The Best of My Summer Reading

In the midst of moving and summer teaching and you know, life, I read three books and a short story in the past few months that are all treasures I’m thrilled to have found, especially since the three novels were all written by living working authors, which means I’ve got more to discover and look forward to, in terms of their work.

All Our Names: Oh wow, this book. I bought it in a train station on the way to New York City this spring and somehow it got lost in the shuffle until the weekend; what a lucky find! Dinaw Mengestu is an Ethiopian-born author now teaching at Georgetown University, and I believe this is his third or fourth novel. He gives us two narrators, Isaac and Helen, who come from different worlds and connect with each other and us to share their stories of identity and dislocation in the American Midwest and war-torn Uganda. Both voices are textured and compelling, and the structure of the book is organic but beautifully structured. I felt so immersed in these two very different worlds and lives, and I can’t wait to read his other novels.

Euphoria: I have a new hero now, and her name is Margaret Mead, the legendary anthropologist at the heart of Lily King’s sensuous and powerful novel, and also at the sharp point of a passionate love triangle in the book itself. I didn’t know much about Mead before reading this book, and now I want to know more about a figure who was both intellectually and romantically adventurous, a pioneer in her field and in what it meant at that historical moment to be a female scholar and risk-taker. Again, so excited to read more of King’s work.

Tenth of December: Stories: One of my dearest friends has been telling me for a few years that I needed to read George Saunders and how brilliant he was, so when I saw a hardback edition of this collection on a bargain books table, I snapped it up and have been so grateful I did. Saunders’ work is amazing, so lucid and sharp and empathetic, with “The Semplica Girl Diaries” being the real stand-out for me and a story I’m considering teaching with my juniors this fall. Saunders’ work is a reminder of how incisive and powerful short fiction can be, and I’m thrilled to dive into his other works.

Speaking of short fiction, on a recommendation from a fellow teacher, I read “Sonny’s Blues” today and if you’re looking for a story to break your heart wide open, this is it.

Oh Hey, It’s August

Wrapping up my six-week summer teaching gig has me feeling accomplished and determined to enjoy the weeks before my school year starts. This is especially important this year becauseĀ I’ll be taking on an extra class, teaching a new elective and my first honors sections, and returning to a grade level I haven’t taught in years (eleventh). It’ll be an exciting and challenging year, to say the least. I’ll need to be more disciplined with grading, stay ahead of myself with lesson plans, and take care of my health and peace of mind along the way.

But that all comes later. Right now, it’s time for afternoons at the pool and staying up late watching movies with my girls. Time for juicy watermelon and grilled kielbasa, berry cobbler and whipped cream. Time to read some of the novels stacked on my nightstand. Time to continue feathering my new little nest, for amusement parks and day trips and maybe even writing. Time to celebrate my birthday and look forward to a new year with more optimism than I’ve felt in years.

Time to enjoy the golden hours, the shining moments, and each small happiness, as much as I possibly can.

Professional Progress

When I made a list for myself of ten professional goals back in March, I didn’t expect to have made progress on three of them so quickly!

This spring in my Latin American literature class, I conducted my first experiment with adding some choice/independent reading in my classroom when I brought in a pile of books from my own shelves and tasked each of my seniors with reading one along with our study of Neruda’s poetry. We had two in-class discussions as they read, once around the middle of their books and another once they had finished, and in our conversations, they discussed what they thought of their texts, how they connected to other work we had, and how they expanded our knowledge of Latin America and its literature. One student read The House of the Spirits, enjoyed it more than she expected, and found it a helpful experience to have as a reader once we encountered One Hundred Years of Solitude . Another read Love in the Time of Cholera , which I adore, and sparked an interesting conversation on how to read novels asking us to sympathize or identify with characters we find distasteful or repugnant (my book club recently tackled this question in connection to Lolita). I think the experiment went well, though I wish I had offered even more choices and am still thinking about ways to make the discussions richer, possibly more structured. I’m considering practicing with short stories first, but definitely continuing to evolve the activity with my seniors next spring who will be reading Middle Eastern literature. I also talked with a colleague about how she used student choice in her unit on American poets, which I’ll be teaching this year in one section of juniors.

This week, I realized that this blog officially has over one thousand followers! While I know not all of my followers are teachers, professionally, connecting with so many other educators has helped me grow as a teacher, feel part of a wonderful educational community, and consider how I can best contribute to the lives of other teachers, as they have to mine. Towards that end, I’ll be continuing to post book reviews, stories and thoughts about teaching, and education, and looking for new ways to grow as a teacher and writer.

One revision: I think instead of making grammar videos, I’m going to experiment with using individualized sites like Quill and IXL to more accurately assess where my ninth grade students are in their grammar skills and how to move them towards becoming better writers. Rest assured, I’ll post about how these efforts go during the upcoming year.

Three out of ten goals tackled in three months feels pretty good. This summer, I’ll be thinking of how to test a portfolio project leading up to midterms with my ninth graders, and perhaps my eleventh graders as well.

Stay tuned!

Book Review: So We Read On

So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It EnduresSo We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures by Maureen Corrigan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Next year, I’ll be teaching The Great Gatsby again after a long hiatus, and while I’ve never stopped loving the book itself, I’ve been a little intimidated at the idea of getting back into the swing of it, especially since I’ll be teaching it with eleventh graders, alongside such heavyweights as Beloved and Hamlet.

Luckily, So We Read On came along at exactly the right time. Corrigan’s love for the book shines through on every page, but her witty sense of humor and keen intellectual curiosity make the book truly fascinating and a page-turner all at once. I found myself underlining key passages (on Gatsby‘s link to hard-boiled detective fiction, for example) and jotting down ideas in the margins (reading Keats, a favorite author of Fitzgerald’s, to better understand Daisy). Corrigan even travels back to her old high school in Astoria, Queens to find what I believe to be true as well; students still find different avenues into Gatsby’s world and uncover true insights there, into literature and themselves.

This was the first title on my personal summer reading list, and it’s set a great tone for the season of reading to come!

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SLOS: Two Weeks, Part Two

Four weeks ago, I was awash with a mixture of emotions. Fear of the unknown, nostalgia, grief, anticipation, all of it bound up in the challenge of moving forward, moving on, and leaving behind.

Now we’ve been settling into our new home for two weeks, and it feels right. The sunlight pours in the windows, my (substantially reduced) book collection lines the walls, the new couch mixes with my grandmother’s china teacups and the copper canisters my stepmother gave me. I’ve already made baked ziti and meatball subs in my new kitchen, and the first of many batches of chocolate chip cookies. My parents and my sister have visited several times, and one of my girls’ dear friends has ridden her bike over twice already.

When people have asked me over the past few weeks how I’m doing, I usually answer with some form of, “Good, but moving is the worst.” I still have unpacking to do, especially in my own bedroom, and we don’t have dining room chairs yet. The walls are still pretty blank, and there are still fears and sorrow ahead in this new phase of my life.

But when I unlock the door and step inside, I know I’m home, and it’s such a wonderful feeling.

SLOS: Here We Go

amy poehler ready

Today’s the day. Moving day. I am not quite sure I am ready, but I am quite sure that it’s happening. The horizon is opening up, and I am launching myself toward it–perhaps blindly–but either way, it’s time.

Moving day.

Snapshot at 13

They are thirteen.

There is hair: so much hair, and hair care, and grooming, and maintenance, and styling, and products. There are rapidly multiplying piles of shoes, in various colors and styles, and sizes that are increasingly closer to adult. There is wariness about friendship, unsure about what real friendship looks like and how to tell whether what you think is actually true and how to get to know a girl better if you think she’d be the kind of friend you think you’d like to have. There are hurt feelings and then waves of giggles and then hurt feelings again. There are girls running far ahead of you while you call out instructions or reminders, and then there are girls tucking their arms into yours so they can confide or rejoice about their day. There are cupcakes and vanilla bean Frappucinos and glitter and lotion that smells like cupcakes and vanilla bean and nail polish that has glitter in it. There are lessons on how to use the oven and soon there will be lessons on laundry. There are adorable moments when she says “Cherry-oke” instead of “Cherokee” and you laugh and she doesn’t and then she does. There are many pairs of leggings and legs that are smoothly muscled and freshly shaved. There are curves and sharp angles and tender spots and scars. There are long walks and trips to eat chicken nuggets so that while they are relaxed, maybe you can ask them a few leading questions and they might even answer. There is homework–so much homework–projects and quizzes and tests and then more projects that require posterboard and trips to classmates’ houses and research about Winston Churchill and Spanish flashcards and questions about details from To Kill a Mockingbird which you haven’t read in twenty years but why can’t you remember the name of the mean neighbor? There is teasing about your own “loud” and “distinctive” laugh and there are so many jokes and quips and comebacks that you can’t help but laugh, over and over.

They are thirteen, and they are lovely and complex. They are thirteen, and the kaleidoscope of their selves is constantly shifting, from color to shadow to light. They are thirteen, and each petal of their mind is unfurling. They are thirteen, and the gears of their hearts turn and click smoothly, then shudder to a halt, then leap forward again. They are thirteen, and they turn to the sun with fear and bravery; they swim towards the future with strong strokes.

They are thirteen.

Structure inspired by Elisabeth’s lovely snapshot slice.

In the Middle of the Ride

It just takes some time
Little girl, you’re in the middle of the ride
Everything, everything will be just fine
Everything, everything will be all right

I’m no little girl anymore, but as I always have, I’ve been looking to music for joy, uplift, hope, and inspiration as I struggle through “the middle” of this tough transitional time.

Yesterday, I realized I’d made a goofy financial mistake compounded by forgetting I had made it, and while I am able to fix it all, I had a rush of, “Who am I kidding? Who left me in charge? When will I ever get that responsibility trophy?! Why is adulting so stupid-hard?!”

Once I hit the interrobang stage, I know I need to get a grip.

The past few months, as part of my nightly journaling, I’ve been adding affirmations, and it’s really helped me retrain my thinking and understand the deeper roots of my feelings. I open my book, flip through the pages, and stop when I find one I want to copy down, one that immediately speaks to what I’ve been feeling that day. They all are phrased to offer positive encouragement while still focused on being honest with yourself, in that moral inventory kind of way (though I am not in a 12-step program). Sometimes I just copy one or two, other times, I keep flipping until I feel like I’ve reflected enough to shift into reading until I fall asleep.

But in the mornings, I need uplift. I need anthems. I turn to songs like “In the Middle” or Invincible or Grown Woman. Nicki Minaj is there for me with Beez in the Trap, and I can remind myself that I am a conqueror. I know I’ve got bills I’ve got to pay, and I know I’ve earned it.

I’m in the middle of this ride, and I know I can hang on and ride it all the way home.

SOLS: Two Weeks

Two weeks.

Two weeks to pack the clothes, tag the pictures, sort the books, scavenge for boxes, wrap the dishes, wonder why I ever bought that sweater and just how many books I actually own.

Two weeks to forward the mail, change the address, call the cable guy, call the utility people, get the shot records for the cats, get my first-ever renter’s insurance policy.

Two weeks to pick out paint colors, choose shower curtains, take measurements, shop for furniture, realize how expensive furniture is, say yes to that old coffee table in my sister’s basement and that table that’s been hanging out in my dad’s garage and is going to be perfect in my new dining room.

Two weeks to say goodbye to yardwork, clawfoot tub, window AC units, the flowers I transplanted from my dad’s garden, the kitchen with no dishwasher and no garbage disposal that was the heart of our home, and eight years of memories.

Two weeks.

Dear Poet: Triumph!

A highlight of my spring poetry unit the past few years has been requiring my students to participate in whatever interactive project the Academy of American Poets proposes for National Poetry Month. The projects always comprise multimedia, engaging contemporary poems, lesson plans and more to make it easy for teachers to incorporate the projects into the classroom, and writing for an authentic (not-just-her-teacher) audience is such a valuable experience for my students to have as developing writers.

This year’s Dear Poet project was especially enriching for me because I fell in love with some of the poetry involved and challenged myself to write a mentor text for my students to guide them as they wrote. It also dovetailed nicely with a presentation I saw at NCTE from Nancie Atwell on “letter-essays”; I’m still thinking about how to work those more solidly into my curriculum for next year, but seeing my students inspired to write and chatting eagerly about who might be published or receive a response was truly gratifying.

Last year, I was so proud when one of my student’s poems was chosen for publication, and this Friday, I was excited to inform two of my students that their letters will be published on the Academy of American Poets’ website!

As any teacher knows, mid-May is the perfect time to get a piece of good news that reminds you why you spend time seeking out creative lesson plans and that perhaps we can make it to the end of the year after all!