Friday, June 28, 2013

Poetry Friday: Charles Simic

In the Library
by Charles Simic   

for Octavio

There's a book called
"A Dictionary of Angels."
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

You can read the rest of the poem here.

And here you can read Charles Simic's essay on why he still writes poetry.  It begins like this: 

When my mother was very old and in a nursing home, she surprised me one day toward the end of her life by asking me if I still wrote poetry. When I blurted out that I still do, she stared at me with incomprehension. I had to repeat what I said, till she sighed and shook her head, probably thinking to herself this son of mine has always been a little nuts. Now that I’m in my seventies, I’m asked that question now and then by people who don’t know me well. Many of them, I suspect, hope to hear me say that I’ve come my senses and given up that foolish passion of my youth and are visibly surprised to hear me confess that I haven’t yet. They seem to think there is something downright unwholesome and even shocking about it, as if I were dating a high school girl, at my age, and going with her roller-skating that night.

Amy has today's roundup here.

Monday, June 24, 2013

IRA Convention Highlights Post #9: Poetry and TRTW

I wrote here about the poetry session I attended on Monday. It was probably my favorite session of the whole conference, and it was a lot of fun to meet people I'd "known" for years on Poetry Friday. Amy VanDerwater posted a photo here.

The very last session was an excellent one on a teaching technique called TRTW: Talk, Read, Talk, Write.   You can see the handout here.

It took me almost two months after coming back from San Antonio to write these highlights posts, but I'm glad I did them, because going through my notes helped me remember the sessions.  The San Antonio conference was a lot of fun; I enjoyed getting to visit this beautiful city and the opportunity to learn about new books and how to introduce them to kids.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

IRA Convention Highlights Post #8: Mayor Castro of San Antonio, but Mostly Mo Willems

In the opening session on the last day of the IRA Convention, we heard two great speakers.  The first was the Mayor of San Antonio, Julián Castro.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if we hear more nationally from this talented young politician.  

The second speaker was Mo Willems, and I kind of feel as though I shouldn't tell you what he said.  That's because he started his talk by asking people not to take pictures or record him.  "We don't need to record it; we need to experience it.  If someone asks you what it was like, say, 'You missed it.'"  Consequently, Willems did a "photo shoot" where he pranced about on the stage and encouraged people to take pictures.  After that, he commanded everyone to put away their devices, and promised to "shame" anyone who didn't comply.  At intervals during his presentation, he would point fiercely at someone who was filming him or taking his picture and intone, "You are shamed!"  

So if you want to know what Mo Willems said to us, sorry, you missed it.  It was really great, though.  

OK, I'll tell you a few things he said.  He taught us how to draw the pigeon!  He said that life is pretty unpleasant for little kids, living in a world where all the furniture is made for someone bigger, and they have to get permission to go to the bathroom and get in trouble when they talk to people.  He said that the problem with Go, Dog. Go is that the poodle doesn't have any emotional life.  Willems has tried to avoid that problem in his own books, because, "Children have real emotional lives.  They're just newer than us."  He added a truth any parent can agree with: "Books are not meant to be read; books are meant to be read a billionty times."  Willems' books are read a billionty times by kids who love them, and teachers love him too; you should have seen the huge lines of teachers waiting to get their copies of his books autographed. 

Here's a little taste of Mo:


Friday, June 21, 2013

Poetry Friday: The Visitor

I just listened to this Poetry Magazine podcast, from November 2012, and heard a wonderful poem by Idra Novey called "The Visitor."  Novey lives in New York City, and apparently has many house guests.  She wrote a series of poems about the different visitors who stayed on her futon.  This one is special, though: this visitor has come to stay.  This visitor is her own child.

The Visitor
Idra Novey

Does no dishes, dribbles sauce
across the floor. Is more dragon
than spaniel, more flammable
than fluid. Is the loosening
in the knit of me, the mixed-fruit
marmalade in the kitchen of me.
Wakes my disco and inner hibiscus,
the Hector in the ever-mess of my Troy.

You can read the last four lines, and listen to Novey read the whole thing, here.  

This week I had to take my own Hector to the dentist several times, and had various other parenthood-related trials which I do not have my children's permission to reveal here. But in spite of all the work and effort and noise of kids, they really do "bring the joy."

Today's Poetry Friday roundup is here.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

IRA Convention Highlights Post #7: Dystopia and Adoption Literature

As I've commented several times, my favorite sessions at the IRA Convention are the author panels. In the dystopia panel I attended on Sunday, I hadn't read any of the authors, but I still enjoyed the conversation. The three authors were Marie Lu, D.J. MacHale and Susan Beth Pfeffer.

The last session I attended on Sunday was an overview of YA books about adoption.  Here's the description:
In this interactive session, presenters will share insights gained from analysis of 41 contemporary fiction YA books. For teachers seeking to make a difference with rich content for adolescent readers, adoption literature raises significant questions about what family structures and contexts are valued, who has power and choice in relationships, and how adolescents are positioned and viewed. Themes emerging from the analysis have relevance beyond the adoption topic, as individual books and recurring themes reveal related, often unexamined, assumptions about race, gender roles, class and privilege, sex and sexuality, religion, and the role of social context in personal development.
The presenter, Dr. Sue Christian Parsons, from Oklahoma State University, did an excellent job of discussing the themes in these books, and the way each member of the adoption triad - child, birth parents, adoptive parents - is presented. It looks as though the handout, and list of novels, isn't included on the IRA site. I had only read two of the books, Three Black Swans, by Caroline Cooney, and Carpe Diem, by Autumn Cornwell. (I enjoyed the first, reviewed here, less than I have other Cooney books, and thought the second was excellent.  I reviewed it here.)   In both cases, I had rather uncritically accepted the stereotypical portrayals of the members of the triad, just as the presenter said that readers often do. Parsons called for YA novels that contain more nuanced portrayals of adoptions. When it comes to adoption (and many other topics), I recognize that I very much need education from those who know a lot more than I do. I remember, when I was in my early 20s, spending time with a mother and her adopted daughter. I asked some blundering question using the words, "real mother." My friend very gently and respectfully said to me, "We don't use the words 'real mother' in this house." Then she gave me some alternative language to use. I cringe now to think that I would have been so insensitive, but I am thankful for the opportunity to learn better ways. This session was part of my ongoing education, and I am going to seek out more of these books to read with a more critical lens. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Book #24: Middlemarch

I finally finished Middlemarch. While I found it a little slow going at first, by the end I couldn't put the book down, wanting so much to know what would happen to Mary, Rosamund, and - especially - Dorothea.

I loved the way George Eliot shows us the innermost workings of relationships.  Dorothea is an unforgettable character, and the contrast between her and Rosamund is particularly compelling.  For example, Rosamund sees men as conquests.  As a newlywed, she is thrilled by the idea of ensnaring another man, not because she wants to have an affair with him, but just because she loves having power over men.  Dorothea, on the other hand, has many relationships with men during the course of the novel, and she is able to connect with them on an entirely different level from Rosamund's, as complex people and not as prizes to be won.  Here is Lydgate towards the end of the book reflecting on Dorothea:
"'She seems to have what I never saw in any woman before -- a fountain of friendship towards men -- a man can make a friend of her.'"
And yet there's nothing so crude in the book as making Rosamund evil and Dorothea good; Eliot deals with both characters with great compassion, so that as readers we feel deeply sympathetic to both.

We're permitted to witness several marriages close-up, and to see a variety of ways of interacting, not just in the main characters, but in others, too: the Bulstrodes, the elder Garths.  Each character is finely drawn; there's not a stereotype in the bunch.  We see how these people deal with courtship, marriage, friendship, work, debt, change in society, illness, religion, and whatever else can fit into 850 pages (hint: it's a lot).

I now have a new answer for that parlor game that asks which people, living or dead, you'd like to have dinner with.  George Eliot must have been a fascinating person.  I read a little bit about her life, and the way she flouted the expectations of society at every turn.  I think there must be a little of Eliot in Dorothea; although Dorothea lives a very moral life, with no scandalous behavior like that of Eliot, she has such a wonderful, refreshing lack of concern about what people think of her.   I am sure Eliot must have been the same.  I would love to discuss this book with its creator.

Meanwhile, I found this fun Australian TV book club discussion about the book.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Walter Brueggemann Podcast

I listened earlier this week to this lovely interview with Walter Brueggemann. Some excerpts:

Ms. Tippett: . . . I ask you to be a teacher, who were the prophets? What were they about and what's particular about that piece of the Bible?

Mr. Brueggemann: Well, I think they were — the two things that are important, it seems to me, on the one hand, they were rooted in the covenantal traditions of whatever it was from Moses and Sinai and all of that. The other thing is that they are completely uncredentialed and without pedigree, so they just rise up in the landscape. The way I put it now is that they imagined their contemporary world differently according to that old tradition. So it's tradition and imagination. There's no way to explain that, so we explain it by the work of the spirit, but I don't think you have to say that. I just think they are moved the way every good poet is moved to have to describe the world differently according to the gifts of their insight. And, of course, in their own time and every time since, the people that control the power structure do not know what to make of them, so they characteristically try to silence them. What power people always discover is that you cannot finally silence poets. They just keep coming at you in threatening and transformative ways.
         * * *
Mr. Brueggemann: The other text I'll read is Isaiah 43. It's a very much-used passage. "Do not remember the former things nor consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" And apparently, what he's telling his people is just forget about the Exodus, forget about all the ancient miracles, and pay attention to the new miracles of rebirth and new creation that God is enacting before your very eyes. I often wonder when I read that, what was it like the day the poet got those words and what did it feel like and how did he share that? Of course, we don't know any of that, so it just keeps ringing in our ears.

Ms. Tippett: You and I were together this morning at a gathering of preachers. I think that both of those themes that you named, you know, what feels like chaos. But then the hope that — and I think even an insistence that this must somehow give rise to new forms. The fact that we don't know how the world is going to be structured differently — you know, what will survive that we recognize — makes it still stressful even if it's hopeful.

Mr. Brueggemann: That's right. But the amazing contemporaneity of this material is that the issues are the same, that the world we have trusted in is vanishing before our eyes and the world that is coming at us feels like a threat to us and we can't quite see the shape of it. I think that is kind of where the church and the preachers of the church have to live, and people don't much want to hear either one of those words, that the world is vanishing or that a new world is coming to us, which is why this kind of poetry always leaves us uneasy, I think.

Ms. Tippett: But I think that you also think that that unease is a holy thing, or can be a holy thing, that, in fact, the Bible calls the faithful not to be too settled and too comfortable.

Mr. Brueggemann: I think that's exactly right.
         * * * 
Ms. Tippett: A word you've used a lot recently, maybe you always used it, I think it echoes in what you wrote, but it's "disruptive."

Mr. Brueggemann: Well, that's more recent in my very limited vocabulary.

Ms. Tippett: Well, tell me about that evolution. Tell me about that word. Again, I don't think that's a word we associate in American culture with religion or the Bible or churches.

Mr. Brueggemann: Yeah, well, I think we think in terms of systems and continuities and predictability and schemes and plans. I think the Bible is to some great extent focused on God's capacity to break those schemes open and to violate those formulae. When they are positive disruptions, the Bible calls them miracles. We tend not to use that word when they are negative, but what it means is that the reality of our life and the reality of God are not contained in most of our explanatory schemes. And whether one wants to explain that in terms of God or not, it is nonetheless the truth of our life that our lives are arenas for all kinds of disruptions because it doesn't work out the way we planned. I think our recent economic collapse is a huge disruption for many people who had their retirement mapped out or whatever like that, and it isn't going to be like that. What the Bible pretty consistently does is to refer all of those disruptions to the hidden power of God.
         * * * 
Ms. Tippett: I'd love to talk about your image of God, and I want you to talk about that more personally. But I thought I might start, you know, for example, in one of your sermons, you are talking about some poetry, Isaiah, and you talk about that it offers five images for God. This is just one — (laughter) one passage in Isaiah: "A demolition squad, a safe place for poor people who have no other safe place, the giver of the biggest dinner party you ever heard of, the powerful sea monster he will swallow up death forever, a gentle nursemaid who will wipe away every tear from all faces." How are normal people, not biblical scholars, how are they to make sense of a text like that? Of a God — who God is?

Mr. Brueggemann: Well, they're going to make sense of it if they have good preachers and teachers to help them pause long enough to take in the imagery. But you see, what the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation and then it's deathly. So we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that is healthier than that, you're going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame. Otherwise, you're just going to be left with these dead formulation, which, again, is why the poetry is so important because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening so more metaphors gives more access to God and one can work one metaphor awhile, but you can't treat that as though that's the last word. You got to move and have another and another. That's what I think. It's just amazing. In Isaiah, Jeremiah, Josiah, there are just endless metaphors.
         * * *
You can listen to the whole conversation here.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

IRA Conference Highlights Post #6: Middle School Projects

If you've been reading these highlights posts, you'll know that I tend to gravitate towards the sessions where novelists are talking about what they write. But I did also attend some teaching sessions, and this one was really excellent. It was presented by middle school teacher Alexandria Gibb-Lucas, and it detailed how she uses projects with her reading students.

Her students do four projects a year, innovative projects which they create themselves. She calls these 4 Cs projects, standing for Content, Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication. What was so good about this presentation was that Gibb-Lucas has clearly done this many times with actual students, and she has thought of everything: the benefits, the problems, the whines you will hear from your students and how to respond to them. She was dynamic, encouraging, and realistic.

You can find her handouts and her Power Point at the IRA website, here.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Poetry Friday: Turtles

This will be a turtle-y post in honor of our new turtle, Bruno.  Actually his/her (?) name with the previous owners was Smyrtle, and I did argue with my children about the advisability of changing the name, so my son retained Smyrtle as a middle name.  I'm not sure if Bruno Smyrtle is happy in this new environment, but s/he tolerantly put out his/her head and let me take a photo (you can see my hands and camera reflected in the water). 

The small Bruno Smyrtle couldn't be more different from the turtle I saw in the news a couple of weeks ago, the one who washed up on Butler Beach, in Florida.

Kay Ryan imagines that it isn't much fun to be a turtle.

Kay Ryan

Who would be a turtle who could help it?
A barely mobile hard roll, a four-oared helmet,
she can ill afford the chances she must take
in rowing toward the grasses that she eats.
Her track is graceless, like dragging
a packing-case places, and almost any slope
defeats her modest hopes.

You can read the rest of this poem here.

Russell Edson has a more fanciful view:

The Adventures of a Turtle
Russell Edson

The turtle carries his house on his back. He is both the house and the person of that house.
But actually, under the shell is a little room where the true turtle, wearing long underwear, sits at a little table. At one end of the room a series of levers sticks out of slots in the floor, like the controls of a steam shovel. It is with these that the turtle controls the legs of his house.

You can read the rest of that one here.

And here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

IRA Convention Highlights Post #5: National Ambassadors for Young People's Literature

I always enjoy the author panels, and this one was exceptionally good, because all three of the National Ambassadors for Young People's Literature, the current one and the two emeriti, were in the same room. Here you can see pictures of and information about all three of them. The first one was Jon Sciezka, followed by Katherine Paterson, and the current holder of the title is Walter Dean Myers.  They were great fun to listen to, and obviously enjoyed sharing the stage.  Someone asked what a good collective noun for ambassadors would be, and Sciezka suggested "an embarrassment of ambassadors." 

The NAYPL is appointed by the Librarian of Congress.   John Sciezka was happy to be the first one in 2008-2009 because he got to make up the rules, and also because the job came with a medal, which he made sure to wear everywhere.  Katherine Paterson, on the other hand, confessed that she could never remember to bring her medal.  The stated purpose of the NAYPL is "to raise national awareness of the importance of young people’s literature as it relates to lifelong literacy, education and the development and betterment of the lives of young people."

Each of these authors brought a very different sensibility to the job, as you'd expect given that one wrote The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, one wrote Jacob Have I Loved, and one wrote Fallen Angels. It sounds as though Sciezka had the most fun. He did a lot of traveling with David Shannon, and the two of them behaved a lot like middle school boys, albeit very charming and literate ones. They taught kids special arm gestures to greet ambassadors, and at one school the kids made up a fanfare for them. Sciezka's mission was to get kids excited about reading, and his books accomplish that, big-time. His website Guys Read is full of ideas for getting guys, particularly, to read. Reluctant readers, he says, quoting a kid's response to a parent, may just be "picky readers."  Engaging books will make the difference.  He encourages parents to be good role models and let their kids see them reading, and also not to demonize other media. He also suggests letting kids read what interests them and what they enjoy. He has the distinction of being the only NAYPL to be invited on Martha Stewart's show, where she told him that she had a great idea for encouraging reading: "They could close caption all TV shows, and then kids could read TV." Apparently that was the last of her great ideas because neither Paterson nor Myers ever received an invitation.

Katherine Paterson's slogan for her tenure as NAYPL was "Read for your life."  She told a story about being given $13,000 to give away after she won the Hans Christian Andersen medal.  She decided to give it to a friend in Venezuela for use with children after the mudslides there, and the friend used the money to create areas where children had stories read to them.  Later this led to an organization called Leer para Vivir (Read to Live).  She talked about how volunteers read her book  Bridge to Terabithia to children who had just lost everything. At the place in the book where the rains start, the reader stopped, thinking this was too reminiscent of the recent trauma everyone had been through. Paterson described the conversation: "Shall I stop reading?" "Yes." Long pause. "No." Ultimately, reading about someone else helped these children, who cried over the death of a fictional North American character. Anyone who has been reading my blog for a while will know that my mind went immediately to our experience here in Haiti after the earthquake, and the way reading so often helps us cope with life. I thought of the story I told in this post, about a student who was at school after the earthquake, and without permission went into my classroom and took books. She told me after I got home, and apologized, but I completely understood. Sometimes you just need books. Paterson understands this. Unlike Sciezka, who is at home with new media, Paterson is a little scornful of it. "Our democracy's not going to survive on twits and tweeters," she commented. She also talked about the benefits of writing children's books for many years. Now, when she comes out with a new book, the interviewers know her because they read her books when they were children.

Walter Dean Myers, the current NAYPL, uses the slogan "Reading is Not Optional." He foresees a literacy disaster coming, with a growing number of kids who don't read at all and whole neighborhoods where nobody reads. He said that kids who can't read and are trying to compete in the job market are like Myers himself going into the ring with Mike Tyson. His approach to reading is less about transport into other worlds and more about cold, hard reality. "Read or you're going to suffer." Our society shouldn't be silent about this "national disgrace." What is happening now in terms of intervention for kids who don't read isn't working. Myers said he goes to many prisons, and often hears inmates say, "I remember you. You came to my grammar school."  Myers is using his NAYPL platform to draw attention to what he sees as a dire situation.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Dangers of Living in Haiti

Many people are scared to come to Haiti.  It's not surprising; if you read what the State Department has to say about the country, you'll be scared too.  But our friend John McHoul wrote a post back in January about some of the more insidious dangers of living here long-term.  To balance my post from yesterday about the benefits of being people who stay, I thought I'd share his wisdom with you.

John isn't scared of anything, so it surprised me to see him writing about danger. I taught both his children, and I well remember his son saying dejectedly, "It doesn't matter what happens; my parents aren't leaving." John and Beth are the ultimate "people who stay," and have been here much longer than I have.  They've lived through coups, embargos, hurricanes, evacuations, robberies.  Beth was caught outside Haiti when the earthquake happened, and she got back here as soon as she could.  So the dangers John is writing about are not the same ones the State Department sees.

Some of the dangers of living in Haiti, John says, are:
Becoming numb to the cries of the poor.
Not being moved to anger and compassion at the conditions in which many people live.
Looking but not seeing.
Hearing but not listening.
Seeing what is but not what can be.
You can read the rest of the post here.  

I wrestle with the line between becoming hardened to the suffering and poverty of this country and the other extreme, a perpetual state of grieving for how difficult life is for so many.  There's a certain level of self-protection I have cultivated, so that I no longer stand at my gate listening to people's stories and crying.  I just can't; I wouldn't be able to live here if I remained that way.  But I wonder sometimes if I have ended up instead in the middle of some of the dangers John talks about.

Bonus: here's a post about Beth.

IRA Conventions Highlights Post #4: Debbie Silver and LeVar Burton

In the opening session on Sunday, we heard two speakers: Debbie Silver, author of Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed, and LeVar Burton, star and executive producer of PBS' Reading Rainbow. (Yeah, I think he was in some other stuff too, but clearly at IRA it is his Reading Rainbow connections that we value.)

Debbie Silver's book is about the fact that kids - well, people of all ages - learn by failing. Instead of trying to protect children from any kind of negative experiences, we should be encouraging them to take risks, and yes, sometimes to fail. We need to keep raising the bar so that they can learn resiliency. School is a place to practice and to learn. Over time, we can all "fail better," making incremental progress towards mastery. Silver is a humorous presenter. She's also a songwriter, and she shared some of her music with us, too.

I was very excited about hearing LeVar Burton.  Reading Rainbow was a big favorite with my kids when they were younger.  But I'm sorry to say that it didn't take long before I started to get the impression that Burton was winging it.  He had so many potentially great stories, but didn't develop any of them.  For example, he mentioned a few of his own teachers, like Gene Roddenberry,  Fred Rogers, and Alex Haley.  Now that is a talk I'd like to hear.  But he didn't go beyond just a couple of remarks, and given how young the audience was, I'm not sure they even knew who the first and the third of those guys are.  He started to talk about what it was like to be on Star Trek, but didn't elaborate.  He talked a little bit about his mother and how she raised him to be a reader, but again didn't follow up.  He kept almost wrapping up and then not.  Burton has a wonderful stage presence, a great voice, and amazing stories to tell.  Somehow he just didn't tell those stories. 

Here's highlight post number one, here's highlights post number two, and here's highlights post number three.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

People who Stay

My husband has been coming home with some odd objects lately. A wooden tray, some tools, some half-empty bags of rice. But most of all, spices. Bags of little glass and plastic jars of spices. As I was putting another few plastic containers of curry powder and seasoning salt on the kitchen shelf today, I suddenly realized: we're now the people who stay.

We never set out to be people who stay; when we first moved to Haiti it was for two years, and then we'd go off to some other exotic locale, spending our lives traveling the world.  That was our ambition in our twenties, before children.  As MKs, we feared settling down, accumulating possessions, being monocultural.  We would always move on, we thought.  There was too much world out there to choose one place to be.

I remember how scary it felt the first time my husband signed a multi-year contract.  But then, how freeing it was not to have to think it through at the end of every year.  Would we stay or would we go?  No, now I knew.  We'd stay.

One of my brothers' friends used to call my parents' home the House o' Condiments, because every time one of us siblings left for overseas or for a new home, we'd take all our half-empty ketchup containers, soy sauce bottles, and spice containers to their house.  When you're at the end stages of moving, the point where you want to take all your belongings and put them on the street with a sign marked "Free," there always seem to be spices left.

And now we're the ones collecting spices, little remainders at the bottom of jars.  We'll have lived in this house twelve years this November.  I've never lived anywhere that long; I've never even lived in the same country that long without interruption.  When you add up all our time in Haiti, not counting those interruptions in the US, it's been about seventeen years. 

Sometimes it stinks to be the people who stay.  To be the ones left behind when others are moving on to exciting new lives.  To say goodbye, again and again and again.

But then, there are the spices.  The memories that linger, mixed into our weird fusion food, Japanese and Indian and Haitian and whatever other influences we've picked up.  The stories we tell.  The phrases that creep into the language we speak at home, mostly English but with Kreyol and Japanese and Kipsigis and Spanish and Texan words here and there.

And along with the spices, there's some perspective, some experience gained.  I used to panic at each negative news story about Haiti, wondering what was next.  Now I barely notice them.  I just live my everyday life, show up in my classroom each day, collect year after year, class after class.  I don't know everything about Haiti; in fact, in many ways I feel like I know a lot less than when I first got here.  I can't generalize about very much.  But I know I love the tastes and smells and sounds of this place (most of them); I know this is where I live. 

We may not be here forever.  Who knows when it will be our turn to move again?  Who knows what may displace us?  If I didn't know that my plans can be disrupted in an instant (and I had already had plenty of other opportunities to know it), I learned it once and for all during the earthquake.  But for now, it feels pretty good to be people who stay, people collecting spices, becoming a one-of-a-kind expat House o' Condiments of our own.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

IRA Convention Highlights Post #3: Author Panel

The next session I attended was about the YA Choice Awards, which, as the name suggests, are voted on by young people.  In between the announcements, four YA authors presented their answer to the question of how their books were making a difference.  (The theme of the convention was "Celebrating Teachers Making A Difference.") You can find an annotated list of the books chosen here, so I won't dwell on that, but I will tell you a little bit about what the authors had to say. I learned last year that my favorite sessions are the author presentations, and this one was not a disappointment.

The first author we heard from was Ruta Sepetys. I've read both her novels and reviewed them here and here. Sepetys talked about her genre, historical fiction, and the "search for story." She started writing books because of wanting to find her own family story. Studies show that kids who know a lot about their families do better in traumatic situations; knowing your own history can create a "stronger intergenerational self." She talked about the paths she traveled to find out her family past, since the only person alive who knew about it had dementia. The nearly miraculous discovery of a trunk full of letters set her on her way. The result of that search was Between Shades of Gray, a story about a Lithuanian family beginning in 1939. Sepetys talked about how this book has been received, with readers in different countries seeing different themes in its pages. It has just been illegally published in Iran, and Sepetys was invited to speak about her story at the European parliament, where a delegate expressed amazement that he had learned about history and its effect on current events through a book for young adults. Switching from Lithuania and Siberia in the 40s to New Orleans in the 50s may seem a stretch, but Sepetys explained that when her father came to the United States, he saw pain everywhere. Exploring this idea led her to write her second book, Out of the Easy. Again in this book, themes of family are important. Sepetys concluded that "when you find yourself in a book, the world is a little less lonely."

On a lighter note, in the question time at the end, someone asked Sepetys what we were all thinking: how did it affect her that her book's title is so close to another recent book about shades of gray?  She admitted that sometimes people who show up for her book signings are confused, and also revealed that she was invited to do a joint radio interview with E.L. James, the other shades of gray person (not going to link you), and was very disappointed when James herself didn't show up, but was spliced in later from a tape. 

Next was Sharon Flake, whose book  The Skin I'm In is popular among my students. She talked in this presentation about working on her book Pinned, a story about a struggling reader who is also a wrestler. While Flake was writing the book, she too struggled. Most of her books have come easily, she said, but this one took more than five years to write, and was very difficult. She read a few excerpts from the book, which sounds very much worth picking up.

I hadn't heard of Susanne Colasanti before,  but it turns out that many of my students have been reading her.


This video shows an interview with Colasanti, talking about her latest book, All I Need, and you can see her fun and quirky personality. I haven't read any of her books yet, but from what my students say, it appears that this personality comes out in what she writes. Interestingly, Colasanti's own teen years were not fun. She says it was important to her to be an optimist, because as a kid she knew that things were the worst they would ever be in her life. She now does presentations in schools to encourage teenagers that there are things they can control.

I heard the fourth author,  Matt de la Peña, at last year's convention and I was excited to get to hear him again. He talked about how young working class males learn to be men by observing violence, and they come to define themselves that way, in addition to the negative definitions placed on them by parents, teachers, and others. He also talked a bit about the situation where his own books and those by other Latino writers were removed from schools in Arizona, quoting Junot Diaz, who said the quickest way to create monsters is never to show kids a reflection of themselves in literature. You can read more about current issues he's involved with here.

Here's highlight post number one, and here's highlights post number two.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

IRA Convention Highlights Post #2: Genre and Danny Brassell

The first smaller session I went to was called "Exploring Genre Within the Reading Workshop."  You can see the description and handouts here.  The presenters taught an inquiry process for helping kids to learn the characteristics of a specific genre.  The handouts include a chart that you can use as a whole class and/or in the students' Reading Notebooks.  This was a useful and interesting presentation. 

The session I had planned to attend next had apparently been cancelled, and the room for my alternate choice was empty as well.  I blundered into the first open room I could find, and there I heard the funny and dynamic Danny Brassell.  (That link is to his Facebook page; his website is here.)  The theme of the session was "Building School and Home Connections," and Brassell was an incredibly engaging presenter.  I filled four pages of notes with his fun ideas about encouraging risk-taking, making reading fun, helping kids to discover knowledge for themselves, and choosing exciting books.  He praised J.K. Rowling, Will Hobbs (who was Brassell's seventh grade reading teacher, in addition to being a YA author), Wayne Logue (the creator of Wordtoons), Stephen Krashen, and Jim Trelease.  He booktalked a whole list of interesting books, old and new.  He used every single second of his time, and then took our email addresses and sent us a huge pdf a few days later.  I'm glad I accidentally went to this session!  

Here's highlight post number one.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Poetry Friday: Dropping Keys

Tabatha, who is hosting the Poetry Friday roundup today, shared a poem a few weeks ago that I can't get out of my mind. I've had it on my desktop since I first read it. My comment on her post was, "This poem takes my breath away," and it does.

I'm sure there are many possible ways this poem could resonate with a reader, but to me the poem is about teaching, giving people tools to rescue themselves. There's a time for forceful Hollywood-style rescues, where you rush in, guns blazing, and remove captives from the danger they are in, but much more often, people need to rescue themselves, and all a teacher can do is give them keys. Not even give, in the sense of handing over explicitly, but like the poem says, drop them. You don't even always know that what you're dropping is a key, and you hardly ever know exactly how the recipient will use it. As a teacher (or a parent or a friend or whatever the role), am I locking people up more tightly, or am I dropping keys?

 Here's the poem:

Dropping Keys
by Hafiz

the small man
builds cages
for everyone
While the sage,
who has to duck his head
when the moon is low,
keeps dropping keys all night long
for the beautiful

Here's another link to today's roundup.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

IRA Convention Highlights Post #1: Rick Riordan

In my IRA convention highlights post last year, I bemoaned the fact that it had taken me a week to get around to writing it. This year, it's been more than a month since I got back from San Antonio and I still haven't put fingers to keyboard and written about what I heard at the conference.  I'm relying on my notes more than my memory at this point, but here goes.  This post will be the first of a series.

In the main opening session on Saturday, we heard Rick Riordan, author of the wildly successful Percy Jackson series, much beloved by many of my students. The title of his talk was "Reading Myths and the Myths of Reading." He began by comparing his previous appearance at IRA, in 2005, after The Lightning Thief had just come out.  He claimed that there were only fifteen people in the room to hear him then, and the huge conference hall full of thousands of people testified to the fame his Percy Jackson books have brought him.  He peppered his talk with one-liners; for example, he said that prior to writing the Percy Jackson books, he wrote murder mysteries, but once he quit teaching, he quit contemplating murder.  Riordan (pronounced REAR-don, by the way; I'd been saying it wrong for years) told us three reasons to read mythology and three myths about reading. The reasons to read mythology were:
  • 1.  It has something for everyone.  Riordan is still finding myths, and they include examples of everything we deal with in modern life.  He is working on a book of myths told from Percy Jackson's point of view; he's returned to the original sources: Ovid and Hesiod.  He gave the example of the the story of Arisicthon, which he called a classic story of addiction.
  •  2. It is especially good for kids in the middle grades.  Just as toddlers are drawn to stories about dinosaurs and construction equipment, powerful icons for children with very little power, so middle schoolers are drawn to stories of beings that are half mortal and half divine, because middle schoolers themselves are between worlds.  
  • 3. Mythology helps understand life.  
 The myths about reading were:
  • 1.  Reading is dying.  Riordan cited the attendance at his events and the enthusiasm for authors in general to debunk the idea that kids no loner read.
  • 2.  One book fits all.  Kids need books that are as individual as they are.  Riordan gave credit to J.K. Rowling for starting a huge renaissance of children's literature, helping to provide a "buffet" of books kids can choose from.
  • 3.  Some kids are just reluctant readers.  Riordan insists that it takes "one good teacher and one good book" to change a reluctant reader into an eager reader.
 Take a look at Riordan's website here

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Reading Update

It's been two months since my last book review (well, except for the one-book post I published yesterday), but I have been reading.  

Book #16 of this year was Ashen Winter, by Mike Mullin, the sequel to Ashfall. This second in a trilogy continues the adrenaline-filled, heart-thumping story begun in the first book (reviewed here) with the eruption of the volcano that underlies Yellowstone National Park.  Like the first book, this one is almost unbearably intense, but also very realistic.  That might seem a strange thing to say, given that it includes roving gangs of cannibals, but in the terrifying, post-apocalyptic setting, I did find this believable.  Alex's growing relationship with Darla is also realistically portrayed, as is the disbelief from adults around him that their love is something real and lasting.  While there is sexuality in the book, it was refreshing to me to see a teenage male presented as motivated by love and loyalty, and he even resists temptation, instead of blindly following his sexual impulses.  This book really is the stuff of nightmares, so I'd exercise caution with sensitive kids.

Book #17 was  Naked Reading: Uncovering What Tweens Need to Become Lifelong Readers, by Teri Lesesne. This book discusses middle schoolers and their reading habits, or lack thereof. It is full of great ideas for getting kids to enjoy reading, including alternatives to book reports and lists of high-interest titles. The naked reading of the title refers to the author's granddaughter, who was sneaking time to read while getting ready for her bath. Lesesne wants to help us get all middle schoolers to the stage where they are sneaking time to read instead of needing us to force them to read. This was a quick, helpful, and very encouraging read.

Book #18 was a free download for my Kindle, The Most Important Thing Happening: A Novel in Stories, by Mark Steele. I downloaded it because the author is a Veggie Tales writer, and I am a big Veggie Tales fan from way back, having enjoyed them along with my kids, probably more than my kids did in some cases. This book is very clever and thought-provoking, with its view of free will and choice and how it fits in with the "author" of everything. Each story is bizarre and weird, and at the end they all fit together. I wanted to reread it as soon as I was done, since I felt I missed some of the connections along the way (possibly because I read it over quite a long period of time, whenever I had a few free minutes in my classroom). I expect to see more from this author.

Book #19 was Rachel Held Evans' A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master". I have been reading Evans' blog for a while, and I very much appreciate the fearless way she attacks difficult issues, her ability to bring in many voices to a discussion, and her sense of humor. Like me, she grew up in the evangelical church, and like me, she has wrestled with many of the church's prescriptions for women. She decided she would take a year and study what the Bible really says to women, and then attempt to live it out as literally as possible. While this sounds gimmicky (and before the book even came out, she was being criticized for mocking the scriptures), her style is so engaging and honest that you end up enjoying the ride with her. I recommend this book, and even bought it for my mother for Mother's Day.

Book #20Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke, was a disappointment.  While there were some great passages, I had already read most of them quoted elsewhere.  The rest of the book was fairly muddled, abstract, and confusing, I thought.  However, I could imagine how thrilling it must have been for the recipient of these letters, spread out over years, and written with such close attention to the questions asked by the young poet.  Do you remember what it used to be like to get letters in the mail?  It's an experience younger people won't have, and getting an email isn't at all the same thing.  Email is wonderful, don't get me wrong, but there's just something about a letter on paper.

Book #21 was one I picked up at the IRA conference.  It's the second novel by Ruta Sepetys, whose first book, Between Shades of Gray, I reviewed here. (Yeah, it's not THAT Shades of Gray book.)  This one is called Out of the Easy, and is completely different from the first. This one is the story of Josie Moraine, the seventeen-year-old daugher of a prostitute who works in a brothel in New Orleans. Her mother is heartless and not at all maternal, but Josie has many complicated relationships with others who care for her. I enjoyed the character development here, and found the book believable and unpredictable, all the way to the satisfying ending.   I really enjoyed hearing this author speak at the conference and look forward to more of her books in the future.

Book #22 was from last IRA conference, but I hadn't read it until now.  It's called The Drama Years: Real Girls Talk About Surviving Middle School - Bullies, Brands, Body Image, and More, and it's written by Haley Kilpatrick, who founded the organization Girl Talk. Kilpatrick has a threefold plan to help girls who are in middle school, and it makes a lot of sense to me. The components are an "anchor activity," something the girl is good at and enjoys outside of school, a "helping hand," meaning that the girl is involved in volunteering, and an "adopted older sister," meaning a high school aged mentor. Girl Talk trains these mentors and holds regular meetings where the girls can talk honestly about what's going on in their lives. The book goes into a lot of detail about what it's like to be a middle school girl today (the publication date is 2012). There are quotes from middle school girls, from the mentors, and from parents. This is full of great insight for parents and teachers, and includes a lengthy list of resources for further study. Check out the organization's website here.

Book #23 was Anne Lamott's Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith. This was my least favorite of all her books that I've read, but there were still wonderful gems in it. The essay I liked best was one called "Samwheel," about her complicated relationship with her teenaged son. I loved this:
"I dozed off again, and when I woke up, he was asleep, the dog on the floor beside him. He was sweating - he always gets hot when he sleeps. He used to nap on this same couch with his head on my legs and ask me to scratch it, and before that, he would crawl into bed beside me and kick off all the covers, and earlier still, he would sleep on my stomach and chest like a hot water bottle. He and the dog were both snoring. Maybe I had been, too, all of us tangled in one another's dreams.
Everything in the room stirred: dust and light, dander and fluff, the air - my life still in daily circulation with this guy I have been resting with for so many years."

I am still plugging away at Middlemarch, and enjoying it more than "plugging away at" makes it sound. Hope to be back again with more reviews before two months go by!  

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Book Review

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis wrote, "When the two people who thus discover that they are on the same secret road are of different sexes, the friendship which arises between them will very easily pass - may pass in the first half-hour - into erotic love.  Indeed, unless they are physically repulsive to each other or unless one or both already loves elsewhere, it is almost certain to do so sooner or later." 

Surely I can't be the only Christian woman who has spent a lot of time thinking about this quote.  I read that book as a teenager, and while there are other parts in the book that suggest that a non-romantic friendship is possible between a man and a woman, this is the passage that stuck with me.  Have other Christian women ever had a conversation including the words, "I don't find you physically repulsive," or is that just me?  

Over the last few years, I have thought more and more about this whole issue of how men and women interact with each other.  It seems that in literature, popular culture, and even in the church, there are two possibilities: romance or danger.  Even in the Bible, I saw women presented as temptresses, luring men into sin.  You could be, one teacher suggested, either a Proverbs 31 woman (superwoman wife) or a Proverbs 7 woman (loose woman).  There wasn't really another way to be with men.

Last fall I read this article that suggested that female professors in Christian colleges are the victims of a kind of "benevolent sexism."  One of the reasons posited for this is that women don't get included in social gatherings of men, largely because the men see the women as dangerous; they are afraid of getting too close to women in a professional context because of the danger of sexual impropriety or infidelity.  (It's certainly possible that this fear goes both ways.)  This wasn't my experience working in a Christian college; I felt accepted and included by my male colleagues and enjoyed professional conversation with them.  (Then again, maybe they just found me physically repulsive!  I never asked!)  However, in other contexts, I have seen this dynamic of men and women being afraid of each other, this idea that men and women can be romantically involved and that's about the only kind of connection they can have.

I encountered this myself when hearing sermons about how men and women shouldn't spend time together, shouldn't ride in cars alone together, shouldn't eat meals alone together, shouldn't talk about deep issues.  Was I wrong, I wondered, to do all these things, with my husband's full knowledge and blessing, with a close male friend?  I talked to my husband about it and he assured me that I had no reason to feel guilty, but hey, when it comes to guilt, I don't need much of a reason.  I grew up evangelical, after all.

From reading Jonalyn Fincher's blogs (The Art of Friendship and Ruby Slippers), I learned about a book called Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions: Engaging the Mystery of Friendship Between Men and Women, by Dan Brennan.  Brennan has done research on cross-sex friendships throughout Christian history and found that there are many.  A whole chapter details fascinating examples, many between men and women living in monastic communities.  It has not always and everywhere been assumed that men and women can't be friends, as Harry famously tells Sally in "When Harry Met Sally," "because the sex part always gets in the way."  Brennan talks in some detail about how our views of the opposite sex have been warped by a cultural acceptance of Freud's ideas, which sexualize almost every relationship between men and women, even in families.  Even though Freud is not accepted in psychological circles any more, his influence continues.  When men and women say they are "just friends" (and what a phrase, trivializing deep relationships!), they are often told they are kidding themselves; "What's really going on?"

Not only does Brennan, who has been married for more than thirty years and whose wife wrote the foreword to this book, state that this type of friendship can exist, he argues that it ought to exist in the Christian community.  Scripture calls us to view each other as brothers and sisters.  Brennan makes the case that we can and should find love, beauty, and delight in each other, within but also beyond marriage.  He talks about Jesus' treatment of women and His willingness to be counter-cultural in His interactions.  While the sexual relationship in marriage is definitely exclusive, we can love other people without constantly fearing sin.  He talks about what a huge pressure it is on a marriage to meet all of our relational and emotional needs, and how the church's idealization of marriage as the be-all and end-all of life, to the exclusion of other relationships, actually may lead to weaker marriages rather than stronger ones.  (Not to mention the effect it has on single people, who are often treated in the church as though they are just waiting to get married.)

It always helps me to know that others are thinking about some of the same questions that I am, and this book reflected much more of my own positive experience rather than the danger narrative I hear in the Christian world.  While of course men and women can get into trouble, loving one another as close friends (even if we don't find each other physically repulsive), instead of seeing one another purely as possible romantic partners, is surely a step in the right direction.  When we're committed to honesty and fidelity in our marriages and our friendships, we honor God.  I am sure I will continue to think about all of this, and I recommend this book as a conversation-starter on the issue.  It was Book #15 of 2013.

Monday, June 03, 2013


It's the first Monday of the summer break, and I have such a long list of things I want to do - particularly in the few weeks before we do some traveling out of the country - that I am a little paralyzed. I do this every weekend, imagining that those days off will be ten times as long as they actually will, nourishing sky-high expectations of what I will accomplish.

One of the things I want to get done is some posting on this blog, particularly my long-neglected book reviews of everything I've read since my last reading update, at the beginning of April. I also want to post about the sessions I attended at the IRA conference in San Antonio.

It's a beautiful morning, still a little breezy but I can already tell it's going to be extremely hot today. Summer stretches out ahead of me today, and I'm trying not to think of how soon it will be over.