What I’ve Read: The Hate U Give (13/365)

Cover of the book, The Hate U Give

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

I missed the first wave of The Hate U Give when it first came out because I figured it would be a book that asked for my attention. I wanted to be able to give it. Then, when I was finally able to make that space in my brain, the library’s hold list was full of folks who must have had similar ideas.

Finally, it was my turn last week and I started and finished the book in less than two days. I was worried it would take a lot longer because of the tears that kept coming in the first few chapters. I managed to get myself under control and loved every part of Angie Thomas’s book.

For those coming even later to the party, The Hate U Give is the story of Starr Carter and the aftershocks in her life after she witnesses her friend’s murder by a police officer during a traffic stop.

Thomas creates a world and characters that are consistently fully fleshed out. It’s an important feat for any author, but one all-the-more necessary given the short shrift marginalized characters get across so many popular texts. From Starr to her family to her friends, each character has fullness I wish I didn’t find as surprising in modern fiction, and this helped me feel compassion for nearly everyone in the story. No one is perfect, and everyone is worth knowing.

 

Why

The temptation here is to simply say – #WeNeedDiverseBooks, but I’ll go a bit further than that.

I picked up the book because I felt like I was missing out. I’d tell others to pick it up because of Thomas’s masterful conveyance of Starr’s emotional and intellectual reactions to the shooting, its fallout, and the questions it raises in her world. Even without the shooting, Thomas opens a window into code switching and its possible emotional toll.

Yes, I’d lobby hard to make sure students of all shades have access to this text. It might be just as important to make sure it finds its way into the hands of an equally vivid array of educators.

 

In the End

Sense finishing The Hate U Give I’ve been working to come up with a clear explanation of why I think this book affected me deeply. I think I’ve got it. Thomas’s writing never feels as though she’s writing against a narrative. Instead, from the first page, she says to readers “this is the world.” She does it with honesty as to ever-possible darkness, but also, with hope and belief in the agency of characters she clearly loves.

What Else I’ve Been Reading

  • This post from elementary teacher Jennifer Orr is a wonderful example of why I love reading her and her ability to give us a view into the lives of some of our youngest learners.
  • While Shana White‘s twitter feed is always on point, her blog posts like this one give are consistent gifts, building understanding of experiences much different from my own.
  • Sabrina Stevens’s post about the importance of the #MeTooK12 campaign is something I’d bring to any upcoming faculty meeting, along with the question, “What are we going to do?”

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?

A History of a Thing I Lost

Light Reading

Are there books you can read more than once? I’m talking outside of the fervor with which you approached Harold and the Purple Crayon or Dr. Seuss as a child. Are there books that keep bringing you back to their pages for more?

For me, the list is incredibly few. At its top sits The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia. I won’t pretend that an 18th Century book by Samuel Johnson first published in serial form fits my go-to profile for favorite books. This one, though, is an example of the right book at the right time.

Rasselas and I first became acquainted during Fall semester of freshman year in college. The prof who taught my required Foundations of Inquiry course was also an 18th Century Brit Lit scholar, and he used a quotation from Rasselas at the top of his syllabus.

Our discussion of that quotation on the first day of class influenced a line of thinking for me that was something like, “College. Okay, yeah. I see how I could like it here.” And, I did.

I found Rasselas on the shelves of the local used book store and devoured it over winter break (a tradition I kept for many years after). The book became my gift of choice when friends faced major life choices and changes. I have no knowledge of whether or not any of them read the book, but handing it to them was an act of saying, “This was a flashlight when I needed it. I hope it can be the same for you.”

While I compulsively searched every used bookstore I encountered for more copies to add to my stock, one version, a small, light green edition stayed on my shelves with my notes in the margins. While not the, this was my first edition. We’d been on the journey together. We’d conversed about the importance of making your choice and being content.

Then, I gave it away. At a moment of realizing someone else needed it more than I did, I handed that edition off, hoping the combination of Johnson’s words and my margin notes might offer more than a clean copy could.

I miss that book. Since handing it over, I’ve not found another edition of Rasselas. We haven’t spent this much time apart since we met in college. Until we meet again, I’m trying my best to remember the lessons we learned together.


This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

On Whose Shoulders: Lisa Delpit’s _Other People’s Children_

cover of Other People's Children

A quick keyword search for Lisa Delpit on the blog will show I’ve thought and written about her work pretty deeply over the years as I’ve thought about what it means to be the other in my classroom (both as a teacher relating to my students, and for my students relating to me).

As I continue this series of posts about those thinkers, practitioners, and researchers who directly influenced what you’ll find in Building School 2.0 in the run-up to its Sept. 8 release, I cannot say enough about Delpit’s work and this title in particular.

In Other People’s Childrenc, Delpit is challenging, fair, thoughtful, and caring in laying out – over the course of several essays – some key considerations and understandings teachers (particularly teachers who are white) need to take up so that they might be better versions of themselves when working with students who come lived experiences wholly different from their own.

More than anything, I hope you pick up Other People’s Children, select a chapter, and start a lunch-time reading group with faculty friends. The conversations won’t be comfortable or easy, and they shouldn’t be. Most important conversations, most acts of changing your mind, are difficult. That’s good.

I hope, in some small way, Chris and I honor Delpit’s ideas and weave them with those of others.

#WorthReading: What I saw in ‘The Bluest Eye’

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. 

I’m midway through my first reading of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. This revelation usually garners a response of “Really?” or “What?” or some derivation thereof. I’ll give you a moment to shame me for my cultural incompetence before moving on to one of the effects this book is having on me.

For anyone who’s read the book, you know there’s a scene where the character Pecola enters the house of a boy she meets for the first time on a playground. Morrison alerts her reader to the fact that whatever is about to happen in this scene will be unpleasant.

If you, like me, have never read Bluest Eye, I won’t go into detail about what happens. That’s not what prompts this writing. Instead, this post is inspired by what didn’t happen and what I was sure I was about to read.

Pecola is not raped in this scene.

I’m struggling with the fact I was mentally prepared for that to be the outcome. As Morrison described the boy with whom Pecola is interacting and their brief conversations, I was sure she was giving me the literary equivalent of a trigger warning.

What transpires between the two is nowhere near kindness. The events elicited deep sadness.

Having some time to digest it, though, the thing that hurts my heart the most is my ready assumption that I should be steeling myself against sexual violence. I have turned this thought over since the reading, trying to understand why I assumed that the bad thing that was about to happen to this character would be the worst thing I could imagine.

It’s likely the intersection of several factors.

The last book I finished was Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. If you’ve seen or read any Flynn, you know she writes for the jugular. Any character, sympathetic or not, is going to be put through hell. It’s possible that Dark Places primed my brain for this “kill and torture your darlings” philosophy as the default for whatever Morrison or any other fiction writer had in store.

This is possible, and I worry that Flynn doesn’t actually bear the weight of my expectations.

I worry that it’s a million threads weaving together that led me to expect that this young, female, African American, impoverished character who is described as “ugly” several times leading up to the exchange will be raped.

And I worry I thought this as I yelled at her to “Turn around!” when she and this boy started talking in the book. And I worry that I thought this when he closed the door as they entered his house and my eyes started to well with tears.

Mostly, though, I worry what it implies that the actual events that transpired in this scene still led me to think, “I’m so glad he did not rape her.”

Do you get this? Because it’s been heavy on me since the reading.

The absence of rape with the presence of other embarrassments I wouldn’t wish on any other person was a relief.

Race, class, gender, power, prescribed concepts of beauty – this is how some part of my brain has come to expect them to intersect when presented as Morrison presents them here.

I cannot explain how deeply it hurts to realize this is what I was assuming would happen.
It is the same feeling I have when I assume a queer character in a mainstream fiction will either be coming out or be emotionally and/or physically abused for being different.

It’s also where I find hope in the world outside literature. In the same way I know the LGBTQ experience is fuller, richer than the coming out process or the events of Boys Don’t Cry, I know that all of the cultural identifiers Pecola carries with her do not mean the hurt and torment visited upon her are certain in the real world as they are each time someone discovers The Bluest Eye.

Perhaps thats why I turn to literature. In it I can see what is possible if I work to make the world a more perfect reflection of what I hope to be possible and a portent of things I must work against in case our demons overpower the angels of our better natures.

#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.

154/365 Schools and Markets

About halfway through Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The moral limits of markets, a phrase from the book’s introduction is still in my head:

The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument but too little. Our politics is mostly overheated because it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content.

Now, before you start worrying Sandel is going down the Bill Bennett path of virtue, let me explain. Sandel is making the argument throughout this book that we’ve started to use the idea of the market and it’s cold economic understanding as a stand-in for thoughtful discourse and the raising of questions worthy of a people striving to be the best versions of themselves by asking why and whether we should act in certain ways.

We have become a market society, Sandel writes, rather than a market economy.

I’m only halfway through the book, which means I’m through the section where Sandel handily identifies the problem using examples from a variety of social landscapes, and I’m interested in his arguments of how we should act as I finish reading the book.

The thing that stands out here, and a piece Sandel highlights nicely early on, is the market language that has come to be commonplace in education. We can allow the market to play out as it will through various mechanisms of school choice. Schools might shutter and some companies may find ways to shorten the shoestrings they call budgets for the educating of children. But, is a free market the best way to ensure the provision of a public good? By listening to and acting on arguments based in economic thinking divorced from the moral imperative to enrich the thinking and actions of all our citizenry, are we endangering the future and losing any hope of closing the gaps we so often reference?

Sandel would argue we are (and I’d join him in that), but the mere need for such an argument should point to the idea that not everyone thinks this way and that perhaps some of them are setting policy by looking at education through an economic lens and not a humanist one.

To create the systems of education we need and to lean in to the hard work of understanding what our highest aspirations should be, we need a combination of both of these lenses in the same way any telescope finds and refines it’s view of what the eye cannot see beyond the horizon.

If we are to live in a marketplace, let it be one of ideas and discussions of our moral aspirations.

110/365 I had great Fun ‘Discussing Diabetes with Owls’

The first time I read anything by David Sedaris was over a weekend when a friend and I had taken the train up from Central Illinois to housesit for my aunt and uncle. I was in high school, and this was my first major “solo” adult outing.

I picked up Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day at the Borders on Michigan Ave. and felt pretty extravagant because of it.

We didn’t have a Borders. Not coincidentally, the now-defunct chain therefore held a cosmopolitan mystique.

I share this to help communicate the position of Sedaris in the formation of my adult identity.

I bought those books at a grown-up store, in a grown-up city, during a weekend stretch of independence.

I read Naked first and laughed aloud throughout the book.

Thinking, “Adults get to read all the cool stuff,” I didn’t occur to me that Sedaris’ stories were connecting adult content with adolescent humor. What made them funny to adults was that he was dealing with adult content, but thinking about it in a way adults weren’t supposed to. What made it funny to me was that he was writing for my sensibilities.

Having completed Sedaris’ latest effort, Let’s Discuss Diabetes with Owls, I’m glad to know we’re progressing apace of one another.

The book presents a more mature Sedaris. Throughout each essay and story there was a feel of trying to understand things, of peering through his narrative telescope to find fodder in his life and realizing things look different from farther away.

While his essay “Loggerheads” evoked moments of wincing and laughing, the piece concluded with me turning to my friend Abby and saying, with a slight lump in my throat, “Dammit, I don’t expect him to be poignant.”

Where one of Naked’s concluding essays skirted around issues of the sexual and hilariously profain, Sedaris presents several entries in Owls that speak more directly to his sexuality in terms of the love he feels for his boyfriend Hugh. One takes on the issue of gay marriage in a logically political way that I found myself thinking a younger Sedaris wouldn’t have attempted.

“States vote to take away my marriage rights, and even though I don’t want to get married,” he writes in “Obama!!!!!, “it tends to hurt my feelings. I guess what bugs me is that it was put to a vote in the first place. If you don’t want to marry a homosexual, then don’t. But what gives you the right to weigh in on your neighbor’s options? It’s like voting on whether or not redheads should be allowed to celebrate Christmas.”

Whereas this struck me an evolution in Sedaris’ voice, readers will also find the biting comedy they remember from earlier works like Barrel Fever. In “I Break for Traditional Marriage,” Sedaris writes as a married man who finds justification of his killing spree following his local legislature’s legalization of same-sex marriage. It was an essay that had me laughing in the blend of hilarity and discomfort I’ve come to hope for from Sedaris. At the same time, the awkwardness was made more important, more personal because of the content of earlier non-fiction essays.

I was content upon concluding Let’s Discuss Diabetes with Owls because it had given me the experience I was hoping for as a long-time fan and because it offered assurance that Sedaris and I are both growing up nicely.

22/365 Stop Reading Whole-Class Novels

“Every ninth grader here reads Romeo & Juliet,” a teacher tells me. She’s explaining the  unyielding nature of the school’s curriculum, and I stop her short.

“Well,” I say, “everyone receives a copy of Romeo & Juliet. Everyone probably sits in class with their copy of the book as long as it’s being taught. And, everyone probably, answers whatever quiz questions or essay prompts they’re asked. To say that they all read Romeo & Juliet, no, that’s a groundless claim.”

The teacher stares at me.

I’d acknowledged the secret of contemporary schools we’re not supposed to acknowledge. Though the classroom in question was an English classroom, that was for purposes of discussion. We could easily have been discussing a history class, and she could easily have claimed every student is required to learn about the Battle of the Bulge.

Again, it would have been untrue.

At some point, long ago, teachers and students entered into a pact that has been passed down from generation to generation – we could claim they were all engaging in the intended content so long as we turned a blind eye to the fact that they were not, in fact, engaging in this content.

In the English classroom the pattern is easy to predict. The whole class is assigned a section of a text to read. The next day, all students are in their seats, the teacher begins a conversation by asking some question or another regarding the content of the assignment. From here, our game begins.

Perhaps 5-7 students take over the role of answering the teacher’s questions. Some, but not likely all, of these students have completed the reading as assigned. The rest of this small group have read some of the text – enough to get by in conversation. From here, we have the handful of students who maybe started the reading, but decided to look online to see what others had posted rather than reading the actual text.

They enliven our conversation with reactions to the comments of the first group, agreeing and using previous language in their descriptions so as not to step too far astray from what might sound correct.

Finally, we have those students who did not read the book and have no intent of reading the book. In some cases, they cannot read the text. More often, they choose not to because what they hear in class disinterests them or they learned years ago that this kind of thing isn’t for them. No joy can be found here.

Luckily for this last group, the others take on the lion’s share of the work, and they need not worry about being called on to speak.

A teacher who does call on these students has broken the pact. The answers she receives will be fumbling if they’re answers at all. Each person in the classroom will look on uncomfortably, waiting for the exchange to be completed. For the student in question, the teacher has moved to prove the point that books are painful things, not worth their time.

This story plays out in some form or another across classrooms, subjects and schools on a daily basis. The pact remains intact.

Two ways exist for improving the experiences of both the students and teachers, but only one is worthwhile.

The first, which is most often found in those schools run by people taking on the mantle of “ed reformers” is to implement new structures and checkpoints designed to force all students to engage with the material and perform as expected on assessments. While this accomplishes the initial intentions of assigning a blanket text or assignment, it also, unfortunately, accepts that initial intent as correct.

What is preferable and much more likely to result in student learning is the allocation of choice. In the original English classroom, remove Romeo & Juliet and replace it with whatever the students choose to read. Require reading, yes, but require reading alone. While reading Romeo & Juliet may have inherent value in the education of students, that value is nothing when compared with the inherent value of reading, which so few students were doing before.

I understand this is not how most of us were taught. If we were given any choice at all in the content we consumed, it was likely in addition to some text we were reading with our class as a whole. More likely still is the idea that the majority of students read neither the whole-class text nor the choice text with ample fidelity.

For those still clinging to the idea of an entire class of students reading the same book, I would answer, they never were. And, to get them all to be, literally, on the same page, would take a managerial effort that could accomplish the goal at the loss of any joy that could have lurked within the assignment in the first place.