What I’ve Read: All the Pretty Horses (6/365)

Cover of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses

If we’re connected on Goodreads, you know I’ve set a challenge for myself of 52 books this year. If you follow me in this space, you know I’m all about the importance of educators talking about their reading and lives as literate citizens. As such, I’ll be talking a bit about my completed books as they stack up this year.

The Breakdown

The first book I’ve completed this year was Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. My only other experience with McCarthy was his Blood Meridian, which I “liked” but which also made me weary going into Horses because Meridian has some pretty intense violence throughout.

Horses is a different sort of western. The tale of John Grady Cole and his decision to set out from his Texas town on horseback for Mexico in 1949. McCarthy’s prose has struck me as powerful and sparse in each of his books I’ve read so far. At one point in Horses I said aloud to myself, “I’m glad he’s read Hemingway.”

My initial description of Horses might be that it’s a coming of age story, but it’s not quite that. At the close of the book, Grady remains who he was at the beginning. Instead, McCarthy adeptly shows us and Grady what it means to be himself across situations and circumstances beyond his small-town upbringing.

Why

I picked up All the Pretty Horses for two reasons. The first is availability. As part of a 40th birthday present, some friends and I gave my friend him all the National Book Award winners in fiction for each of the years she’s been alive. Horses won in 1992. I’d closed out the year with 2017’s winner Sing, Unburied, Sing and had read 2016’s recipient Underground Railroad. Because Sing and Railroad centered around African American protagonists, I was curious to see what through line, if any, I could detect in the Award’s panelists’ tastes across books. Wonderful writing is the answer.

My second reason was one of my best friend’s esteem for the book. He’s one of the best writers I know, and so I trust his tastes. I’ve also had a lifelong curiosity with the writers read by writers I read.

In the End

Several nights last week saw me awake much later than I’d intended because I was wrapped in the voice of this book. Not only is Grady a character I enjoyed following, but McCarthy creates a narrator at once removed and invested in his protagonist. This mix of care and every-possible demise made Horses difficult to put down and satisfying to finish.

What Else I’ve Been Reading

The One Question I Ask Everyone (4/365)

question marks painted on tree trunks in a forest

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Just before I started my new job last year, I tried to think about what kind of signature I might want to add to conversations. I was about to meet many more teachers in our district than I’d ever had the chance to interact with before, and I wanted to be conscious of the impression I was making – using it to someone start to shift culture.

The question I settled on, “What are you reading?” As a language arts coordinator, it made sense.

When I would meet with grade-level teams, start a professional development workshop, engage in a coaching conversation it was the same question. From k to 12 I’d ask the room, “What are you reading?”

A few days after a meeting with a team of elementary teachers whom I’d worked with several times across the year, their principal told me one of the teachers had confided he was upset following our time together. I was understandably worried. Not only do I take my job to support teachers seriously, I’m a Midwesterner. “No, no,” the principal said, “He thought the conversation and work were great. He was upset because he made sure he had an answer for when you asked what he was reading and then you didn’t ask.”

I hadn’t.

It was the end of the year, I was working with a team of teachers with whom I’d established a rapport, and I hadn’t felt a need to break the ice. What had initially been meant as a seemingly innocuous question that could start to chip away at culture had been repositioned in my mind as a convenient ice breaker. The thing was, this exchange was evidence the culture was changing. The same teacher who was upset I hadn’t asked was one of the many many many teachers throughout the year who had needed to take a beat on my first asking of the question.

“I’m not really a reader,” many teachers would say before we dove into the work of helping students build identities as lifelong readers. To a person, though, they were able to list several texts when I would push, “So you didn’t read anything yesterday?”

“Well, not a book,” they’d say, and I’d point out that I hadn’t asked what book they were reading. From there, teachers would talk about magazines, news sites, blogs, and any other medium you can think of. By the end of the conversation, I’d usually jotted down a few new places I was interested in reading.

Then, I would point out, “If this is the longest conversation you’ve ever had in this building about yourself as a reader, then we’re missing an amazing opportunity to connect with our students.” If the kids in our care only see us as people who make them read the things you’re “supposed” to read in school, and not actual daily readers ourselves, then we’re missing myriad opportunities to be powerful role models of literacy.

After this conversation at one of our middle schools, the school’s librarian polled the faculty on their favorite books and then took pictures of each person holding the book. She pulled the titles from the library shelves and displayed them alongside the pictures at the top of the stacks. Within days, each of the teacher-preferred titles was checked out.

Another teacher of elementary students took to posting a printed photo of the cover of whatever book she was currently reading outside her door. Alongside it was a paragraph explaining what the text was about and another recounting how she had come to choose the book.

One principal posted photos of what she was reading on her office door – a teacher book and a juvenile title. When students found themselves in the office as a result of a poor choice, situations were diffused when conversations started with questions of whether they’d ever heard of either of the titles.

In my own office, where only adults ever come to visit me, I have two printed pictures hanging, the book I’m reading as part of professional learning and the book I’m staying up too late each night reading (Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, respectively).

The folks I meet with know me pretty well now or know what I do in the district before we sit down. As a result, I’ve shirked asking the question. I plan to bring it back. I miss the expectation of it. I miss the positive assumption that the people with whom I work, people charged with fostering learning daily, are readers. I also missed the sometimes overwhelming lists of recommendations the question elicited like when I asked the question in a meeting of librarians and we ran dangerously close of scrapping the whole meeting agenda while we shared our newest favorites. You know what, though, we captured every title and everyone in the room asked if we would share the list in the meeting notes. Building an expectation of reading means building a culture of reading. And that means giving people space to talk about their reading.

What are you reading?

#WorthReading: Claudia Rankine’s _Citizen_

I don’t take as much time as I’d like to read. When I do, it is helpful for me to know someone I know thinks the book I’m about to open was worth their time. This summer, I’ll be posting each Tuesday about a book I’ve read recently that is #WorthReading over your summer.

Cover of Claudia Rankine's

I do not remember where I first read about Claudia Rankine’s prose/poetry, National Book Award finalist Citizen. What I remember is that the online article said, “Read this book now. That is all you need to know. It is worth your reading. I don’t need to tell you about the book because it is that good.”

Dutifully, I ordered my copy and dropped it on the pile of to-read books. In January, as I was on my way out the door for the train ride to Philly for EduCon, I picked up the book, figuring, “It’s not that big. Perfect for a train.”

I was wrong in two ways.

1. Rankine’s book is big. The blend of poetry and prose packs more subtext about racial identity, race, perspective and resilience in the face of the marginalization of institutional racism. I read as I always do, with a pen in my hand. By the end of the train ride, I’d made only two marks in the margins. There was too much I wanted to capture. Rankine, in the stories she tells, has done the underlining for her reader by deciding those stories were worth including in the book.

2. It is perfect/imperfect for a train. Riding alone, I was constantly looking up, toward strangers and evaluating whether I could break the divide between us with, “I need you to read this because it is my responsibility now to pass it on.”

And that’s a large piece of why Citizen is #WorthReading. It is an American Lyric as advertised, and it is a lyric worth repeating, worth spreading, worth returning to as a reminder of stories too often muted and voices too often left out.

Dana Boyd proves ‘It’s Complicated’

Dana Boyd’s It’s Complicated has been on my Kindle for longer than a book of its quality should have to wait in digital limbo before a person gets around to reading it.

Complicated is Boyd’s distilling and examination of years of exploration of the online lives of the American teen. Making the title apt, the text shows that teens’ relationship to online spaces is complicated and best summed up for me in the closing pages:

As teens work through the various issues that emerge around networked publics, they must struggle with what it means both to be public and to be in public.

I tried, as I made my way through the book, to figure out where I was agreeing with Boyd because she was making points I’ve made in public before and where I was agreeing with her because she’d masterfully unveiled a new line of thinking. In the end, I tipped my hat to Boyd because she’d made points that had never occurred to me and woven them together with what I realized were my own simple ways of thinking.

Explaining Complicated to a friend the other day, I explained, were I designing a syllabus that included the book, I’d follow it quickly with Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American City.

Because that’s what Boyd does here, she pounds the digital concrete of modern American cities and attempts to understand how teens are hanging out there the way they used to do on stoops and in malls across the country.

Additionally, she works to understand adults’ fears that have driven teens to these spaces and adults’ fears now that they’re there. Boyd writes, “[S]ocial media services like Facebook and Twitter are providing teens with new opportunities to participate in public life, and this, more than anything else, is what concerns many anxious adults.”

I read the book with a constant refrain in my mind, “What kind of adults are we forcing these teens to become?”

For adults to make their way through that fear, Boyd later adds, “For adults to hear the voices of youth, they must let go of their nostalgia and suspend their fears.”

Perhaps this idea is where Complicated hits its highest note. In helping readers to pull apart the fear from the fact, Boyd sets the stage for a measured, informed conversation of how we create and monitor online and physical spaces for our teens.

I read the book with a constant refrain in my mind, “What kind of adults are we forcing these teens to become?”

If you’re looking for something more informed to say than, “Kids these days!” then it’s time to pick up Dana Boyd’s It’s Complicated.


 

You can find a full list of Kindle notes and highlights from the book here.

Join Us for a Book Study and Conversation Series on Connected Learning

Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 10.10.55 AMDo devices arriving in the Fall have you feeling a little unprepared? Do you find yourself excited about the prospects of teaching in a connected classroom, and yet also unsure where to start? Have you dabbled with connected learning in the past and are looking for a group of like-minded folks to push your thinking?

If you answered, “Yes,” or even, “Maybe,” to the questions above, you’re going to want to join the SVVSD ITC’s book study of Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom.

The book offers an introduction to the principles of Connected Learning as well as real-world classroom examples from classroom teachers across the country who share their stories of leveraging connected classrooms to increase their students’ abilities to create and connect in the world at large.

Who: Anyone who is interested is welcome to join the book study which will be facilitated by SVVSD Instructional Technology Coordinators Bud Hunt and Zac Chase.

What: An informal study of Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom.

When: The group will hold meetings twice each week on Tuesday at 3:30 PM and Thursday at 8:30:30 PM beginning June 3, taking a recess throughout July and then continuing in August with a concluding meeting the week of August 18:30. Participants are welcome to join either or both weekly calls. (All times MST.)

Where: The meetings will take place in Adobe Connect in this classroom (https://connect.svvsd.org/connectedlearning/). The book can be downloaded as a free PDF here or for $.99 from the Amazon Kindle Store here.

Why: As our classrooms become places of greater and greater connectivity, it is incumbent upon us as teachers to consider the best ways to leverage that connectivity to help students learn and impact the world in which they live.

Connected Learning Principles:

Connected learning is…

  • interest-powered,
  • peer-supported,
  • academically, oriented,
  • production-centered,
  • openly networked,
  • and driven by shared purpose.
DISCUSSION SCHEDULE
Content Discussion Dates and Times
Foreword & Introduction 6/3 @ 3:30PM or 6/5 @ 8:30PM
Chapter 1 – Interest-Driven Learning 6/10 @ 3 PM or 6/12 @ 8:30 PM
Chapter 2 – Peer-Supported Learning 6/17 @ 3:30PM or 6/19 @ 8:30 PM
Chapter 3 – Academically-Oriented Teaching 6/24 @ 3:30PM or 6/26 @ 8:30 PM
JULY RECESS
Chapter 4 – Production-Centered Classrooms 8/5 @ 3:30PM or 8/7 @ 8:30PM
Chapter 5 – Openly Networked 8/12 @ 3:30PM or 8/14 @ 8:30PM
Chapter 6 – Shared Purpose & Conclusion 8/19 @ 3:30PM or 8/21 @ 8:30PM

#wellrED Week 2

José, Larissa, Scott, and I got together Thursday night in an on-air google hangout to discuss Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children for the second week running. While the schedule said we’d be talking about “Part 1” of the book, our conversation focused only on “The Silenced Dialogue.”

It was a thought-provoking hour of conversation that I’m still mulling over, and likely will be until next week’s conversation. You can read about the catalyst for the reading group here, and join the group here.

As for my part, I’m enjoying having a space to look forward to each week where race, ethnicity, culture, privilege, equity, power, and other critical issues that are easily overlooked in education is the set focus.

Last week, I switched from the print to Kindle version of the book. You can track highlights and comments here.

More importantly, consider joining in the reading. The book is a collection of essays, so you can easily jump in mid-book. Next week, we’ll be talking about pgs. 48-69. Join the hangout or the twitter chat. Maybe just post to the discussion board. Either way, let’s elevate the conversation and critical thinking around these important issues of practice.

It’s about time to show we’re #wellrED

#wellrED logoEarly February, I announced that Jose Vilson and I were starting a book group through GoodReads for folks whose lives are entangled with education. We saw a general lack of conversation around the tough issues we face in districts, schools, and classrooms, and thought maybe there was something we could do about that.

A little over a month later, and we’ve got about 50 members of the #wellrED group, and are about to start our conversations around Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children. Just looking at the group members, I know this is going to include some great dialogue. Folks from all over the US have signed on to think deeply and listen to understand other people’s thoughts around the book.

You should too.

Pick up a copy of Children today. You’ve got plenty of time to read the introduction and forward by the time we post this week’s questions Wednesday. Then, join us Thursday from 7:30-8:30 EST for an on-air Google hangout discussion of what we’ve read and/or join us for a twitter chat at the same time with the hashtag #wellrED.

Being connected gives us a chance to create the type of professional learning we’ve been looking for. Hopefully, this discussion is something you’ve been hoping for.

If you have any questions about any of the above information, leave a comment below, and I’ll be happy to help you get connected.

The Book Group We’ve Been Waiting For

#wellrED logo

You and anyone you care to invite are invited to join the new book group on GoodReads – #wellrED.

Jose Vilson and I have started the group, and our first book study will start March 19 when we dive into Lisa Delpit’s inaugural work Other People’s Children. The book is scheduled to last 5 weeks, with a second book starting not long after that.

I anticipate online discussion forums, hangouts, and twitter chats will be on the schedule as we move forward.

More than all that, though, is my excitement over the conversations we’ll be having. For me, it’s been a jarring experience heading to Colorado after being on the East Coast for 5 years. Here, there is little-to-no practical conversation about race, class, privilege, and all of the other difficult conversations that should come up when we consider what it means for people of all backgrounds to come together for a joint educational enterprise.

I’ll let Jose explain his hopes for the group, and I’d like to think this is a continuation of his EduCon conversation with Audrey Watters – “The Privileged Voices in Education.”

I don’t expect the conversations to be easy. I expect some folks will be uncomfortable. That’s how growth and change usually work. I also expect that it’s an important conversation we’re not having enough of in our schools, in our district’s, and in our country.

Join us.

121/365 These Boxes Belong Everywhere

One of the best non-running aspects of being a runner is the slower exposure to the communities in which I live. A choice to make a turn in my running route has often brought me into knowing hidden gems of the towns and cities where I live and run.

Such a thing happened today when I stopped to turn around and head back home at a pavilion of a park along my route. There, I saw the box pictured below. A closer look told the box’s story.

book box

book box sign

Something like this should be in every park in every town across the country. What’s more, there should probably be two levels of boxes right on top of one another. The upper box with books for adults and the lower box with books for children.

Imagine an initiative of elementary schools throughout a community to create these boxes for every park they were near, to stock the boxes, rotate the books, and track the history of the project.

Not only would such a project bring literacy to community common spaces, they would act as signposts as well. Signposts alerting the community to the fact that local schools see themselves as part of a larger ecosystem as well as signposts tethering schools to the community and helping students understand a small act of civic engagement.

As soon as I typed this, I also started conceiving concerns around such an initiative. First among them was the defacement of the boxes. This is a reason to move forward with such an idea, not turn away from it. If the boxes are defaced, it presents true challenges of citizenship for the students involved and for the entire community. Raising such issues to the proper public officials again establishes channels of visibility between schools and the community.

These may be difficult problems to navigate, but I’d rather have students rising through our schools who have experience solving these problems than have students who were sheltered from addressing difficult community issues. It’s a question of citizenship.

Thanks, Friends of Martin Acres.

120/365 Smoldering in the Minds

Fires in the Mind cover image

This has been a summer of attempting to get through many of those books which have lived on the shelves of three different houses now without actually having, you know, been read.

Aside from the weak-willed ordering of still more books from Amazon and picking up a few the other day at the local privately-owned book store, I’m making progress.

Today, I finished Kathleen Cushman’s Fires in the MindIt earned two stars from me on GoodReads.com, but I wanted to want to award it much more.

Cushman and her teenage collaborators take as their focus of investigation the idea of expertise and how a person becomes an expert. As they work through these ideas in the first few chapters, they turn their attention to schools and what formal education systems can do to encourage the same kinds of mind fires as students’ outside interests as discussed in the first half of the book.

From just this premise, I was hopeful. It’s a topic that has the potential to illuminate faculty meetings, and pre-service teacher classrooms everywhere. What are we doing in education if not working to encourage students’ curiosity and ability to work toward expertise?

The book falls short in a few ways.

First, Cushman laces the text with quotations from her “collaborators” throughout. These were teenagers who participated in the Practice Project as an attempt to answer the questions mentioned above. The quotations made the reading choppy and I found myself working to hold on to a singular narrative voice. While appreciating the inclusion of direct ideas from students, I often found myself wishing they had written the book outright alongside Cushman rather than Cushman trying to put their words where she felt they belonged.

Similar to this, the student quotations are apparently taken verbatim from student interviews. As such, they include the odd error in traditional grammar. I suppose this is an attempt to validate the approach and show that these are regular kids offering up their ideas in their own voices. I celebrate that idea. At the same time, should Cushman have faltered from Standard Formal English, her editor would surely have dinged her on the mistake.

If we are talking about kids becoming authentic collaborators, it feels wrong to lower the bar for how their words are presented.

The other fault I found as I was reading was the lack of direct references to others who have walked this way before and done the work of research expertise and engagement. Perhaps this was done so as not to crowd out the students’ voices. For me, though, it ended up taking the legs out from under the text. I would be far more likely to recommend this book to others if the student researchers’ findings sat alongside and made reference to the others in the field doing this work. At the back of the book, Cushman acknowledges that the work of the Practice Project was informed by the writings and research of many others and lists those texts, writing that she was glad the students were able to read the other authors’ work.

By hiding this until some curious reader tries to figure out what’s happening, the book creates a sort of fence around the students’ work that keeps it in a different arena than the experts. This keeps them as “student experts” rather than full-fledged “experts” and the separation was a perpetual frustration for me.

If you are going to pick up this book, and I’m sure there are those who would benefit from its reading, start in the middle. This is where the text starts to wrap the students’ findings around the everyday work of schools. Each chapter in the concluding half included passages that sought to provide concrete suggestions for making homework worthwhile, creating engaging projects, etc. I almost missed this when I considered putting the book down and walking away early on.

As I was reading Fires in the Mind, I was hesitant to acknowledge my criticisms of the text. I finally came to terms with the fact that criticizing the book was not the same as criticizing the important work and her collaborators engaged in throughout the Practice Project.

The project sounds as though it was worthwhile, informative and engaging for students. The retelling of the project, however, left me wanting more.