What a Night!: Fremd High School’s #WriteNite

write nite sign
Kudos to Fremd High School for holding its first Write Nite last night as a fund-raiser for their mighty Writers Week program. (Disclaimer: Although I was an organizer for Fremd’s Writers Week for many years, my only involvement in Write Nite was as an enthralled observer.) What is Write Nite? Well, it can take many forms, but Fremd’s version included the following:

Three students involved in spoken word poetry who opened with pieces that set the tone for the evening by combining humor, insight, courage, and excellent writing

The Ukeladies—two talented singers who played ukuleles and sang parodies of Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum songs, including a version of “I Need You Now” that served as a plea to the superintendent to call off school due to cold weather. The superintendent was in the audience for Write Nite, and he later tweeted, “Totally energizing and glad-to-be-alive-in-this-moment evening at Fremd. Outstanding performances by all. Great for the soul!”

Ed Nickow—the father of a Fremd English teacher whose day job has nothing to do with writing but who has become something of an online celebrity due to his blogging and his Twitter persona @TheCubsInHaiku

A haiku competition featuring people who have the same names—a married couple who both teach at Fremd, siblings who both teach at Fremd, two students who have the same name, and a teacher and student who both share the same name

An a cappella competition—a mini-Pitch Perfect show with three groups of energetic singers

Write Club—a head-to-head competition between writers on assigned topics, including students who blog together writing about siblings; the newspaper advisor on Truth and the state champion sportswriter on Dare; the principal advocating online communication and Fremd’s tech director advocating face-to-face communication

Semester Abroad—a student pop-punk band that brought the crowd to its feet and eventually turned the media center into a mosh pit

The energy in that room was amazing. A lot of schools are dragging at this point in the year, but the faculty, students, parents, alumni, and community members at Write Nite were the opposite of dragging.
Fremd High School is a writing community. The best student writers are as well-known and respected as any other campus paragon. Many teachers at Fremd understand writing as something more than an academic endeavor; they cover the academic bases when it comes to writing, but they go far, far beyond regarding writing as nothing more than assignments and test prep. Many students at Fremd use writing as an outlet and as recreation. And, of course, for 21 years Fremd has hosted Writers Week, an annual week-long celebration of writing that brings together student, faculty, and professional writers.

write nite hansBeyond writing though, last night the school strengthened itself as a community. The audience cheered the principal. They cheered teachers. They cheered each other. Take a look at the #WriteNite hashtag on Twitter. One student said, ” There isn’t a lot to love about public high school, but the allegiance Fremd kids feel towards Writer’s Week is something to believe in.”

Any school can do what I saw last night at Fremd’s Write Nite. All it takes is dedicated teachers willing to plan, work, and organize, along with a supportive administration and community. Every school has student writers. That’s the easy part. Find the writers and build a program around them.

I’ll bet the fund-raising part of Write Nite turned out well, but that’s almost beside the point. What happened last night in the school’s media center for three hours helped Fremd’s students experience writing with a depth and passion that is rare in schools. I’m proud of my former colleagues and students for what they put out in the world last night. Respecting student writers and holding up their work is something that Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois does extremely well.

Lately I’ve been seeing this quote from business consultant and writer Shawn Parr: “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” In other words, you can strategize all you want, but your organization’s culture is really its essence. Schools need to strategize to a certain extent, but you have to work with the culture that is already in place. From what I saw at Write Nite last night, Fremd’s culture as a community of writers is in a very healthy place.

Thanks for an inspirational evening.

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The Mariner and Me:  Telling Our Stories to Help Students (and Ourselves) Reflect

magritte_grande-familleStudents are usually interested in developing a résumé: leadership positions, extra-curricular activities, service projects, etc. They carefully choose and articulate each crumb of success and arrange them so that they will present the best possible version of themselves.

But what about creating a failure résumé? A recent blog post by Angela Skinner Orr entitled “#FML (Fail My Life): A Failure Résumé” inspired by Tina Seelig’s 2009 blog post “FAIL in order to SUCCEED” has me thinking about the power of reflection as an important tool for teachers.

One of the most important traits of an excellent teacher is a growth mindset—constantly searching for ways to improve one’s craft. Reflection—the act of stepping back and analyzing what worked and what didn’t work, either in writing or in collaborative discussion—is an important practice to develop.

As we reflectively process an experience or decision, we are not only generating new ways to benefit from what happened, we are also thinking about our own thinking and what we can learn from it. This deepens our understanding of how thinking and learning operate, and we can use that new learning for the benefit of our students and ourselves.

When we incorporate the results of our reflection into our practice, we may try new concepts or approaches, or we may try old concepts in new ways. These re-boots can then serve as fuel for future reflection.

I’m especially excited about helping students become more reflective. Learners become better at thinking when they better understand their own cognition. That failure résumé is a brilliant exercise for just this kind of activity, and Orr’s blog post can serve as an excellent model.

I would suggest introducing the failure résumé by telling a story to your students. Tell them about a time you struggled or failed. I guarantee they will pay attention. There is just something about a teacher telling a personal story revealing vulnerability that students respect.

Last year I told my class a story I’d never told anyone before. We were studying Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in which a mariner kills an albatross for no apparent reason and suffers both internal shame and public humiliation because of his act.

I began, “This reminds me of a time when I did a really stupid thing that I’ve never told anyone about.”

Do you think students who were moments ago less than enthused about the Coleridge poem perked up a bit? Oh, yeah.

“When I was about ten or eleven, I was really into archery. We had a big field behind the house, and I set up targets. Eventually I got pretty good at it. Across the road from the field our neighbors had an old barn and some ponies. I was free to roam their property, including the barn which was home to quite a few pigeons in addition to the ponies. One day I was shooting arrows in our field and then wandered over to the neighbor’s barn carrying my bow and arrow. The ponies were outside, but the rafters were full of pigeons.”

(Yes, the students are still locked on, and Coleridge is far, far away.)

“For absolutely no reason, I drew an arrow, took aim, and shot one of those roosting pigeons, sticking it grotesquely to the wooden barn wall. I immediately felt terrible about it. I climbed up a little ladder, pulled the arrow and the pigeon from the wall, went outside and threw the pigeon in some weeds, and put the arrow back in my scabbard.”

“Until just now, I have never told that story. I have never understood why I did such a terrible thing, but I wish I knew why I did such ‘a hellish thing.’ I always think about this though when I read what the sailors say to the Mariner: “God save thee, ancient Mariner! / From the fiends, that plague thee thus!– / Why look’st thou so?”

“I can relate to why the Mariner looks stricken. Is it guilt, shame, or confusion about why he did this thing? I’m not sure, but I know something of how it feels to do a stupid thing that I don’t really understand.

“Now, shall we go on with the poem, or does anyone else have a story about a time something similar happened?”

And Coleridge always takes a seat on the bench for several minutes. When we go back to the poem, it’s with renewed interest and focus. It’s no longer a dead-white-guy poem; it’s about a situation newly infused with empathy.

Telling stories makes the learning “stickier.” Maybe it’s the inherent energy of a story and how human brains are wired to learn especially well when concepts are embedded in a story. Maybe it’s what happens when a teacher challenges the stereotype and becomes a little more human. Either way, modeling courage and maturity before students consider their own struggles or failures is likely to lead to more powerful reflection.

Tell stories. Reflect on how the stories affected the learning. Help students tell stories. Help students reflect.

As always, thank you for reading, and I’m eager to know your thoughts.

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Doing a Scary Thing

dT8bdoETeThis blog post is going to be a little different. It’s mostly just for me.

A revelation that came to me from Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before, a book about habits, is that we form, maintain, and break habits in different ways depending on our personality traits. In my case, I’m not too good at keeping personal goals, but I’m very good at meeting deadlines. In other words, I might tell myself that I want to accomplish something, but if I don’t quite cross the finish line, I’m usually OK with that. On the other hand, if I have an assignment or deadline from an outside source, I make sure that it gets done.

Here is the scary part. I’ve wanted to lose weight for a long time, but it’s been an unaccomplished goal. So now I’m moving that goal from something that is “merely” personal and private to something that seems like an assignment because other people will know about it. The plan is to lose at least twenty pounds by January 1, 2016.

Blog subscribers who tune in here for posts about writing, reading, literacy, education, books, baseball, etc. need not worry. I don’t plan to write post after post on this topic, unless it happens to intersect with those other topics in unforeseen ways. Instead, I will post my progress, or lack thereof, in the comment section of this post once or twice a month.

It’s OK with me if no one responds to this. It’s also OK if someone wants to add a tip or two. The scary part is over after I hit the Publish button on this post. Whew.

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A Dozen Cool Ways to Use Periscope in Your Class

periscopePeriscope is a fairly new app (and web site) connected to Twitter. The basic idea is that a user can broadcast from anywhere any time with a device as simple as a smart phone. (In fact, I’m broadcasting my writing session as I draft this post! Why anyone would want to see that is beyond me, but 83 people have watched me type this.)

A Periscope broadcaster simply points a device’s camera and begins to broadcast through the app. The broadcaster can add a text description of what is being shown so that anyone surfing Periscope will have an idea of what the broadcast is showing. Broadcasters can also add a location or send a Tweet announcing the broadcast.

Those who are watching a Periscope broadcast can interact with the broadcaster in several ways beyond simply looking at the streaming video. Viewers can tap the screen which makes a little heart float up through the right side of the video. This is similar to a “Like” button on other social media sites. Viewers can also add text comments that appear in boxes on the lower left of the screen and also show the viewer’s screen name. If a lot of comments are coming in at the same time, this can be cluttered, but the boxes eventually sort themselves out when the comment stream slows down.

A dialogue can emerge if a broadcaster responds out loud to the comments through the broadcasting device’s microphone, or if the commenters begin to comment on each other’s observations.

As with any tech tool, there are advantages and disadvantages. Periscope is like Skype in many ways, although it is more portable. Skype, however, offers the advantage of two-way oral communication.

The Periscope app is free, easy to use, and actually pretty fun. Here are some nifty ways to use it for educational purposes.

1. Show how to do something. Your students’ classic how-to speeches can be shown in real time to the Periscope audience. Your students may or may not want to interact with the commenters in real time, but either way the speakers tend to take the concept of audience more seriously when they know it includes people besides the other students sitting in the room.

2. Arrange a virtual visit to a cultural institution or landmark. Why not use Periscope to visit a museum on the opposite side of the country, or check in on what is happening at one of the wonders of the world? Museums, parks, or other public facilities will usually work with teachers to arrange virtual visits. Talk to the most tech-forward person you can find in their personnel list, and tell that person what you would like to do.

3. Arrange a virtual visit with an expert. What are you learning about? Who is an expert on that topic? Contact the experts and ask if they will join you via Periscope to talk with your class and show where and how they work. I’ve had wonderful experiences doing this kind of thing with Skype, but Periscope’s portability enhances the potential for even more dynamic learning opportunities.

4. Perform live. Students who are working on monologues, dramatic scenes, or poetry readings can prepare their performances and then broadcast them to the world. Because Periscope can be easily connected to Twitter, these performances can be promoted ahead of time to ensure bigger audiences.

5. Help with homework.
A teacher or other homework helper can be available for help while class is not in session. When students get stuck on homework, they can type in a question as a text comment through Periscope, and the designated homework helper can respond out loud. This has great potential for review sessions.

6. Reach absent students. Sometimes students are unable to be in class. Periscope easily allows students to virtually participate in real time. Just point a device at the instruction as it’s being delivered, and the absent students can follow along in real time.

7. Invite observers. Periscope allows parents, or anyone really, to virtually visit your class. As the broadcaster, you decide when and what to broadcast. There is obviously potential for misuse with this one, but Periscope allows parents to get a sense of what your class is like.

8. Connect classes. Many of us have virtual colleagues, and Periscope allows us to join classes with teachers in another state or country. If you’re having a guest speaker in class tomorrow, why not broadcast it to the classes of your colleagues who would also benefit from the experience?

9. Show thinking. Sometimes we ask student to show their work or describe their thinking. A student can use Periscope to simultaneously create something, or solve a problem on paper or a different screen while narrating her process. You or other students can watch it live, or students can archive it for sharing with you later.
10. Ask for help. If the class is trouble-shooting or debating an issue, you can start a Periscope broadcast with an inviting query in the text description and see what happens.

11. Conduct a survey.
Your class can use Periscope to pose a question to other Periscope users. “Who would you like to see elected as the next governor?” “What did you have for breakfast?” “What is your favorite Shakespeare play?” As respondents provide answers in the comment bubbles, the results can be tallied in the video part of the broadcast.

12. Share a gallery. If your class has a gallery of recent artwork or writing, you can broadcast a “gallery walk.” Show each student’s creation while he or she tells about what the viewer is seeing.

As with any tech activity that involves the outside world, be sure to monitor what your students are experiencing. Although Periscope’s rules clearly prohibit most kinds of bad behavior, some things can slip through fairly easily.

As you can probably tell, I’m enthusiastic about Periscope’s educational potential, and I hope you will share your experiences and other ideas.

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Hello and Goodbye: Introductions and Conclusions

hello my name isStudent question: “Does this paper need an introduction?”

My answer: “I think that would be polite. Do you agree?”

Quizzical looks follow. What does politeness have to do with writing an introduction?

Then I explain that an introduction is really just a way of saying hello to our readers, and usually when we say hello we try to be polite.

Many students come to us with formulaic notions of what an introduction should be and do. They think an introduction is a paragraph that begins with a startling statement, dictionary definition, or provocative question, followed by a general overview of the topic, and ends with a thesis statement as the last sentence.

That’s a nice little checklist, and maybe it’s useful for very young writers, but writers with any sophistication at all are ready to move beyond those limits.

If we are helping students think of writing as authentic communication between human minds rather than as the culmination of piling predictable rhetorical bricks upon bricks, an introduction becomes something much more interesting.

Most human interactions begin with some variation of “hello,” right? We say hello when we formally meet someone for the first time. We usually say hello to the people we see every day. Sometimes we say hello to an old friend after being apart for a long while. Within each of these situations, we can bring a variety of attitudes to the interaction. For example, a blind date is different from an inherently adversarial first meeting, as in some kind of legal proceeding. We say hello differently depending on the situation. The same is true of writing introductions.

If we help students think of writing introductions as a way of saying hello, we are asking them to think deeply about important elements of composition, including audience, purpose, and tone.

  • Who is my audience? Is it one person, a specific group, or a more amorphous readership? Do we have any kind of pre-existing relationship with this audience? What kind of approach is most likely to engage this audience, and what kind of approach is more likely to create distance?
  • Why am I writing this piece? Assuming it’s meant to be read by others, the piece has a purpose–persuasion, nostalgia, delivery of information, call to action, etc. What is the best way to say hello to my specific audience that is most likely to achieve my purpose? Do I engage charmingly and then work my way up to the most challenging main points? Do I drop an attention-getting bombshell right away and then attempt to pull together the shrapnel? Do I begin with a straightforward preview of what I’m going to say in the rest of the piece?
  • What about tone? What attitude should I adopt at the beginning of this piece in order to elicit a certain type of response from a reader? If I immediately begin ranting, how is a reader likely to respond? If my introduction is stuffy or overly academic, what effect will that have on my audience?

When we discuss tone, students usually are quick to understand that whatever attitude we present in writing or face-to-face is likely to be reflected back to us from our audience.

A great discussion usually emerges when I explain a bit of theory from psychologist Eric Berne’s transactional analysis model. Berne said that we operate from one of three ego states when we interact with each other: Parent, Adult, or Child. These terms have specific meanings in Berne’s model. If we act like a Child (unreasonable, overly emotional), the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Parent (condescending, authoritarian). If we act like a Parent, the person we are interacting with will likely respond as a Child. However, if we act like an Adult (reasonable, empathetic), the person we are interacting with is also likely to respond as an Adult. In this way we can predict and, to a degree, control how others will respond to our tone.

With this understanding of tone in mind, a writer can decide whether to begin concretely, emotionally, or poetically. Good writers are good decision-makers, and that decision-making ability is really the most valuable skill we can help develop in young writers.

But what about writing conclusions? Well, a conclusion is really just saying goodbye. As with introductions, we say goodbye in a variety of ways depending on the situation and the people involved. Maybe that will be another blog post.

Meanwhile, thank you for reading this. Your comments are always welcome. (Goodbye.)

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Learning with Second-Language English Writers

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One of my biggest learning challenges this year has been figuring out how to help writers for whom English is a second language. These are students who have completed English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and classes but who are not completely fluent in English. They are fluent in their native languages–Serbian, Ukrainian, Jamaican Creole, Polish, Spanish, Japanese, Turkish, Korean, and Hindi—but their English includes non-standard idioms, expressions, and mechanical errors.

Interestingly, I can converse with these students almost perfectly. They may have accents, but I have an accent too. With the help of eye contact, vocal inflections, and gestures, we can understand each other easily. I’ve enjoyed fascinating conversations with many students this year about cooking, culture clashes, technology, and schooling. But when it comes to writing, the communication begins to break down.

The most common types of English errors from second-language writers include missing articles, missing or misused prepositions, and variations on irregular nouns and verbs. I can understand why these are tricky for those still learning the finer points of English. Of course, I also see errors in tense, sentence formation, spelling, and punctuation, but native English speakers frequently make these kinds of errors too.

So I find myself wrestling with how to separate the second-language issues from the other composition concerns. In other words, as I look at a student’s writing, I try to understand what its strengths would be if it were written in the student’s native language. Even when the writing is somewhat garbled, I can usually tell if the thoughts are organized, developed, and focused. In many cases, the writing includes significant amounts of explanation, detail, and even some humor.

I’ve always believed that clear writing represents clear thinking, and unclear writing represents unclear thinking. For a second-language English writer, I’m not sure that’s true. His thinking might be completely clear in his native language, but his lack of facility in English muddles that clarity in the version I’m seeing. Like I said, the clarity isn’t completely obliterated; it’s just muddled. But it might be perfect in his native language.

When working with students in our writing center, I usually begin by asking how I can help them. Many second-language writers say, “Tell me all of my mistakes. I want to write in English perfectly.” So how do I help these motivated but sometimes frustrated students move forward as writers?

First, I look for patterns in their errors. I learned this diagnostic practice from Mina Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations back in the 1970s, and it’s served me well for several decades. For example, if I can point out to a student that she is missing articles in several places, she will frequently say something like, “Oh, yes. In my language we do not have articles, so I make that error.” Then we can go from there. Of course, I’m limited by my understanding of my students’ native languages, but they usually are expert enough to help me help them if I point out a consistent error pattern.

The second approach is to urge simplicity of expression. I frequently see students who write complex sentences to convey sophisticated ideas, but that complexity increases the likelihood that a sentence’s grammar wheels will come off. So, I suggest that the writer break down the complex idea into shorter, simpler chunks that he can manage linguistically. My hope is that as he becomes more adept at manipulating shorter, simpler sentences, he will eventually develop the ability to manage more complex sentences. Learning to walk before trying to run seems like good advice, but it also feels a little condescending to ask writers with big ideas to practice simplifying them.

The third aspect of my approach with these students is to be sure they know what they are doing correctly. My feedback always includes commentary about the depth of their ideas and the quality of their development, in addition to my focus on their mechanical issues. If we concentrate only on negative aspects of a student’s writing, she will frequently overgeneralize and think, “I’m a bad writer.” On the other hand, if we can let a student know that she has good ideas but is still learning some linguistic nuts and bolts, we can hope that eventually her mechanical abilities will catch up to her high-level thinking, with the result being complex ideas expressed in clear, correct English.

Am I on the right track? I’m grateful for any suggestions you have for helping students at this level of development as English-language writers.

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Reading Between the Lines with Jo Knowles

FingerFinalCoverNerdy Book Clubbers can celebrate: Jo Knowles has a new book! And it’s really good!

Read Between the Lines, Jo’s sixth novel, gives us a son bullied by his father, a girl suddenly ignored by her friends, the embarrassed children of a hoarder, a star athlete hiding his homosexuality, a “chubby” cheerleader, and other compelling characters in a powerful story about the unpredictable ways our lives affect others. Each chapter of Read Between the Lines focuses on a character whose actions and attitudes affect other characters in different chapters. And each chapter includes at least one person flipping a middle finger to somebody else.

I’m happy and grateful that Jo agreed to participate in an email interview about Read Between the Lines.

Can we start with my favorite questions for adults who work with young people? What were you like in high school? Are you still the same in some ways, and how have you changed?

Knowles HeadshotOh my gosh I am totally cringing just thinking about it right now. I was very quiet and shy, and incredibly insecure. Soooo insecure. I was not very smart when it came to boys (understatement). I was a chronic worrier (sad to say I still am). I wanted to be invisible when I couldn’t be, and often didn’t want to be invisible when I was. Basically, I was kind of a mess. I’m still shy and a bit insecure, and I still worry a lot, but I’m not the scared girl I used to be. I wish I could go back and tell teen me it will all work out.

Every episode in Read Between the Lines has a moment where someone gives the middle finger to somebody else. As the title suggests, that gesture can have many different subtexts. I wonder if since finishing the book you’ve witnessed any new instances of people using their middle fingers to express themselves.

I see it EVERYWHERE now. Teens especially seem to use it as a friendly way to say, “Oh shut up” to their friends. But it’s also in the news in funny ways, too. I actually started a Pinterest page to pin my favorite stories and photos: https://www.pinterest.com/joknowles/read-between-the-lines/

The structure of this book is one of its most appealing aspects. Readers find that the characters’ lives touch or connect to each other in surprising ways. Was that a literary convention for shaping this story, or is that how you see things—that we are all somehow connected?

Oh, we are definitely all connected. You might post something on Facebook like, “Hug a teacher today!” Say 200 people will see it. Those 200 people will all instantly have 200 different associations with the word teacher. Good memories, bad memories. Regrets. Feelings of gratitude. Whatever. But planting the idea of “teacher” in all of those minds could actually change the course of each person’s day. We don’t realize what a big impact even small interactions with each other can have. Eleven years ago, my husband honked the car horn at a man who was about to drive into us. That man gave us the finger. I was upset because we didn’t deserve it. So upset, it soured my day and I couldn’t stop talking about it. The next thing I knew, I started plotting a book about all the different ways we see the middle finger in our daily lives. For the next eleven years, I worked on that book trying to figure out how to tell the story. So you see just one moment in time, a brief interaction with a complete stranger, shaped a significant part of my life for a very long time. And it resulted in a book! You just never know how a dirty look or a smile or a gesture or a word could change a person’s life, and I loved exploring those possibilities while I wrote the book.

What were the challenges and joys of writing a story with so many character threads?

The biggest challenge was keeping everyone’s schedules straight. The book takes place in one day, but all of the characters overlap, so you might read the same scene from two different points of view. Since the characters are different ages, they wouldn’t have the same class schedule, so I had to keep track of where everyone was throughout the day. I actually created class and job schedules for them so I would know where they were at all times.

Much of what we read in Read Between the Lines is each character’s interior thoughts, which seem to be a complex mix of vulnerability, confusion, anger, frustration. But when they speak out loud to other people, it’s frequently more forceful and direct. What do you understand about the language we use to make sense of ourselves to ourselves versus how we present ourselves to others?

Well this is really the whole point, isn’t it? That none of us on the surface are the same underneath? I could meet two people at the same time and talk with them for ten minutes and then if you asked them to describe me they might give you two completely different interpretations and I would probably be shocked by how off I thought both of them were. I was just talking to some students this week about how we are all carrying some pretty heavy stuff inside, but we don’t show it. I asked them to imagine if everyone knew their secrets, their worries, the stuff they’re dealing with at home. They were all nodding and sort of squirming just thinking about it. But they also started looking at each other differently. It was kind of amazing to watch. Because it dawned on them that if they had secret struggles, most likely everyone else in the room did, too. They instantly saw one another on a deeper, more meaningful level. We learn to wear our invisible armor at such a young age. But what I think we need to learn at an equally young age is that we are ALL wearing it. A little empathy goes such a long way.

You’re a master of evoking the concerns and feelings of today’s adolescents. How do you stay so in touch with this age group?

Thank you so much. You know, I don’t think adolescents and adults are all that different, to be honest. The more time I spend with my fifteen year old son and his friends, the more I’m reminded of this. We’re all human. We’re all vulnerable. Sometimes we’re unbearably insecure. Sometimes we’re annoyingly cocky. Maybe we’re insecure and cocky about different things, but the raw feelings and emotions are still pretty much the same, really. I think when writers for young adults stop trying to “think like a teen” and just think like a human, that’s when their characters feel most authentic. That’s when their truest writing comes out.

Teachers comprise an interesting group of characters in Read Between the Lines. Although a couple of them are kind of blustery, we also find that some of the teachers wrestle with insecurities similar to those of their students. Can you say anything about how teachers’ lives and students’ lives reflect each other?

I suppose this reflects a bit on what I’ve already said, about all of us being human. It doesn’t matter what job we’re in, we’re all still struggling to get through each day. But thinking as a teacher, I feel a huge responsibility to be positive and encouraging. I know what an influence teacher comments can have on a student’s self-esteem. I’ve had teachers who made me feel very small, and I’ve had teachers who gave me the most generous encouragement. If it weren’t for certain teachers I’ve had, I would not be a writer. I try to remind myself of this every time I send students feedback on their writing. In terms of reflection, a student’s “success” (and I supposed I define this as when a student falls in love with writing and revising and doubles their efforts) is my success. We all really fuel one another, don’t we?

A lot of things in Read Between the Lines happen in and around vehicles. There are dream cars, boring cars, a stinky “total mommy car,” a school bus, and several other important cars. What have you noticed about the role of cars in the lives of young people?

This book is a lot about wanting to “escape,” and especially for teens, cars often represent freedom. But the ticket out for each of them is going to require a lot more than simply running (or driving) away. I think the vehicles help to illustrate the deeper level of entrapment each character is feeling. They circle the town but can’t leave, just like they circle around and around in their situations, struggling to find a way to break out.

This question is probably just an English-teacher hallucination, but Read Between the Lines has some Dickensian aspects: mean grown-ups, plot threads that eventually connect meaningfully, a stray dog named after Oliver Twist. There are also shout-outs to The Outsiders and Death of a Salesman. Are you trying to sneak in some book recommendations for your readers?

Me? Try to sneak in book recommendations? Never! You know, if I’m going to be perfectly honest these references really did just come naturally to me as I developed the stories. Books I read in high school influenced my life in such huge ways, so it just seems realistic to have them influence my characters, too.

Robin Wasserman and Jo Knowles

Robin Wasserman and Jo Knowles

The Acknowledgements page tells about Robin Wasserman’s role in keeping this book on track. I’ve met Robin a couple of times, and she’s a force of nature. Can you tell us about how she affects your life or work?

Haha. I wonder what Robin will think of that description! Robin is one of the first people I told about this crazy idea I had to write a book with connected stories revolving around the middle finger. Every time we met up, which was a few times a year, she would ask me how the book was going, and eventually convinced me to share pieces with her. She is the first person I dared to show any of this too, and one of the people I trust most to be honest with me if something is really terrible. She was so encouraging after reading one story that I decided to try another. And that’s pretty much how it went as I slowly put the book together.

So many of the characters in Read Between the Lines talk about being empty and feeling that they are nothing. At one point Claire tells herself, “Maybe I just need to be able to feel the significance of my own existence.” How can we help young people who feel like their lives are empty?

For one thing, we can treat them as the smart, thoughtful people they are. Talk to them. Ask their opinions. Show them respect. If there is one phrase about teens that drives me nuts it’s: “Today’s teens…” followed by some disparaging generalization about how they “don’t read” or “spend all their time staring at screens.” I live with a teenager. I carpool with teenagers. I watch them struggle with school and relationships and I watch them lift each other up. These kids care deeply about the world and world events. And they have a lot of really great ideas for addressing the problems our world faces. Sure, that teen you see staring at a screen may be scrolling through Instagram, but he might also be reading a link a friend sent to him about [insert the big world news story of the day here]. Want to make a kid feel like her life is less empty? Ask her to share her opinion about something. I guarantee she will have one, and feel like you gave her a voice by asking what it is.

With Read Between the Lines, Jo Knowles continues to build a body of work that approaches the lives of young (and not-so-young) people with empathy, humor, and a sense of drama that keeps her readers eager for more. Her audience knows that Jo Knowles always shows us ways to move beyond mere acceptance of others to the importance of embracing and supporting each other regardless of our differences or how we present ourselves to the world.

Visit Jo Knowles online at www.joknowles.com and follow @JoKnowles on Twitter!

This post originally appeared on Nerdy Book Club in slightly different form.

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Some Good Baseball Books: 2015 Spring Training Edition

2015 baseball books
We’ve almost made it through the winter, and for Cubs fans this is looking like a better year than we’ve had for a while. Some are prognosticating greatness for this year’s North Siders, but I’ll be satisfied with 85 wins and whatever comes with it. As we keep an eye on spring training, here is my annual round-up of good baseball books to get you through to opening day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slouching Toward Fargo: A Two-Year Saga of Sinners and St. Paul Saints at the Bottom of the Bush Leagues with Bill Murray, Darryl Strawberry, Dakota Sadie and Me by Neal Karlen: If you followed the St. Paul Saints of the Northern League in 1996 and 1997, you probably remember that your team included several memorable characters. The team leader was a convicted felon with Hall of Fame credentials. His name was Darryl Strawberry. One of the other outfielders under consideration in spring training had no legs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Veeck–As in Wreck: The Autobiography of Bill Veeck by Bill Veeck: Bill Veeck was one of baseball’s great characters from the last generation. As a baseball executive, he never lost his put-the-fans-first perspective. His autobiography provides many entertaining insights into the art of trades, building teams, and conducting business in the pre-Moneyball era.

Mudball by Matt Tavares: This excellent Matt Tavares baseball picture book tells the story of Minneapolis Miller Andy Oyler, the shortest guy in the league, and the day he hit the shortest home run in baseball history. A rainy field might be most players’ nightmare, but with the help of some timely mud, Andy Oyler has his best game ever. Although the story’s accuracy is hard to verify, Matt Tavares renders that meaningless as Andy Oyler’s mudball game crosses into mythology: a compelling tale with a resonating moral lesson. While the entire plot of Mudball takes place in one at-bat, the book’s narrative is enhanced by detailed, dramatic, captivating drawings. (I would love to have a print of the art on the two-page spread holding the publication info and the title page. Yes, Mudball had me hooked from the publication data page.) This is an excellent choice for a read-aloud, and for all baseball fans.

We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson: Kadir Nelson gives us a compelling look at the Negro leagues through the dramatic art that is his trademark, and text that gives voice to Negro League greats, as well as those who are almost forgotten. This is an important book to share with young fans.

Nobody’s Perfect: Two Men, One Call, and a Game for Baseball History by Armando Galarraga, Jim Joyce, and Daniel Paisner:
After retiring twenty-six batters in a row, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga is one pitch away from achieving a perfect game, one of the rarest feats in all of professional sports. Then Indians shortstop Jason Donald smacks a 1-1 pitch toward the right side of the infield and takes off full bore to first base. Galarraga runs over to cover first base, and the throw from first baseman Miguel Cabrera is on the mark just ahead of Donald’s foot. Perfect game.

And then veteran umpire Jim Joyce raises his arms and calls “Safe!”

Immediately after the game Joyce watched the replay and knew right away he not only made a mistake, but he also robbed Armando Galarraga of his place in baseball history. Sure, it’s just a game, but sometimes the game reveals important things about humans, and what happened next was extraordinary.

Jim Joyce admitted his mistake in front of reporters and apologized face to face to Armando Galarraga. Joyce invited Commissioner Bud Selig to fine or suspend him. He accepted full responsibility for his mistake and invited the consequences of his error. And Galarraga did something extraordinary too. He immediately forgave Jim Joyce and then went home to walk his dog and take his wife out for midnight cheeseburgers at Sonic.

I clearly remember the media coverage of this incident and how impressed I was by the grace displayed by both men. There is no shortage of stories of professional athletes behaving despicably, but this story featured two professionals behaving, not quite heroically maybe, but certainly admirably.

In Nobody’s Perfect, Daniel Paisner strains a bit to make a book out of one split-second botched call, but I enjoyed reading about Galarraga’s path to professional baseball from his middle-class upbringing in Caracas, Venezuela and Joyce’s journey to professional umpiring. Paisner expertly captures the voices of Galarraga and Joyce, presenting them in alternating chapters leading up to the moment that forever links them in baseball history.

As always, thanks for reading, and please leave your suggestions for good baseball books in the comment section. My previous posts about baseball books can be found here and here and here.

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¿What’s Not Wrong?: The Shirt

ww gearI’m super-excited to visit Fremd High School in a few weeks as part of Writers Week XXI, a top-notch writing-palooza. This is the first edition of Writers Week that I haven’t been involved in as an organizer, and I’m as proud as can be of how it’s coming together under new leadership.

This year the organizers have produced a line of Writers Week gear that includes a ¿What’s Not Wrong? shirt. A little part of me wants to hide under a rock at the idea of anything that seems like self-promotion, but mostly I’m whoop-honored to have ¿What’s Not Wrong? on a Writers Week shirt. And really, I’m glad they are lifting up the idea that we can make ourselves and those around us a little happier if we focus on what isn’t wrong at least as much as we focus on what is wrong.wnw shirt

In addition to ¿What’s Not Wrong? shirts, you can also order shirts featuring other Writers Week XXI guests, including a Tony Romano “If You Eat You Never Die” shirt, shirts with poems by Mary Fons and Sierra DeMulder, FANBOYS shirts, and other Writers Week XXI commemorative gear in various designs.

So, if you’re inclined to support Writers Week, or put more of the ¿What’s Not Wrong? attitude out in the world, or if you just need another t-shirt or two, please head over to the web site and place an order. The good people at Fremdland will ship it out to you if you’re not local. The web site is www.janorsports.net and your password is writers2015.  Each sale benefits the Writers Week program, which is awesome.

(Maybe you can tell that I like the inverted question mark used by our Spanish-speaking friends. Don’t you agree that it’s kind of nice to know that a group of words is a question right off the bat instead of being forced to wait until the end of a sentence? When I use ¿What’s Not Wrong? in class, that inverted question mark is always part of the deal.)

Thank you.

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My 2014 Reading

2014 books graphicI probably should have gotten around to posting this sooner, but here is the list of books I finished in 2014. Other people’s lists interest me, so maybe someone will find something of interest here.  2014 was kind of a tumultuous year for me, and I’m grateful for these books that kept me focused, thinking, entertained, and enlightened.

I’ll begin with my top five favorites of 2014, arranged alphabetically by author’s last name.  These are the books that thoroughly engaged me as I read them, and continue to stay on my mind weeks or months after finishing them.  To see detailed reviews, you can clink on the links to where I originally reviewed these books, either on this blog or on Goodreads.

Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg

El Deafo by Cece Bell

Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King

Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences: Polarity Thinking in Our Schools by Jane A. G. Kise

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Apparently, I never reviewed Ordinary Grace–probably because I read it while on vacation—but it’s a mystery story with a midwestern flavor, appealing characters, and important ideas about post-traumatic stress disorder, trust, and grace. (One other book, Slouching Toward Fargo, was a favorite too, but I will deal with it in an upcoming post specifically devoted to baseball books.  Another favorite on the list below–Read Between the Lines by Jo Knowles–actually comes out in 2015, so I didn’t include it my 2014 favorites list.  I know I’m making up the rules as I go along, but I’ll have more to say about this excellent book later.)

As I reflect on my 2014 year in books, I don’t really see that much in the way of trends, which doesn’t surprise me.  I have the attention span of a flea, so I jump around a lot in my choices, usually reading at least three books at the same time.  I consumed a lot of Randy Wayne White thrillers, and I’m now completely caught up on his Doc Ford books and eager for his new one—Cuba Straits—which comes out in March. I also see that my interest in books about education is continuing, although it seems to be expanding beyond literacy into broader issues involving how schools function in today’s culture, and how they can do better.

For 2015, I haven’t really set any reading goals. I put 52 as my goal on Goodreads, but that’s just a number. Last year, I set 114 as the goal. I ended up reading 111 books and then was too growly with myself about falling short by three books. I do hope to delve more deeply into my shelves to finally read some of those books that I’ve been meaning to get to for, oh, five or ten years. I’m also interested in more books about education, specifically higher education, learning theory, creativity, and innovation.

  1. Chip Kidd:  Go:  A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design
  2. Jess Walter:   Beautiful Ruins
  3. Jane A. G. Kise: Unleashing the Positive Power of Differences:  Polarity Thinking in Our Schools
  4. Nina Laden: Once Upon a Memory
  5. Billy Collins: Aimless Love:  New and Selected Poems
  6. Kevin Guilfoile: A Drive into the Gap
  7. Audrey Vernick: Is Your Buffalo Ready for Kindergarten?
  8. Sarah Lewis: The Rise:  Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and The Search for Mastery
  9. Michael LoMonico: That Shakespeare Kid
  10. Karen Kaufman Orloff:  I Wanna New Room
  11. Kevin C. Pyle:  Take What You Can Carry
  12. Greg Pizzoli:  The Watermelon Seed
  13. Charles J. Shields: And So It Goes:  Kurt Vonnegut:  A Life
  14. Joelle Charbonneau:  The Testing
  15. George F. Will:  A Nice Little Place on the North Side
  16. Kate DiCamillo:  Flora and Ulysses
  17. NoViolet Bulawayo:  We Need New Names
  18. Michael Ian Black and Kevin Henkes: Chicken Cheeks
  19. Meenoo Rami:  Thrive
  20. A. J. Pine: If Only
  21. Helen Grant: The Vanishing of Katharina Linden
  22. Aaron Reynolds: Here Comes Destructosaurus!
  23. Scott Magoon: Breathe
  24. Ashley Spires: The Most Magnificent Thing
  25. Jack Prelutsky:  If Not for the Cat
  26. Diane Ravitch:  Reign of Error
  27. Chris Raschke:  Cowy Cow
  28. Chris Raschke: Crabby Crab
  29. Randy Wayne White: Shadow Deep
  30. Adam Lehrhaupt: Warning Do Not Open This Book
  31. Mike Shannon:  A Whole Lot of Bar-B-Q and Other Baseball Stories
  32. Bob Shea:  Unicorn Thinks He’s Pretty Great
  33. Donna Tartt:  The Goldfinch
  34. Kadir Nelson:  Baby Bear
  35. Joe Blair: By the Iowa Sea
  36.  Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe: Peanut
  37.  Michael Ian Black: Naked
  38. Rosy Lamb:  Paul Meets Bernadette
  39.  G. Neri: Knockout Games
  40. Paul Acampora:  I Kill the Mockingbird
  41. Barb Rosenstock:  The Noisy Paint Box
  42. George Saunders:  Congratulations, By the Way
  43. Antoinette Portis:  Froodle
  44. Edmund Morris: Colonel Roosevelt
  45. Neal Karlen:  Slouching Toward Fargo
  46. Matthew Quick:  Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock
  47. Karen Russell:  Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories
  48. Peter Brown:  My Teacher Is a Monster
  49. Frank McCourt:  Teacher Man
  50. Bob Staake:  My Pet Book
  51. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner:  Think Like a Freak
  52. Herve Tullet:  Help!  We Need a Title!
  53. Randy Wayne White:  Night Vision
  54. Box Brown:  Andre the Giant:  Life and Legend
  55. Randy Wayne White: Chasing Midnight
  56. Kevin Henkes:  Junonia
  57. William Kent Krueger:  Ordinary Grace
  58. Bill Veeck, with Ed Linn:  Veeck–As in Wreck
  59. Tom Doyle: Man on the Run:  Paul McCartney in the 1970s
  60. Randy Wayne White:  Deceived
  61. James M. Lang:  On Course
  62. David Ezra Stein: I’m My Own Dog
  63. Pat Conroy: My Reading Life
  64. Randy Wayne White:  Night Moves
  65. The Waiter:  Waiter Rant
  66. Cece Bell: El Deafo
  67. G. Neri:  Hello, I’m Johnny Cash
  68. Bob Newhart: I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This!
  69. Raul Colon:  Draw!
  70. Deborah Wiles: Revolution
  71. Harold Bloom:  Hamlet:  Poem Unlimited
  72. Matt Tavares: Mudball
  73. Bill Geist and Willie Geist:  Good Talk, Dad
  74. Randy Wayne White:  Bone Deep
  75. B. J. Novak:  The Book With No Pictures
  76. Shawn Colvin:  Diamond in the Rough
  77. Laurie Halse Anderson:  The Impossible Knife of Memory
  78. Lorrie Moore :  Bark
  79. Kelly Bingham:  Circle, Square, Moose
  80. Nickolas Butler:  Shotgun Lovesongs
  81. Jose Jorge Letria: If I Were a Book
  82. James Patterson:  I Even Funnier
  83. Richard Byrne:  This Book Just Ate My Dog!
  84. Oliver Jeffers: Once Upon an Alphabet
  85. Jo Knowles:  Read Between the Lines
  86. Jacqueline Woodson:  Brown Girl Dreaming
  87. Chuck Klosterman:  Killing Yourself to Live
  88. Patrick McDonnell:  A Perfectly Messed-Up Story
  89. E. Lockhart: We Were Liars
  90. Steve Sheinkin: Lincoln’s Grave Robbers
  91. Mac Barnett:  Sam and Dave Dig a Hole
  92. Larry McMurtry:  Custer
  93. Katherine Roy:  Neighborhood Sharks
  94. Kevin Brockmeier:  The Brief History of the Dead
  95. Rick Bragg:  Jerry Lee Lewis:  His Own Story
  96. Randy Wayne White:  Batfishing in the Rainforest
  97. Jon Meacham:  Thomas Jefferson:  The Art of Power
  98. Kathryn Otoshi:  Two
  99. Amy Poehler:  Yes Please
  100. Mo Willems:  The Pigeon Needs a Bath!
  101. Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki:  This One Summer
  102. Tavis Smiley: Death of a King
  103. Haruki Murakami:  The Strange Library
  104. Charles Dickens:  The Old Curiosity Shop
  105. Charles Osgood: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House
  106. Deborah Underwood: The Christmas Quiet Book
  107. Jan Brett:  The Animals’ Santa
  108. A. S. King: Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future
  109. Rebecca D. Cox:  The College Fear Factor
  110. Jory John:  Goodnight, Already
  111. Raina Telgemeier: Sisters
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