaintance with serial cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer.

My Friend Dahmer is my go-to book for a certain kind of reader, the kind who doesn’t find anything in print worthy of interest. MFD always hooks them. If they need other reading suggestions, now I can offer Trashed.

Trashed is a graphic-novel-ish tale of some guys who work as trash collectors. As with any job story, there is a boss, a boss’s boss, corruption, pain-in-the-butt customers, and some down-time. But as with few other jobs, this one has a lot of really gross things going on. Think diapers and roadkill and you’ll be getting in the zone.

But Trashed goes beyond that storyline to share insights about how America generates and processes its trash. Readers will learn about garbage trucks, landfills, recycling and other garbage-related topics. The balance between these nonfiction elements and the workers’ storyline is perfect. Those who are in it for the yucky stuff will stick with the book through these relatively short explanation sections.

Trashed probably isn’t for every reader, but it’s perfect for some we all know.

Thanks to Net Galley for providing me with an advance copy of Trashed. Look for it in November, 2015.

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Getting SCHOOLED with Anne Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz

schooled-coverA lot of people talk about teachers but not many talk to teachers.  Authors Anne Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz set out to address that shortfall in Schooled:  Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change (Teachers College Press, 2015).  Schooled profiles nine teachers whose stories reveal patterns running through numerous different forms of American schooling.

And now a brief digression for the purpose of transparency.  I’m proud to be one of the nine teachers profiled in Schooled.  If you and I already know each other, you probably won’t learn much new about me from this, but you should probably read it anyway for the authors’ insights into the context of my story.  I’ll say more about my experience with Schooled and its authors toward the end of this piece.

The Schooled teachers share pragmatism in the face of obstacles and optimism in the face of challenges.  Whether they are situated in small schools, large schools, home schools, charter schools, or reservation schools, these teachers see their jobs as not just conveyers of core curricula but as shapers of the future by way of their students.

Those students who inhabit the classrooms (or other learning spaces) with these teachers represent a young microcosm of our society.  Some students have relatively easy lives; some students have incredibly difficult lives.  For better or worse, these young people bring to school the outlooks and issues present in their families and communities, and the teacher’s challenge is to sort through all of that as effectively as possible and still use their expertise to foster learning.

Even though our professional circumstances varied, I found common ground with each of the other teachers in Schooled.  Ulla Tervo-Desnick, a Finnish-born first-grade teacher in Minnesota, shared my frustration with mandated, data-centered collaboration time with colleagues:  “If the focus of your time together is data collection, then the focus is data collection.  It’s not how to help this child or that child.  So unfortunately we look at it as a missed opportunity.”

Lisa Myrick, a high school science teacher in South Carolina clearly articulated one of the fallacies of standardized testing:  “Any teacher knows that scores on a test may vary greatly from year to year, although she may have taught the material using the same practices.  What is different is who walks through those doors in August and what their prior experiences have been.  Did they travel to the Caribbean this summer or did they get bounced between foster homes?”

Robert Lewis, a learning support teacher in Colorado is the kind of teacher all parents want for their children:  “I never think they can’t do it.  I always think, okay, well, we just have to get to it another way.  There’s a thousand ways to climb a mountain.”

I dare you to try not being inspired by the devotion of Glorianna Under Baggage, a teacher on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota whose mantra is “encourage, encourage, encourage” but who has special fire in her words for “the reformers”:  “Who are you to judge those children that are suffering?  Who are you to judge them when they don’t even have a bed in their home?  That’s what they [the reformers] need to take care of.”

My involvement in Schooled came about when author Anne Lutz Fernandez, a public school teacher in Connecticut, contacted me through Twitter to ask if I was interested in being included in her newest book, co-written with her sister Catherine Lutz, a Brown University sociology professor.  Of course, I was interested, but I needed several layers of approval before Anne and Cathy could visit me on campus.  After I assured my supervisors that I was not under duress and was not being paid, the authors traveled to suburban Chicago.

We first met after school in a public library conference room just a couple of hours after the Boston Marathon bombings.  Because Anne and Cathy would be visiting my classes the next day, we talked about how that tragedy would affect my teaching.  Then we had a great conversation about all kinds of issues involved in contemporary American education.

Anne Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz

Anne Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz, authors of SCHOOLED: ORDINARY EXTRAORDINARY TEACHING IN AN AGE OF CHANGE (Teachers College Press, 2015)

The following day Anne and Cathy shadowed me throughout the school day.  They had agreed with our administration’s request not to talk to students, but they soaked up everything that happened in my classes and perceptively noted numerous quirky aspects of our school that I sort of took for granted.

I’m thrilled with the chapter that grew out of our interview and site visit.  I’m glad that my passion for nurturing lifelong reading habits and developing young writers come through so clearly.  I’m also glad my “irreverent and strong-headed” views on educational issues of the day are likely to be read by a wide audience and preserved for posterity.

Schooled will be an illuminating read for educators who are likely to find themselves nodding in agreement on page after page; parents who wonder what is really going on in the minds of their children’s teachers; those considering a career in education; and anyone who wants a more balanced view of what American education looks like in this time when much of the news coverage about schools is so negative.

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Review: GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

watchmanDefense attorney Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my literary heroes, now finds himself in need of a defense. He is accused of being a racist based on the portrayal of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s newly published Go Set a Watchman. Although I would be a woeful defense attorney, this case is easy. The To Kill a Mockingbird Atticus Finch is not the same person as the Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman; therefore, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird cannot be called a racist based on Go Set a Watchman. These are very different books, and the two characters named Atticus Finch are very different people. The Watchman Atticus is a racist, but he is not the Mockingbird Atticus. Harper Lee changed many things as her story evolved, and one of the things she changed was the racial attitudes of Atticus Finch.

Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird have other obvious differences. Significant characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are not mentioned in Go Set a Watchman. Major characters in Go Set a Watchman who would have been part of the action in To Kill a Mockingbird are not mentioned in Mockingbird. Characters appearing in both books have different traits and outlooks. There are other instances of discontinuity between the two books. (Please excuse my lack of specifics as I try to avoid spoilers.) The two books cannot be regarded as prequel and sequel, or different episodes with the same characters. They are distinctly separate literary entities with some overlapping elements.

Most novels fare poorly when compared to Harper Lee’s classic, and Go Set a Watchman is no exception. Watchman is thinly plotted and heavily political. As characters talk back and forth about race for page after page, the dialogue becomes kind of boring. When the race discussion winds down, characters delve into the psychological imperatives of parent-child relationships. Also boring.

Still, Go Set a Watchman has its charms. It’s good to hear from some of these characters again after so many years, especially Jean Louise and Calpurnia. As Jean Louise remembers events from her adolescence, we are treated to some entertaining scenes that would not have fit in To Kill a Mockingbird’s time frame.

Go Set a Watchman is interesting as a literary artifact, but it’s not a satisfying novel. I would caution teachers against choosing it for study as a whole-class novel. Some of the racial language is disturbingly intense, much more so than in To Kill a Mockingbird. Let’s continue to encourage young readers to experience To Kill a Mockingbird. If they find their way to Go Set a Watchman, that’s fine. Discerning readers will see Watchman for what it is: a rough draft.

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