Monday, December 23, 2013

It's Monday! What are You Reading? December 23rd

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Winter Break is a wonderful time for me to find some introvert time and do some significant reading.  So far, I've read two YA books since Thursday: Ender's Game and Lunch-Box Dreams.

I really enjoyed Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Several of my students recommended this book highly to me and I finally got around to it. It's one of the best YA science fiction books I've read and I hope to read more like it so I can help build a Sci/Fi section in my classroom that does not have to start with Dune.  In this book, the survival of the human race hinges on Ender, a young boy we first meet at age six, who is a potentially gifted military leader.  The humans are fighting against the "buggers," an insectizoid alien life form that have invaded the solar system a couple of times already.  The plot follows Ender through his military training. He struggles with being obviously different, being much younger than the other cadets, who are also children, and being obviously separated out by the military leaders.  He deals with bullies, friends, loneliness, his own inner demons, and not wanting to be a puppet of the adults.  Through it all, he shows himself to be a creative and exemplary leader.  One subplot involves his siblings back one Earth.  His brother is a gifted but scary child the reader expects to become some sort of serial killer.  His sister is brilliant and especially good at influencing people with words and writing.  This book deals not only with the struggles of gifted children in tough times, but is also a nice introduction into political influence.  While some are focused on the bugger war, others are positioning politically and militarily for after the war and humans don't need to be allied together against a common enemy.  I agree with my students and highly recommend this book!

Lunch-Box Dream by Tony Abbott follows three story lines through the South in 1959. A white family from Cleveland is on a road trip to Florida, seeing Civil War battlefields along the way.  A black family in Atlanta sends their nine year old boy to visit family in the country for the summer.  Each chapter is told from different character's perspectives and that makes this book a  little challenging, despite it's shortness and lower reading level.  This book poignantly shows racism both overtly and its more subtle institutionalized ways.  The white family is not a typical racist Southern family, but their fear of the "chocolates" and various comments they make mean they probably don't actually know any African-Americans personally.  The black family deals their fears of the actions of their lively, quick-witted, but ignorant boy. Acting "right" around white people is just part of their lives and is a clear sign of the times they are living in.  Overall, I found the story in this book hard to follow, although each scene was told well.  Since it's relatively short, it's a worthy read to glimpse race issues in an very personal and emotional way, but I did not get into this book like most I read.  It would be a good pairing with The Lions of Little Rock or perhaps Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry.

Up next are The Thing About Luck and Everybody Loves the Ants.

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it, Happy New Year to everyone and I hope you have some time for family and reading over the next couple of weeks!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Morning Shave - Slice of Life December 17

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My middle school class has been sharing the books we've read throughout the year on the class blog.  The past few weeks we have been sharing poetry on our blogs.  This week, we started writing and sharing Slices of Life!  It has been wonderful to see them writing and sharing and I'm excited as we move forward as a reading a writing community!

Morning Shave
The bathroom door opens and Clara squints into the bright light.  Her hand reaches up and lowers the lights with the dimmer switch to just above dark. “It hurts my eyes Dada,” she states.    

Towel around my waist, condensation on the mirror, and the cold bedroom air seeping through the open door, I usher Clara in as we continue a ritual that is becoming familiar to both of us.

First, I close the door to save some of the heat from my shower and keep the light out of my wife’s eyes as she dozes in bed.  Clara climbs up on the toilet seat and searches through the cabinet for my shaving cream.  I surreptitiously brighten the lights a few lumens and ask her about her dreams.

I go through the motions of getting shaving cream put on my face and the razor out.  We both wonder how blue gel becomes white once it’s rubbed on my face.  After the first swipe, Clara wants to test how smooth my faces is, her finger gliding along the strip of skin devoid of shaving cream and whiskers on my right cheek.  I crank the lights up a little more and continue shaving. 

Like most men, I have a pattern to how I shave my face.  Clara knows it well enough to tell me where I should shave next and be mostly correct.  Once I’m done, she directs me where I need to wash the remnants of the shaving cream off my face, usually around each ear and under my nose. 

Once I pass her careful inspection, we steel ourselves for the colder air on the other side of the door and go to her room to choose clothes for the day.  This task can be the start of the typical child/parent struggles that lead to frustration, tears, timeouts (for both parties), being late, and continual conflict throughout the day.  But whether it is an easy day or one of the difficult ones, the morning shave is always familiar, cozy and smooth.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Poetry Friday - Intro to Max and "First Snow"

Welcome!  I have been lurking through the Poetry Friday blogs and postings for a few months now and meaning to write and link up myself.  Since my 6-8th grade class is doing a unit on poetry, I've been doing a little writing and wrote this yesterday in class as we played with free verse.  Cheers!

First Snow
The first real snow of winter invigorates me to action
Even though the covers are extra heavy
And the dark room is uninviting.

No snooze alarm today!
Shower, shave.
And then my daughter appears
Rubbing sleep from her eyes,
To help me choose a tie.

Tigger, Eeyore and Winnie the Pooh animate my blue shirt.
We part the red curtains and gaze into the white world below.
She is excited by the snow she sees
And the snow she remembers licking
Last winter.

"You get me some snow Dada,"
She commands as she climbs into my bed.

Snow sparkling in my hair,
I return with a bowl filled with the bright, crisp smell of winter.

Her mouth greedily consumes
Cold flakes as she snuggles
Next to the orange warmth of my
Snoozing wife.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

It’s Monday! What Are You Reading?

I read two wonderfully different books this week on the recommendation of a fellow teacher.  Both are for the more mature young adult or young adult reader, and both are wonderful!

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstren – First paragraph:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des RĂªves, and it is only open at night.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, is a highly enjoyable book about a magic competition, taking place within the setting of a mysterious circus.  Two players are pitted against one another in a competition without clear rules or even how to win.  Marco has intelligence and hard work on his side, while Celia has natural talent makes better connections with people.  Their feats of magic are well beyond simple illusions and tricks.  When they fall in love, it could not only destroy the circus and the people within it, but each other as well.  

There is little violence, almost no salty language or significant physical romance.  But it is a book for a mature reader, who can follow the plots as it weaves in and out over thirty years with little regard for following chronological time.  However, that is some of the magic of this book, as you are given hints of what is to come and only later come to find out why.

The characters are deep and rich and full of real life.  The circus and its amazing feats draw the reader in and make the impossible suddenly seem believable.  Just like a fantastic magic act, the reader knows there must be some trick, but they want to believe and thus, they do! 

Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick, is about a senior in high school who plans to kill his former best friend and then himself by the end of the day.  It is told in the raw and uncensored voice of Leonard Peacock as he goes through his school day, giving four presents to four friends before facing his ultimate “goal.”  As the day progresses, the reader is given glimpses of his pain, his previous hopes, and background with each of the people who were important in his life.  The reader follows Leonard deep into his depression, his uncertainty, his confusion about life and his part in it.   Very mature themes are in this book including consistent curse words, abuse, neglect, sexuality confusion, and of course a student walking around school with a gun and planning on killing a fellow student and himself.  But it is a book that many young adults will connect with as well, but they need to be ready to face these issues in their reading before they read this book.  I highly recommend it, but teachers/parents may want to read it before handing it to a middle school student.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Slice of Life September 3, 2013 -- Max's Class Reads!

Link up or read other Slices of Life at
“My dad's been trying to get me to read Of Mice and Men forever. At least now I have validation that it's good. The Clockwork Three sounds pretty interesting.”

The above quote is one of my favorites from my first week of school, and it is an online comment in response to another student’s blog post.  Teachers and parents can suggest good books until we are blue in the face, but a suggestion from a classmate is obviously better.

My class of twenty-two sixth, seventh and eighth-graders has entered the blogosphere, sharing and commenting on the books we love.  After some discussion about reading and the best books we’ve read, I guided my class through the process of starting a blog and how to share it on the class blog I created.  The assignment was to give an introduction of who they were as a person/reader, list their top three books of all time, and give a couple of sentences about each book. Then they had to comment of five other classmate’s posts.  Sounds simple enough in theory.

In practice, I’ve been building to this assignment all summer and this is only just scratching the surface of what I have planned.  I had never blogged or shared my writing online before Linda Baie helped me get started in June.  Since then, I’ve been consistently posting my Slices of Life on Tuesdays and intermittently posting on the “It’s Monday, What are you Reading?” blog as well.  I’ve been amazed at the positive reinforcement I felt from each page view and comment left on my posts and knew this was a tool I needed to experiment with this school year.  I have a class that is highly intellectual but almost 75% introverts, so verbal discussions were not as effective as I wanted last year.  Twelve of my students were in my class last year so a new way to reach out is very warranted.  After just the first assignment, reading their blogs and their comments, I feel like I know more about them as readers than I did all last year.  Kinda of sad looking towards the past, but pretty exciting contemplating this year.

In my school, in the middle school grades, we expect students to read a book a week.  Overall, that high standard sets a good tone, but there are plenty of students who struggle with reading, don’t like it, or who are too swamped with the rest of their work to achieve that standard.  I’ve generally asked students to write a short response on a note card, practicing correct bibliographical at the top and answering a question.  But it all felt somewhat contrived and I had plenty of real and suspected evidence that students were taking short cuts or just plain being dishonest about their reading. 

So my goal this year is to create a culture of reading in the class, where students are the ones doing most of the talking and sharing.  Since their general introversion leads to some very long wait times in my classroom, creating a blogging community seemed like a good idea to try.  We had plenty of hiccups in the computer lab trying to everyone started and we left Friday with only six students having posted and linked up.  Several were feeling frustrated as they tried to navigate the process of setting up an account and a blog and I just had to hope that their generation’s general skill with computers would work for me over the long weekend.  At this point, only one student did not link up, but she thought she did and left a comment with a link that did not work.  But I am excited and feeling like it is already more successful than I hoped it would be from the start.  Most students are commenting on more than the minimum five posts, and several are commenting on each post.  I’m interested to hear what they have to say Tuesday, but I may need to ask it in a blog post and ask for comments if they choose not to speak up verbally. 

My hope is that we are able to have real conversations about reading, both in class and online.  We can share books we love, share a little more about ourselves and get excited about reading in a new way.  I also have big plans to do some Slicing as a class and Tara's posts about student Slicing (especially last week's) are much of my inspiration.  So thanks to those of you who have helped me add this new tool to my teaching toolbox by creating this community and welcoming me along for the ride.  

And to answer the typical teacher question several you may have already asked in your head: Yes.  I created a new blog for this class and posted about myself as a reader and my favorite books and plan to do so weekly. :)

Monday, August 26, 2013

Slice of Life August 27, 2013 – Searching for Fireflies

Read other Slices of Life on the Two Writing Teachers blog
hosted by Stacey and Ruth
There are almost no fireflies in Colorado, so when we travelled to the East Coast this summer, I was bound and determined to find some to share with my three year old daughter Clara.  I remember being a child, running around at dusk with my brother and cousins, watching the magical bugs blink on and off, the humidity heavy in the air and a feeling that I was someplace new.  I recall catching one and having it light up in my hands and my amazement of these little creatures.  I wanted to see Clara’s eyes light up brighter than the fireflies and see her face in that moment of surprise and wonder that I have grown to love when she “discovers” one of the joys of the world.

So as dusk fell at my aunt and uncle’s house near Boston, we went out every twenty minutes searching for fireflies.  We’d make a circuit around the house, over the lawns, through the gardens of flowers and along the path that we called “the secret passage” because it was so narrow and the bushes hung overhead almost blotting out the sky.  We found no fireflies, but we discovered frog lawn ornaments, flowers we had never seen before, new smells, pretty rocks and some great sticks that became magic spelling wands.

Two nights later, we were in a state park in Portland, Maine at my cousin’s wedding reception.  As Clara tired of the adult dinner conversation under the large lawn tent, I took her for walks on the grounds, looking for fireflies in the gathering darkness.  Once again, the fireflies were hidden away, but we stalked woodchucks and tossed them apples that had fallen from the trees so we could watch them eat.  A flock of wild turkeys, a mother and six juveniles, strutted out of the underbrush and chased down grasshoppers on the lawn.  The stars emerged from overhead and the reception tent looked like a fairy castle, lit up from across the way.

Tomorrow, twenty-two students will enter my classroom to start another school year.  We just completed two solid days of parent/student/teacher conferences, talking about goals, plans for the year, subjects to be covered and hopes and dreams for this year and beyond.  I know we have goals we may not reach, standards that may not be met, and dreams that may not be completely realized.  We are starting a journey, in search of our own metaphorical fireflies. 

If I were to measure my summer search for fireflies with Clara against the standard most public school teachers are held to, I was an “Unsatisfactory” parent.  We were searching for fireflies and did not find single one.  But was that wasted time?  We discovered and learned so much!  We explored, shared, touched, observed, laughed, played and loved where we were and the moment.  Fireflies were only the excuse for that exploration.  If we had found fireflies that first night, the first time around the house, would we have gone out again?  Think of what we would have missed.  I’m all for having goals in my teaching and my students’ learning, but I must remember to not be so myopically focused on what I hope to find, that I miss what we discover.