Building Empathy

The events of the past week (or let’s really be honest, the rhetoric spewed since 2015 when the Presidential election race began) have left me at a loss for words. I know that racism never really went away; it just became fashionable (or politically correct) to not share racist beliefs publicly. However, we, as a society, can find plenty of examples where (institutional) racism exists—whether through the literary canon taught or the films watched. As educators and scholars, we discuss how to include a more accurate picture of our society in the texts we teach and the books available in our classroom libraries. I’ve found, with the exception of balancing male and female protagonists, we haven’t really moved beyond discussion. Over the course of this week, as my husband and I watch the news, we’ve had conversations about what can be done to combat racism if it is what is taught at home. How much of an impact does one person have, does one text have, does pedagogy have, or does one class have?

And I’m left without answers. It is my hope that the inquiry stance I take in my classroom and the inquiry stance I ask my students to take have an impact on the way they view the world. It is my hope that as my students learn to read the world, they also learn to question the world. But that is only hope. I don’t have a definitive outcome or answer such as teach x and y will happen.

This feeling of helplessness causes me to soothe my soul in the pages of novels. Fiction for escape. Of course my escape is found in the pages of YA books. The last few YA books I’ve read have also given me a cause to pause. Focusing on the last three or four books I’ve read, while gender is fairly equitable, the authors are white, the characters are white, and for the most part the characters are from middle-class American families.

Suffice it to say even these “mainstream” books can then take a turn. In Kids of Appetite by David Arnold, the protagonist, Vic, has Moebius Syndrome, which leaves him unable to smile (or make any facial expressions) or close his eyes. There will be more about this novel in a later post. As a result people stare at him, people think he is below average intelligence, people bully him. Vic develops a persona to shield him from others. He tries to be invisible. He sees himself as invisible, thus making it difficult for people to truly see him for who he is. After the reader begins to gain an understanding of Vic, Arnold switches POV, and the reader not only experiences the world through Vic’s eyes and through Vic’s friend Mad’s eyes. Mad has her own persona too, but that is a story for another day. As Mad gets to know Vic, she has to confront her assumptions about him based on his appearance. In fact, Arnold even writes a harsh scene at the beginning of the novel when Mad and the other KOAs meet Vic in Foodville. Their interaction is typical of those Vic has experienced before but made all the more heartbreaking because he has a crush on Mad. Seeing Vic through Mad’s eyes forces the reader to break down his persona, and I would venture to say also force the reader to explore how they would react to Vic.

Additionally, I read Holding Smoke by Elle Cosimano I found myself confronting my construct of the prison system. John “Smoke” Conlan is in a juvenile facility, convicted of killing his English teacher. Like Vic and Mad, Smoke is a deeply complex character. The book opens with Smoke causing a fight in the exercise yard, which lands him in solitary confinement. The opening pages of the book confirmed my views and understanding of juvenile offenders. However, as the novel unfolds, I realize the characters view Smoke based on the story they have constructed about him. To survive in prison, he constructs a persona so he is left alone by the others; however, this persona simply reaffirms what the guards believe about all offenders. But the reader is put in the position the warden finds himself in—this persona is exactly that, a persona and not the person Smoke is. Ultimately, as I read more and more, I find myself realizing that Smoke is not all good nor is he all bad. His experience cannot be blamed on his upbringing and family situation, even though his experience also is part of his upbringing and family situation.

Well-developed, complex characters act as a mirror to our world. We, as a society, are not all one thing or all another. Our lives are not dichotomies. Instead we function on a spectrum. For example, who I am in my classroom is simply a slice of who I am. My students leave my class knowing that I am passionate about three things: literacy, my dog, and my cat. If I am teaching them to question the world, is it appropriate for them to know my political views or my religious views? No. Is it appropriate for me to present as much of any given story as possible and guide them to an answer? Yes. This is one of the reasons we use multiple texts when teaching a novel or teaching a unit on argument.

This leads me to a renewed understanding about being a life-long reader and points me to the studies about readers being more empathetic. One year in my classroom may not be enough to fully grasp how to read the word and the world. However, helping my students become lifelong readers, helping my students learn to read widely (and deeply), helping my students to find text as a mirror as well as a window may just make them realize the world is far more complex than the dichotomy people want it to be. It may just help them learn to embrace those who may appear different from the way they look.

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Beautiful Series?

This week I’ve dedicated my posts to series – why I’m burned out on them and why my students can’t get enough.

I might need to revise my post from Tuesday, April 24. I’m not burned out on series. I repeat – the series lives!

As a middle school teacher, I reserve the right to change my mind. I’ve changed my mind. Looking for the May Schmidt’s Pick, I grabbed Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl off a pile of books in my office. I had just finished Fear by Michael Grant and wasn’t too keen on starting another series – especially a series that a) hasn’t been finished yet and b) consists of 500+ page books. But I knew this isn’t really about me, it’s about my students and providing them with access to books they’ll actually read so they may actually beat the odds and read more than 1 book after high school. Literacy is important to me. That’s no shock to anyone who knows me, so if I have to “take one for the team” to keep the kids reading, I’ll do it.

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Serial Romance

Earlier this week I wrote about my love/hate relationship with series. I found myself, once again, stuck in the doldrums of YA series. There was nothing fresh about my reading because all I did was read one book after another that continued a series I had already started. I’m happy to report that I have sailed out of the doldrums, but more about that in a later post.

For now, I want to talk about my students. On Wednesday after we finished round three of state tests, I had the opportunity to just sit and have a conversation with my students. I haven’t had this opportunity in quite some time since I’ve been hosting a student teacher. On Wednesday afternoon, I found myself alone with my seventh graders for the first time in 3 months. Furthermore, they were a bit spent from testing all morning. So when they came into the classroom, I had them sit down, pull out their independent books, and start reading. They read for only a few minutes. I just wanted them to center themselves more than anything. At the end of their reading session, I had them discuss their books with their friends. Pretty standard stuff.

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This week my school is mired in state tests. It’s a tough week for teachers and students. So for obvious reasons I needed to share the following exchange:

I was signing out my test materials this morning when a colleague/friend/parent said to me, “You’re the reason my eighth grader goes to bed with a book every night.”

And as I carted my test supplies back to my room, I realizes that it just doesn’t matter what the tests show since the tests don’t measure a love of reading or a desire to be a lifelong reader. If my students have (re)discovered a love of reading than not only am I an effective teacher, but they are advanced-proficient in my book.

Until next time … See YA

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Serial Killer

As much as I love young adult fiction, a steady diet of one thing is bad, and so I’ve found myself reading a lot of adult fiction during the late winter and spring. At first I told myself that it was because I had “homework” for Booktopia 2012, which I recently attended in Manchester, VT. Me being me, I did feel compelled to read the latest books by all of the authors in attendance, and I did start some of the back catalogue as well. However, as I look at my nightstand, desk, coffee table, and pretty much any flat surface that holds books in my house, I realize that I’m still grabbing adult fiction. This is not Booktopia’s fault. I recently read Marisa de los Santos’ newest book and A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve – neither author attended Booktopia.  So why am I grabbing adult and leaving YA to sit collecting dust?

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Should I Cover Up My Opinion?

As many of you know, I have pages on my blog, which get updated regularly – even if my blog doesn’t. One of the pages is a listing of my reviews of YA books. These reviews in their simplest form are simply one reader’s thoughts about a book. I recently finished and reviewed Cover-up by John Feinstein. I didn’t like the book. There were many reasons why I didn’t like it. This is my opinion and my opinion only. I gave the book one star. After I finished reviewing the book on Goodreads, the review posted to my Twitter account and the blog. And I went about my day.

I didn’t think twice about the review as I had seemingly more important things on my mind (like getting much needed highlights in my hair and what book I was going to read next). Later that day, I popped open my laptop cover to check in with my various social networking sites and maybe play some Angry Birds. Imagine my surprise when I had a response to my review. Who knew that people actually paid attention? However, that wasn’t as shocking as what followed.

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On E-Reading

My passion is literacy. This is no surprise to any of you who know me in the real world or in the virtual one. However, if I were to give a definition to this passion, I would have to say that my real passion is adolescent literacy – what do kids read, write, view, listen to, and speak about and more importantly what will get them to read (more), write (more), view things differently and even critically, listen critically, and express themselves clearly.  I’ve spent 19 years in the classroom observing young adolescents and literacy and honing my pedagogy to help them become lifelong readers, writers, and consumers of knowledge. I’ve sought graduate degrees in this field, and I’m currently writing my dissertation about this topic. You may say I’m an expert, but I’m not the only one… (to badly paraphrase John Lennon), and John Lennon and the rest of the Beatles is where I want to begin today.

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Mentor or Teacher?

Monday will start my first full day sitting and watching someone else teach my class. I’m not sure how I feel about this. In theory, I’m pretty excited because I get to shape the next generation of teacher. In theory, I can use my 19 years of experience, my knowledge of young adolescents, my knowledge of literacy – both best practices and theory – to help mold this young teacher-to-be. That thought alone is pretty awe-inspiring. So what could be wrong with that?

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Cloudy with a Chance of Flurries

The blizzard has slowed to flurries with an occasional snow squall. I am happy to report that aside from the book I’m listening to on Audible, I am only reading one book at the moment. And while I want to start a whole bunch of new books, I’ve just started a new pile. This pile is really just my TBR (to be read) in an ordered list instead of  the books sitting nicely in no particular order on my bookshelves or in bags on the floor. Sadly, I have outgrown bookshelf space in my office, and my YA are relegated to the floor since they are transient anyway. My house is one stop before my classroom and then my students’ hands. I don’t devote a lot of shelf space to them. They get the floor.

This month alone I’ve read 14 books, and 10 of them were YA and another two could cross over from adult to YA. Book number 15 is on the coffee table. The cold and snow has helped me read this many books. But quite honestly, good writing has keep me reading.

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Book Blizzard

In a bizarre twist of fate two things are happening: 1)I’m writing a mid-week blog post & 2)I’m having a problem controlling the books I’m starting. Does this mean that the East Coast might finally be getting some snow? Is it a sign the world is going to end in 2012? I don’t know. Nor do I care. I declare the Reading Funk officially over! (for now)

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