February reading: Loving these selections

undefinedMy first reading selection this month was Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read (2014). Selected by Brian Sztabnik for the Twitter #APLitChat, this is a really cool read. Mendelsund combines his skill as Knopf’s art director with his musings about how readers approach texts. Unlike other books that reflect on how a reader brings their experiences to a text to glean insight or make connections, Mendelsund posits the reliability and validity of how readers construct meaning. The stunning graphics are paired with excerpts from novels, and the result is amazing. I found myself wondering how much of this applied to me and how I approach texts. In addition, I reflected on how I approach close reading with my students. How often do we ask students to dig deeper into texts, especially when they seem to remain focused on the surface details. I’m not sure that I would move to make this required reading for my Advanced Placement literature students, but definitely will recommend it as an option for summer reading. I’m definitely looking forward to the Twitter chat this month.

undefinedDon’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith (2017) is my first poetry collection of 2020. I have enjoyed the few poems I’ve seen by Smith in the past, and I am creating a profile of his work for NCTE’s Verse features later this year. A National Book Award finalist, this collection is visceral and confrontational. Smith confronts his HIV diagnosis and wrestles with the society’s perception that because of this he is less worthy– of love, of acceptance, of life. One of the most jarring lines from “everyday is a funeral and a miracle” wonders, “do i think someone created AIDS?/ maybe. i don’t doubt that/ anything is possible in a place/ where you can burn a body/ with less outrage than a flag” (65). I was stunned when I came across that during our silent, sustained reading time in class. I agree with Tracy K. Smith’s review in that “Smith’s is a voice we need now ore than ever as living, feeling, complex, and conflicted beings.” Smith does not shy away from expressing his desires, and he continuously moves between his observations and frustrations with his health and his condemnation of prejudice and generalizations. It’s provocative and powerful. I’m hoping to read at least one collection of poetry each month, and this one definitely didn’t disappoint as a starter.

undefinedI never doubted Elizabeth Acevedo’s ability to top The Poet X (which I LOVED), but I finished her novel With the Fire on High (2019) in two days. It is so very good! After seeing her read some of her poetry and excerpt from this novel at the 2019 NCTE conference, I chose to pair the text with the audio version. I often mention to students that guided reading can offer an opportunity to experience a text in a new way, perhaps offering insight because they are immersed in the story. I enjoyed this so, so much! Acevedo narrates her novel, and I immediately found myself wondering about all of the characters (except, I admit, for Tyrone) much like a nosy neighbor. Acevedo’s approach to a teen parent is refreshing and empowering. Often, stories with teen parents or teen pregnancy focuses on the moment they find out or some generalized version. Acevedo creates a story that includes a complex high school senior who happens to be the parent of a toddler. She doesn’t advocate for pre-marital sex, for teen pregnancy, or even take a pro-life stance. Her protagonist Emoni offers a candid look into inter-generational connections combined with a coming of age or milestone moment. I seriously want to try the recipes Emoni shares at the start of the sections, though I’m not sure that I’d come close to her innovation. If this title has been on your to-be-read shelf (or if you haven’t heard of it yet), I encourage you to move it to your next read. You won’t be disappointed.

The Infinite Game (2019) is the second Simon Sinek book that I’ve read, and like Start With Why (2009), it did not disappoint. Although the examples Sinek provides are focused on economic policy and the business world, this book is the focus of a book study from the South Carolina Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement (CERRA). The book study correlates Sinek’s principles to teacher leadership. I believe that teachers, administrators, and legislators would do well to read this and discuss and align our goals for public eduction. “It is the combination of what we value and how we act that sets the culture of a company” (121). I would argue that many people, including myself, have become distracted or dismissive of the power public education has as a service. All too often finite thinking results in polarized options. Education is not a finite idea; if we truly believe that people should be life-long learners, then we should again begin seeking to serve our communities with this mindset. I highly recommend this text for anyone and everyone who has influence on the policies that affect public education. #OurKidsAreWorthIt

It’s no secret: Maintaining motivation

Source: Chen, Angus (March 4, 2016). “How to Turn on the Part of Your Brain that Controls Motivation”. KQED.com. Published by NPR/Mindshift.

The Moving Writers #100DOSW18 challenge has provided me with daily prompts, but more importantly, it’s inspired me to dig through my numerous saved links on my Pocket app. Initially, I tagged today’s article with “advisory”, “learning”, “motivation”, and “RTI”. Without reading the article, I felt the title held the secret to helping students tap into their motivation to succeed, not just in my class but at learning and within school. Unfortunately, the article left me with more questions than answers.

The article focuses on fMRI research of the central part of the brain where motivation seems to light up or trigger the greatest activity within the brain. The article details how participants and researchers would view the screen and give themselves pep talks. What they realized is that motivation can be exhilarating. Imagining teammates giving high fives versus coaches yelling at them produced different results. The study also admits that the process of activating, or motivating, the brain activity is “exhausting”. “‘The experience of the task was difficult…. It was very fatiguing for people.”

“People really are changing their mood when they’re doing this, Adcock thinks. They’re becoming more focused and eager. And it seems the effect begins reaching out to parts of the brain involved with learning and memory.” Obviously, the research is based on positive feedback. What happens with negative stimuli? Or how does this part of the brain relate to emotion? The study admits that no long-term or follow p study was conducted to find out if people maintained the motivation.

As a teacher, I KNOW that motivating myself and my students is exhausting. I KNOW that positive feedback generates engagement and motivation, but not always for the long haul. I wanted this article to share some scientific insight, to help me encourage and guide my advisory members and my future English students. How can I assist kids in seeing and discovering their value? How can we make a shift (or at least a nudge) from external motivation to internal drive, as Daniel Pink outlines in his text Drive: The Surprising Truth About what Motivates Us (2011)? Our school structure is set up to condition students to react, not generate their focus.

The bad news is that I am still in search of the Holy Grail that will help me guide my students. I’ll create my own long-term study with my next group of advisory students because we keep them all four years. Hopefully, I can design and amend different surveys for them and provide different resources to them to positively motivate them to succeed in high school and in life. The upside is this article and my reflection motivated me to write a blog post, a routine that I need.

Why I read & write

Today is NCTE’s National Day on Writing. This is a day where I can share my thoughts through writing, but lately, I have been pretty guarded. Lately, I haven’t wanted to share or write much at all. For the past 15 years, I’ve encouraged, goaded, and at times dragged my students into building their writing skills. My goal with writing instruction has always been to help them be effective communicators, to share their thoughts confidently, and hopefully, to help them achieve success through that communication.  At times, this instruction helped students find the “right” way to convey their thoughts for standardized tests, but more often this instruction focused on helping students make sense of what they read, write, view, and listen within the world around them. Thing is, I wasn’t practicing what I preached. I wasn’t writing alongside them, and I haven’t made a conscious effort to do so until this school year.

Unfortunately, my world recently turned upside down, and I haven’t turned to writing. I didn’t even read a page for almost a week. I shut down, became numb, tuned out. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people who encourage, goad, and at times drag me out of this state — or at least do their best to keep me moving.  For today, I’m choosing to write. I’m choosing to share and to convey my gratitude for those around me who inspire, question, challenge, and uplift. I’m choosing to write to process the senselessness of life events. I’m choosing to write to demonstrate to my students how fortunate I feel to know them and to grow as a writer with them. I’m choosing to write because maybe, just maybe, this is a way to honor and to remember.

“Grief, I think, signs you up in a separate, invisible club, members selected at death’s awful randomness. ‘Gone forever’ is our password, lingering sorrow our secret handshake. If you haven’t lost someone important to you, you can’t begin to know the rules. Truth is, you don’t even know the club exists” (92).

I’ve always liked Susan Carol McCarthy‘s debut novel Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands (2002) published by Bantom Press. The young narrator Reesa has to navigate her loss amid the chaos and fear of Florida during the nine months of terror. I’ve used this text to engage students in discussions of tolerance, injustice, and grief. I just never imagined that McCarthy’s words would rise to my thoughts in my quiet house early this morning. I know that the ache I feel will soften but not disappear. I know that my memories and photographs will remind me of stories I can share. For now, though, I am just choosing to write, to reflect, and to keep a careful watch for others who are in my new club. Empathy is a skill that can be painful to learn, but it’s important for us to keep trying. So, today, I choose to write and hopefully pay forward the love, support, and kindness I’ve received in this past week.