Geography Club: Brent Hartinger

There is a lot that can be said about Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club.  It is a quick read and I think that my students could work through the book even if they find themselves uncomfortable with the topic.  I would encourage all of my students to read this book because it illuminates the isolation that some students feel simply for being themselves.  Many students are bullied for being different and fear being bullied so much that they are not willing to share their differences with others.  I can completely understand why students would seek refuge in a club where they can be free to express themselves as they are — not who they pretend to be.  I wish Russel would have seen Kevin for the type of person that he was and would have held more closely to his own friendship with Min.  He got it right in the end I guess but it seemed a little high school drama-ish to me.

This book would be great to help students to understand that everyone is different.  Whether they are a different in size, shape, color, or sexuality every student should be free to express themselves without fear of being rejected by the popular kids.  Yet, every generation/year/class there are distinct cliques where students cannot even look at others without repercussion from the alpha group.  For the lack of a Geography Club and a Russel Middlebrook, my students should read Geography Club to understand that differences should be celebrated rather than feared.  Everyone should fight for the right to be themselves, not a poster-child of what others want them to be.  I would hope that my students would be able to see that even the kids that everyone may feel do not belong, like Brian, have a unique part of them where they are similar in one way or another to everyone.  And, that it is  people like Brian that have the most courage of anyone in the school.

Last year I got to witness two students come together despite there vast differences in popularity because they shared a passion for the card game Yugi-Oh!

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Ball Don’t Lie: Matt de la Pena

Matt de la Pena crushed it with this book.  The characters are wonderfully written and the story is excellent.  Again, I am not a basketball fan.  I honestly haven’t watched a full NBA game since Larry Bird and Michael Jordon were both still playing.  I never fell in love with the game.  however, this book conveyed the passion of the athletes in such a manner that I was bummed that it is the off season for the sport.

While reading the book I could see one specific student as Sticky.  This student was very similar to Sticky.  They both have similar quirks and both seem to live for the game.  Whenever Sticky was playing ball I could see my student.  Sadly, when he wasn’t playing ball and we got a glimpse of his struggles in life I could still see my student.  I felt sorry for Sticky, I could easily empathize with him.  I have had a foster brother and have seen kids bounce from house to house by ‘parents’ that do not want them.

There are many issues I could discuss with students.  I could discuss the relationship of stealing from a person versus a store like Dante.  We could discuss topics from ‘Stranger Danger’ to the protecting oneself in a teenage relationship.

I wept when Dante showed Sticky the three rocks and how far they were from the wall.  That was one of the greatest analogies I have seen/read/heard in years.  Unfortunately, it was all too true.  There are ‘unwanted’ things and even people in this world.  There are way too many students like Sticky; students that can only hope to escape their situation in life through a game.

I feel for students like Sticky.  I hope with all of my heart to show students like him that there is more than one option.  School can also be an escape.  Kids can be passionate about math, or science just as much as they can love a game enough to make ten, twenty or fifty free throws in a row.  It is my job as a teacher to get my kids to that free throw line and toss it out there time and time again because I have given them the confidence to build the ability.

I also must develop students like Anh-Thu that already see the success they can achieve inside the walls of a classroom.

Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend: Erica Wurth

Erika Wurth’s debut as an author was a tough read for me.  It was tough not because of the story, but because of the story…   I can see many of my female students living a life just like Margaritte (I am sure that some do with minor changes here or there).  I am at a total lose as to what I should do with this book.  I loved the relationship she had with her cousin, and the honesty from which it was written.  However, I spent years in the military and I’ve been known to curse with the best of them at times, but the language is brutal and as I read I was distracted by the imaginary complaints from parents seeing the F bomb twice in the first sentence of the book.  I think I would need to talk to parents specifically about the language in this book before recommending it for one of my students.

Having said that.  I can see myself talking to several parents and guardians.  There is simply too much truth in this book to keep it from my students.  There are a plethora of real life problems that my students face that are mirrored in this book.  As Sherman Alexie pointed out in Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, alcoholism is a huge problem for on reservations and is often suffered by those that find a way to leave the reservations as is the case of Margaritte’s father.

Teenage pregnancy is commonplace in Martin.  There were three births to high school girls and fathers last year.  And drugs, I could go on for days about the drug problems my students face.   It is incredibly sad to know that drugs and alcohol have touched the lives of many of students.  I had my students write a minimum of one page typed, per week last year.  Many of my kids would  talk about family members using drugs and alcohol.  They would describe relatives passed out on the street or the sofa.  It broke my heart.  I think this is why this book is so hard for me to get behind.  My students live this stuff.  I don’t know that reading it is necessarily a good thing for all of them but I think it could really put some things in perspective for some of them.

I hate this book and I love this book.  It is a catch 22 in written form.

Marilyn Nelson: How I Discovered Poetry

Marilyn Nelson may be my new hero.  She knocked it out of the park with the heroic crown of sonnets in A Wreath for Emmett Till, but How I Discovered Poetry is an amazing book of poems as well. 

This video is an outstanding recitation and response to the title poem.

 The poems tell the autobiographical story of Nelson’s youth.  It was a time of great turmoil in the United States.  Nelson’s father was an military pilot and she moved around the United States several times during her youth.  During this time there were several mental/physical wars.  There were wars with political concepts such as Communism and wars fought over the treatment of fellow human beings during the Civil Rights Movement.

Nelson reads a selection of poems:

http://www.npr.org/player/embed/272654805/273768875

There are some great discussion points from racism to commonplace teenage struggles.  This book makes the link from the actions of the past to the minds of the present.  It makes the history of the era come to life.  I could either focus on one poem at a time or a collection of poems together. There are many issues that students need to explore in this book with regards to social interaction and cultural understanding.

What I would also like to explore with my students would be the very concept of the book.  I would love for my students to use Nelson’s poetry as a mentor text to help them write their own autobiographical collection of poems.  I think that would be a great accomplishment.  Most of my students struggle with the very thought of poetry.  Surely all poems have cooties of some form for seventh and eighth graders.  I think Nelson is such a master that with some guidance from me her poems can each easily be seen as a short story to the eyes of a poem hating teen.

I think her poems would also be great mentor texts for helping to teach various figures of speech.  She plays with the words in ways that would engage students and help them to understand irony, sarcasm, similes, metaphors and analogies.

Thanhha Lai: Inside Out & Back Again

Some books you read and question the criticism about them.  They are either good when critics say they are bad, or they are bad when critics say they are great.  Inside Out & Back Again has received a National Book Award, is a Newberry Honor Book and a New York Times Best Seller.  This book deserves all of its accolades and more — it is a great book.

I will strongly encourage my students to read this book.  There are several lessons that students can take away from this book.  The biggest being the lesson compassion for others.   I wept when I read about MiSSS SScott showed her class the pictures her sent her from Vietnam where he gave his life for children like Ha.  Tanhha Lai reads an excerpt from that section in the video below.

Bullying is a terrible problem for students.  We have all had to pink face kid in our lives at some point, some have moved on unscathed while others are scarred for life.  There are to many pink faced kids in the world that continue their lives unchecked by a society too afraid to correct the child’s despicable actions. I cheered for Ha when she laid out the boy because she did not like hurting him.  She understood that causing harm to others is the easy road while refraining from violence is by far more difficult.

Ha was an adult in the body of a ten year old.  She could read and comprehend philosophy.  She could figure out the percentages of fractions and could see the beauty of nature and appreciate the gift of a full belly.  By all accounts, she was years ahead of her peers but was treated like an inferior because of a language gap.

I think it would be a great project for students to write about what they think it would be like to be student that is superior in ability and skill to your class mates but to be treated poorly as an incompetent because they communicate differently from you.  Students would have to think critically about Ha’s struggles and try to express how their own struggles would be in their modern world.

Book Love: Chapter 1-2


It is hard to imagine delving into the teaching world without ever having read the words and advice of some masterful teachers like Nancie Atwell or Penny Kittle and my heart yearns for a first year Do-Over.  After only a few chapters of Kittle’s Book Love, I have found several reasons to change the way I have gone about teaching my seventh and eighth grade language arts classes.  She is completely right about so many things.

It is easy to skip through grades six through twelve by playing school.  Students are very able to pretend they are working and progressing by paying attention to the conversations of others, asking friends, and getting a few tidbits of information from CliffsNotes.  They can easily go from fifth or six grade through graduation without ever actually reading what is required from them.

 In all honesty, I was one of these kids.  I hated assigned reading.  What was the point?  I could fake my way through a discussion about Fahrenheit 451 or Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, by asking my friends a few questions before class and either regurgitating the comments that others made or simply making up something that seemed logical like, “They realized Huck wasn’t a girl because he couldn’t thread the needle,” I spat forth when discussing how the disguise of Sarah had failed Huck (my teacher thought it was a brilliant observation).  I hated that I could get by so easily.  I vowed that if I were ever a teacher I would pay attention to my students and understand there was so much missing from many students education.  It was my goal not let them pull the wool over my eyes.  I read one required book between sixth and twelfth grade, Dalton Trumbo’s book Johnny Got His Gun.  If my teacher had not made the link between Metallica’s

“One” and the book, I would have given up after the second chapter.  He promised to play the video in class after we finished the book so that we could compare the two.

I planned on going into the Army and I was horrified by the story.  I picked my job based on the fact that I wanted to be sure that I would not suffer like Trumbo’s character — armless, legless, and faceless in a foreign country begging for release rather than life — when the recruiter told me that Cavalry Scouts were in front of the military force and had a life expectancy of 36 seconds in a full-scale war, I signed the contract right away.  I thought that either I’d be dead for sure, or collected by other soldiers pushing through the battlefield and returned home.

In the Army, I found myself with a lot of free time on radio watch and grabbed Anne Rice’sInterview with a Vampire from a friend.  At the age of eighteen it was the first book I read in three years.  Over the next few months I had read all of the Vampire Chronicles.  Looking back, I hated that it was so easy to fake my own education.

After discovering reading during my time in the U.S. Army, I wanted to become a teacher.  I wanted teach kids how to enjoy learning English, not to hide from it.  Then I hit college.  I was not at all ready for the amount of reading.  I enjoyed reading, but my pace and stamina was no where ready to digest a book every other week in American of British Literature.

Again, Kittle is right we are not preparing our students for life in general, let alone college, if we do not first give them a love of reading that they can develop over time to build stamina.  Though I love Jane Austin and Shakespeare now, I would have avoided them like the plague in school I never got hooked on reading enough to explore the depths of either author.  Those authors, as great as they are, are not the answer.  They are a target to aim our students at while allowing them to read for the love of reading.

We can assess student comprehension through simple conversation, book reports can change from tedious actions to fun defenses of literature and non-fiction.  I look forward to reading how Kittle gets her students to share what they have taken from a text.

Kwame Alexander: The Crossover

I must first admit, “I am not a basketball fan,” but after reading Sherman Alexie, and understanding the importance of the game to my students, I figured I’d tackle some of the basketball books for the course.  As my kids say, “Ball is life!”

Anyhow, as I am not a fan, my jargon for the game isn’t exactly what it was when Jordan and Bird played.  I quickly fell in love with this book.  Kwame Alexander uses an excellent mixture of writing styles to help readers learn more about the mindset of the narrator.  For example, Josh’s love of English has him define certain words and use them in complete sentences while his love for rap has him reciting personal rap songs about his basketball prowess.  As stated earlier, I was thrilled with the way Alexander wrote The Crossover because he would often define the terminology he was using — the crossover is a basketball term for rapidly changing the ball from one hand to the next.  Stephen Curry demonstrates in the following video.

I found myself needing to look up a few terms but I know that my students are very familiar with the dialect of basketball.  I feel that the language Alexander uses will hook several of my students.

Josh “Filthy McNasty” Bell narrates the story of two identical twins growing apart over the course of a basketball season and how the loss of a family member brings them back together. Along the way Josh learns of his father’s health condition and why he did not continue his career as a professional basketball player.

There are several higher level thinking projects and activities that students could engage in to demonstrate comprehension of the text.  However, there are also many more important conversations that my students could have about adolescence, jealousy, consequences, responsibility, and grief.

Students could also create there own form of writing that is broken down into the format of a game that they like, like Alexander did with a basketball game to drive his story.

In learning more about the author, I am going to drop some not-so-subtle hints that my school should try to participate in his Book-In-A-Day workshops.