Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

Congratulations! You’re now the leader of the most influential and advanced country in the world! With such power comes an awesome amount of responsibility, so I hope you’ll consider this advice as you take office: Read.

Read because it’s what great leaders do. They read to understand critical events of the past so they’re certain not to repeat mistakes in the future.

Read because it will make you a better human being. The empathy and compassion gleaned from a good book will help you relate to the many American people who have endured experiences quite different from your own.

Finally, read because kids are paying attention. As a teacher, I encourage my students to read, and I point to examples of successful readers like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and Ellen DeGeneres. When kids know that someone they admire is a reader, they’re more likely to continue the habit themselves.

I wish you the best of luck. The world is watching.

Kate

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I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a starter stack, a nice mixture of fiction and nonfiction that my students and I have enjoyed over the years.

 

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This Is Only a Test

I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. The holidays, life, work, yada yada yada… I’m writing this one because I need to write and because I don’t want to complete Fitz’s challenge. And so I shall use this platform to share some thoughts on assessment.

The State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests stage performances in school buildings all across Texas up to four times a year. Administrators prepare testing rooms, teachers lace up tennis shoes for “active monitoring,” and students sit in a chair for up to 5 hours with nothing but some sharpened pencils and test materials. We all play our parts in the STAAR testing theatre. Lately, the drama has taken a turn, though, and people are starting to wonder if the STAAR test is really a true assessment of what kids are learning, if maybe there are serious flaws in the way the writing portions of the test are scored (oh, there are).

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I googled “STAAR test problems.”

And in a plot twist, a poet discovered that one of her poems had been used on the test and that she couldn’t answer the questions that were asked! English teachers have been saying this for years: an author’s intent can’t be truly known, and asking questions about it is unfair. Maybe now that an expert has spoken (though I’d argue that we English teachers are experts in our own right, but I digress), those who make the rules about testing will listen and make some changes. And maybe they are actually listening because (yet another plot twist!) just this week, TEA released new blueprints for the English I and English II tests, removing the short response items that recently drew so much criticism.

Because of the fiasco that is STAAR (and school financing, since the state contributes only 18% of the revenue in my district. You want us to follow your rules? Give us more money!), it’s time for districts to stand up to the state and demand more local control. My district has begun the discussion of becoming a “district of innovation.” While there are many variables and unknowns right now, other districts have already made the jump, so I’ll be watching closely to see how things shake out. The most important thing of all, though, is to do what’s best for the kids.

What remains after testing is a human being who cannot be accurately judged by what he or she has left on the answer document. We have to remind our kids that they are more than a test score. I’ve said before that one of my goals in teaching is to help my students become better versions of themselves. There’s no number or grade that you can assign to that.

I’m Just Going To Leave This Here

On September 13, 1988, Carl Sagan delivered a speech titled “Thoughts on the 125th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.” His main argument is that weapons have advanced to such an extreme that those involved in the conflict are no longer the only casualties. When leaders of countries point weapons at one another, the citizens will be the ones who truly suffer. And while we think we’re being careful, accidents can happen.

And then I read this passage:

This is the century of Hitler and Stalin, evidence–if any were needed–that madmen can seize the reins of power of modern industrial states. If we are content in a world with nearly sixty thousand nuclear weapons, we are betting our lives on the proposition that no present or future leaders, military or civilian–of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and whatever other nuclear powers there will be–will ever stray from the strictest standards of prudence. We are gambling on their sanity and sobriety even in times of great personal and national crisis, all of them, for times to come. I say this is asking too much of us. Because we make mistakes. We kill our own.

I wonder what Mr. Sagan would say today.

Why I Love YA

I do not fit the dictionary’s (or society’s) definition of “young adult,” not by a long shot. But nevertheless I read and love YA literature for the nostalgia and camaraderie.

I was fortunate to attend the National Council of Teachers of English convention in Atlanta a few weeks ago. During one session, I overheard a line that has stuck with me ever since: Laurie Halse Anderson said, “Young adult literature is popular with adults because no one talked about those things when we were growing up.” And she’s right!

I’ve blogged before about my reading life (see “A Life in Books” and “Reading: A Life and Goals”), and the more I think about the kinds of books I read as a kid, the more I realize that they would be considered “middle-level” today and not truly “young adult.” (Forever by Judy Blume is an obvious exception to this, but I digress.) There were very few, actual young adult novels to help me navigate the treacherous waters of high school and everything they encompass: friendships, dating, drinking, sex, parents. The books my teachers assigned certainly afforded no guidance–all I learned from George in Of Mice and Men was that {spoiler} murder is the simplest way to lighten your load. That wasn’t really advice I needed when I didn’t make the varsity softball team. A book like Challenger Deep would have showed me how to bounce back from that rejection.

While it’s nice to be reminded of what my high school experience was like, I honestly can’t imagine growing up in the world we have today. It seems like kids face so much more pressure and so many more obstacles than I ever remember dealing with as a teen. Ultimately, I read YA lit so I can better understand what my students might be going through and then share those findings with them so they know how to handle life.

The other aspect of YA lit that appeals to me is the sense of community among the authors. At any given time on Twitter, authors are chatting with one another about new projects, defending one another from misguided attacks, or just sharing a mutual love for coffee. I admit I geek out a little when I see Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli talking about movies or Sarah Dessen tweeting about her obsession with Lauren Graham. And the best part is when they interact with their readers! Many authors on Twitter are so appreciative of feedback about their work, and I don’t know if they really understand the other side of that: how thrilling it is for a reader to have a tweet replied to or liked. That kind of accessibility is something that makes YA lit and authors so special.

My actual age might not fall in the range of the target audience for YA lit, but I’m definitely still a young adult at heart!

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No big deal. Just hanging out with Laurie Halse Anderson at NCTE!

Reset for Success

When we began the new 9 weeks, my students and I had a little “reset” discussion. We started by talking about things that we can reset, like a video game when we’re about to be eaten by a dragon or a phone when it freezes up. A reset is a fresh start when things aren’t going the way we’d like. arton6134-cb53a

The conversation continued to things we can reset in class, like our reading goals and our blogs. We also thought about how to reset our writer’s notebooks. Students really like sharing their beliefs about quotes and responding to various articles of the week (while they might not readily admit it). However, many students said they struggled with the required outside-of-class entries–entries that are open-ended and don’t have a set topic. They thought it would be easier if they had a prompt to write from, so I offered to dig up some resources.

The first link I found is a list of 100 open-ended questions about love, life, and loss. There are opportunities for narrative (Continue the following: “Today started out like any other day, but then…”), expository (What are your fears?), and persuasion (What do you think are the three main problems in the world right now?  Do you see the solution to them?  If it was up to you, how would you change the world?).

Brainy Quote is another excellent resource, so I shared a link to quotes about time. The sidebar provides other topics, and students can also use the search bar to look for quotes that interest them.

Sometimes ideas spring from visual stimulation, so I found some really great image sites: The Literacy Shed and National Geographic. Illustrations and visuals on the Literacy Shed site are accompanied by writing prompts that students can choose to consider. The photographs on the National Geographic site offer other perspectives of the world that students aren’t often exposed to. I plan to incorporate more images in my classes!

Hopefully these links will spark some creativity in my students and encourage them to seek out their own sources of inspiration!

Come Together

Alternate title: “Break Those Chains That Bind You”

I’m now reading my tenth book since school started, a book that was published in 2008. It’s a book by my favorite author, but I haven’t read it until now because 1. it’s historical fiction (not a genre I am usually drawn to) and 2. the target audience is middle-grade kids. Let’s go ahead and bust those myths: I do like historical fiction, and this book does not read like any middle school book I’ve ever encountered! The book? Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.

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Chains cover

Chains is set in New York during the American Revolution. The book follows Isabel, a 13-year-old slave, through trials of betrayal, loss, and punishment. There may be some redemption in the end, but I can only predict that because I just started Part II.

On the day of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Isabel witnesses the celebration in the streets. When the crowd surrounds and lassos the statue of King George III on the Bowling Green, “Common folk stood froze at the sight of a king being pulled down by the strength of the men working together” (125). This quote neatly sums up the entire revolution. It took people working for a common goal to overthrow their opposition.

This lesson is still relevant today, especially when our country feels so divided. We’re so quick to sort out the red and the blue, the white and the not white, the haves and the have nots that we forget that we all are striving for the same ideals that Thomas Jefferson and others sought 240 years ago: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Even the Pledge of Allegiance calls for us to be “indivisible” as a nation, “with liberty and justice for all,” not just some. The sooner we realize that this common bond can unify us, the sooner we can divert ourselves from the path of discord that we appear to be on.

 

Why You Gotta Be So Rude?

That song isn’t even in my top 100, but it made for a good title.

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to be kind in such a rude world.

The day started off just fine. My mom and I dropped the dogs off at doggy daycare so we could spend the day at the State Fair of Texas. I knew it would be really busy since it was the last day, so we tried to get an early start.

We parked at the Trinity Mills DART station to take the train. When we got to one of the stops downtown, a door malfunctioned, and the officers made us all get off the train and catch the next one. The cars were so full: I was pretty sure we would have to stand for the rest of the trip, but we were lucky to find seats. I watched one man offer his seat to an older man who was standing in the doorway, and I noted that small act of kindness.

We arrived at Fair Park, bought some coupons, and proceeded to stand in line after line, waiting for Fletcher’s corny dogs, cowboy corn crunch, fried jello, more coupons, and the deep fried Texas bluebonnet (my favorite of the day). We zigged and zagged our way through Creative Arts and the Embarcadero. We dodged perfume samples and pushy salesmen. When we had had enough, we began making our way back to the train, the ever-growing crowds slowing our progress as they knelt and angled for the best photo with Big Tex or stopped mid-path to check messages on their phones.

Once the train arrived, we boarded an already-full car, and I noticed at least four people who had positioned themselves in seats so that no one could occupy the empty one next to them, three of whom were young men. Not one person offered to move so that my 70-year-old mom could have a seat. We stood in the crowded doorway. At one stop, a few seats opened up, and a young boy took one of them. At another stop, more seats became available, and mom and I were finally able to sit down. Behind us was one of the young men taking up two seats. After a while, he began rapping along to the music in his headphones.

And then we finally got off the train only to be greeted by this:

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That’s my car on the right. Obviously, I was parked there first…

I wanted to throw my keys at this truck, kick the bumpers, bend the license plate, flatten the tires… I didn’t do any of those things. I didn’t even leave a note for the jerk because if someone doesn’t care enough to park between clearly painted white lines, a harshly-worded note isn’t going to have much of an impact. I did call Carrollton PD and give them the license plate number. Then I spent the next 5 minutes maneuvering my car out of this predicament.

The last straw of the day came when we decided to go get frozen yogurt before picking up the dogs. (Because we didn’t get enough of the fair food, I guess?) In the small shop, two or three families had gathered with their children, and the noise level was almost deafening. We fixed up our dishes and decided to eat outside, but we weren’t alone for long.

Who are these people who believe social norms (and rules, in the case of the owner of the truck) do not apply to them? Have we become so self-absorbed and oblivious to our surroundings that other human beings cease to exist? Or maybe I’m the crazy one to think that social norms are normal–maybe they’re a thing of the past.

This world needs more kindness. We need people to notice and recognize and own their rudeness and adjust accordingly. Be more aware that you’re blocking a path. Pay attention to your surroundings and offer your seat to that person who looks older than you. Even if he or she refuses, your effort will be acknowledged. And for crying out loud, park your car in between the lines!