Other Duties As Assigned by Emily Visness

Nerdy Book Club

Summer is here, and as the weeks of shuttling my kids to swim team practice, swim meets, and for-fun swimming consumes many of my waking hours, I also spend time chipping away at my enormous “To Be Read” list. Like many readers, my TBR list is an ever-growing mountain, and each time I read one book, it seems three more get added to the pile.  Due to my job, for years I have read mostly middle grade and young adult fiction.  I teach 8th grade as a special education inclusion teacher, and it is my job to push in to the language arts and social studies classes to co-teach with the general education teachers, serving all students with and without disabilities. Now, if you looked at my job description and my list of official duties, you would not find avid reader or passionate recommender of books or zealous advocate…

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Books – An Essential Parenting Tool

religious-viewpointParenting in this modern age is hard – especially when your family is the type that doesn’t allow what everyone else’s family allows.  In our family, we are pretty strict when it comes to the shows our kids watch, their access to video games and the internet, and bedtimes.  Sometimes my kids complain about it, but they’re getting older and are beginning to see some negative effects of looser parenting in their friends and classmates.  As a teacher, my students are often shocked when I tell them the rules at my house – my 13 and 10 year old eat what I cook or not at all, are in bed by nine, read every day (ok, mostly), practice their instruments, and aren’t allowed to play video games on school nights.  We used to not allow even TV on school nights, but as they’ve aged we’ve let that slide if homework and chores are done.  My son has a phone and it is locked up like national secrets are held inside.  He doesn’t know any of the passwords for parental controls or to add apps.  He doesn’t even have internet access on his phone, and a few times this school year I got texts during the day when his teachers would let the kids play test review trivia games that required him to log in to a session using his phone.  The texts, to which I never responded, all looked something like this:

 

Mom what’s the restrictions password

Mom we’re playing a review game

Mom I need the password

Mom

Please

Mom

Mom

I hate restrictions now it’s too late

 

Sorry, son.  I know that soon I will have to loosen up and let him have more freedom so he can learn how to be appropriate with internet access, apps, social media, and more.  The point is that I’m a careful parent.  However, there is one area in which I am not restrictive.  I am open and honest with my kids about race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, and I let them read widely and diversely.  I tell them the truth, and let them read the truth, no holding back (with age appropriateness in mind). I know many of my friends, and even family members, probably disagree with me on this. When it comes to talks of race, many of them are still of the “we don’t see color in our family” mentality.  These two articles illustrate the problems with this philosophy if you’d like to read more – here and here.   Now that I’m a teacher, a mom, and a reading advocate, my social justice soul won’t allow me to be anything less than honest with my kids.  I’ve tried to educate myself over the past few years on the issues people from these groups face, and listen to or read about the perspectives of people from marginalized groups when they share their stories.  I do it because I want to understand, and I want to pass that understanding on to my children.  We buy and read lots of books, and I make a point to buy diverse books written by diverse authors – my kids read more books about people different from them than similar.  As a parent, it’s my job to mold them into responsible, empathetic, social justice-minded citizens, and we need to read all we can about others so I can do that job well.

As with all aspects of parenting, no matter how hard you try to keep your kids’ world controlled and full of only the things you want poured into their heads, the outside world busts in and messes things up.  This has happened in our family, and we had to do some damage control.  One incident that comes to mind was when my son was in 5th grade and was going through the school district’s adopted drug-free program.  Kids learn about the dangers of drugs from local police officers, and “graduate” with a certificate after signing an oath to remain drug free.  My son came home from school one day and, as my husband listened to his playlist of rap music, announced that rap artists are all drug dealers and criminals, according to what he learned in the program at his school.  That took some undoing, and many books and conversations later my son understands the lies and limitations of that statement.  For great lists of books for kids of all ages that focus on Black voices, check out The Brown Bookshelf.   There are many great books that show the truth and bust stereotypes.  Another time, just this past year, my daughter was learning about Texas history in 4th grade.  At the beginning of the year they (briefly) study the various Native groups that once lived freely on the land now called Texas.  When I asked her what she learned she immediately told me about one Native American tribe that “actually ate the people they killed.”  Now, in our family, we read all sorts of books, fiction and nonfiction, about Native people.  As a mom, I work hard to dispel the stereotypes and myths that haunt people of Native cultures, as well as others.  I do the same as a teacher with my co-teachers in our Social Studies classes.  So, I was shocked that my daughter came home with this little tidbit from her lesson at school.  I’m not even sure there’s any truth to this notion, this myth, so why tell the students at all? Even if there is a tiny speck of truth to it, there are so, so many interesting and valuable things to know about the Native people that live (and lived) in this area – why share something sensational and scandalous with a room full of nine year olds?  Many of those kids will only ever remember that one “fact”, and nothing else, from that unit of study.  I was perplexed, and had more undoing to do with my daughter, which meant we read books.  Lots more books.  I always use the American Indians in Children’s Literature blog for a list of books that are good representations of Native people, and it has never steered me wrong.

Even though my kids have a diverse group of friends, we use books to learn about people, time periods, and life situations that are different from our own.  There are so many negative messages about people of various marginalized groups infiltrating my children’s lives from those in power – both locally and nationally – that I feel an urgency to show them literature that speaks the truths about these people.  After all, I only get my kids for a short time, and I’m raising white, heterosexual, cisgender kids; it’s my responsibility to help them recognize their privilege and know how to listen to those who aren’t included in it.  Reading diverse literature is the first step in their young lives toward becoming not only allies, but accomplices, to their friends and peers of color, who are LGBTQ, who practice other religions, or who have disabilities.  Books open their hearts and minds to the lives of these people, and they learn to listen to their stories in ways they may not always encounter in our daily life.  Which reminds me – we better get reading!

Generational Storytelling

 

Daddy radio station

When I was a child, I loved listening to my Gramma tell stories from her childhood.  Hearing her stories shaped me in ways I am still just beginning to understand; the teacher I am today is in part due to her stories surrounding me when I was growing up.  I even wrote a blog post for Nerdy Book Club last year about how my Gramma and her stories have impacted my teaching.  I have a copy of a family ancestry book that a distant cousin self-published and distributed years ago that contains a few of my Gramma’s stories, ones she wrote herself to be included in the family history.  This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of my Gramma’s birth, and reading those stories in her own words, now that she has been gone for almost fifteen years, allows me to hear her voice in my head and makes me feel as if she is right here, telling her tales once again.  She was a natural storyteller, a writer, even if the wider world never recognized her talent.

In the years before my dad died, my mom, sister, and I practically begged him to write down some of his own stories – we wanted to carry on my Gramma’s tradition of keeping history alive for the other side of our family.  But my dad was a reluctant storyteller and would only occasionally open up enough to give us basic details about his childhood – taking the time to write down his stories just wasn’t in his heart.  My dad has been gone for three years now, and I find myself longing for a way to “hear” his voice again, the way I hear my Gramma speak to me when I read her stories.  This longing got me thinking about my own children, and how they love to hear me tell stories from my childhood, and how someday they may want to be able to hear me tell my stories again.  So, as a little side project in my spare time, I’ve begun writing the stories of my childhood.

I grew up in a small town that was pretty isolated, not near any big cities, and in a time when things moved slower and were more innocent than they seem now.  My kids are fascinated by this because they hear me tell stories of staying out playing in the neighborhood all day until sunset (I would never allow this now), or of having to drive to another town 90 miles away just to buy new shoes for school.  My hometown still has a drive-in movie theater, one middle school, and one high school.  Everyone knows everyone; I went to school with the same kids my entire life, and many of us are still close today. This concept is somewhat foreign to them because we live in a suburb of a large metropolis, surrounded on all sides by other suburbs, any of which could fit several of my hometowns inside. Many of the kids they go to school with move a lot, changing schools and towns often. Living in my hometown was a way of life my kids won’t experience for themselves, but I want them to know about it and be able to dip into that world and be able to share it with their own children someday.  The unexpected surprise of this project is that not only is this a gift for my children, but for me as well; as I write my own stories, many of which include my dad, I find myself hearing his voice again as he speaks to me through my memories.  He, and other relatives and friends who have been lost to time and distance, come alive on the page as I record these stories.  I’m sharing one story about my dad below, one of my favorites.  I think my Gramma, writer and storyteller that she was, would be proud.

 

Vinyl Saturdays

        A blast of air-conditioning, filled with the scents of leather and new upholstery, washes over us as we enter the front doors, a bell jingling to announce our presence.  My mother, sister, and I weave through the maze of new furniture to the glassed-in cubicle in the back of the store.  Daddy is inside it, speaking into the microphone, and we hear his voice surround us through the store’s speaker system, his real voice muffled by the somewhat sound-proof glass of the station room.  When the red ON AIR sign goes off, we’re allowed inside his tiny world of radio waves and records.  As long as I’m quiet, I get to thumb through the wooden crates of record albums, stacked as high as me.  I find my favorites – Dolly Parton (because I like her laugh), Willie Nelson (because his braids are awesome), Barbara Mandrell (because she’s beautiful), and Merle Haggard (something in his voice sings to my soul, plus I met him once).

Daddy holds my hand with one of his, and shakes the man’s hand with his other one.  I stand close, staring at the man’s boots, knees, belt buckle.  I hear snippets of grown-up conversation.

                “…met years ago…don’t remember me…radio station…the recording studio in…New Mexico…nineteen-sixty-…”

                “Sure, sure, I remember…yes…long time ago.  Who’s this we have here?”  I listen more now because it’s clear the man is talking about me.

                “This is my daughter,” Daddy says.

                The man leans down to my level and pokes one finger into the underside of his hat’s brim, raising it up higher on his forehead and exposing more of his shaggy brown hair.  He reaches out to shake my hand, and I place my small one in his.  “Well hello there, young lady,” he says with a nice-sounding chuckle in his voice.  “It’s mighty nice to meet you.  My name is Merle Haggard.” 

While I look through albums, Daddy catches the world up on the progress of Let’s Trade Even, his Saturday morning radio show.  Armando traded an air compressor for Frank’s lawn mower, and Becky traded a crock pot to Judy, who needed a weather radio.  With that business concluded, Daddy places the needle on the spinning vinyl after announcing the next songs.  Headphones on ears, mouth to microphone, he speaks using his radio voice:

“Alright, folks, remember:  if you have somethin’ to trade, and need somethin’ in return, give us a call here at the station and Let’s. Trade. Even.  Thanks for listening on this Saturday morning to your local station, KAVE FM Radio.  Up next is Ronnie Milsap, followed by George Strait’s latest hit.”

I make my selection and pull it from the crate.  My sister, who is too little to care, holds my mother’s hand in the corner of the station.  Daddy pushes some buttons, takes off his headphones, and swings the microphone off to the side.

“Come here, punkin’,” he says, patting his knee.  I carry the record in its cover over to him and he helps me climb into his lap.  He takes the record from me, and his sideburns tickle my cheek as he looks over the top of his glasses at my choice.  “Glen Campbell, huh?  Rhinestone Cowboy, I bet?”

I nod while he sets the record aside and squeezes me to him.  I rub my finger on the smooth surface of the pearl snap buttons on his shirt pocket, my nose filling with his smell of Old Spice aftershave and black coffee.  Ronnie Milsap’s voice fills the station, the furniture store, and our little town:

Pure love, baby it’s pure love

                Milk and honey and Capt’n Crunch and you in the mornin’

                Pure love, baby it’s pure love

                Ninety-nine and forty-four one hundred percent pure love

 

Ronnie Milsap is right.  It is.

The Power of Words

Words, much like experiences, are often quite memorable.  We can remember words that were said to us in anger, or in spite, many years after they were uttered.  As a teenager, I dated a boy who was abusive, in both his words and his actions.  He said things to me that I can still recall clearly today, twenty-five years later, as if it had happened last week.  I put up with it, wanting out but not knowing how to accomplish that by myself, until one day I saw a poster in the high school counselor’s office that said something like, Ten Ways You Know You’re In An Abusive Relationship.  The words on that poster made me realize that my boyfriend’s behavior was not normal and that I needed to get out.  Those words empowered me to believe in my own instincts, get help from some adults, tell my friends, and move on.  However, the poster did not appear in my life until I had dated my boyfriend for three long years.  I often wonder how things would have been different if I had read those words before I met him, or if not those words, maybe a book with a teenage character who is dealing with dating abuse. What if a teacher or librarian had put a book like that in my hands?  Maybe I would never have put up with his behavior, or maybe I would have been able to leave the relationship sooner than I did.  It’s not an experience I necessarily regret, because it helped shape the person I am today, and it is certainly no one’s fault but the abuser’s that it happened. My point is that words do have power, spoken or written, and access to those words can be life-changing for some young people.

This week, the American Library Association announced the Top Ten Most Challenged Books for 2016.  Unsurprisingly, most of the books are written for young people.  The theme of this year’s Banned Books Week is Words Have Power.  People, especially parents, obviously know this is true – otherwise, they wouldn’t challenge young people’s books.  If you’d like to read more about this trend in “parenting,” check out James LaRue’s recent blog post here from the Office For Intellectual Freedom.  These parents fear that words will damage, change, or alter their children in some permanent way, perhaps in a way that is counterintuitive to the values they teach in their homes, and so they try to prevent their children from accessing those words.  What these parents don’t realize is that being changed by words, letting words shape young people as they grow and learn, is not a bad thing.   We all know that young people benefit from learning about the lives of people who are different from them, and people who are similar, even if those people are fictional.  Many of the books that made the list for 2016 have LGBTQ characters, and we need only look at the staggering suicide rates of gay and transgender teens to know that they would benefit from access to books that tell their stories; likewise, their bullies and oppressors would benefit from reading about LGBTQ experiences so their own worldview and empathy can expand to be more inclusive. One of the top ten challenged books, Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell, contains a female character whose stepfather behaves inappropriately, even abusively, toward her and she finds it scary. What if the challenges to this book were successful?  What if a real, live teenager, one who was dealing with a similarly abusive situation, was denied access to this book?  A couple of years ago there was a case in Indiana where two girls came forward to report sexual abuse after reading the frequently challenged novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson as part of an English assignment.  Book Riot’s Kelly Jensen wrote an open letter that discusses that news story and thanks the people who give kids challenged books. Those two girls found the courage they needed to come forward and name their abuser because of what they read in a book – we just never know the impact a story can have on a child’s life.

Our kids won’t be hurt by the words in books.  The words that are spoken to them are far more damaging.  As a teacher, it is my greatest privilege to match a book to a child.  Because, somewhere, there is a teenage girl who feels trapped in an abusive dating relationship.  She may be shy and insecure like I was – easy prey.  I hope I notice that girl.  I hope I have the chance to put the right book in her hands, a chance to give her a story that shows a way out, a chance to be brave and ask for help.  I hope she, and all my students, always have unfettered access to the power of words. Their futures, their lives, may depend on it.

Books That Break Your Heart

When the Star Wars movie, Rogue One, came out last December, my husband took my son and daughter to see it.  My daughter came home with a strange look on her face.  I asked her how she liked the movie, and she said “I think I need to watch happy movies from now on.” Rogue One, it’s safe to say, is not a movie with a happy ending.  My daughter doesn’t like it when things don’t turn out well for the characters. She’s not much of a crier, but she dwells on things and worries a lot. She knows what she needs – that movie makes you love many of the characters, and then it breaks your heart, which is too much sadness for my girl.  My son is also highly empathetic and has strong opinions about justice, but he can handle, and even loves, stories with big emotions.  I remember when, after reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio out loud with him when he was in fourth grade, he decided the read the companion novella The Julian Chapter, which tells a Wonder story from the bully’s point of view.  He read it one afternoon while I was out grocery shopping, and when I returned home he met me at the door.  “Mom!” he greeted me.  “You have to read this book RIGHT NOW.” Then, his eyes filled with tears and he choked back a sob.  The book was a real heart breaker, written so well my justice-minded son felt empathy for a bully.  I am much like him – I love a book that breaks my heart.

There was a period of time when I took a break from sad books.  Sometimes things happen that make us change our reading habits simply as a method of emotional survival. Most of the time, though, I’m all in for a sad story, a tear-jerker, a rip-your-heart-out-and-stomp-on-it tale.  It’s important for kids to read these stories, as well, and to learn in a safe way that no, things don’t always work out. A character can do all the right things, be a good person, and try hard to do well – and still, the resolution may not be what we hoped for.  Knowing this can help prepare them for the times in their own lives when things won’t work out, despite their best effort or intention.  For my students, rather than my own kids, the impact of a sad story can mean the opposite – my students sometimes have their own sad stories, and reading about a character who’s living one as well can help them feel less alone.

I’ve put together a list of some of my favorite BYHB, or Break Your Heart Books.  It’s a middle grade list because I teach middle school, my own kids are in that age group, and, well, I just like middle grade books the best! So if you’re ready for some BIG FEELINGS, as well as some amazing literature, these books will not disappoint.

Just be sure to have a box of tissues nearby.

upside-down-in-the-middle-of-nowhere

Upside Down In The Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana

Chronicle Books, 2015

Armani and her family, who live in the Lower Nines of New Orleans, struggle to survive when Hurricane Katrina hits.

chained

Chained by Lynne Kelly

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012

Hastin is ten years old and lives in India, and he must take a job as an elephant keeper to help his family pay off a debt.  He and his elephant, Nandita, must find a way to survive the clutches of the cruel circus master.

locomotion

Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson

Speak, 2010

Lonnie is in foster care after his parents died, and he misses his parents and his little sister, who was adopted by a different family.

a_monster_calls

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Illustrated by Jim Kay

Candlewick, 2013

Conor’s mother is in the midst of cancer treatments when an ancient monster visits Conor to share three stories, and demand Conor share a story of his own – the truth.

orbiting-jupiter

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Clarion Books, 2015

Joseph is a damaged thirteen year old who is placed in foster care in twelve year old Jack’s family. Jack tells Joseph’s tragic story as the two of them find out what family really means.

pax

Pax by Sara Pennypacker, Illustrated by Jon Klassen

Balzer + Bray, 2016

Peter is a boy.  Pax is a fox.  They have been each other’s best friend for a long time, until war separates them.

summerlost

Summerlost by Ally Condie

Dutton Books for Young Readers, 2016

Cedar is dealing with the grief of losing her father and brother.  She meets a summer friend, Leo, and they work at solving a mystery and finding healing through friendship.

the-bone-sparrow

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

Disney-Hyperion, 2016

Subhi is a refugee living in a permanent Australian detention center – in fact, he was born there.  He meets Jimmie, a girl living outside the fence, and his world begins to expand. The magical realism in this book is beautiful!

the-only-road

The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books, 2016

Gang violence will result in an inevitable fate for twelve year old Jaime and his cousin Angela in their Guatemalan town unless they escape – which is exactly what they do.  They must travel together through Mexico to reach the United States and join Jaime’s older brother, who lives in New Mexico. Their journey is dangerous and they are all alone.

What BYHB have you read?  Share the titles!

Freedom to Read Foundation – One Teacher’s Fight Against Quiet Censorship

I’ve had the amazing opportunity to write for the Freedom To Read Foundation’s blog!  Check out the post through the link below, and follow FTRF on Facebook and Twitter!  And remember – read freely!

Source: Freedom to Read Foundation

Should Students Be Allowed to Quit Books?

 

returning-books

Recently my librarian asked for my opinion on students who quit books.  She was feeling frustrated at the amount of students in our school who kept visiting the library to turn in a book they quit, only to check out another book and then be back the next week having quit that one, too.  The number of students with this habit seemed to be increasing, according to my librarian, and she wondered how she and the teachers could better support these students.  My first reaction was a definitive Yes! Students SHOULD be allowed to quit books!  After more thought, and while observing my students’ book habits and remembering situations with frequent quitters in past years, I realized that the answer to the question “Should students be allowed to quit books” IS yes.  But also, no.

I guess it’s not so definitive, after all.

Reading experts, like Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer (Jossey-Bass, 2009) agree that it’s ok for kids to quit books.  I agree with that to some degree – a student’s interest in reading shouldn’t be squelched because they’re forced to stick with a book they don’t like or can’t read.  But what about the kids who choose books they can read, but are frequent quitters?  My librarian had a student return a book after reading 200 pages, saying it got “boring.”  The student only had about 100 pages to go before finishing!  My librarian encouraged that student to keep the book and finish it, and in that case I agree.  Students like this, who are capable of reading the books they choose but are frequent quitters, should be encouraged to stick with a book until the end.  However, in my opinion, there are some exceptions.  Certain factors should be considered if a student is a frequent book quitter.

A Student’s Age

I teach middle school, and there is a huge difference in maturity and academic skill between a 6th grader and an 8th grader.  When I taught 6th grade, if a student wanted to quit a book because it was a little challenging in terms of reading level or topic I thought Ok, we have time to work on that. They’re eleven years old.  Now I teach 8th grade, and some students are choosing the same books at age 14 that they chose at age 11.  When pushed to choose a full length novel, or a book with a higher reading level, they often balk, start the book, then quit the book.  They continue to quit books and keep going back to easier books from back in the day when they were young.  You know, two years ago. The thing is, in 8th grade, high school is right around the corner.  In high school, the expectation for reading level and stamina will go up significantly.  I push kids to choose books that are more challenging and mature in terms of reading level and topic because I want them to be ready for that high school expectation.  Many of the books students are required to read in high school are actually grown-up books, not even YA!  If my students never move past what they read as 6th graders and they continually quit books that are more suited for their age, they won’t be ready to tackle the more difficult readings in high school.

A Student’s Reading Ability

I teach many students with reading disabilities.  In my experience, these students have a hard time choosing books that they can read.  They either choose books that are more suited for elementary students (because the reading level fits), or they have an inflated view of what they’re able to read and they choose books that are much too difficult.  This results in kids who are frequent quitters.  Students who are struggling should be able to quit a book if it’s an inappropriate level, whether the student has a disability, or is an English Language Learner, or is just a developing reader for any reason.  I read somewhere once that a book is just right for a reader if there are no more than five unfamiliar words on any page.  For readers who are on grade level, this is a good rule of thumb.  However, having two unfamiliar words on any given page is a better fit for students who are reading below grade level; after all, five words per page can add up quickly, resulting in frustration, which is followed by quitting.  By sharing the Rule of Two and having students test it out, books that are an inappropriate reading level can be ruled out and the student can be directed to a better choice.  The Rule of Two can also be useful for students who frequently choose books with low reading levels.  Students are comfortable with these books because they know they can read them easily.  By using the Rule of Two, these students can be gently eased out of their comfort zones and into books that are challenging without being so difficult that quitting is a risk. Please don’t mistake this method with the abhorrent practice of only allowing students to read books that are “on their level.”  I believe students should be able to read what they want to read.  If they are developing readers and frequent quitters, however, then a closer look at what they are choosing and a conversation about the book’s difficulty (or not) needs to happen to support these students.

A Student’s Interests

Some students are still figuring out who they are as individuals.  They may have no idea what they like or don’t like.  My middle school offers many activities for students – athletics, band, theater, art club, book clubs, dance groups, garden club – but many students aren’t involved in any of those activities.  For those kids, it may be that they haven’t discovered a passion or interest yet.  Students like this are hard to support in reading because they don’t know what to choose, so they keep choosing wrong and quitting when a book doesn’t fit.  When I encounter a student like this, I ask questions such as “What was the last movie you saw that you liked?”  “Who is your favorite celebrity?” “What do you do at home for fun?”  “What’s your favorite restaurant?”  “Do you have any pets?”  These questions help me know more about the student and can assist me in suggesting books that might be a better fit than what the student has chosen in the past, reducing the chance of quitting.

Serial quitters are a tough group for teachers and librarians to support.  It takes a lot of extra effort from the adults to help these readers find books they can stick with so their reading lives can grow.  Students need teachers who are willing to do the work necessary to help them find books that work for them because many just cannot do it on their own.  We need to know our students and be able to recognize when they’re quitting books just because, or when they’re quitting books for more complicated reasons.  As in many areas of teaching, the answers to questions that start with “Should students be allowed to…” the answer is not a clear yes or no.  The answer starts with “It depends…”  It’s up to teachers and librarians to fill in the rest with options that are best for each individual student so that the most important result is possible – students who keep reading!