Other Recent Young Adult & Kids Reads

Over this break I read a few other young adult and kids books beyond the two read while I was in COVID quarantine. When I saw this tweet a few days ago, it made me think of these books (and so many more).

I’m not sure how this one ended up on my list, but I loved it. I have a fondness for short story and essay collections in general. This one was pretty wide ranging. They were all holiday love stories, but that’s about all they had in common. I found myself thinking about several of the stories for days after finishing them. I also highly recommended the collection to both of my kids and my oldest finally realized, after I’d brought it up several times, it was a book I gave her several years ago. Which is so not a surprising revelation in our household. Sigh.

Several years ago I read Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist and The Parker Inheritance. I loved them both so I had high expectations for this one. At the same time, I wasn’t really feeling it when I started it. Something about the premise didn’t pull me in the way those earlier two books of his did. Fortunately that didn’t last long for me. Ant, the 10 year old main character, is the narrator and he is absolutely wonderful. I am always impressed by adults who are able to write kid characters who feel so authentic. Even Ant’s dad, who struggles quite a bit in this story, is likeable and relatable. Johnson has created amazing characters here. The story doesn’t have a ‘they live happily ever after’ ending and it shouldn’t. It hurts a little but it is believable. And powerful.

I love Kyle Lukoff’s When Aidan Became a BrotherToo Bright to See is an amazing book as well. Books with LGBTQ+ characters frequently cause me some concern. I worry that they will be hard to read or heavy or, honestly, I’m not sure what. I just know I walk in with worry and hesitation. This one couldn’t have been better. It’s a ghost story and the story of a transgender boy coming to know who he is. The part that really struck me, probably because I’m a parent, was when Bug (the main character) realizes he is transgender and can’t wait to go home and tell his mom. His uncle, his mom’s brother, was a gay man and drag queen and he feels confident in his mom’s acceptance. Except then he doesn’t. As he heads home, he begins to question how his mother will respond. He thinks of all the stories he’s heard of families who were angry, disappointed, and unaccepting and he worries. Of course, his mom is as fabulous as he’d known she would be, but that moment of worry was so real. It made this a story that kids can connect with, no matter how they believe their family will respond.

Books for young adults and kids have come so far in my lifetime. I would never have had the chance, in elementary or high school, to read books like these. I am so grateful that my own children, quickly getting past even young adult books, do have such strong, brilliant, diverse stories to enjoy and learn from.

Other Recent Adult Reads

Earlier in the fall, the theater department at my husband’s university performed Nickel and Dimed. I was familiar with the book so I was interested in seeing the show, but somehow I’d never read the book. It was one of those books that was highly talked about when it came out and that I can remember thinking, “I should read that.” But didn’t. I recognize that I can’t read everything. I don’t like it but I accept it.

The stage show is amazing. One of the things that struck me was how the character of Barbara (the author) was able to talk about her new colleagues in each location (as she took minimum wage jobs rather than her middle/upper middle class life as a journalist) with immense respect and care and without condescension. I left the show wondering if the book, written twenty years ago, was equally respectful. My thought was that this would be a norm now but maybe not twenty years ago.

The book is. And, sadly, the book may be about two decades old but it feels, in many ways, that it could be written today. If you missed it, like I did, I highly recommend it. It is, unfortunately, still worth reading.

This next one, like Matrix (which I wrote about before), was recommended by Roxane Gay. This review, from NPR, pretty well sums up my feelings about this book. I was uncertain about this book, as I frequently am about books to be honest, but in the first chapter I was hooked. I didn’t want to stop reading. The main characters shouldn’t have been likeable, in many ways, and yet I loved them and was deeply invested in their mission. I need to check out his other books.

 

Working Hard & Failing

Come Monday* I’ll be back in in the classroom with my 21 third graders (at the moment – there’ll be more soon, I’m sure, as I teach on a military post). I’ve got some plans for the week for what we’ll do in our reading workshop and our writing workshop and our math workshop. I’m figuring out how our ancient China inquiry work will look for the next few weeks. I’m trying, really, really trying, to think about individual support and small groups that I need to meet with to help kids with their social, emotional, and academic skills. I am.

But I’m failing. A seriously hard fail.

This pretty well sums up how ideas are feeling to me right now.

Because my brain can’t get past how I’m going to manage 21 third graders in one classroom and keep them as safe from COVID as possible. Any other thoughts, any other plans for our time together, get interrupted by these concerns and, to be totally honest, fears.

I’d started to feel better by mid-October and into November. We’d moved to completely flexible seating and we gathered on the carpet for morning meeting and read alouds. The numbers in our school and in the other schools around us had stayed pretty low and, even when cases were happening, I truly believed the infections were coming from other places. It didn’t seem to be spreading AT school. We had lots of talk about proper mask wearing and about hand washing and that all seemed to be working pretty well.

Until the week before break. Then we had multiple cases (myself included). And in the two weeks since then it just seems to be spinning out of control. I don’t feel like I can have my kiddos return on Monday in the way that we’d been working.

I am going to have to go back to having them stay in the same seat all day. I’m going to have to go back to activities, lessons, and games all done at distances from one another. I need to be able to know who has been in close contact with who so that if, really I think when, someone tests positive for COVID, it isn’t all of us who need to pause and stay home.

I hate this for so many different reasons.

  • I hate it because it is scary. None of us have been untouched by this disease in the last year and a half and seeing it spread so quickly is scary. While my 8 and 9 year olds might not be aware of exactly what’s happening, they will know something is up when our routines change. The steps I feel I have to take to keep my students safe are going to make them, at least some of them, feel worried and anxious because they’ll know the risk is greater.
  • I hate it because it means I have to take away some choice and ownership from my students. I have to tell them where to sit (or at least tell them they have to keep sitting wherever they sit). I have to control their behavior in ways that I would prefer not to do. The classroom will, again, feel more like it is mine rather than ours.
  • I hate it because I have to give some of my brain’s focus, at least, to safety precautions. I have to make choices based on safety instead of on learning or community or joy.
  • I hate it because it causes me anxiety. I am back to feeling seriously stressed about how to do my job.
  • I hate it because it impacts my ability to do other things. I don’t have the brain bandwidth to support my teammates, to communicate with families, to read and write professionally, and to enjoy time spent with my family. The thinking-about-how-to-change-our-daily-routines-to-keep-us-safe thing is front and center and shoving everything else out.

I know I’m not alone and my heart goes out to every educator and every family member who is facing this with children.

I do feel like I should point out that this is my 24th year of elementary school teaching. I’m good at this (I could be better, but I’m definitely good). I’ve spent more than two decades learning how to teach and work with children and their families. I’m not the average teacher (if only because I’ve been at this for nearly a quarter century).

AND I’M STILL DROWING THIS YEAR.

I am working super hard and not teaching anywhere near as well as I was doing a few years ago. Take a second and really let that sink in.

Teachers are working super hard.

Teachers are not able to perform in their jobs as well as they have in the past.

It’s not our fault. It’s not the kids’ fault. It’s not the families’ fault. Mostly, I’ll go out on limb and say, it’s not the administrators’ fault. We are, ALL of us, in a terrible place. And there is not an end in sight.

 

*That link has nothing to do with this post but as soon as I thought “Come Monday” it was stuck in my head so I thought I’d share it. For the record, I could do that a LOT more frequently as random thoughts often trigger song lyrics for me. Like, ALL the time. So count your blessings.

Young Adult & Kids Reads

Whether it is accurate or not, I view books written for adults as being more time consuming and requiring more of my brain power than books written for young adults and kids. So the books for adults that I read recently were mostly ones I had put on hold months ago and delayed, while the books for young adults and kids weren’t delayed, they just showed up whenever they were ready. These are the two that were here and that I read while in COVID quarantine.

This is a title that’s come up in my virtual book club and I’m not sure I even realized it was a young adult title until it arrived. I didn’t totally see the end coming, which was pretty amazing. I also, though, wasn’t super thrilled with it. (Which is really about me, I know, because I don’t like having characters I liked turn out badly in the end.) I enjoyed the multi-genre aspect of the book, the way the author used journal entries and things to add to the narrative. I’ll probably read the sequels, but I’m not in a rush for them.

This book was one that kept popping up on various librarian and teacher blogs and on twitter. I very much like Anne Ursu and yet, something kept making me push this book back behind others on my to read list. I’m not sure why. I finally did pick it up and read it in less than a day. It is as good as people had said. I’m not sure it’s one I can pull off as a read aloud with my third graders (it’s pretty long, for one thing) but I may give it a try. It really gets at ideas of classism, sexism, gaslighting, and more. The characters are wonderfully diverse in many different ways, although I don’t know that it would be obvious to younger readers. If I choose it as a read aloud that is something I may have to help them notice. The ways the characters accept what they’re told and struggle to believe in themselves feels so real, even as they’re in a fantasy world.

These two books were both written by white women, which means I didn’t do much stretching of myself as a reader here. That’s a little disappointing to me.

Adult Reads

While being stuck in my bedroom for days, due to COVID, I got a lot of reading done. As noted previously, I had put a lot of books on hold during the summer and delayed them. Initially they were delayed until the end of September, then I pushed them back to the end of October, then to the end of November. I planned to push them back again and forgot, so at the start of December, book after book kept showing up for me at the library. That turned out to be fantastic as I had lots of time to read. These are the books for adults I read while I was stuck on my own.

The Bad Muslim Discount is written in two voices. One, the male, is mostly hilarious. The other, the female voice, is heartbreaking and hard to read. Interestingly enough, the male is more likeable (which is probably not something I should admit to). I read this book in less than a day and loved it. Many of the more minor characters were especially fabulous. The title comes from one of them, the landlord of an apartment complex where both characters end up living. He was one of my favorites. This is a first novel and I hope Masood keeps writing. (My sister recommended this one to me. I’m so proud when I know what made me put a book on my to read list.)

This book, Matrix, was one of a series of books that Roxane Gay tweeted about and recommended. I think I only put a couple of the books on hold (the other will be in a future post), showing great restraint. This book was tough for me at the start, as it is not a typical read for me. It’s about a woman in the 12th century who becomes the head of a nunnery. There was essentially no dialogue, something that frequently makes a book difficult for me. I didn’t immediately connect with any of the characters, another challenge for me. I never truly liked the main character, but other characters were amazing and I did find myself greatly respecting the main character. I wouldn’t say I loved this book, but I am glad that I read it.

I was not familiar with Ross Gay before reading this book (which I have no idea what caused it to be on my list) and I now adore him. These short essays range greatly. Some of them made me laugh, others really touched me, and some were not memorable to me. I love the idea of finding something delightful in each day and his delights did fascinate me. I think it would have been better to have read this book over a longer period of time and sat with the delights a bit longer. It’s not a book to be read quickly and I read it quicker than I think I should have done.

I wrote about this one previously.

Oh my goodness, this book. I read this one because it was recommended by my sister-in-law. If I remember correctly, the author used to be the art teacher at her kids’ school. This is a collection of five short stories and the title novella. The short stories are impressive. They are definitely short, all under about 20 pages. They create whole worlds and are heavy in that short while. But they have nothing on the novella. I read it (about 160 pages) in one evening and then couldn’t go to sleep. On the publisher’s website it is described in this way:

Set in the near future, the eponymous novella, “My Monticello,” tells of a diverse group of Charlottesville neighbors fleeing violent white supremacists. Led by Da’Naisha, a young Black descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, they seek refuge in Jefferson’s historic plantation home in a desperate attempt to outlive the long-foretold racial and environmental unravelling within the nation.

Maybe the story wouldn’t have hit me as hard if I didn’t know Charlottesville as well as I do now, having married into a family that lives there and spending time there over the past quarter century. Maybe. But I think it’s more than that. The story feels post-apocalyptical. Typically I’m not a huge fan of that but it also hasn’t ever felt so real. This story felt like it’s just inches away from happening. It’s a story that will be sitting with me for a very long time, I believe.

I read light books, usually mysteries, sometimes romances. I’m good with that as I strongly believe in reading widely, including things that are candy for the brain. It’s books like these here, though, that are the ones that stick with me, that change me, that help grow. I enjoyed all of these (although enjoyed is not really the word I would use for Matrix or My Monticello but it is the best I can find to encompass this reading) and they all pushed me to think more deeply about things that I want to learn more about and better understand; how religion and race play roles in our society, what it means to be a woman or to be Black or to be both, choices people make both conscious and subconscious and why we do so, and how authors craft a story.

It’s All Connected

In the past couple of weeks I have ready many books and it has been a gift to have the time to do so. Most of them were books I had put on hold at the library over the summer and delayed getting so I remembered very little about why I had wanted to read them or who had recommended them. The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray was definitely in that category.

The book is a fictionalized account of the life of Belle da Costa Greene (born Belle Marion Greener). Belle was the personal librarian to J. P. Morgan in the first part of the 1900s. As I began the book I was confused about the fiction label on it and wondered what was historical fact and what was fictionalized. Belle was a Black woman who passed as white for her adult life so, not surprisingly, she did not keep letters or records that might have given her away, even after her death. I paused in my reading, early on, and skipped to the Historical Note at the end of the book, which was helpful in giving me some insight. I continued reading, enthralled by Belle’s story.

At some point, about mid-way through the book I had more questions about the process these two authors had taken to tell this story. So I again paused and skipped to the back, this time to read the Author’s Notes and Acknowledgments from each of them.

In the Author’s Notes, both authors (one white and one Black) reflect on how the pandemic and the racial turmoil throughout the country impacted their revisions of this book. From Victoria Christopher Murray’s Author’s Note:

We created a safe space between us as we discussed the history of Black America, the history of white America, and the hope that one day these two Americas would converge into one.

All of those thoughts, all of those emotions, spilled into Belle’s story because so much of what we were experiencing in our society as we wrote was what Belle wanted to avoid by passing as white more than one hundred years ago. She didn’t want the color of her skin to be used as a weapon against her, an excuse to keep her relegated to the lowest jobs, the worst neighborhoods, with little possibility for a better life.

That phrase, “All of those thoughts, all of those emotions, spilled into Belle’s story” made me stop immediately. That recognition that what is happening to us and to the world around us impacts our thoughts and our actions seems so obvious while also seemingly not understood in our society.

Many people, I think, would not have noticed how their work was being shaped by outside forces in this way. Too often we see aspects of our lives and aspects of our world as residing in distinct compartments, separate from one another, in isolation. It seems so clear to me that this is not possible. That our lives and our world are deeply intertwined and connected and all aspects impact each other.

It seems equally clear to me that we, as a society, do not (or will not) recognize this, for if we did, we would have to face many things that make us uncomfortable. Recognizing how connected laws, banking systems, school rules, societal norms, and more are to the beliefs and actions of ourselves and others would force us to see how deeply white supremacy (and other biases and supremacies) are embedded in our country. We prefer to believe that laws, banking systems, school rules, societal norms, and more work like impartial algorithms (an oxymoron, but hopefully the point is clear) completely removed from any human bias.

I’m coming to believe that unless we are willing to see these connections, we will never be able to make significant change.

When Positive Is Really Negative

I have so many thoughts and they’re something of a jumble in my brain.

Nineteen years ago, on December 19th, I took a home pregnancy test and learned I was pregnant with our first child. My husband was skeptical. It was not until, the following day, our 5th wedding anniversary, when I when to the doctor’s office and took a pregnancy test there and confirmed the results, that he truly believed it. In my mind, there was no difference between what I did at home (pee on a stick) and what I did at the doctor’s office (pee on a stick), but the doctor’s office stick felt more official.

That ran through my head this week when I took a COVID-19 home test on Wednesday evening after hours of feeling achy, having chills, and fighting serious fatigue. I’d been to the doctor that morning (about my chest pains) and had no fever or anything. But everything changed by the evening and the test was positive. I reached out to my admin and made an appointment for a PCR test the next morning back at my doctor’s.

Thursday morning (that’s just yesterday – whoa) I headed to the doctor’s and swabbed my nose again. It felt like nineteen years ago. I swabbed my nose at home and then, the next day, swabbed my nose at the doctor’s office. Somehow, I managed to hold onto hope that the doctor’s office swab would be different than the one at home. (19 years ago I was not hoping for a different result, just in case that isn’t clear.)

I also spent time Thursday morning figuring out who might have been a close contact at school, defined as anyone with whom I was within six feet for more than a total of fifteen minutes over the previous two days. I named several colleagues and felt stumped when it came to my class. I teach third graders. They are frequently within six feet of me. On and off, again and again, every day. Determining who fit that definition was overwhelming. Which certainly makes my administrators’ jobs more complicated.

On the plus side, apparently our schools have Binax tests on hand and were able to immediately give them to my colleagues who were close contacts. Protocals at school were followed and I feel comfortable with how all of that went (if guilty for all the work it made for my colleague and the stress and challenges for them and my families).

I am now in my bedroom for ten days. We are lucky to have a large enough house and plenty of bathrooms to make it possible for me to isolate in this way with minimal inconvenience to my family. On the rare occasions I leave my room, or when my husband needs to come in and get some clean clothes, we have KN95 masks. Masking in my own home stinks. Having both my kids home and my husband off of work (after today) and not being able to be with them stinks. Staying holed up in my room through Christmas stinks.

Other jumbled thoughts:

  • I feel stupid. We’ve (as a family) been so careful for so long. I feel that I must have done something stupid to have been infected. (Intellectually I know that many people who have been even more careful than I have gotten this virus. Still.)
  • I feel guilty. How many people have I exposed before I had symptoms and took a test?
  • I feel grateful. So far, after feeling super awful Wednesday evening, it has felt mostly like a minor sinus infection. My breathing, so far, feels good. Again, so far, I can smell and taste.
  • I feel irritated. I’m stuck in my room, all alone. I want to be with my family. I want us to be able to do things together, whether that’s as small as watching a movie or eating dinner or bigger like taking a long walk or finally putting ornaments on our Christmas tree.
  • I feel lucky. I have a job that immediately stepped up to take care of things and I was able to take leave without any challenges. We, as a family, have the resources to have home tests available, anything I might want/need to keep from going stir crazy, and the space to all be here together as safely as possible.

A friend recently shared this twitter account with me. It has been hitting hard ever since.

More jumbled thoughts:

Two years ago I missed the last day and a half before the winter break because I was put on administrative leave. It was exceptionally traumatic. Missing those same two days again this year hurts. It brings back some of the pain and stress from two years ago. Unlike two years ago, this time I am contact with friends and colleagues about what is happening and having their support makes a huge difference. (So thank you all!)

Lastly, this month has been something of a roller coaster.

Early in the month, I got my first copies of my first book.

Then mid-month, all of this.

I am at least mildly terrified to see where things might be at the end of the month…

The Main Thing

from the Virginia Department of Education

We spend a lot of time in education, and as educators, on how we can do a better job with instruction and teaching kids to read, write, do math, think, observe, analyze, etc. I firmly believe that matters. There are powerful ways to teach and less-than-positive ways to do it. (I mean, really, I wrote an entire book on academic conversations. I have strong feelings about how we teach children.)

Who We Teach

However, it is far too easy for us to lose track of the fact that we teach children. We teach them lots of different things (some intentionally and some unintentionally). We teach them.

One of the things that brings me joy at Educon every year (well, prepandemic anyway) is listening to the teachers there tell what they do. “I teach 10th graders English.” “I teach high schoolers art.” “I teach 12th graders government.” The focus is on the students, not on the subject.

I teach third graders.

I don’t have anything profound to say here. I’m just struck, after a couple of days in Williamsburg at the VASCD annual conference, by how important this is. At least, that I think it is. How different could education look if we put students first? If we truly thought about the kids in front of us before we thought about the content requirements?

How We Spend Our Time

We spend meetings as teams unpacking standards to be sure we understand what we are expected to teach. We spend time planning assessments of that content. We analyze the data from the assessments of that content. Then, maybe then, we look at individual students and think about what they need, if they didn’t seem to master the expected content and skills. Are we ending up with a focus on equality rather than on equity?

And what about the who we are expected to teach? Why are the kids last in this process? What could we do to start with our students and then consider the content?

More Questions Than Answers

I am really not sure what this might look like. I think the knowledge we have about social and emotional learning is a part of it. But not all of it. Kids are human beings and they are complicated and layered and full of ideas, questions, desires, and needs. What would it look like to plan a lesson or a unit or a day starting with the kids in our care?

What might professional development look like, if in addition to workshops on constructivist strategies and questioning skills and problem solving ideas, we had workshops about kids? What if you could attend workshops focused on what we know about kids at a certain age or how best to teach students who are quiet in class or strategies for working with students who are people pleasers? Could that be valuable?

Please, if you have any ideas about how this could look (or why I could be totally off base) share them. I am feeling at a standstill and it is immensely frustrating. I would love any thoughts.

The Signs are Clear

In case you don’t actually know me (waving hello!), I am a laid back person. I am an eternal optimist. I believe we can, and will, get through things. I know there will be rough times and bumps along the way, but I am always confident that we’ll come out just fine in the end. I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember. It’s so well established that when I have moment of panic or stress it causes panic and stress for my family because it is so deeply out of character for me. I go with the flow.

For several weeks now I’ve had chest pain. It’s on the right side of my chest, thank goodness, meaning I haven’t had to question whether or not it is heart related. It’s not constant but it is definitely regular, daily, happening frequently. And it hurts. Enough that I often put a hand on my chest and press, hoping to ease the pain. As I write this it is happening. It feels as though something is pushing hard against my chest, from the inside, squeezing me. It hurts.

When it first started happening I did some online searching (probably not super smart but as I am an optimist I don’t usually freak out when I search health concerns). My diagnosis was that it is stress or anxiety related. My oldest, who has been dealing with anxiety for more than a decade, confirmed that for me when she told me she gets the same kind of pain. (That was both reassuring and heartbreaking for me to learn.)

from Memphis CVP’s flickr

I’ve been working on deep breathing practices but I can’t tell that it makes any difference.

I share this because I think it is a signpost worth noticing. I can’t pinpoint one reason why I am feeling stress or anxiety on a level to cause this pain. I don’t feel more overwhelmed than normal, especially heading into the holiday season. There’s a lot on my plate and that’s a norm for me. I don’t like to miss out on things and I function better when I’m busy. I could list reasons for stress but they aren’t new so I don’t buy that.

I think this chest pain is a flashing neon sign of what it means to be a teacher 18 months into a global pandemic. (Probably not just teachers, I’m sure, that’s just my world.) I don’t think there’s one thing, or even six or seven, that is making my body respond in this way. I think it is the reality in which we live.

I’ve said before that teachers are not okay. It remains true.

I am, because of who I am and how long I’ve been doing this job, probably as okay as anyone is going to get in education right now. And I am clearly not okay.

All the Technology

Today we used our document camera a couple of times in ways that brought me so much joy. I went without a document camera for a bit and what I missed most was the way it allows us to share student work. We did that with student writing and math today.

We’re trying out ideas in nonfiction writing. So this kiddo shared her labeled picture. With our mic, of course.

I’m math, I challenged students to share 6 candy bars with 4 people. I gave them a ‘plate’ (a piece of construction paper) and ‘candy bars’ (index cards). They could draw on or cut the cards, whatever worked for them. Then a few students explained how they shared the candy bars.

One way of sharing 6 candy bars between 4 people.
Another way to share the candy bars.

I recorded the ways they shared.

I’m spite of the pictures I took, two of the kids who shared were girls and two were boys.

Having students be able to see the work of their peers is on par with being able to hear what their peers are saying. The document camera and the mic/speaker have made it possible for the kids to be the ones teaching each other. That’s where we are now and that’s exciting.