First of all, MAN, it is HARD to post when in the last trimester of pregnancy with a toddler. And even harder with an infant and a toddler! Still, getting this post (which I started ages ago) completed is the hardest part, and I'm determined to do it TODAY. I hope to post more frequently in the future, even if those posts are shorter and more focused on book reviews. Thank you to those who have stuck with me through this blogging journey. Despite the fact that I had hoped to post sooner, I realize as I read over the part of this I already wrote how pertinent it is in light of the recent events in our country. Okay, here goes...
Last winter, I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee for the first time in my life. (I've been meaning to write about it since then, but pregnancy and a toddler have certainly slowed my posting pace.) It was a fantastic book, and I do feel like I missed out a bit by not having read it sooner. At its core, To Kill a Mockingbird shows an authentic picture of what life is like in small, Southern towns--what it was like then, and what it is like for many people even now. I think what struck me most about To Kill a Mockingbird is that while it is certainly a book about the cruelty of racism, that aspect is just one component of a larger tapestry of what it means to be a southern girl growing up in a small town in Alabama. I think what interests me most is that in many places, we are still using this novel to teach about race. My father, who hated everything about education growing up in Alabama loved To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think what he loved about it most was what it revealed about the problems with public education in the South for he knew all too well the flaws in the system. Anyway, my point is to say that he loved that book when he read it in the 1960s.
Here's what I want to know: Today, in 2016, is To Kill a Mockingbird still the best novel that we can use to teach about race?
For better or worse, I'm always reluctant to post controversial things. While I'm quite opinionated and not particularly "centrist" with my ideas, I prefer to keep things neutral when possible. I know I'm talking about a novel that many revere as sacred here, and I'm hesitant to say anything to rock the boat. But with white police killing black boys on a weekly basis and presidential candidates clearly promoting white superiority, I cannot help but think we have to do more to better educate our youth about race relations. Black lives matter, and black lives (as well as the lives of other people of color) need to be more of a focus in the literature that we teach. I have to question whether a southern novel written by a white woman in the 1960s is the best way we have to foster those discussions about race and the Other. I am not suggesting that we abandon the classics or stop teaching this novel, but I would like for us to take a long look at WHY we're teaching it and whether it truly meets all of our goals. What I don't want to see happen is for teachers to feel that they can check "race and racism" off on their list simply because they taught this novel.
I'd like to consider some other texts that might work better for us to talk about the complexities of race in today's society.
All American Boys (Jayson Reynolds and Brendan Kiely): This is a phenomenal read that highlights the complexity of race relations, particularly related to the issues we're seeing in our country today between police and the black community. Reynolds and Kiely write the novel from two perspectives, that of a black boy who is wrongly attacked by a police officer in a convenience store, and that of a white boy from the same school who witnesses the attack and knows the police officer well. While Reynolds and Kiely do an amazing job of layering and showing complexity, they write in a way that is very approachable for high school readers.
“Had our hearts really become so numb that we needed dead bodies in order to feel the beat of compassion in our chests? Who am I if I need to be shocked back into my best self?”
Citizen: An American Lyric (Claudia Rankine): This poetry collection addresses the experiences of a black woman in America. It has images and art throughout that enhance the reader's experience. I love that it's poetry, and I was amazed by the way Rankine could evoke such powerful responses with so few words. This text would be hard for some students, but it would definitely work nicely paired with other texts, and excerpts could easily be used to complement other texts in class. The quote below--alone on a page in the collection--resonates so loudly as we face the news today.
“because white men can't
Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates): In this stunning work, Coates writes directly to his fifteen-year-old son. He tells his son of his own struggles and of how he feels about where we are in the world today and what it means to be a "black body" living in a world with people who "believe themselves to be white." Stunningly powerful and at times heart-wrenching, Coates brings to life the difficulties of where we are in our country today. It's a challenging read for high school students, but it can certainly make an impact, and it would work also work as excerpts to complement other texts.
“But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.”
Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson):
Beautiful, gracious, and enlightening, Woodson's longer work in verse reflects on her youth leading into her adulthood. It's a captivating story that weaves together her family experiences, her own desires, and the pathway that led to her current life. Even better--it's poetry! Like Citizen, it would make a great work for excerpts, and it would expose the students to some stunning (but also accessible) poetry. Woodson comments on race and gender as a part of her life experiences, but the story simply tells of a girl's coming of age.
“I believe in one day and someday and this perfect moment called Now."
There are so many amazing options out there that can facilitate meaningful conversations about race, and those conversations could not be more important in our country than they are today. While I loved To Kill a Mockingbird, it's not the only text out there that can shed light on the injustices and barbarity of racism.
Man, have I read some amazing (mostly YA) literature lately! I’ve been fortunate to burn through lots of gift cards loading up on summer reads based on great recommendations (Thanks, Jen Moyers, my book guru!), and I can hardly keep up with all of the inspiring texts I’ve been enjoying. (In fact, this book review is a month overdue, but I’m finally going through what I initially wrote to post it. More reviews should be on their way shortly!)
Today I want to focus on Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero. (Credit goes to Goodreads.com for the cover image.)
From the provocative cover to the unique use of images and poetry within the novel, this book certainly gets the reader’s attention from the start. I read it on an e-reader (due to space constraints while traveling—see this post for more about that journey), and I feel like I missed out a little bit on some of the interesting aspects of the text, but I’ve looked at a paper copy as well to experience some of the richer, more colorful aspects of presentation. It's also a short novel, and I've written before about how valuable that can be, especially with a teen audience in a classroom setting.
This brilliant novel hits on all sorts of issues through the eyes of a hilarious, curious, critical girl, Gabi Hernandez, as she journeys through her senior year in high school. She spends much of her time figuring out what it means to be a woman, and she documents all of her thoughts and adventures in a diary that we, the readers, are privy to seeing. Gabi struggles through many typical teen issues with humor and self-reflection: she’s an awesome friend who helps out with a friend’s coming out and another friend’s pregnancy, and she struggles to find her way in relationships with boys. Gabi works through finding her voice as a writer, and she goes through the challenging process of applying for college. She also continually works to maintain meaningful relationships with a mother who, while well-meaning, can be oppressive, a brother who can be irresponsible and careless, and a father who is a drug addict.
The best part of the novel is Gabi’s voice. She’s distinctive, funny, and self-assured (even when she’s insecure). She doesn’t hesitate to say exactly how she feels, even when it’s difficult or makes people uncomfortable. Here are a couple of examples: “Curse the day I fell in love or like or whatever with Joshua Moore! I hate him. Hate him! HATE HIM!” (Quintero 20). Here she comments on her discovery of her love of writing: “I’m finding out that I really like poetry. It’s therapeutic. It’s like I can write something painful on paper and part of it (not all of it, obviously) disappears. It goes always somewhere, and the sadness I feel dissolves a little bit” (Quintero 48). This manifests into some brilliant poetry later on in the novel as she discovers more about the world of writing. The poems about her grandmother and her father are stunning—ones that could easily stand alone, ones that I found myself rereading after I had finished the novel. Here's a brief excerpt from the poem about her father, "In light of the fear of my father's death I write this down":
Guilt of gluttonous
He evades questioning questions
and dodges disagreements
a refugee in refuge
a reduction of
my father the brave. (Quintero 65)
In the classroom: There are so many teachable aspects of this novel. However, the most intriguing aspect of it to me is the way that you could pair the novel with the texts and authors that Gabi discovers in the novel. As she discovers her own voice as a poet, she also encounters many other poets and writers, and you could use the pieces that she discovers as a way to pair the YA novel with more classical, traditional literature in the classroom setting. She encounters writers such as the Beats (specifically Ginsberg’s Howl), Sylvia Plath, Pablo Neruda, e.e. cummings, and Sandra Cisneros. She also talks about Brave New World (though only in passing), and there are references to Edgar Allen Poe and other authors. The text is full of literary connections that could enrich its reading.
I also love the incorporation of Spanish and the way that Gabi shows her readers what it can be like to grow up as a second generation immigrant in America. The Spanish in the text is unobtrusive to non-Spanish readers, and Gabi always makes her point clear in English, but it highlights the richness and complexity of her experience as she navigates through her world of colliding cultures and generations. The way that she talks about Mexican food also shows the richness of her culture. When one of her early relationships falls apart, she talks with her mother:
I tried to act like I didn’t care about the whole Josh situation, but it was hard. I came home today and told my mom what was going on (because she’s my mom and can ALWAYS tell when there’s something wrong and won’t let it go until I tell her) and she offers some words of comfort so my heart wouldn’t shatter. She knows heartbreak, she said. She said. “Yo se lo que es estar joven y enamorada.” I tried to think of my mom as young and in love, but I couldn’t, it was too far of a stretch. (Quintero 22)
Gabi's relationship with her mom is complicated (aren't they always?) but tender and rich. The way that Gabi embraces her heritage and balances her different cultural influences shows one more aspect of her growing into herself. She reflects on her Mexican-American heritage and how hard it can be to be in that situation of split allegiances. It’s one more way that the text is complex, while being totally approachable.
This novel covers so many issues: it is not a book about being overweight, but Gabi talks openly and honestly about her struggles with food and self-image. It’s not a book about sexual identity, but Gabi manages to highlight to us the struggles that so many teens face as they try to learn about themselves. It’s not a book about being homosexual, but her friend’s struggles with his family show how difficult it is for some teens to come out to their loved ones. It’s not a book about teen pregnancy, but her friend Cindy’s struggles show what that path can look like for a young mother. It's not a book about addiction, but Gabi shows the way that addiction impacts the lives of loved ones. Through Gabi's eyes and voice, Quintero covers so many issues with humor, compassion, and authenticity.
In short (I realize this should be an ironic statement since this review keeps getting longer and longer...), I LOVED it, and it would be an invaluable addition to some of the more traditional canonical texts.
I recently attended two memorial services--both amazing, well-loved people we lost too soon. Although my husband and I have had the joy of bringing our amazing daughter into the world this year, it has been a year of loss for several families that we love. Those somber occasions have given me time to linger in the space where loss leaves us, and I've found myself searching for words of comfort for myself and for people I love.
I came across The Art of Losing, a compilation put together by poet Kevin Young, at a time in my life when I desperately needed some solace. The book spoke to me immediately, and it provided me with a reservoir of language that consoled my hurting heart. I've come back to that book many times over the years, and I've come to think of it as an old friend who's always there, undemanding but ready when needed.
The image on the cover still resonates with me. The ribbon wrapped around the book is breaking--the threads are unraveling as it rips apart. (Thanks to Goodreads for the image, where you can also read about the book.)
That is what grief is like for me. Unraveling. The tearing of threads that were once woven together. A rip that cannot be repaired.
We all grieve if we live long enough. And yet grief is so individual, so intense, so unique... so lonely. We all hurt differently, and that individuality can make the pain so much sharper. It can leave us feeling so lost and so alone.
It's in that space--in the quiet solitude of grief--that poetry can enter, and Kevin Young found and compiled poems that speak to all of the stages of grief. Young worked on the compilation after he lost his father and discovered the lack of writings and compilations that addressed grieving in a meaningful way. It's such a beautiful, thoughtful edition, and it can offer comfort in a way that few collections can.
Today is the ten year anniversary of my mother's death. There are dates that we remember but do not celebrate.
When my mother died, I felt so lost. I didn't know how to grieve, or how to let other people who loved me enter into the space of my pain. I remember lots of people said lots of consoling things, but many of them felt superficial. In my bitterness and hurt, I couldn't understand their kindness. However, I'll never forget one person's response. At the school where I had just begun teaching, a mentor there simply recited a poem to me. I can still remember that moment so clearly; it was more powerful during that difficult period than any of the words that people said to me. It was then that I truly discovered the power of poetry.
The poem is included in the compilation by Young. It's Theodore Roethke's villanelle, "The Waking":
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.
We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.
Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.
This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.
That moment will always stay with me. It's a reminder when I see others grieve that sometimes the simple beauty of poetry can be more comforting than the endless struggle to try to find the right words.
Sometimes there are no right words.
Kevin Young does an amazing job in his compilation of moving through the stages of grief, and the poems range in style and thematic elements. The sections are: Reckoning, Regret, Remembrance, Ritual, Recovery, and Redemption. The poems within each section suit the aspect of grief that the title indicates. There's also an excellent index by subject that can help those of us trying to find the right poem for someone we love who is hurting. In Young's introduction to the compilation, he thoughtfully articulates the tender way he put together the works. His opening line, "I have begun to believe in, and even to preach, a poetry of necessity," speaks to the power that poetry has to reach places that nothing else can. Though I hope that none of you find this particular necessity in your lives, this compilation is there for you (or your students) when you have the need.
I love this poem from the compilation that Kevin Young wrote himself about losing his father:
Behind his house, my father's dogs
sleep in kennels, beautiful,
he built just for them.
They do not bark.
Do they know he is dead?
They wag their tails
& head. They beg
& are fed.
Their grief is colossal
Each day they wake
seeking his voice,
By dusk they seem
to unremember everything --
to them even hunger
is a game. For that, I envy.
For that, I cannot bear to watch them
pacing their cage. I try to remember
they love best confined space
to feel safe. Each day
a saint comes by to feed the pair
& I draw closer
I've begun to think of them
as my father's own sons,
as kin. Brothers-in-paw.
My eyes each day thaw.
One day the water cuts off.
Then back on.
They are outside dogs --
which is to say, healthy
& victorious, purposeful
& one giant muscle
like the heart. Dad taught
them not to bark, to point
out their prey. To stay.
Were they there that day?
They call me
like witnesses & will not say.
I ask for their care
& their carelessness --
wish of them forgiveness.
I must give them away.
I must find for them homes,
sleep restless in his.
All night long I expect they pace
as I do, each dog like an eye
roaming with the dead
beneath an unlocked lid.
There's a nice NPR article about the compilation that I found when searching for the above poem online. You can listen to Young reading his poem "Bereavement," as well as another amazing poem, "Redemption Song," the title of which alludes powerfully to Bob Marley's legacy of hope and encouragement in difficult times.
For our students, as for us all, we need to provide a space for grief in our lives. Kevin Young's compilation might open the door for hard discussions, or it might give students a tool to wield when faced with the harsh reality of loss. It might remind them (and reawaken us to the fact) that we are here. We are listening.
This week, for the first time ever, I have the privilege of hosting a guest blogger. This post comes from Jen Moyers, a phenomenal teacher (and, even more importantly, an awesome person) I've had the pleasure of meeting and working with here in Virginia. This has been Jen's twelfth year teaching, and during this past school year, she taught Dual-Enrollment to seniors, Honors English 11, and English 11. She is innovative and creative in everything that she does, and she constantly tries new approaches and new technology. She inspires her colleagues as well as her students, and it is an honor to share her ideas about student blogging here on this site.
Here's Jen Moyers' Post:
Ironically, I suppose, this is my first blog post. Well, sort of. It’s my first “public” blog post that’s going on a for-real, accessible-to-everyone blog.
I have posted before, though, on a private blog that I maintain for my English 12 Dual Enrollment class. I have used this blog for the past five years to great effect with my DE seniors, for whom the blog becomes the repository for some of their best writing. I think it’s because I let them write in any way about any thing.
Normally, you see, I’m a bit of a control freak. I try to plan every moment of every class, every outcome of every assignment. With blogs, I finally started to let go . . . and it really worked. (I kind of hate exclamation points, or I’d use one here.)
Now, those student blogs have become something I look forward to reading, the way I truly get to know my students, the way that they develop their voices, the way they build confidence as writers. Often, I find myself teary-eyed, awed at the beauty with which a boy describes his first broken heart or the vulnerability with which a girl confesses her fears about graduating and leaving her friends. Oh, I suppose these topics sound hackneyed, clichéd, but for these kids, they’re reality . . . and they’re beautiful.
Even with blogs, I struggle with the details, with the control: Do I require them to post weekly? Do I give them a word count? Do I ask them to blog about something we’re discussing in class? Should they be public or password-protected? The more I use blogs, though, the more I realize that it’s the freedom of blogs that makes them empowering. Given the choice, most students will post throughout the grading period (there’s always a procrastinator or two, but—as I found out this year—even a weekly posting requirement won’t change that). I’ve found there’s something to be said for not worrying about the word count and just letting them express themselves. And, while I’m certainly open to their continuing a class discussion online, requiring them to do so doesn’t result in inspiration but in frustration (for them and for me).
So, my new school year’s resolution is this: Yes, we’re going to blog (and I’m expanding to all of my classes). Yes, the blogs will be public. Beyond that? Well, I’m going to hand over control to the students. That, after all, is what has made the blogging experience so successful thus far, so I’m trusting that it will only become better with increased ownership on their part.
* * * * *
This year, I taught 16 supremely talented students with vastly different voices, lives, and interests. I was running behind on my grading (as I have all year. Ah, the life of an English teacher), so I was reading their blogs during exam week while scrambling to come up with an idea for their end-of-year gift. Each year, I give my DE students something to commemorate our year together, to celebrate their graduation. Some years, I’ve made a movie using footage or photographs of our class; one year, for a class of seven, I made a photo album for each student with excerpts from their favorite writing for the year and with a word cloud of each of their names composed of a list of adjectives submitted by their classmates.
Anyway, this year, I had 16 students (so I couldn’t have expensive gifts) and not much time (so a film was out of the question—plus, I didn’t have footage or photos). As I read their blogs, stressing all the while about how best to say goodbye, I was blown away. They were gorgeous. I laughed, I cried, I beamed with pride. And I thought. About poetry, of all things. (And I’m definitely NOT a poet.) But their blogs—which were unique, completely disparate efforts—somehow seemed to be circling the same topics, the same accounts of their year, the same thoughts of looking back, and forward, of yearning to leave and yet recognizing what they were leaving.
So. I went through their blogs (some of them again—inspiration hit after I’d read through three or four students’ blogs). And I copied and pasted all of my favorite lines into a Word document. I ended up with six pages—about 160 separate “best lines”—of gorgeously written prose and poetry. I printed them out, sliced them up, and then started organizing, literally laying out the lines on my desk.
Disaster nearly struck with an unexpected cough (luckily, only a few lines sailed across my desk), but I finally had used MOST of the lines from students’ blogs. I typed them into yet another document, and then continued shifting, moving this idea here, that line there, until finally I had something that made sense, to me at least. I had labeled all of the lines with the students’ initials because I wanted part of their gift to be the way that they had come together unconsciously to form this (semi-)cohesive meditation on their senior years. I also wanted, however, the final poem to look “poemy,” so I re-saved, inserted some additional line breaks. And VOILA! (That exclamation point is warranted, I think.) I had a seven-page found poem written by all sixteen of my wonderful, lovely DE students.
I recorded an introduction so I could explain my process, then recorded myself reading the poem (‘cause the kids like to hear my voice—they love getting audio feedback on their essays a la Jim Burke). I then sent them (via Schoology, a site I highly recommend) the Word document versions of the final poem, the draft of the poem with the kids’ initials, and my two recordings. They loved it. It made them cry, which made me cry, which made me realize all over again how much I’ll miss them.
Anyway, this blog post is reaching epic proportions, and I haven’t even included the poem! (Sorry, Ashley.) All of this comes back to the main point: I use blogs with my classes. And I love it.
P.S. (from Ashley) Jen and I agreed to feature the poem on the writing portion of this site, and we also decided to include the audio of her reading the poem below. The text of the poem can be found here. I hope that it is inspirational for you; I know that it was for me. On the writing portion, there's another post about student blogs and Comments 4 Kids, an awesome site (and hashtag on twitter) that helps your students get more readers and comments. Jen also shared her assignment sheet with the rubric that she used this year (though, excellent teacher as she is, she plans to revise for next year). Enjoy!
In this honest, uplifting novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, Karen Finneyfrock does a phenomenal job of depicting the struggles and agony that many students experience during high school. At the end of Celia's eighth grade year, her best friend's mother removes her friend from the school in favor of homeschooling. Almost immediately thereafter, her parents announce that they are separating. The situation continues to worsen as Celia deals with bullying, the separation, and the difficulty of standing up for herself. She discovers poetry and finds that writing poetry becomes her only consolation in an increasingly lonely life.
Then she meets Drake, another freshman who just moved from NYC to live with his grandmother in Hershey, PA. They become friends and Drake reveals his own secret, one he had been too terrified to tell anyone before. But even their friendship cannot protect them from the cruelty of others and Celia and Drake both become targets for bullying as their world spirals out of control. They must take drastic measures to try to regain control in their fragile lives.
This novel illuminates the way that feelings of alienation and estrangement can consume you during those early teen years. With poignancy, humor, and compassion, Karen Finneyfrock forces readers to consider the role that we (teachers, parents, mentors, other teens) all play in helping teens become who they are and helping them find their way in the world.
Translation for Teen Readers and the Classroom: This book is excellent for students who are struggling to find friends and who feel alone. It's also good for students who are experiencing the separation of their parents. Additionally, students struggling with their sexuality and with the prospect of "coming out" to their friends and family will benefit from the honesty in this novel. While some districts may disapprove of classroom teaching of this novel because of the controversial issues such as homosexuality and suicide, the novel enables students to take a hard look at the impact of bullying. Finneyfrock reveals the power that words have to harm and to heal, and she shines a light on the reasons behind some of the seemingly irrational behaviors of teenagers. She unveils her characters' deepest secrets with compassion and tenderness while simultaneously showing how frightening it can be to admit vulnerability.
Classroom Project Idea: Celia learns much about herself, the world, and her future during her ninth grade year. Drawing on this narrative focus, I am having my freshmen students write a final project that will be advice to the incoming ninth graders. In addition to the writing piece, I will let them make signs and posters. We'll post their tips and ideas around the room so that it's the first thing that the incoming freshmen will see. Perhaps the words of their more experienced classmates will help ease them into the realm of high school, making them feel a little more comfortable and a little less afraid.
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 2019. 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.