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!

Facing the Darkness

My son, who is in middle school and attends the school where I teach, recently participated in the school district’s UIL One Act Play competition.  Our school district has several middle schools, and students from all schools gathered on a Saturday in December to perform their plays.  One school performed a play that tackled the difficult historical subject of Nazi Germany and the Hitler Youth.  The student casts from all the schools did an amazing job, but the play about Hitler’s Youth and the extermination of not only Jews, but of Germans with disabilities, was one of the plays that won a place in the UIL competition.  Although my son was disappointed his school’s play did not win, he had a great time and he conceded that the students from this winning cast performed the play well.  Later, as I talked to some friends about the One Act Play competition, many expressed concern that middle school students were permitted to perform a play with such a controversial subject matter.  I listened as these adults declared that they thought the drama teacher should not have been allowed to choose that particular play, that they would not have allowed their own child to perform if that play was chosen for their school, and that the subject matter was too dark, too mature, and too depressing for children that age.  I have some other friends whose children were actually in the play in question, and as they posted proud pictures of their children on social media, they were met with comments from others that questioned the appropriateness of the play for middle school students, questioned the motivations of the drama teacher who directed the play, and even seemed to question the mothers’ parenting choices by allowing their kids to participate.  The main consensus from the parents I spoke with about the play, and the ones commenting about the play on social media, seemed to be that learning about the horrific events Hitler instigated and endorsed would destroy the innocence of these middle school students and ruin their view that the world is a happy and safe place.

I disagree.

Middle school students, although they are not yet legal adults, are part of our communities, our country, and our world.  Keeping these young people in the dark about what’s going on is not helpful, and in many cases is a moot point.  The thing is, they already know.  They have smart phones, they learn things in school, they watch the news, talk to their friends, eavesdrop on adults, or see it on social media.  So protecting and sheltering them from the ugliness of the world, whether current or historical, doesn’t do anything except make adults feel better.  The safest way for kids to learn about difficult topics is to read about them, talk about them, or even perform them. Literature is a safe way for students to confront these issues and to learn from the ways the characters or historical figures take action to promote change.

Speaking of promoting change, young people must be taught to recognize situations in which change is needed. If students are shielded from current or past injustices as an effort to maintain their perceived innocence, we also lose an opportunity to teach them to recognize injustices in their own world.   While reading literature that addresses issues surrounding justice and equality increases empathy in kids, it’s not enough.  Kids need to learn what to do with all that empathy they feel. Young people need to be more than just tender, considerate and tolerant. They need to be good citizens.  As parents and teachers it’s our duty to instruct children on how to be good citizens, and we can do that by allowing kids to learn in multiple ways – reading, discussing, debating, performing.  When kids read books, or perform plays, or discuss articles that deal with persecution, inequalities, or injustices that have been (or are being) done to certain groups of people, they are learning how being a good citizen can impact the lives of others and make lasting change that ensures the rights of our society are accessible to all.  They learn that with rights come responsibilities.  One responsibility we can inspire in our kids is to recognize inequalities and use their rights as citizens to seek justice.

Most adults, if asked, would probably say they want kids to grow up and be productive people who give back to their communities in some way.  Allowing them to learn about events and issues that happen as a result of our less desirable human motivations – fear, greed, hate – is a step toward molding these young people into the good citizens adults want them to become.  I want my students, and my own children, to know the truth about our world.  And the truth is, it’s a wondrous place that still needs a lot of work.  Dan Rather recently wrote, “It’s one thing to curse the darkness. It’s another thing to light a candle.”  We curse the darkness when we shelter kids from the events of our world.  Allowing and encouraging kids to learn, question, and discuss the issues that citizens in our country, in our world, and in our history have faced increases the likelihood that they will go out and make positive changes not only for themselves, but for all people.  These kids are going to grow up. Every effort should be made to inform them, prepare them, and empower them to be citizens who actively work to make the world a better place.

So, let them debate current issues.  Let them read the stories. Let them watch the news, discuss the articles, and make informed opinions.

Let them perform in the play.

Let them light their own candles, and watch as the darkness is eliminated, one flame at a time.

A Veteran’s Day Book List

On a recent trip to my local warehouse grocery store, I had an experience that got me thinking about veterans and what they have sacrificed for our country.  I completed my shopping and was waiting in line to show my receipt on the way out the door when an elderly man, who was sitting alone at a table in the snack bar area of the store, could be heard shouting out a woman’s name as if he were in some distress.  I asked the employee as I handed her my receipt if the man was okay, or if he needed assistance, and she informed me that the staff had already checked on him and apparently his wife was shopping while he waited for her in the snack bar.

As the employee was telling me this, the man shouted out his wife’s name again, and he was rocking back and forth with what seemed like anxiousness, so I decided to check on him myself.  I approached the man and asked him if he was all right, or if he needed the store’s manager to find his wife, and he looked at me with some confusion in his eyes but replied that no, his wife was shopping and would be done soon.  It was clear from his body language, tone of voice, and general aura of confusion that he was experiencing some form of dementia. As I asked him again if he was sure he didn’t need anything, I noticed his ball cap, which indicated that he was a WWII Veteran.

As I reached out my hand for a handshake I told him that I could see he is a veteran, and I thanked him for his service.  His eyes cleared a bit, his face lit up in surprise and he smiled at me as he thanked me warmly for noticing, just before he resumed shouting for his shopping wife.  As I left the store that day, I thought about our older veterans and how many of them won’t be around much longer.  I sincerely hope that someone, somewhere, knows this man’s story.  Knowing the stories of our older veterans is so important, especially for today’s children, who have not lived to see the kinds of war our country has experienced in the past.

My own children do not have any older family members who have served in the military, at least no one that they live near and spend time with on a regular basis.  How can I show them the importance of appreciating the older veterans in our town, and in our country?  Their schools hold very nice assemblies for Veteran’s Day, but I needed more.  And what do I turn to when I need to teach children about life experiences neither they, nor I, have had?  Books! My librarian and teacher friends were glad to help with recommendations, and my own search at the public library turned up some great selections, so I’ve made a list below that includes picture books and middle grade books suitable for kids from early elementary to upper middle school age.  It’s difficult to narrow down the choices to books that only address the experiences of older veterans, since war affects so many, including civilians, so I’ve included some titles that showcase diverse experiences.  This list is by no means all inclusive – it is only meant as a starting point for anyone looking for books to help start the conversation with kids about veterans and war.

Picture Books

proud-as-a-peacock

Proud as a Peacock, Brave as a Lion by Jane Barclay and Renne Benoit (illustrator)

Tundra Books, September 2009

grandad-bud

Granddad Bud: A Veterans Day Story by Sharon Ferry

Authorhouse, August 2010

the-wall

The Wall by Eve Bunting and Ronald Himler (illustrator)

Clarion Books, April 1990

in-flanders-fields

In Flanders Fields: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield and Janet Wilson (illustrator)

Doubleday Books for Young Readers, October 1996

veterans-heroes-in-our-neighborhood

Veterans: Heroes in Our Neighborhood by Valerie Pfundstein and Aaron Anderson (illustrator)

Pfun-omenal Stories LLC Second Edition, December 2013

tuskegee-airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen Story by Lynn M. Homan and Thomas Reilly (illustrator)

Pelican Publishing, September 2002

Middle Grade Books

mares-war

Mare’s War by Tania S. Davis

Knopf Books for Young Readers, May 2009

striped-pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

David Fickling Books; First American Edition, September 2006

paper-wishes

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, January 2016

port-chicago-50

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin

Roaring Brook Press, January 2014

sachiko

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson

Carolrhoda Books, October 2016

the-war-that-saved-my-life

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Dial Books, January 2015

This Veteran’s Day, let’s all find a veteran, young or old, and thank them for their sacrifice.  If you know an older veteran, ask them to tell their story.  If you know a civilian who has been affected by war, ask them about their experiences.  They may not want to talk about it, and that’s okay, but they may also appreciate the opportunity to share. Passing this information, these stories, on to future generations is how we learn from history, and that’s important for people of all ages to remember.

A Gift of Stories by Emily Visness

Nerdy Book Club

As a special education inclusion teacher who co-teaches in middle school language arts and history classes, I work with students who face many challenges.  One challenge is getting them to see past the “work” of learning and see the fun in the stories that surround them through their learning in school.  A love for stories is something I’ve had my entire life, and I have my Gramma to thank for that.

My Gramma was an interesting woman who, when described to someone else, could almost seem like a fictional character herself.  The stories she told of her early life on a Canadian island were filled with adventure, mystery, and fun.  She made the characters of her relatives come alive in the sharing of her memories – her stories.  As a child, I heard these stories over and over and I now feel as if I really knew my ancestors, even…

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