July 26th, 2016

Sidelines

He ran away from me on the playground on Saturday morning at the kindergarten meet up, no goodbye or hugging my legs or telling me he needs his warm-up time. I’ve been waiting for this moment for months now – for him to feel more independent and comfortable in his own skin. I’ve sat on the outskirts of so many birthday parties and crowded gatherings with both familiar and unfamiliar faces wishing with all my might that I could wave a wand and take away his worries about going off into the world without me right there.

And then, it happened. Suddenly.

He was running off with a new friend and I was alone on the sidelines watching.

And I know that’s how it should be. It’s what I’ve been waiting for. His proud smile and talk of new friends, his huge imagination and his willingness to adventure, his lessening anxiety about kindergarten…

It’s exactly what I hoped for him.

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She stood last week in front of her mirror, bedroom door closed, Taylor Swift lyrics blasting. She was practicing for her show at the end of her week of camp. Two dances, two songs, a bit of acting in between.

I stood outside her door, listening, trying to get a glimpse of who she’s becoming behind the door that closes more these days. I heard her voice over the music, heard her self-talk about memorizing the lyrics and adding in the choreography she’d worked on during her day where she was at camp and I was at work.

She’s away from me now more than she’s with me it seems. And while she’s away I wish that I could just watch her in the world. Watch her dance and sing and make friends and tell ridiculous jokes and push herself to do new things while I’m not standing right there with her.

I watched her dance her heart out in the studio that Friday and felt genuinely awed by her bravery and enthusiasm, her confidence and kindness, her hard work and her high kicks.

It’s exactly what I hoped for her.

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I teared up in my boss’s office yesterday totally out of the blue. We were in the middle of a great conversation about what drives me and what I value and somehow our conversation led to talking about my writing here and suddenly tears emerged and took me totally by surprise.

As I talked a bit more and thought later about why that happened (I don’t make it a habit of crying in meetings), I realized it’s probably rooted in the shift of our story lately. It’s clearly not mine alone to tell anymore. I knew how to write the story when they needed me all the time. But after so many years of my story being all about them, it feels different to write myself back into it, to find yet another new motherhood point of view.

Lately it feels like their story is becoming so much more theirs and not mine at a pace that seems blinding at times.

Their story unfolds on family vacations and family dinners, snuggled up with me on the couch and in big conversations before they go to bed. But it also happens behind closed doors and at camp. At school and at friends’ houses. On the playground and in the dance studio. And I only admire from the sidelines.

This is exactly how it is supposed to be, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting.

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May 6th, 2016

Appreciating Teaching

I’m a teacher.

The classroom is my second home.

For 16 years, my whole adult life, I’ve gone to work each day in a school. I’ve spent my time reading and writing with teenagers. I’ve learned and grown and innovated and changed. I’ve been frustrated and underappreciated and questioned. I’ve chaperoned field trips, helped design new curriculum, felt the weight of standardized testing, celebrated huge successes of so many deserving students. I’ve hoarded student work in my desk drawers, covered bulletin boards with notes from and photos of students I’ll never forget, filled file folders with sacred stories and thoughtful thank-yous, all talismans of what can happen inside a creative classroom.

I’ve always been sure of one thing: I’m a teacher.

Next year, though, I’m not sure what I’ll call myself. I’m leaving my classroom teaching job and embarking on a new challenge, a new adventure. Instead of leading my own students through projects and papers, research and content creation, I’ll be helping other teachers innovate and do the same for their students. I know so many teachers who want to innovate, who want to push their students to think and create and collaborate but simply don’t have the time or support to do it. I am honored to now be entrusted with the task of helping them navigate that sometimes scary new path.

But, I wonder, am I still a teacher if I don’t have my own students listed on a roster? If I am instead a coach for other teachers? If I don’t grade papers and sit in faculty meetings and eat a hurried lunch with hilarious colleagues?

I’m not sure if all professions feel the connection between job title and sense of self as teachers do. Deciding to leave the comfort of my classroom has been a heart-wrenching decisions. It has been one where I’ve shed so many tears as I think of who I will become without the title of teacher, without the 150 or more students who keep me wanting to walk into the school building each day, without the lesson plans and student work and constant stream of questions that push me to be a better teacher, a better person.

But I’ve decided to leap. To take a chance outside these walls. To see if the leadership capacity I’ve built in the last few years can perhaps have an even bigger impact than what I have now.

Thus for now, this is my last teacher appreciation week where I know I can call myself a teacher.

So this week, I’m appreciating teaching. I’m appreciating 16 years of learning from students who have challenged me just as much as I’ve challenged them. Students who have pushed me to see the world from a new point of view. Students who have allowed me into their stories and given me the honor of reading their most sacred words. Students who have made school seem like a second home.

I’m appreciating 16 years of the very best colleagues who always put students first. Colleagues who innovate and challenge practices that might be mandated, but might not be right. Colleagues who show compassion to students and to each other, lifting the community during hard times. Colleagues who dance and sing and share and write and laugh and who I know are some of the very best teachers I’ll ever work with.

I’m trying hard to appreciate change. To see that, in the end, I still will be a teacher. My colleagues have assured me that I will be.  I may not have my own classroom or my own students, but I’ll be in schools, pushing for innovation and collaboration, public projects and student-designed learning. I will still hold students at the fore of everything I do.

I know well that a school is made up of the whole community – that each and every working part of the school is essential to a student’s education. I’m going to be a part of that community still, just in a different way.

But being a teacher? I’m know that is what I’ll always value most.  And I’m pretty sure that’s who I’ll always be.

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December 15th, 2015

Re-imagining Final Exams in a Connected Classroom

I’ve never really been a fan of exams. I certainly don’t like the standardized kind and I’m not really even a fan of teacher-created tests to show what my students have learned in my class. Have I written and given tests in the last 16 years? Certainly. Have some of those tests helped me to see where students are struggling and where they are excelling? Sure. But most of the time, an exam tells me less than other forms of assessment and, most importantly, it offers little opportunity or enticement for students to reflect on their learning. They take a test, get a score and most of the time move on.

Since I started blogging in my classroom three years ago, I’ve re-imagined what my midterm and final exams look like. If my students are given two un-interrupted hours at the end of each semester to do something meaningful with their learning, I want it to be just that. I don’t want them to take a test and go off to their winter break, never to revisit those questions or ideas again. I want to do something that sticks and that makes them think about what the semester has done for them as learners, as readers and as writers.

So instead of giving my students a test, my classroom turns into a space for sharing and reflecting. I call it a literacy fair and here’s how it works.

First, I team up with a teacher who teaches our freshman study skills course. During the final exam period, he will bring his students to my class. His ninth grade students (my students are juniors) come armed with some questions about what my students have done throughout the year. Some are specific to assignments we’ve done, but most are simple questions asking students to show off their work. They ask my students what they are most proud of writing and why, what they’ve learned as readers and writers this semester, how writing a blog is different than more traditional English assignments. In my classroom, my students set up stations around the room, choosing a spot where they can talk and show off their work on their blog, sometimes opening multiple tabs so that they are ready to speak to the freshman who come to interview them.

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Then the chaos ensues. My classroom fills with extra teachers (I also invite the APs, librarians, counselors, other teachers, etc) and 25-30 extra students. But the chaos is magical. I walk around and listen. I listen to my students talk about themselves as writers. I listen to them talk about audience and choices they’ve made with words. I listen to them talk about what they would have done differently and what they mastered. And as they talk, as they focus on all that they’ve read and all that they’ve written, their confidence soars.

When our guests leave after about 20-30 minutes, my students set off to write one more reflection for the semester.  I call it Reflection on a semester of reading and writing (you can download and use the PDF). After the conversations, the writing is easy. They’ve already thought about it and now they are ready to put it all down. To make the learning stick.

Reflection on a semester of reading and writing

 

The other thing that I added this year is the idea of a word cloud. What better way of visualizing what they have done with words this semester. I have them use Tagxedo to create a word cloud from their blog url. Some of them started with the image to help them think even more about their words, and some of them concluded with it as a sort of extra topping for their reflective post. Once I had them add the word clouds, I was curious what my own would look like. And I’d say it’s a pretty accurate depiction of  my journey here.

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John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” If this is true, many of our classrooms do not provide enough time for or put enough emphasis on the power of reflection. These days, with the opportunities technology offers us to keep learning all in one place, all my students have to do to begin to reflect is scroll through the pages of words they’ve written and shared this semester. Final exams don’t have to be boring tests that do little more than place undue stress on students. They can be opportunities for real reflection and learning.

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November 23rd, 2015

Where Do I Start?

Since I presented at the Innovation Summit a few weeks ago, I’ve gotten a few inquiries from teachers who want to start blogging with students but they aren’t sure how to start. Or where to start. Or what they should emphasize first. I’ve written them back with quick answers to their questions about choosing a platform, keeping track of students’ writing, and dealing with communicating this new endeavor to parents.

But mostly I reassure them. This is going to be so much fun!

Starting a new classroom endeavor isn’t easy. We want to always do our best and sometimes, when we aren’t sure how it will go, we put it off even if we suspect it might be in the best interest of students. Rarely are we given to time to try things out in low-pressure situations or even time to process what we learn. Blogging in the classroom happened naturally for me since I was blogging for myself personally. It felt like a way to break down the tension between online and offline life that existed in my classroom. Because I was confident, because I work in an environment supportive of innovation, I just jumped right in to blogging with my students, knowing that if anything we could learn together.

Where Do I Start-

So you want to start blogging with students? Here are five things to think about:

You are not the expert. And that is ok! That is better than ok! You are a learner and throughout this process you won’t pass on knowledge directly, but you will show your students what it looks like to learn. And isn’t that the goal of a good classroom, anyway?

Let the community know what you are doing. Communicate clearly with parents and other teachers – tell them what your students will be writing and sharing. Explain the reasoning behind it and the many benefits of opening your classroom to the outside world. Have your first of many discussions about the lasting power of words online and the way we need to treat each other in the digital space. You can see the letter I send home here: blog letter and send me an email (dille.sarah at gmail) if you want to see my digital citizen contract I use.

Start small and think visually. Students Humans are attracted to the visual. We love photos and images and our world is saturated with them. How can you challenge your students to take some of the more traditional writing they might do and make it visual? How could they create images, videos, infographics, memes, etc out of your usual content. Adding blogs to your classroom doesn’t at all mean shedding the traditional writing and reading we need students to do. It simply means that we can take those traditional ways of thinking and broaden them or represent them in new and maybe more meaningful ways. We aren’t limited to pencils and paper, so don’t make your students’ blogs into things they could just as easily accomplish offline. My students all begin by writing a six word memoir and turning it into a digital project that they can share. They may make a short video like this student; a photo collage like this student; or a simple photo and text like this student. Starting small, with a writing assignment that everyone can do and that asks students to add a visual media component sets students up for success.

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Make the blogs visible outside of your classroom. The point of blogging is to let the writing leave the writing folder, leave the classroom, to hopefully push students’ words out into the real world. That can’t happen if you’re the only one who knows that these blogs exist. Depending on the age of the student, you might open the blogs up to peers and parents only, or, if you’re like me, teaching older students, you may want your students’ words in front of experts in the field and interested audiences we may have never even met. The first step, no matter how big you go, is to ask students to create a poster and QR code for their blog. My students love this – they’ve always seen QR codes, but have no idea how easy they are to make or how useful they can be. My students make a google slide or doc that has their name, their blog name, the url, their image from their six word memoir and the QR code they made. I then hang these in the hallway and anyone who walks by can quickly get to my students’ writing and they can also quickly get to each others’ writing.

Get students reading each other’s work as fast as possible. The more comments they get, the more the writing feels interactive, the sooner there is buy in. The blog shouldn’t feel like just another place to write, just another folder to keep text in. It needs to feel like a place where students are heard – by their teacher, but more importantly by their peers and any other audiences you can bring them. Students really need help commenting on each other’s work. This was something that took me by surprise my first year blogging with my students. They had no idea how to leave productive comments. This year, for the first time, my students are really leaving meaningful comments for each other. I have given them four guidelines which you can download and use here: Good Comment Guide

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November 16th, 2015

Pivot

I’ve been stuck. You might have noticed that I’ve been missing from this space for over a month – something that hasn’t happened in the last 7 years of blogging. I’m not sure that I’ve missed writing, really. I’ve thought about it. I’ve written snippets here and there that never met the publish button. But there have been many other things filling my time and my thoughts lately, both personal and professional.

I also think I’ve been a bit confused about what exactly this space is for these days. My children’s stories feel more and more their own with each passing day and my motherhood story seems, for now, one that I tell in private or one that bursts forth in moments I struggle to catch before I forget them, logged mostly in photos on instagram. And for now, that feels right.

This weekend I gave a mini-keynote at my district’s innovation summit. They asked me, as an early-adopter of transformational technology practices, to speak to fellow educators about my journey. I began by saying the following:

Almost 7 years ago, after 8 years of teaching and one year of motherhood, I made the best professional development decision I could have ever made: I started a “mom” blog. 

And it’s true. This space has afforded me more growth, as a writer and mother and teacher than I ever imagined it would. I would never have the connections to other amazing writers, the confidence in my own power to write and convey a message, the bravery to usher my own students onto the web to begin their own writing journeys. I thought hitting publish for the very first time 7 years ago would help me focus my writing energy, help me clarify the cloudy thinking of new motherhood.

Instead, it did that and so much more. It changed me as a teacher.

At first, I kept this space secret, hid it from my students and most colleagues because I was worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, worried that I’d write something one day that would be skewed and used against me. But then I realized that was silly. That keeping my online presence and teaching life separate meant that I couldn’t show my students that I practice what I preach, that I couldn’t use what I was learning outside the classroom to influence what was happening inside it.

So I stopped hiding it. I showed my students my writing when I asked them to write too. I let them know that writing isn’t always easy, even for those of us who love it oh so much. I merged my online writing with my offline classroom and that’s when I really started to innovate. That’s when I changed how I teach.

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Lately there is so much tension in classrooms centered around exactly what I went through. We ask students to remove themselves from their online worlds when they enter the sacred school buildings. We ask them to separate out the reality of how they live life outside of our classrooms from the reality of how we assume they should live inside them. This isn’t what I believe education should do. Education should, at the very least, help kids navigate the many complexities that exist outside the classroom, education should build bridges, not put up (fire)walls.

If we expect our students turn off their phones and only search the Internet on our firewalled computers we are doing them a disservice. We aren’t teaching them how to read and interact with the world around them. We aren’t teaching them to sift through the Internet junk to find the gems. We aren’t teaching them to use these platforms to teach the world that teenagers care about much more than selfies and viral videos.

So in my class, students keep their phones on. They research and share and ask questions. They write more than they ever thought they would and they hone ideas in a public space that holds them accountable.

And me, I’m still there, learning right along with them. This is new to all of us and I just know it feels wrong to me to cut my classroom off from the new way of learning and sharing and discovering.

So I guess this is a really long-winded post to say that over the last month of not writing I’ve realized that  I’m not here anymore to write about parenting. We talk so much about what it’s like to parent kids in this digital age. But this weekend I realized what I really want to be writing and thinking about here: What is it like to teach in this digital age? How do teachers confront so many of the same questions that parents face about screen time and curated content and creating safe spaces that still encourage curiosity.

As my students work on their projects, I’m going to work on mine. I’m going to continue to practice what I preach – writing and stretching and trying new things.

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October 1st, 2015

What Happens When Students Write Publicly

“Someone in another state really read my blog?”

“I got a comment from a real expert! How’d you do that?”

“You’re like our agent, Miss. You’re my number one promoter.”

For the last five weeks, my students have been working towards publishing an op-ed. We read examples that I provided by writers who I admire. They found more samples on topics that interested them. I teach in the workshop style, studying the hallmarks of a genre and then asking students to write in the genre on a topic that they choose.

My model looks like this:

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This doesn’t look that different from traditional writing workshop classrooms. But there are a few important differences that make the cycle even more meaningful to me and to my students.

We brainstorm and ideate in a pretty traditional way, except that they publish their ideas on their blog as they think and explore. Instead of traditional writer’s notebooks (which I’ve also had great success with), my students participate in a series of small writing tasks to explore ideas – these tasks can take the form of poetry, listing, group brainstorming, short pieces, all published and open for feedback from peers, teachers and other readers. This takes the notebook that used to be the sole possession of the writer and opens up the thinking process to the community. The feedback loop opens the writer’s eyes to new ideas as they both receive feedback on their own thinking and look at and examine the thinking of others.

Next comes the pitch. When it comes time to settle on an idea to write about, I ask my students to both put that idea down in writing and to verbalize it to others. Sometimes we do it speed dating style, sometimes as whole class presentations, sometimes as small groups. But however the pitch day looks in my class, the main idea is to have to talk through the idea with an audience. To listen to how it sounds outside of their own heads. Sometimes they realize they have a great plan. Sometimes they realize it doesn’t sound fully fleshed out, or they aren’t as passionate as they first thought. Talking about it makes the idea real.

What follows is reading in the genre and writing drafts. The more reading and writing they do, the better their product. My class composes in google docs so that I can see the progress and offer feedback as they work. In the end, this saves me time on grading since I am constantly reading their work, I get to know it well, and it also leads to much better products.

Here’s where it really gets fun, though. When I was in school and when I first started teaching, “publishing” in the writing process meant handing your final draft in to the teacher and waiting for a grade. Today, for my students, publishing means hitting the publish button on their blogs and waiting for readers, comments and shares. This changes everything.

This week, our first publishing week, was one of the best of my career. My students hit publish on their amazing work, I took to social media to share it (with their permission) and the readers came. I am lucky to have an amazing group of colleagues, friends, an online PLN that always comes through and fellow bloggers who understand what a comment can mean to a writer. My students came in later in the week and were beyond excited to tell me that they had gotten comments from people they’d never met, from experts in the fields they’d written about, from other teachers, from students they’ve never met. Good comments pushed their thinking and made them feel like writers, not simply students.

One student’s piece resonated so much with her audience – teachers – that a school in Kansas shared it with all of their first year teachers. As I discussed that with the student, we both got chills and were nearly in tears. What does that validation mean to a young writer? So much more than the good grade I gave her. She won’t remember what score her writing received, but she sure will remember the time she shared a message about racism in education and people she’d never met read it and shared it and started talking because of it.

While my classroom might look in some ways like a traditional writing workshop classroom, hitting the publish button throughout the process – and especially at the end – makes all the difference.

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September 10th, 2015

The Teacher Is Not The Audience

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Six years ago, when I sat down to type my very first blog post, I had no idea how much that decision would shape me. How much I’d grow as a writer and a member of a community. How much I’d come to rely on this space to figure myself out. How much writing here would make me a better mother for the moments it forces me to see.

It should be no surprise that blogging has made me a better teacher too.

I started a blog because I needed an outlet. Because journaling wasn’t enough for me anymore. Because I wanted an audience and connections and a reason to put words on a page.

I started blogging with my students three years ago for the same reasons, really. They needed an audience bigger than just me. In this age of technology, for many of them journaling seemed superficial or forced – something to do only in school. Because my students deserve a reason to put words on a page aside from “I assign you an essay,” or “You have to pass a test.”

Last year was the first year I rolled out blogs to all my students. I wrote at the end of the year about that experience and how inspired I was by the growth and dedication I saw in my students.

And they saw it too. They told me again and again that they couldn’t believe how much they had grown as writers. That they were so happy to see what others were saying and have a chance to respond. They loved looking at their statistics and reading comments that didn’t only come from a teacher.

A few weeks ago, as we began another school year, my department decided they want in on this blogging journey too. None of them are bloggers themselves. They all have varying levels of comfort with technology and experience in the classroom. But after hearing me talk about it so passionately for so long now, they all jumped in to blogging with their students.

We’ve already learned a few lessons and I know there will be many more as the year goes on. We’ve tackled communicating our intentions to parents, setting up blogs with over 1000 teenagers, logistical ways of keeping track of each students’ individual blog, helping students to comment productively on each others’ work. And we are only 3 weeks in to school!

This morning eight teachers met in my room for a PLC no one directed us to create. We weren’t there because of any mandate or paperwork we were required to fill out. We were there because this year we are all learning together how to build a classroom writing community using blogs. We are encouraging each other to step out of our comfort-zone and encouraging our students to do the same.

The teacher isn’t the audience. I don’t want my students to write for me. I want them to write for themselves and for the people who need to hear the important things they have to say. I want them to know that their voices matter outside the walls of a classroom. That their words are powerful tools.

I will be sharing my department’s blogging journey here most Thursdays. I hope you’ll follow along.

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August 31st, 2015

Woom Bike: A Love Story

Almost 20 years ago now, when Ken and I first started dating, he was always on his bike. I went from just being an English major nerd to being immersed in the cycling community, learning a new language with each race that I tagged along to. I got to see roads in Texas that I never otherwise would have seen and I became a spectator,  supporter and feed-zone pro.

Much of our courtship was spent on, near or among bikes. We traveled together to races and got to know each other on the long drives. He got me on a bike again for the first time since I was a kid and taught me to let go, have fun and embrace adventure. We rode bikes together through Acadia National Park on the day when Ken proposed.

When bike racing took Ken up north, he met my parents for the first time, just hours after this photo was taken.

Ken Dille

Ken is the one in the red helmet with the fierce look on his face. And while he looks at this photo and sees second place, I look at it and I remember how much I admired his discipline and determination, his bravery and his tenacity as he rode and raced and sometimes won and sometimes didn’t.

Bikes have always been a part of our story, and now bikes are part of our parenting story as well.

A month ago I brought home a Woom 2 bike and watched as Ken and Miles fell in love. Ken sat staring at it, in awe of its awesomeness. He gushed over every part, continuously marveling at the depth of quality on this small bike. Miles looked up at him as he listed off the things that he wished he had had as a kid.

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He talked about its alloy rims, lightweight aluminum frame, unique frame shape that allows a lower center of gravity, short 3-piece cranks for small legs, the spot to add a cage for a water bottle, the comfy seat, the short-reach hand brakes, the super-cool reflective tires.

He said bike things like, “The geometry is really great on it” and I asked, what does that mean? Even 20 years later, the bike language sometimes needs translation. In short, it means it fits kids well. That Miles can easily sit on the seat and reach the handlebars and put his feet down if he needs to but also reach the pedals well.

Miles doesn’t call it “geometry,” but every time he jumps on his bike he says, amazed, “This bike is the perfect size for me.” He was proud of how quickly he mastered the hand breaks. He could easily put his feet down when he was feeling wary. He could ring his bell to let his sister know he was right behind her.

And I love that everything about the Woom stands out in its simplicity. It is just a really great bike to look at (no characters or sparkles or other gimmicks kids quickly outgrow). It is a classic – solid colors, everything on the bike is for a purpose, giving it a friendly and easy to use look that helped my timid kid want to jump right on.

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When Miles got on his Woom bike for the first time, I thought he might just take off. He had ridden a balance bike for a while, though he never really got the total hang of it, he was really excited about his new awesome bike and he said he was ready.

But he didn’t take right off. I should have known he wouldn’t; he’s not a risk taker, he never has just jumped right in to anything in his life. He is a perfectionist – if he can’t do it perfectly, doing it at all is a struggle.

So he didn’t take right off. And, really, I think that’s better.

It’s not better because he has fewer skinned knees or because he still stays right there next me. It is better because most things in life won’t come easy. Most things will take the discipline and determination, bravery and tenacity that I so admired in his father on a bike all those years ago.

I realized this the first time around when Nora learned to ride her bike, but the hanging on and letting go of learning to ride a bike is just a giant metaphor for parenting. I want him to take off on his own, but I don’t want him to go too fast or too far. I want to hold him up forever to prevent him from falling, but I know I can only teach him by letting go. I wish that it was always easy to balance all of life’s demands, but sometimes that balance is something we struggle to find.

IMG_0737 Woom1

 

Kenwoom

And so we’ve spent time practicing. Riding bikes in the park while Ken and I hold on to him for the most part, encouraging some risks and assuring him we are still right there.

“I want to ride my bike as good as my dad,” he said as we rounded another corner in the park, my hands holding tight to his handlebars, his feet pushing the pedals around and around in circles.

“You’re learning, buddy,” I told him.

He’s learning to pedal and look where he’s going, learning to pull the hand breaks and steer along the paths. But he’s also learning to be brave, to try things that scare him, to embrace adventure and to try again and again when he doesn’t get it right away.

“I’m learning,” he agreed.

And then, for a few long seconds, I let go.

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Woom2

 

Thank you to Woom Bike for giving Miles the bike and asking me to write about your outstanding product! I am so happy that Woom bike is now a part of our family’s continuing bike story.

 

 

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August 11th, 2015

Words In – Summer Reading Edition

I always think that I’ll have so much more time to read every summer than I do. My days quickly fill with trips to the pool, summer professional development workshops, reading for work and getting my kids snacks. Constant snacks. Nonetheless, I managed to read too. I also managed to read a few things that were outside of the usual genre I go for.

I started off the summer reading a book that I had no intention of liking. It sounded weird and I hadn’t liked the last book with a teenaged male narrator. But this book, even at the end of summer, is close to the top of my list of things I’ve read this year. Nogginwas just so unexpectedly good. A kid dying of cancer chooses to have his head cryogenically frozen and then five years later he is brought back to life on someone else’s body. Everything has changed – his friends are five years older – and he has to figure out how he fits back in to the world. It was really well written, with likeable characters and a plot line that avoided all the possible cliches it could have walked right into. I highly recommend it.

Just like I confessed yesterday that I’d never read Harry Potter, I also hadn’t ever really read a graphic novel. I’d read Maus and Persepholis, but a graphic novel outside of a historical or academic setting, hadn’t ever really appealed to me. In the spirit of broadening my reading horizons, I picked up This One Summer– the title sounded like a great book for a summer reading list. Going in, I thought it would be light and innocent and maybe even something I could read with Nora. Nope. It was so layered and complex and right away dealt with more adult content than I’d ever share with my 7 year old. The drawings were simple but managed to really communicate the depth of feeling these characters were going through. I loved the experience of reading this book. If you’re looking for one last quick summer read, add this one to your list.

On my journey through YA fiction this year, I’ve read so many books that make use of and pay tribute to poetry in various ways. As a reader, these poetic gestures are intriguing. As a writer, I love looking at how other authors have blended genres, and as an English teacher I love seeing the ways my students are most likely encountering poetry in their independent reading. And We Stay took some really heavy themes – school shooting, suicide, abortion – and mixed them in with the biography and poetry of Emily Dickinson. While this book doesn’t stand out to me after reading all the others, it was a book with interesting characters drawn in a unique way.

My favorite book that I read this summer was The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. At first I was really skeptical. It started with a lot of family history, something I don’t usually enjoy reading. Then a girl was born with wings. And I’m usually much more into realistic fiction. But Ava’s story turned out to be stunningly beautiful and painful and full of surprises. At one point towards the end I had to put the book down and text my friend Chelsea who had already finished it. I was scared to continue, I knew something terrible was about to happen and I wasn’t sure I could do it. She told me to keep reading and so I reluctantly picked it back up. The ending of the book was so good. So good. I will reread this book some day and I really hope that someone makes it into a beautiful movie. Definitely put this book on your to-read list!

I don’t let Nora watch movies before she’s read the book (Did you know the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies are pretty good? She’s read all those and we’ve watched some movies this summer. But I digress…) so I thought I’d hold myself to the same standard. I read Me and Earl and the Dying Girlon our trip to Florida earlier this summer. And while it wasn’t my favorite and I didn’t run right out to see the movie, I did enjoy it and was pleasantly surprised that it was not just another cancer romance story like The Fault in Our Stars. It was very different and had really well developed characters who I still have lots of questions about, but that’s a good thing, I guess, since I care enough about them to want to know more.

I’m a big fan of Sarah Dessen. She captures moments of teen years that still resonate as an adult and she usually paints really interesting family portraits. Saint Anything was a compelling read with interesting family dynamics and some really well-developed characters. It is getting a bit hard for me to remember which Dessen book is which, so moments of this now that I’m trying to remember it do run together with her other books. But there were some really great moments and some unique twists. If you like Dessen, you won’t be disappointed with Saint Anything.

Lastly, my only non-YA book of the summer was The Girl on the Train. A friend gave it to me for my birthday and it was a great summer mystery with some good writing. It was a strange book for me. I really disliked all the characters – not one of them did I find likeable. But at the same time, I had to know what was going to happen. That’s a trick as a writer – to be able to create some loser characters but still have the reader care about their fate. I was really glad that I read it and if you like mystery and drama and books told from various viewpoints, I recommend it.

What were your favorite summer reads? I’d love to hear in the comments!

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August 9th, 2015

Reading Harry Potter for the First Time

Before this summer, I had never read Harry Potter.

I’m a book lover. A story lover. An avid reader. But for the past 19 years, when someone has asked me what I thought of Harry or what house I’d be in, I’d have to admit that I had never cracked open a Harry Potter book.

This has earned me some pretty strange looks and some declarations of not understanding me at all. How could I never have read these books?

I did it on purpose. Well, sort of. The first book came out when I was in college. As an English major, maybe I should have quickly jumped on the Harry Potter band-wagon, but I didn’t. I let myself stay immersed in 19th century fiction – my favorite. I had no time for Harry.

I graduated from college and started teaching students who, of course, had read Harry. They loved them and talked about them so much and I started to feel like I didn’t really need to read them. I was, in my 20s, not that interested in Harry Potter.

But then I had kids. And that’s when I started to not read Harry Potter on purpose.

“You haven’t read Harry Potter!” people would gasp and choke in shock as I admitted this glaring hole in my reading history.

“I’m waiting to read it with Nora and Miles,” I would tell them.

There were plenty of stories from my childhood that I couldn’t and still can’t wait to pass on. Reading Charlotte’s Web with Nora felt like reading it for the hundredth and the first time. I read it many times as a child, but I had never read it as a mother. I quickly passed on my love of Ramona as she ventured into reading chapter books. And I can’t wait to give her Judy Blume when the time is right.

But it seemed somehow even more special to be able to discover a story together. For me to experience a new tale along with her, to talk as readers do – ask questions, make predictions, grow attached to characters for the first time. So I saved Harry Potter on my bookshelf until we were all ready.

Today we read about the Sorting Hat and Harry’s amazing flying skills.  Miles listened here and there, but Nora is all in.  We cuddled up on the couch and in my bed and read for so long my voice hurts. And neither of us wanted to stop. We will both dream of flying on brooms and portraits with people who don’t stay put. We will dream of hidden monsters and blooming friendships, of giants and wizards and spells. And neither of us knows what is going to happen.

Harry Potter Quiz

At dinner I let her take her first internet quiz. To Which Hogwarts House Do You Belong? She answered the questions, which were slightly complicated for her, and she came out with Hufflepuff. She was disappointed even though the description of being a good, kind friend and worrying about others should have made her feel good. No. She wanted to be in Gryffindor just like Harry. She passed me the computer to take the quiz (I got Ravenclaw) and to her dad (He ended up with Gryffindor) and then she even tried to make Miles take it. When he wouldn’t cooperate she filled in answers for him and insisted he would be in Slitherin.

And this is why I waited, I thought as I watched her talk about each house as if she could really just go there tomorrow. Because reading Harry Potter was never supposed to be about the magic of my childhood. Reading Harry Potter is supposed to be about finding the magic in the childhoods unfolding right before my eyes.

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