Let's talk about a wonderful book. (I want you to know that I have tried at least five times to start with something that didn't play on the title, but alas, I just can't help myself. Also, while I'm making confessions, I must confess that I started this blog post BEFORE I came back from maternity leave. That was six (now SEVEN) months ago... It's on a LONG list of great books that I'd like to review on here.)
No, really, getting back to the point (man, that was a long digression--you can tell what things are like in my brain these days!)--this book is AWESOME. This is a brilliant, tender story about a kid who is struggling with social acceptance because of a significant facial deformity. In the novel, we encounter August Pullman just as he's on the brink of entering school for the first time. His mom had homeschooled him throughout elementary school, but he joins a private school when he's ten years old, and the novel follows his first year at the school beginning with the conversation his family first has about attending and moving through the end of year events.
This is a novel that's geared toward middle school, and it would resonate there because so many students struggle with social pressures and self-image. However, people at my school have taught it at the eleventh grade level and have found great success there, as well, because the students enjoy the tenderness and accessibility of the story, and they are able to read it relatively quickly on their own without support. Because of the storyline and reading level, it's a novel that could cover a pretty wide age range.
What I love about this book:
It tackles complex issues with compassion and awareness.
It has multiple narrators. There's nothing I like more in a book than when an author effectively shows the story from multiple sides. Palacio does an excellent job of showing how the main character's facial deformity impacts not only his life, but also the lives of the people around him. The narrators include August himself, a couple of his friends, his sister, and even his sister's boyfriend. Each person approaches the situations from such different directions that it makes the book even more fascinating.
The narrators talk about things that make people uncomfortable with tenderness and love. (I've noticed while writing this that I'm uncomfortable even writing about a deformity of any kind, and yet that discomfort is part of what makes Auggie's life so challenging, which Palacio shows so well.)
It's accessible, both with its reading level and with its straightforward approach toward difficult issues.
The love that Auggie's parents have for him is boundless. One of my favorite quotes is what his father says to him about a time when he was younger and wore a helmet everywhere he went: "“You were wearing that helmet all the time. And the real, real, real, real truth is: I missed seeing your face, Auggie. I know you don’t always love it, but you have to understand … I love it. I love this face of yours, Auggie, completely and passionately. And it kind of broke my heart that you were always covering it up.” Oh, man. That's what love really is.
This is also a book about groups and the way that humans inevitably group people as belonging or not belonging. It's a book about TOLERANCE, and the way that tolerance requires accepting people as being like oneself. Though it's been several years since we returned to the States, I remember so clearly that when my husband and I were living in Japan (this seems like a digression, but I promise it's relevant), we read a fascinating article in the Daily Yomiyuri about "inside" and "outside" circles, and the premise of the article was that IF aliens came to Earth, THEN (and ONLY then, the author seemed to say) gai-jin (the Japanese word for foreigners) would become part of the "inside" circle. Though this sounds like satire, the author's tone was serious. He meant it--he was just explaining social dynamics as he saw them. Though, of course, MANY people there accepted and loved me, I did have a sense of being on the "outside" of things many times. The truth is there are those kinds of boundaries drawn here in America (and in our schools) as well, and Auggie is acutely aware of those boundaries because he has spent his life being outside of all of them except for with his family. However, as he becomes part of the school community, his circle grows and other people accept him as "inside" with them.
Overall, this is an awesome book, and it's a great way to talk about some of the other issues that seem to be so omnipresent in our schools today (bullying, isolation, ignoring others, etc.) without having to directly attack each of them. Palacio shows that, when everything is said and done, we're all humans, and we should above all BE KIND.
Things have been busy lately. You know how that goes, I'm sure. One of the things I do when I get stressed is start LOTS of things without finishing ANY of them.
For example, I open fifteen tabs on my computer and leave all of them open, desperately rifling through the files to try to figure out which one to do first. As my mind races, I find that I continually think of new items that must be completed; with each new thought, a new tab opens. On particularly anxious days, I switch back and forth between the computer and my desk, making notes and sorting through papers (there are ALWAYS lots of random papers on my desk on days like that) as I struggle to make sense of my life.
So it goes with my blog from time to time. I now have at least five drafts going on this page at once; most have been open for at least a couple of months--some of them have been open since before I went back to work post-maternity leave in September (was it really so long ago?). I've been desperately trying to post more frequently, but the whole month of December already slipped through my fingers, and now I'm at the end of January.
Anyway, I'm super excited about two things that we're doing at school right now, and both of them are ideas that you could implement right away if you felt so inclined.
The first idea is using YA literature for text pairings:
With our English 11 classes (and, to a lesser extent, with my AP Lit class as well in the form of lit circles), we're pairing "traditional" (think canonical, in anthologies, mostly by dead authors, largely DIFFICULT and somewhat antiquated) texts with passages from young adult novels. It's been great so far.
For example, we paired a close reading passage using the beginning of "The Fall of the House of Usher" with the beginning of a spooky novel by Rin Chupeco called The Girl from the Well. We paired a passage from The Life of Olaudah Equiano about being kidnapped and the slave ship journey over with a passage from Sharon Draper's Copper Sun about the slave auction.
It's been really successful, and it's been a great way to introduce students to more YA literature while also exposing them to the classics and more traditional texts.
The second idea is focusing on social issues as a way to create units:
We decided to make our units revolve around social issues. We came up with a list of social issues--15 of them--that we thought might interest students, and then we used Survey Monkey to let students quickly vote on their top issues. It surprised me to find that bullying was the winner by a landslide--well over 50% of the students voted for that issue. The other winners were hate crimes, human trafficking, and violence in schools. It was great to use the survey because I would've been reluctant to choose some of those issues on my own, but with student input, it invited me to have space to talk through issues that are relevant to the students' lives. We're creating mini-units focusing on each of the issues they selected. So far, we've worked through human trafficking and are currently studying hate crimes (including racial and religious crimes as well as crimes related to sexuality). I've been amazed by the maturity and passion students have shown as we have dealt with difficult texts and topics.
I'll write more about the framing of those units in the future, but I wanted to throw these ideas out there in case you're looking for some new things to try. I've needed a bit of revitalization with lessons myself, and these two ideas have done a lot to enhance the lessons I'm making.
[A quick side note to my frequent readers: I have taken a LONG break from the blog to finish my pregnancy term, prepare for the upcoming school year with my absence and new class preps, and have my precious baby, but I'm back now and plan to be consistent with posting each week or two. Thank you for your patience and for reading!]
Over the past few months (which, not coincidentally, paralleled my pregnancy), I had the pleasure of rereading the entire Harry Potter series. Every single book. Every single page. In truth, it was the first time I'd actually read at least one of the books--we listened to at least one of them on audio back in the early 2000s during a particularly hard year that required a lot of time on the road.
I'm not one to reread things in general. Of course, when teaching a text, I reread it to refresh my mind and develop a deeper understanding of it, but it's not a practice that carries over into my general attitude toward reading. I often see it as a waste of precious reading time--there are so many other things out there waiting to be read! I am, however, a big fan of watching reruns (much to my husband's dismay). I've seen every episode of both The Simpsons (up until about season 20; I'm behind on the new ones) and Futurama, and I could still watch each of them on a daily basis (and often do). It's extremely difficult for me to start a new series, and it often takes several episodes (and the rather persistent prodding of my patient husband, who has a far wider taste when it comes to shows) before I can get even remotely invested in any new show.
This experience of rereading Harry Potter led me to ponder why students so often reread books instead of trying something new. I had one student who clung (literally--I'm not being metaphorical here) to The Hunger Games to read it a fifth time as I did my best to patiently but firmly pry it out of her hands and replace it with something new, similar in genre and style, and far more exciting than rereading the same story (I think I chose Graceling by Kristin Cashore, a great book in an awesome, interconnected trilogy).
I examined my own desire to rewatch shows, and I considered why that habit is so much more appealing to me than trying something new. I don't watch much TV (in fact, we didn't have a TV until last year, though we would watch things on our laptop, and I've never had cable or any kind of live TV in my adult life). I'm not opposed to TV or watching shows; it's just not a priority to me. When I do watch shows, I seek them out as a way to unwind at the end of the day. I watch them for comfort and relaxation rather than as a way to grow, learn, or experience significant emotional responses. I'm introverted, so I feel pretty emotionally drained at the end of a work day. I have watched several shows that I find captivating, but that I wind up drifting away from because I do not ultimately enjoy the emotional strain they cause.
The above approach is not at all how I approach reading. I love trying new things, and I passionately seek out books that challenge my views or enable me to empathize with characters. I love suspense and action (This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers was a fun action zombie read that I plowed through shortly after my daughter was born), and I enjoy raw, moving books. For example, I LOVED The Fault in Our Stars (I plan to revisit that book for more concrete teaching plans, but here was my first reaction), but I couldn't bring myself to go to the movie. However, when I thought through that process, I began to realize why students so often cling to their beloved novels rather than venturing out to explore new ones. It's hard to take risks, and many times young readers see new books as a frightening risk.
But I digress... this brings me back to good old Harry Potter and his adventures. Pregnancy was the exception to what I just proclaimed about myself as a reader. The last thing I wanted to do was experience any kind of emotional strain, even one induced by reading. I read very little during that nine months (which saddened and embarrassed me--what will people think of an English teacher who doesn't read?!?--but there were lots of things I gave up, and I'm working on the acceptance and humility that the process of having children brings). When I did read, I found that I could not stomach anything that required too much stress or emotion. That meant that I was suddenly unable to read and enjoy most books.
And so I came back to my old friend, Harry Potter. And I'm so glad that I did.
He and Ron and Hermione helped me through many long, sleepless nights. I even bought the ebook version of the novels (which was complicated, but can be done at this site) so that I could read them in the darkened early morning hours.
Rereading them gave me the opportunity to rediscover the richness of the story. It was amazing to see the way some of the threads of the later books came up in the earliest novels, and the development of the characters was so much more intricate than I remembered. Because I have seen the movies, I remember those parts much better, so it was fun to see all of the events and details that the movies overlooked. I'd forgotten, for instance, how Harry and Ron first met Hermione, and how they kind of despised her for a while before becoming friends. I'd also forgotten how goofy looking Harry was, particularly in the early books. I loved the richness of some of the dialogue, and I marveled at Rowling's style and structure.
From a teaching perspective, there seem to be some easy ways to incorporate the Harry Potter series into the classroom, if one so desires:
There are many ways that you could incorporate a touch of Harry Potter and his friends into your classroom. That series holds up to reading it again and again, and it's a wonderful, fun series to share with our students, some of whom are now too young to know much about it. Have you ever taught it in your classroom or used excerpts to illustrate some concepts or skills? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments section!
[It feels so good to be back here, hearing the clicking of the keys that coincides with the flowing words in my brain. I look forward to writing more posts soon!]
Thanks to this fun BuzzFeed article for the image below:
Ah, the first day of school. In the case of my school, and many high schools around the nation, there are actually 2 first days, since it takes two days of block classes to get through one entire cycle of classes. At our school, we've been back four days, two full rotations. Things have gone wonderfully so far! It's always exciting to get back to work and to meet new students. Still, I often struggle with what to do on the first day. No one wants to spend ninety minutes on the syllabus, but some things have to be covered right away. Additionally, you want to set the right tone for the year. You want your students to understand right away that you will all work hard, but that you will also do that work together, and that you will look out for one another. You want to set clear guidelines but simultaneously let them know that you are there to support them, and that you will never give up on them. The list of things that you need to accomplish in that first day can seem astronomically long, especially to new teachers who are told things like "don't smile until after Thanksgiving." Here are a few rules I always follow on the first day:
Okay, so that was a long explanation about some of the factors that I consider that first day. Still, even after establishing those things as part of my first day procedures, I have continued to struggle with what to do for the rest of that day. Last year, we started the year with Veronica Roth's Divergent in English 9, so I jumped right into predictions and inferences, and we analyzed the front cover and read Chapter 1 together. (For more information on teaching Divergent, check out this post.) However, this year, I am beginning the year with Romeo and Juliet, and I couldn't quite bring myself to begin the year with "Two households, both alike in dignity," so I continued debating what to do instead.
The words of the freshmen from last year kept echoing in my head. They were proud of the letters that they wrote at the end of the year, and they had thought long and hard about what things they wish they had known about high school. (For information about the original assignment, see this post. The entire assignment was inspired by the awesome book The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door by Karen Finnyfrock, which addresses how difficult ninth grade can be for students.) Students asked, "Are you going to show them our letters? Are they going to read what I wrote?" (Some of the freshmen said more demanding things like, "You should MAKE them read EVERY ONE of these letters because we spent A LOT OF TIME writing them." Ah, the irony of those kinds of statements...). I wanted a way to share that advice with the new students.
I finally settled on a four part plan for the advice/goal setting part of the first day. First, I had students write three questions and/or concerns that they had about the upcoming year. (I'm glad I did this because I've had a chance to respond to their questions and concerns after they turned in their work.) Then I passed out enough letters for each student to have one to read. They read the letter and selected at least one piece of advice from it to record and reflect on. Once they were finished with the letter, they switched with someone else. They switched until they had read at least four letters. They pulled advice from each one of them, using both paraphrasing and direct quotes from the letters to record the advice.
After they had reviewed the letters and found advice, they shared out some of the things that they read with the class. We then transitioned into goal setting. The students reflected on their strengths and weaknesses in English class. Then, they set three specific goals for English class this year, and they established the steps that they would take to reach those goals.
Finally, as their exit slip, students wrote a paragraph about the connections between the goals that they set and the advice that they were given. They wrote about how following the advice could help them have a more successful freshman year. Many of them said that the advice letters gave them more confidence and made them feel that they were not alone. They also said that the advice impacted them and made them reconsider what was important (such as studying and doing homework, which some of them didn't do much of in middle school).
I wasn't sure how that assignment would go--I was especially worried that because I didn't know them yet, they would be dismissive or see it as a waste of time. Despite my initial uncertainty, I was quite pleased with the results and wound up being glad that I took the risk. What they wrote has given me insight into their worries and their perspective, and the activity made them feel more connected to the school community. The goals that they set were targeted and clear, and they give each student a particular focus as s/he moves forward into the first unit. They also gave me some insight into where the students are coming from and how I can help them.
Overall, I'm always amazed at how much students have to offer and at how much they can teach one another. Many of the things that the freshmen read were bits of advice I would never think to tell them, nor would it be as powerful coming from me. I'm glad that they started off the year learning from their older peers, and I look forward to seeing the ways that they grow this year and what advice they have to share by the end of it. Best wishes to all of my fellow educators who are currently settling into a new school year. May this be the best one yet!
"High school is a scary concept, especially when you are an eighth grader walking into it. To be honest, high school isn't all that scary once you get going. My ninth grade year has been my best year so far. All of the teachers are so helpful and caring. They listen to what you have to say and also give great advice when it's needed." ~current 9th grade student
For their final writing assignment this year, my English 9 students wrote letters of advice to the incoming freshman class. We studied Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” to explore the use of logos, pathos, and ethos in persuasion, and then my students applied those techniques in their letters as they passed along the wisdom they’d gained over the course of the year. Tomorrow, we’ll post the best letters on the bulletin board, and we’ll place all of them in a binder for the incoming class. The students will have an opportunity to look over the letters and to make signs and posters demonstrating the best pieces of advice.
I first came up with this idea after reading Karen Finneyfrock’s novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door. In that amazing story, young Celia finds her way in the world as she navigates the challenges of her freshman year. See my previous post for more information about that novel and the kinds of students who might best benefit from reading it.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this assignment, but what I noticed right away is that many students who often take a long time getting started with writing assignments jumped into this one immediately. They outlined their ideas, came up with clear thesis statements, and spoke directly to their audience. They admitted their own mistakes and expressed their regrets about some of the choices that they had made.
I've read about half of the letters, and here are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve read so far:
“You should be able to be who you are and not what others expect of you. Become the new cool. Even when everyone else judges you. “
“Before you start to make fun of someone, just think how much it will hurt them. Would you like to be that person?”
“[The teachers] just ask that you respect them and all of the other students. Your teachers don’t want to sit through a whole year and argue with you. They want you to be successful and respectful. Treating my teachers right really got me a long ways. Sometimes you may not agree with their decisions, but you have to give them the respect that they deserve.”
“Don’t listen to drama because everything you hear might not be true. It helps if you keep just a small group of friends who you can trust. Participating and listening to drama doesn’t show good things about your character and can hurt others as well as yourself.”
I’d like to note that most of the students who gave the best advice were not students getting straight As and behaving appropriately at all times. The ones whose letters were the most authentic and compassionate were the students who had struggled in earnest this year and who knew from hard-earned experience the things that would help them achieve success. The students also had to mark the different kinds of persuasion that they used (we selected different fonts for each kind), so we had a lot of good discussions about what logos, pathos, and ethos are and how to incorporate them into our writing.
Another great benefit of this assignment is that almost all of the students mastered the concept of using a concession and a counterargument. While I’ve tried various ways to help them understand and apply this concept, most of them have been unsuccessful in their previous applications. However, this time, they thoroughly understood why the students might not listen to them, and they knew what the younger students’ objections might be. They addressed those directly and highlighted why the other students should see things from their perspective. Some of the students included this kind of logical reasoning for each of their main points, which really strengthened their argument.
Students said things like:
“You may be shy and think that you don’t want any more friends, but trust me if you’re in a club or a sport, you are bound to make a new friend or two.”
“At this point in your life, I’m sure you aren’t worried about your grades, but they are more important now than ever before.”
“I understand that sometimes you are afraid to stand up because you are shy or simply because you are indeed a freshman but participation can help you in so many ways.”
"You can’t erase the past from everyone’s minds but you can have a fresh start to make more of yourself when you get to high school."
Overall, the students had brilliant points to make to their future underclassmen. They advised them about things like homework and grades, but they also talked to them about participating in sports and clubs, about bullying and making friends, about respect and standing up for beliefs. I should get back to them, so that they can see my feedback tomorrow!
It is with hope and encouragement that we wrap up this year and prepare for the next one.
P.S. I took off last week to celebrate the Memorial Day holiday, but it mostly caused me to feel a bit lost and lazy, so I will do my best to keep up each Sunday over the summer :). Coming next week: a post about the phenomenal Infernal Devices series!
K. Ashley Dickson-Ellison is a former high school English teacher (who is now an instructional technology teacher) interested in exploring the integration of trending young adult literature into the English classroom experience. Ashley is also a member of the podcast Unabridged; check out the podcast site below.
Please note: All ideas and opinions are my own and do not represent my current or past employers.
© K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to K. Ashley Dickson and Teaching the Apocalypse with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All thoughts and ideas are the author's and do not represent any employer.