Today in Cubs-Mania

Wrigley Field:  August 16, 2016.  (Photo by Abby Anderson)

Wrigley Field: August 16, 2016. (Photo by Abby Anderson)

As one who lives in perpetual Cubs-mania, I should have been ready for this. I can’t focus. I can’t concentrate. Today I can only think about a baseball game that will be played later tonight. And I’m not alone.

What I like best about this postseason is seeing and hearing Cubbie nation come alive. I love seeing people, buildings, and homes decked out in Cubs logos and W flags and emblems. Random strangers greet each other on the street with “Go, Cubs,” and with the weather being so nice, we can hear celebrations from the neighborhood and downtown when something good happens in a game.

Because the Cubs and Indians have been around so long, there is a lot of history presented in the broadcasts and news coverage. The years 1908, 1945, and 1948 have loomed large in this epic World Series featuring two classic teams with long-suffering fans. How great was it to see Eddie Robinson from the 1948 Indians at the game on Tuesday night? Ryne Sandberg posted a picture of himself and Andre Dawson yesterday on Instagram. Eddie Vedder led a sing-along with the late Harry Caray on the video board at Wrigley Field on Sunday.

I have friends who are fans of other teams: White Sox, Cardinals, Red Sox, Yankees, Mariners, Dodgers, Tigers, etc. They have been great. Baseball fans, regardless of their allegiances, understand that this postseason has been quite a tale, and the ending will be written tonight.

Cubs fans just need to remember to breathe for the next twelve hours or so. That won’t be as easy as it sounds.

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hillbillyJ. C. Vance made it out. Raised in the hillbilly culture of Appalachia and a transplanted hillbilly culture in Ohio, Vance had the help of generous grandparents who force fed him education, and he eventually ended up at Ohio State and Yale Law School.

Hillbilly Elegy is part memoir and part sociology. The memoir sections feature fascinating characters–some tragic, some inspirational, and some “lunatic,” to use Vance’s own word. The more analytical sections reveal the author as a thoughtful conservative. Although some of his perspectives have what I consider unsavory implications, he makes his case based on credible personal experience and research, not reactionary posturing.

Please understand that when I write “hillbilly,” I do not mean it at all condescendingly. “Hillbilly” is a term that I’ve used to describe some of my own upbringing, and I mean it endearingly. While some of my many relatives live way off the grid and others have risen to the pinnacles of art, business, and other professions, most of us are arranged somewhere in between. What we have in common are ancestors who were simple folk with strengths sometimes used in productive ways but who also went off the rail from time to time with effects that rippled through the generations.

J. D. Vance puts a fine point on his examination of hillbilly culture: When families fail–and many hillbilly families fail–children often perpetuate the failure into the next generation. Drugs and alcohol abuse exacerbate the problems. Combine that with a stubborn refusal to accept help and an enthusiastic willingness to fight anyone over any perceived slight, and we have a culture that is its own worst enemy in many ways. But this fine point also shows the way out: Focus on the family structure and the children, one at a time if need be. Every child who finds her or his way out is more likely to be a productive citizen and a responsible family member in the next generation.

Reading this book during election season helps explain how the political perspectives of the hillbilly culture led to the creation of the candidacy of someone like Donald Trump. Hillbillies don’t like being told what to do, and they don’t like people who act like they’re better than everybody else. When hillbillies see someone who talks back to power in colorful, direct language, and then ridicules those they consider to be stuffed-shirt (and pantsuit) politicians, they see someone they can relate to. The issues matter less than the style, and they came out to vote, many for the first time, giving Trump their ballots while the multitude of other more traditional Republican candidates split the rest of the vote.

This book is a paradigm-shifter for me. I will see and understand some things differently because I read Hillbilly Elegy.

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Six 2016 Nonfiction Picture Books for Your Consideration

Here are my thoughts on a few nonfiction picture books from the first half of 2016. These reviews first appeared on Goodreads in slightly different form. I hope this post is helpful to those choosing books for young readers.

Pink Is For Blobfish: Discovering the World's Perfectly Pink AnimalsPink Is For Blobfish: Discovering the World’s Perfectly Pink Animals by Jess Keating

With a title that works from every angle, Pink is for Blobfish is an excellent nonfiction picture book, especially for animal-loving young readers. While pink is usually considered a pretty color, some denizens of the wild with pink coloration defy that stereotype.

Jess Keating’s book is bright, humorous, and engaging. Readers will learn weird facts about each animal, along with details about its habitat, diet, and enemies. My favorite weird facts: naked mole rats do not get cancer, and the only habitat of the pink land iguana is a remote volcano in the Galapagos.

Pink is for Blobfish is a book that students will read, re-read, huddle over, and discuss.


Hillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to LeadHillary Rodham Clinton: Some Girls Are Born to Lead by Michelle Markel

Although a little too gushy for my taste, Some Girls Are Born to Lead makes the important point that Hillary Rodham Clinton has spent a lifetime challenging expectations and assumptions about the roles of girls and women in American society and beyond. This will also provide young readers with an overview of the main events of her life, beginning in Park Ridge, Illinois, two train stops down the line from where I live.

A Birthday Cake for George WashingtonA Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram

I cannot separate my thoughts on A Birthday Cake for George Washington from the controversies surrounding it and A Fine Dessert, published in 2015. I’ll admit that when I read A Fine Dessert, my uh-oh radar did not go off. Yes, I noticed that a couple of pages dealt with slavery, and the slaves seemed happy enough in the brief episode involving them. Call it ignorance or whatever you want, but I gave the author and illustrator benefit of the doubt that even in the misery of slavery, individuals could be at least somewhat happy for a little while. Then the firestorm broke, and I asked some people smarter than me what I had missed in my reading. They patiently explained it to me, and I came away wiser.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington is way different. This is an entire book filled with page after page of text and pictures of slaves who seem to regard their lot as nothing more than just another occupation. They seem focused, satisfied, and yes, happy about serving George and Martha Washington. This is not a brief episode in a larger work. The slaves’ blithe existence is the created world of A Birthday Cake for George Washington.

Although I can’t begin to fathom the editorial approach that thought this was OK, I don’t think the author and illustrator were overtly trying to be racist. My guess is they were aiming for upbeat and ended up being stone tone deaf. The result is a book that is not acceptable for young readers. Impressionable young readers are likely to come away from A Birthday Cake for George Washington thinking that slavery doesn’t seem all that bad. We can’t have that.

I don’t think this book is intentionally offensive.  It’s  just careless and insensitive.  And the story is actually kind of boring.

The Airport BookThe Airport Book by Lisa Brown

Because air travel can be a little overwhelming for those unaccustomed to the frenzied routines of airports, Lisa Brown’s The Airport Book is a welcome resource for the youngest travelers. Its engaging pictures will help impose some understanding on and bring order to the seeming chaos of today’s airports. Those children who read this book before traveling will have a light-hearted framework for understanding what they see and experience during an airport visit, from checking baggage, to waiting in security, boarding through the jetway, and actually flying. Although the book follows one family through the airport, there is a little bit of a Where’s-Waldo feel as various individuals pop up in different scenes. An older lady keeps asking her husband questions like “Do you have the tickets?” A man in a yellow hat and suit “curiously” appears on several pages. And there is a joke likely to be lost on youngsters as a limo driver waiting for his clients holds a sign saying “Earhart.” I was glad to see Lisa Brown include a passenger in a turban boarding the plane without other passengers freaking out. Anyone traveling with children will do themselves a favor by enjoying The Airport Book several times before departure.

The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith HoughtonThe Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Houghton by Audrey Vernick

Audrey Vernick and Steven Salerno bring us another excellent nonfiction baseball picture book.

Edith Houghton, the kid from Diamond Street in Philadelphia, liked to say, “I guess I was born with a baseball in my hand.” By the time she was ten years old, Edith was the starting shortstop for the 1922 Philadelphia Bobbies, a professional women’s baseball team. As a member of the Bobbies, she barnstormed across America and toured Japan.

I’m extremely glad that Audrey Vernick continues to unearth these historic baseball treasures. Not only does she preserve little known niches of baseball history, but Vernick finds the angles most likely to captivate young readers. Steven Salerno’s artwork evokes the 1920s with caricatures just this side of being cartoons and scenes colored in tones similar to postcards of that era.

Can you tell I like everything about this book?

The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the GameThe William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game by Nancy Churnin

Here is yet another excellent nonfiction picture book about one of baseball’s lesser-known figures. William Hoy was a deaf major-league player from the turn of the last century who was known for his strong, accurate outfield throws and his prowess in stealing bases.

With bright colors and easy-to-discern facial expressions, The William Hoy Story effectively conveys a range of emotions, as well as important messages about perseverance and physical differences.

Thanks for reading!

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Five Fun Podcasts for English Teachers

As part of my self-directed professional development, I subscribe to numerous podcasts, but these are the five that provide regular combinations of fun and information for my English teacher soul. The links here point to the iTunes page for each podcast, but downloads are also available from each podcast’s web page.

writers almanac“The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor”: This is how I begin most days. Garrison Keillor, one of America’s great storytellers and narrators, relates the most interesting literary birthdays and historical anniversaries associated with each day of the year. As he tells the stories behind the people and occasions, Keillor somehow moves the part of the mind that gets things churning for writers. Each episode ends with Keillor reading a poem. His choices include both contemporary and classic works, and he makes each poem sound like a neighbor relaying to us the most intriguing parts of his day. And all of this happens in about five minutes on a daily basis, which is a small miracle if you think about it.

write life podcast“Write Life: A Writers Week Podcast”: Writers Week at William Fremd High School in Palatine, Illinois is a week-long celebration of writing that has featured well over 200 professional writers, more than a thousand students, as well as faculty and staff members from every department in the school. (Disclaimer: I was involved in developing and planning Writers Week from 1995-2014.) “Write Life” is a podcast extension of this highly successful program. The “Write Life” format includes students interviewing a writer, most of whom have been Writers Week guests. Even though the “Write Life” podcast is fairly new, the impressive list of guests includes Chris Crutcher, Jennifer Niven, A. S. King, and Sierra DeMulder. The energetic student interviewers ask different questions than adults tend to ask, and listeners can tell the featured guests enjoy the spontaneity of interacting with young people. Most segments end with the students and guest playing some kind of game, usually a word-association activity. “Write Life” has also put out a couple of “Throwback Thursday” episodes that include faculty members introducing clips from past guest presentations, including Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab Nye, Harry Mark Petrakis, and Daniel Ferri. (Another disclaimer: I introduced the Harry Mark Petrakis clip for the seventh episode.) Everything about this podcast will be inspiring to English teachers, from thoughtful authors communicating directly with their readers to students who comfortably engage with authors they clearly admire. Kudos to Fremd English teachers Gina Enk and Russ Anderson for their production of the “Write Life” podcast.

yarn“The Yarn”:  For the first season of “The Yarn,” Colby Sharp and Travis Yonker took listeners through a series of fascinating interviews with many of the people associated with developing the graphic novel memoir Sunny Side Up by Jenni Holm and Matt Holm. This season’s episodes have focused on one author talking about his or her newest book and usually reading a bit of it. Colby and Travis know all the sweet spots when it comes to children’s literature, so they choose writers and books that teachers will not only find interesting, but their questions help the authors illuminate aspects of their books that teachers can put to use in classrooms. Recent guests include Hervé Tullet, Lindsay Eagar, and Salina Yoon.

botn“Books on the Nightstand”:  Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness provide those of us with bookish inclinations a weekly podcast that readers (and maybe only readers) will enjoy. Each episode includes Ann and Michael discussing something about reading, books, reading lives, authors, or publishing. (Both hosts work for Random House.) They are thoughtful readers and articulate in their conversations. In addition to the featured discussion topic, each episode also includes an audiobook recommendation, as well as other recommendations of new books (“Two Books We Can’t Wait for You to Read”) or older books (“Don’t You Forget about Me”). I can’t keep track of how many excellent books I’ve read because they were recommended on this podcast. Michael and Ann have friendly voices, and after listening to this podcast regularly for a couple of years, it’s easy to start thinking of them as book pals. (At last year’s NCTE convention, I asked the folks at the Random House booth if they knew Ann and Michael. They all said yes and talked about how nice they are.) English teachers and other book lovers will find kindred spirits in “Books on the Nightstand.”

no such thing“No Such Thing as A Fish”:  OK, this one has nothing to do directly with our classrooms, but I still love it. “No Such Thing as A Fish” appeared in a recent ilovenewbies blog post about podcasts, and it’s now one of my favorites. This UK-based show features the same four clever fact-finders in front of a live audience. Each panelist presents a unique fact, which they all then discuss and dissect for a few minutes. Recent facts: In Utah, you cannot wear a hat in your driver’s license photo, but you can wear a colander on your head. For a penny, you rent a bee for a month. In Japan, making a human pyramid higher than five tiers is illegal. This podcast always has me chuckling within the first ninety seconds, and the banter is always funny. The humor here (or humour) is different from American humor—it’s not as crass and blunt and more based on fun wordplay, which appeals to the English teacher in me.

If you’re a fan of any of these podcasts, feel free to say what you like about them, as well as any other recommendations for enjoyable podcasts. As always, thanks for reading!

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My Top Ten Merle Haggard Songs

  1. merle banner

When I heard earlier today that Merle Haggard had passed away, I felt just terrible. I loved that guy. The best way I can think of to celebrate Merle is through his music, so what follows here is a collection of videos featuring my favorite Merle Haggard songs.

I was lucky enough to see Merle Haggard three times. I also had a near-miss when I was a kid. My mom had tickets for us to see him with Marty Robbins, but they were a no-show. (Marty Robbins was one of my mom’s favorites.)

The first time I saw Merle was in 1991. Reba McEntire was scheduled to play a concert at Pheasant Run in St. Charles, Illinois. When a bus crash killed several members of her band, various country stars volunteered to do fill-in shows as benefits for the families. Although I wasn’t interested in attending a Reba McEntire concert, when the replacement show was headlined by Merle Haggard, I jumped on it. Along with Lorrie Morgan and Sawyer Brown, Merle did a brilliant show. Wearing a flannel shirt and vest, he looked like he’d just stepped out his fishing cabin, slung on a guitar, and started belting out some of the best country songs ever written.

The second time was at The House of Blues in Chicago. I can’t remember when it was but sometime after 1991. It was standing-room-only and we were right down front. Not only was Haggard a great singer-songwriter, but he was also a searing guitarist and a show-stopping entertainer. All of that was on fine display that night.

merle hatThe final time was in 2005 when Merle toured with Bob Dylan. The tour came to the Auditorium Theater in Chicago with Amos Lee as the opening act. Amos Lee was good. Merle was terrific but a little subdued in a shortened set. Although I’m not sure Merle Haggard should have been the opening act for anybody, he kept taking off his hat and bowing humbly. When Rolling Stone asked him if he’d spent any time on the bus with Bob Dylan, Merle said, “Bob doesn’t hang.”

The words that come to mind for me today when thinking about Merle Haggard are integrity and literary artistry. These are the songs that formed my impression of someone who I never met but I’ll definitely miss.

1. “Sing Me Back Home”

2. “That’s the Way Love Goes”

3. “Mama Tried”

4. “Kern River”

5. “Silver Wings”

6. “If We Make It Through December”

7. “Big City”

8. “Okie from Muskogee”

9. “Daddy Frank”

10. “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star”

Thanks, Merle. I would’ve fixed your flat tire any time.

Please add a shout-out to your favorite Merle Haggard songs!

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Jacket-medThe ways teens use social media spawn a lot of myths. Here are a few:

• Using social media makes teens vulnerable to bullies and sexual predators.
• Many teens are addicted to technology.
• The “digital native” generation has intuitive expertise in using technology.
• The Internet is an equalizer for disenfranchised social groups.
• Google is a more reliable source of information than Wikipedia.

Using research, interviews, and common sense to tackle these misperceptions, Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens provides thorough, relevant, and fascinating insights into how adolescents actually engage with social media.

Guess what?

• Teens are no more vulnerable to bullies and sexual predators online than they are offline.
• “Addiction” isn’t an accurate way to describe most adolescent tech usage, and if kids are addicted to anything, it’s their friends, not their phones.
• Those described as “digital natives” may have more familiarity with technology, but they do not understand how to use it critically and productively. They need help with that from adults who do know how to make technology work for us.
• The Internet doesn’t do a good job of pulling in disenfranchised social groups. (For example, Siri struggles with some Middle Eastern accents and others, and most facial recognition software is less accurate with dark skin tones.)
• Wikipedia’s parameters and protocols for posting accurate information far exceed those of Google.

As Boyd writes, “[T]he mere existence of new technology neither creates nor magically solves cultural problems. In fact, their construction typically reinforces existing social divisions.” Because adults tend to use technology differently from teens, we blame the phones for causing problems and the kids for being screen-based time-wasters. But maybe the problem isn’t the technology; maybe it’s us.

As parents, we put the phones in kids’ hands so that we can communicate with them, but we are also more reluctant these days to let kids wander and play outside, and many kids are scheduled to the nth degree. So with restricted time and roaming ability, how do kids hang out? Online. At night.

Many teachers tend to believe the Internet is full of junk information while textbooks and encyclopedias are full of valuable information. So, we restrict the ways students can learn online and require them to use print material, which is no more or less likely to be accurate than online information. Some educators are also less comfortable with asynchronous or “crowdsourced” learning than they are with teacher-centered learning. So, again, the technology is restricted, causing students to go online without the guidance of teachers. That’s a missed opportunity, folks.

To be fair, Boyd recognizes that some teens do not handle things well: “Not all youth are doing all right, just as not all adults are. Technology makes the struggles youth face visible, but it neither creates nor prevents harmful things from happening even if it can be a tool for both. It simply mirrors and magnifies many aspects of everyday life, good and bad.”

It’s Complicated clarified my thinking on many issues, and I highly recommend it for teachers and parents, especially those in a quandary about how young people interact with social media.

The entire book is available online here.

Boyd, Danah.  It’s Complicated:  The Social Lives of Networked Teens.  New Haven:  Yale                 University Press, 2014.

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Four More Books for High School Libraries and Classrooms!

Here are four books that will be great additions to high school libraries and classrooms. Each can work as independent reading or as texts shared by a larger number of students. If you’re making a list of summer reading suggestions, these are excellent titles to include.

The Lifeboat CliqueThe Lifeboat Clique by Kathy Parks

When Denver Reynolds goes to an illicit party at a Malibu beach house to meet a boy who might actually like her, she finds herself amidst popular people who angrily tell her she shouldn’t be there. Then the earth rolls and a giant tsunami wave strikes the coast, sending Denver and four other party-goers out to sea grasping what is left of the beach house’s roof. Pretty Little Life of Pi? That’s pretty close.

I first discovered author Kathy Parks more than ten years ago through her early novels written under the name Kathy Hepinstall. Those books—especially The Absence of Nectar—were great reads because of their quirky characters, snappy dialogue, and engrossing plot lines. When I learned that Kathy Hepinstall and Kathy Parks, author of the just published The Lifeboat Clique, were the same person, it was #mindblown time. I’m glad (but not surprised) to say that Kathy Parks has delivered a YA novel many young readers are likely to devour this summer.

But back to those kids afloat on the roof! They do not like or trust each other, for the most part. Denver’s former friend Abigail is there, along with Sienna, meanest of the mean girls, and Hayley, who maintains her popularity by being bland and beautiful. Trevor, a stoner who constantly drums on whatever is handy, is the only boy among the castaways. Luckily, they soon come across a boat. The boat is rudderless but water-tight, and that becomes their home for a long time.

The Lifeboat Clique, as they eventually call themselves, must figure out not only how to survive but also how to co-exist. As the adventure unfolds, Kathy Parks gives us drama and humor, both on the boat and in flashbacks that show us how the characters’ past interactions led to later complications, as well as important insights into how crisis brings out our most dominant personality traits.
Because I like you, I will not reveal here which of the Lifeboat Clique members actually survive the experience. All I’ll do is say that readers will want their friends to also get this book, and those who finish first will definitely tell the others to hurry up and get to the end so they can talk about it!

Today Means AmenToday Means Amen by Sierra DeMulder

In a voice brashly proud of its vulnerability, Sierra DeMulder’s absorbing new collection Today Means Amen will help readers appreciate a world that lets us claim higher ground if we have known and moved past mistakes, miscalculations, and imperfections. And that includes pretty much all of us.

Each of these poems is grounded in a recognizable reality and then tears a hole in it to reveal a larger truth: a stop at a country cemetery, visits to a grandfather living with dementia, a drunken father talking to another father about his daughter’s suicide, a boyfriend who is “an emotional robot.” DeMulder writes about children, the elderly, and past lovers who rough up and then heal our hearts.

I’m hesitant to quote the poems because I want readers to savor each line for the first time in its intended context. But there are so many good lines! OK, just one: “Sweetheart, shame has been / bound in your basement too long.”

If there is any justice in the poetry world, Today Means Amen will receive a lot of awards this year. Please read it, share it, and let me know your thoughts.

All American BoysAll American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

Although I found much to admire in All American Boys, I couldn’t quite give it five stars. Yes, it deals with an important topic. Yes, I think many young people would benefit from reading it. But as a novel, it has some problems. One of the alternating voices is much more compelling than the other. I found myself wishing that the sections with the weaker voice would go by more quickly.

This other issue is borderline-trivial. The “Family Circus” comic plays a role in All American Boys. Rashad tells how his father gave him the Sunday comics, and he was enthralled with how “Family Circus” was presented as a circle. Nope. “Family Circus” is a circle Monday through Saturday, but the Sunday version is almost always a wide rectangular panel. A realistic novel needs to be realistic, and this factual error took me out of the realism.

All American Boys is definitely a worthwhile, important book, but it’s not a great novel.

Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam WarMost Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin

Steve Sheinkin once again finds the dramatic heart of a historical story and provides young readers (and not-so-young readers) with a tension-filled political thriller. Daniel Ellsberg’s metamorphosis from government insider to government whistle-blower plays out against the extensive background of the Vietnam War. Sheinkin’s portrayals of presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are especially fascinating as we see how each tries not to lose the war. Sheinkin also helps readers understand how Nixon’s frustrations with the war led to the Watergate scandal and his eventual resignation.

Thanks for reading here, and I welcome your comments on these books!

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Review: LIT UP by David Denby

lit upThe premise of David Denby’s Lit Up is that although high school students are reluctant to read works of literature, a talented teacher can help young people find relevance and purpose in challenging texts. With that in mind, Denby attended the English classes of three different teachers who were successful to at least some degree in invigorating their students’ reading lives. The main focus is on Beacon School English teacher Sean Leon whose sophomore English class reading list is … daunting.

While I have no doubt that Mr. Leon is an inspiring teacher who brings out the best in his students, my own teacher radar went off on a couple of points. We never actually see his students reading. We see these seemingly typical sophomores come to class ready to talk in depth about the works they have read, but it’s not at all clear how they processed those books. I’m a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy, and I would have liked to understand better how Mr. Leon assigned the reading and made sure students were actually reading rather than simply Shmoop-ing. Only a handful of students are mentioned as participants in the discussions, and I wonder about the others.  I’m also concerned that this class spent too much time on each book. When discussing the teaching of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Denby says at one point, “As the weeks went on, the students admitted they were surprised by the power of the fable.” As the weeks went on? When it came to a different book, Denby says, “but after a month or so of discussing Slaughterhouse-Five …” Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide (included in the bibliography of Lit Up) warns against over-teaching literary texts. Spending numerous weeks or “a month or so” seems like a perfect example of the over-teaching that causes students to turn away from reading as a pleasurable experience.

Mamaroneck, another school featured in Lit Up, uses Penny Kittle’s Book Love as the inspiration for combining titles chosen by the students with whole-class study of classic works. (Interestingly, a recent Book Love podcast featured teachers from the same school.) This approach is my approach, so it made perfect sense to me, and I have no doubt that it creates many lifelong readers. I get the sense though that Denby sees the independent reading as a sort of necessary evil bridge to books he considers more worthwhile. He tips his hand when he declares that No Easy Day by Matt Bissonnette and Kevin Mauer and The Girl You Left Behind by Jo Jo Moyes are “neither of them close to literature.” Many English teachers, including me, would disagree with that statement.

Hillhouse, the third school visited by Denby, has pervasive challenges. The majority of its students live in urban poverty. The teacher whose class Denby visited considers it her mission to show students how literature can give people “the ability to get out of themselves and to enter other people’s lives.” I was impressed with how she directly connected her students to Ishmael Beah, the author of A Long Way Gone, a book they had read in class (with copies purchased by the teacher with her own money): “The students had met a real writer whose book many of them had chosen to read. A writer and his book; they read it, and they met the author, and they were close to happiness.” Connecting students with authors is a powerful reading motivator.

Ultimately, Lit Up amounts to far less than what first meets the eye. Although there is no question that the students in these classes experienced a good year with literature, my concern is that it’s temporary. Denby’s Afterword catches up with some of the students from Beacon and Hillhouse some months later, and reading doesn’t seem to have stuck with them. They may have been “lit up” for a time, but for the most part, their reading lights apparently flickered out when the classes ended. (No teachers or students from Mamaroneck, the Book Love school, were mentioned in the Afterword.) Still, I’m glad good teachers are helping students experience books and literature, and I’m glad a book like Lit Up is being talked about in the mainstream media to draw attention to how reading is fading from the lives of many young people.

I think it comes down to this. Teaching literature is a noble enterprise. Helping adolescents develop lasting reading lives is also a noble enterprise. These two goals have some overlapping areas, but they are not the same. Lit Up is about teaching literature, but the creation of reading habits—while acknowledged as a worthwhile outcome—isn’t really the focus of this book. I’d like to see David Denby also tell the story of schools and teachers successfully involved in transforming students into lifelong readers.  I know a lot of great English teachers who are doing just that and who will gladly help Mr. Denby with such a project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Ten Favorite Interview Questions for Hiring English Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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