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Commentary, Teaching

Teaching on the Other Side of Parenthood

When I was pregnant with Anna and still teaching, a colleague told me that after I became a mother I would become a different teacher. That I would be more empathetic; that I would understand more all the ways my job mattered (and didn’t matter). I never got a chance to fully understand if he was right, since my teaching jobs now are very different than every day in a public school. But now that I’m on the other side of the coin, with a child now almost finished with Kindergarten, I get what he was saying. Here are a few things I’ve learned about school, now that I’m a parent:

1. My words really, really matter

Anna loves school. Loves. Aaron loves school so much that he cries most Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings because he can’t go to school. I credit great schools and teachers for that, but I got to thinking the other day about how many times I dealt with kids who had huge chips on their shoulders about school. Teachers were always out to get them. The system was always ‘stupid’ or rigged. In my years teaching, I always blamed that way of thinking on being a jaded teenager. It never occurred to me that those were sentiments they were probably hearing at home, too. So even though I’m totally in support of asking questions about methodology and rationale, at home it’s really important that my kids hear that I think their teachers are worth listening to and learning from.

2. Teachers don’t get paid enough

I mean, who doesn’t know that? But I know it so much more now, now that I’m part of supporting a family and trying to figure out budgets and college and savings plans. So many teachers are parents, too. We can’t possibly think it’s okay to keep them juuuuust above the poverty line, when their jobs are so important. We can’t possibly put the demands we do on teachers and not compensate them for it. And yet we do.

3. It’s a little, teeny tiny bit okay to miss school sometimes

I was a strict teacher in several ways, and one of those ways was with attendance. If school is in session, you go. Unless you’re sick, someone is dead, or some other major calamity is going on, you get to school. I had very little patience for kids who were constantly off to long weekends to hunt or play a sport, and I had ZERO patience for the parents who sent me emails from the car telling me their kid was missing the next couple days to hang with grandma so could I please send some work.

I’m getting angry just thinking about it.

But now, on the other side, I am more understanding of this. Don’t get me wrong- Disney is not an excuse to miss a week of school. And no, your family trip up north isn’t equal to the learning you get in your classroom environment.  But family time is so scarce for some families (mine included), and sometimes there are some things that can be carefully calculated to be an okay-ish reason to skip school.

As long as you tell the teacher FAR in advance.

And don’t email from the car.

And don’t act surprised when your kid comes back to school and is behind- that is what happens when you miss school.

4. Why didn’t I ask for help??


I often tell the story of the time I was photocopying the play Antigone for my sophomores because I didn’t have enough copies for my class. Not only is that illegal, but it went against everything I stood for as a writer and reader. But what was I supposed to do? I needed the books and didn’t have them.

It never occurred to me to send out an SOS call. I could have asked the PTO, I could have emailed the parents in my class, I could have put out a desperate plea on Facebook. I don’t think it was pride that kept me from those things– it was this weird sense that I was on my own island and that no one was supporting me.

But now, on the other side, I would welcome an email like that from my child’s teacher. In fact, I just sent an email asking her if there’s anything I can re-stock for her room for next year as an end-of-year gift. The parent community is there to help, and I should have asked for it when I needed it.

5. And speaking of community…

We are in this together. Principals often say things like that, how ‘we are a community’ and ‘we are a team’, but I can’t say I ever truly felt that when I was teaching. I often felt like I was just trying to keep my head above water as the waves of work and expectation crashed over me. But we are a community, and those aren’t just words to appease parents and board members. We are all working toward the same objective of lifelong learners. It would be awesome and transformative if we acted like it.

Book Reviews, Commentary

Book Review: The Truth About Goodbye

Disclaimer: I know and love Russell Ricard, but I promise to be as unbiased as possible in my review of his debut novel, The Truth About Goodbye!

 

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One thing I know for sure about English majors and teachers is that they have strong opinions about books. More specifically, they have strong opinions about what makes a book “good” or “diverse” or “educational”. For me, I believe strongly that we do a disservice to books when we stringently categorize them. For example, is a book diverse because it’s written by a person of color, or is it diverse because of content, regardless of the color of the author? Separating books by genre is important, sure, but it is also limiting.

I thought about this a lot while reading The Truth About Goodbye. This story is, above anything else, a love story. A story about a man who loses his husband tragically and has to deal with the aftermath. Filled with wonderful, witty characters and hilarious dialogue, the author does a really great job of taking what could be a sentimental story and making it into something entertaining and powerful. Through Sebastian’s grief, we go on a journey with him in the year after he loses his husband– the ups, the downs, the figuring out the future by coming to terms with the past.

What I loved about this book was its quiet tenderness. Sebastian’s relationship with his friend Chloe complicated and yet the author writes their dialogue in an endearing way. When Sebastian begins to see things, namely his husband’s ghost, it is not overly dramatic. Through those moments we feel Sebastian’s grief, and maybe relate it to our own loss.

This is where The Truth About Goodbye shines for me. It is not “just” an LGBT novel simply because it has a main character who is gay. But it is also more than “just” a love story– it’s a story of hope and encouragement. I loved that you could easily switch the sexuality of the main character and still have the same touching story and sentiment. Books become very powerful when, even if the reader can’t identify with the main character in some ways, they realize that the overarching feelings of love, loss, and redemption are the same.

The Truth About Goodbye can be purchased here!

Commentary, Teaching

Four Reasons Why Teachers Love Teaching

This guest post was thoughtfully written by Erica Francis at Readyjob, who collected thoughts from teachers about why they love to teach. It was great to be included in her roundup!

 

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(Photo by Wokandapix)

By and large, today’s educators are underpaid and under appreciated. It’s no wonder, then, that the number of young people choosing teaching for their career is the lowest it has been in decades.

 

At ReadyJob, we know that few jobs are as life-changing, demanding, or important as teaching. We also know that now more than ever we need great educators teaching in our schools each day. That’s why we wanted to hear from educators themselves about why and how they accept the challenges that come with their jobs day in and day out. In a recent survey, we asked a group of educators what they find most rewarding about their profession. The full roundup post can be found here and below are a few highlights showing why teachers love what they do:

 

Teachers help their students tap into their potential. Teachers play a vital role in shaping how their students see themselves. Teachers show students they can succeed even when they think they can’t. Think back to your own childhood, chances are you can name a few moments when you were struggling with a concept and a teacher encouraged you, helped you, and eventually led you down the path to understanding.

 

It’s a rewarding experience for students, but as Roseanne Cheng of TeachableLit.com notes it pays off for teachers as well. “Getting to know young people and helping them see the potential within themselves,” says Cheng. “There is no price tag for that feeling!”

 

Teachers influence their students’ futures. These days we often hear that teachers must teach to an end-of-year test. And while that is sometimes the case, it doesn’t eliminate a teacher’s ability to shape their students’ futures in a more long-term way. After all, you never know when a lesson might inspire a student to take a certain career path, pursue college, or concentrate on a certain area of study. For Doc Meek of DocMeek.com, the big impact teachers have on students’ lives is very rewarding. He notes that “the potential of helping students thrive long-term” is one his favorite aspects of teaching.

 

Teachers learn from their students. Students go to school to learn, but they’re not the only ones getting an education. Many teachers feel they learn just as much from their students as their students learn from them.

 

“If you feel passionate about teaching, this profession will bring you many rewards,” says Luis Porras Wadley of KeepSmilingEnglish.com. “Teaching is one of the professions in which the human aspect becomes most important. You get to know many interesting people, whether it be kids, teenagers or adults, and each of them will provide you with memories and experiences which you will never forget.”

 

Teachers help their students build character. Teachers are responsible for making sure their students are proficient in a given subject or subjects. But while teaching everything from why volcanoes erupt to what symbolism Mark Twain uses in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, teachers show their students what it means to be a good person, to be someone with strong character, to care about others and have heart. These are, of course, invaluable lessons that no child ever forgets. Mike Stutman of InspireMyKids.com notes that it’s a big reason why he loves teaching. He teaches because he loves “making an impact on a child as a whole person – on their character – in addition to the impact on them as a student.”
Teaching is tough. There’s no doubt about it. But there are also many rewarding aspects of teaching. If you’re considering education as a profession, the factors listed above are great reasons to take up the calling.

Commentary, Common Core, Teaching

Five Ways to Support Your Local Public Schools

The recent confirmation hearings for the new president’s pick for Education Secretary has a whole lot of people concerned, and for good reason(s). One of the things I find myself going back to over and over again lately is the importance of supporting our local community. Facebook memes are fun, and rants to your friends about what could/should be done in education and otherwise are fine, but these do absolutely nothing to make the positive change in public schools I think the majority of us would like to see.

Photo via Pixabay by Fudowakira0
Photo via Pixabay by Fudowakira0

Here are a few ways you can help support your local school, especially during times of crisis and uncertainty:

  • Donate.  This means different things for different people. Donate your time, donate your money, donate your expertise. Donate what you have to give, and trust me, you have something to give.  If you don’t know how to donate whatever gifts you have to give, call the principal and see what they suggest. No one is going to send you a personal email asking you to donate that class set of Julius Caesar found in your grandma’s basement. Seek out the opportunity and make it happen.
  • Stop vilifying your teachers, administrators, and board members. I have to rant a little bit here. I find it maddening when people assume the worst about their public schools. The vast– and I mean VAST– majority of the people in your child’s school building are working for less money than they could probably be making somewhere else, are under inordinate amounts of stress, and are working 10+ hour days, managing families of their own. If you have a problem, question, concern, request– just talk to the person directly and see what can be done to fix it. It really is that simple. (Not terrible advice for real life.)
  • Suggest solutions. Public education is fraught with issues, and no one will pretend otherwise. I’ve worked and lived in an array of districts, all of which had their own, unique problems. If you identify those problems and think there is some sort of obvious solution, then find the right person and let them know. If it doesn’t get fixed, move it up the chain. As a taxpaying citizen, it is your right and obligation to do so. Again, a rant on Facebook about great it would be to have (insert cool program here) does nothing. Figuring out how to make it happen and getting that information to the right person does.
  • Accept what cannot be changed. Testing is a part of school, for better, for worse. In my opinion, the testing model of the IB Programme is the gold standard in education, and it would be lovely if someone up the chain in government would look into it and make that happen across the board here. As it is, testing in public schools leaves much to be desired, and a whole lot of people will agree with that. But in education, just as in any large entity, change is difficult and takes a lot of time. Since testing is probably not going anywhere anytime soon (especially now), use the opportunity to teach your kids about the importance of doing their best, even when the grade “doesn’t matter” or if the test is “stupid”. Such is life– sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do.
  • Advocate. This is so important, and I can’t stress it enough. Advocate for your child, if they need it. Advocate for your teachers, if they need it. Your relationship with your public schools is not a boss/subordinate one. You are working together. Your teachers can’t succeed without your help at home, just like you can’t succeed without the support of your teachers.

We’re in this together.

Book Reviews, Commentary, Uncategorized

Favorite Books of 2016

2016 was a tough year in many ways, but (for me) it was a great year for books. I read 39 according to Goodreads, and here are my top favorites:

I can’t begin to describe how much I loved this book. I’ve gifted it twice, and will continue to. I sobbed, I smiled, I reflected on all the ways we don’t appreciate the beauty and fragility of life. A billion stars.

 

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As a lifelong Catholic, this book rocked my world. Literally. I have a totally new understanding of the gospels and the interpretation of the New Testament. Fascinating on every level.

 

Dystopia is not my genre, but this book got so many rave reviews that I couldn’t pass it up. Clever and insightful and very well done. I loved the writing style– just beautiful.

 

Usually when a book gets as much hype as The Girls does, I find myself disappointed. This book was just beyond fantastic for me, from the phenomenal writing to the really nuanced story that was just enough historical and just enough fiction. I loved it.

 

This book is not for the faint of heart. It is crushing, and deeply difficult to read. But in a year of being obsessed with the musical Hamilton, and with all the complexities of that time and the very troubled history of our nation, this book is beyond important and was a real eye-opener for me.

 

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Base on the feedback from Goodreads, I get the sense that there are two types of people: those who find compassion for the parents/perpetrators of violence, and those who don’t. There is very little wiggle room with A Mother’s Reckoning— she puts it all out there. What she knew, what she didn’t know, what she wished she knew about her son and the Columbine tragedy. As a mother and an educator, this book will stay with me for a long time.

 

On my Christmas wishlist was the complete set of Harry Potter– and I got it! I have lots of reading to do, and will get started right after Grief is a Thing with Feathers, which is haunting and beautiful, too.  I’ll be recommending it to all the poets in my life!

Book Reviews, Commentary, Digital Citizenship, Teachable Books, Teaching

A Teachable Book: Green Card Youth Voices

Teachers are constantly– CONSTANTLY– on the lookout for how to teach inclusion, empathy, and tolerance in the classroom. THIS BOOK IS IT!

 

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Green Card Youth Voices is just one of the books put out by Green Card Voices, a seriously incredible non-profit out of the Twin Cities. The work they do is beyond important, and this book is the youth version of a serious of stories chronicling the people who immigrate here. I cannot recommend it highly enough!

The stories stand on their own, but in case a teacher is looking for activities to go along with the book, there is a teachers guide available on their website. Amazing.

And if that isn’t enough, they have a moveable display that is making its way around Minnesota to help start conversations about inclusion and celebrating diversity.

Forget a box of chocolates for Christmas: Buy a copy for your school here!

Commentary, Teaching

On Potential

It’s September, and if school hasn’t started already, it is starting this week. In seven years teaching, I have loved this time of year best. I’m ready to be back in the classroom, I have a clean slate to make my unit plans better, and I have no expectations for my students. The blog posts are rolling in lately about how to engage your students from day one, how to make sure you see their possibilities and potential, how to capitalize on it and cultivate superstars.

All of this is powerful and good and right. The positivity of this type of year should be celebrated.

And yet.

This week I learned that a former student of mine had pled guilty to a heinous crime. And I mean really heinous. His victims’ impact statements have made headlines, and I forced myself to read them with a stone in my throat. I cannot believe he would be capable of something so horrendous, I found myself thinking. And every time I did, I forced myself to read the victims’ statements again.

As cliche and horrible as it sounds, this kid really was a golden child. In my high school classroom, in every classroom. He was thoughtful and kind and incredibly smart and hardworking. I have such pleasant memories of him that he would be one of those kids I would love to reconnect with, have coffee with, and be a part of their success in adulthood.

And yet.

I keep in contact with many of my former students (I hadn’t kept in contact with him), and the vast majority have gone on to do wonderful things. I had coffee with a student last year who is headed to the priesthood. I get messages often from former students who are now in dental school, art school, getting married, having babies, going into social work. So many of the kids I have had the honor of teaching are living wonderful, fulfilled lives.

But not this one. I think I speak for all of his teachers when I say we saw his potential for great things. But we didn’t see his potential for evil. It did not cross our minds.

That is a major problem.

I don’t pretend that I, as his English teacher, could have changed him through a novel, through an assignment, through a conference. I’m not so naive to think that I am in any way responsible for his behavior.

But what if I hadn’t looked at him and assumed he was destined for greatness? What if any of us had seen that with his intellect and popularity that he might slip through some sort of moral crack? What if just one of us had reminded him that with his great blessings came great responsibility?

My heart is broken for his victims, for their families. For everyone who elevated him beyond human status. I can’t get beyond the feeling that I failed him somehow, even in the smallest way, by subconsciously assuming he was set in life, and didn’t really need me.

Teachers: our jobs are so important. Don’t be afraid to take a few minutes from your unit plans to talk about humanity, about potential, about purpose. Understand that no one in your room is beyond reproach. See potential, the good and the bad, in each and every face you see every day.

Commentary, Teaching

Empowering Students

I recently heard someone say that the opposite of happiness isn’t unhappiness, but apathy. Those words ring so true to me personally, as well as in terms of education. What is the point of filling students’ heads with equations when they don’t feel any sort of responsibility to use them for good in the larger world?

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More than anything measurable on a test, a teacher’s goal should be to teach students to feel empowered. In their education, in their family lives, in their larger community. Here are a few ways to model that in your classroom.

1. CHOICE

I have found that the more choice I give students in a unit plan, the better and more memorable it is. I have always structured my unit plans around the culminating assignment, but that culminating assignment almost always involves a choice. The trick is to make sure that each choice meets the standards you are trying to teach. In English, a simple choice between two different essay prompts can create a sense of responsibility within the student to choose wisely.

(It is also possible to give students the choice of a book to read, the power to create their own rubric, the ability to peer-edit their friends’ work.)

2.  TEACH GREAT BOOKS

I obviously feel pretty passionately about this one. Books that encourage larger discussions about the world, books that can be related to the current state of affairs, are always more successful.I don’t necessarily mean that all books need to be modern (every student should be required to study Hamlet before graduation, in my opinion). I mean that books should be springboards for students to make larger, wider connections, both personally and within the classroom.

(A few I love at the high school level: Into the Wild, Bel Canto, When Breath Becomes Air, Merchant of Venice, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, To Kill a Mockingbird)

3.  ENFORCE REAL CONSEQUENCES

Classroom management is tough– any teacher will tell you that. But you are not teaching kids anything by having them re-write and re-write late essays just so they can get a passing grade. Every student and every situation is different, but I have often found that for the apathetic kid (or parent) who comes to me asking “how they can bring up their grade”, it is best to ask them what THEY think they should do to improve their situation. Sometimes this ends up with a student throwing their hands up in the air and saying oh well, they tried, but their teacher wouldn’t do anything for them. But more often is ends up with students taking a close look at what they’re missing, and coming up with a reasonable solution to the problem. This is an important life skill to have!

(Important note: at the high school level, I get to be very honest with students. I tell them that no, I will not be coming up with a new assignment or using my weekend time to grade an essay that they should have turned in two months ago. That is not fair to me. But I’ll be willing to brainstorm ideas with them to improve their situation, if they would like.)

4.  MODEL, MODEL, MODEL

 

You have to model the behavior you want to see from your students, of course. But no matter how incredible you are as a teacher, you are but one person. Reach out into your community for guest speakers relevant to your subject. Have them come in and talk about their career paths, their ups and downs, their experience with history. Guest speakers are a wonderful way for students to understand REAL life experience; that success is not something that magically falls into a person’s lap. In a world where we are constantly complaining about entitlement, I can’t think of a more important lesson for educators to teach.

(Podcasts can also serve this purpose! Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History comes to mind)

Commentary, Creative Writing Workshop, Teaching

Five Things I Learned Teaching Without Technology

This week I had the privilege of teaching the first session of my Young Writers Workshop at the Edina Community Center. This is my third year and third location for this program, and it gets better every time I teach it. No homework, no grades, just kids writing and expressing themselves creatively. The BEST!

This year I found myself, as I usually am, stressed about technology. Let me state for the record: I LOVE TECHNOLOGY. Especially in the classroom. But when you’re teaching in a new place, a new curriculum and new students, it’s stressful knowing what technology is available to you and wondering whether or not it will work.

So I made a choice a couple months ago when I started planning. I was going to teach technology-free, the old fashioned way. No PowerPoints, no YouTube clips. Just pencils, paper, and our imaginations.

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Here’s what I learned:

1. It was MUCH easier to plan.

Assuming I wouldn’t have access to a computer (or even a white board) made my life so much easier. It’s like when you go to a restaurant with a small menu versus a restaurant with a huge menu.  The huge menu is great if you have time and patience to wade through all the options. But when you have asmall menu, you pick one thing and make it work the best you can.

2. Classroom management was much easier.

Yes, these were very bright, motivated, and eager students. Of course I didn’t have the same challenges as a classroom teacher has day to day. However, what I discovered this week was that because I wasn’t distracted by technology, I was forced to move around the room more and interact with the students more. Hence, managing the classroom– keeping things moving and organized– was much easier.

3. There was no wasted time.

Teaching without technology forced me to reflect on how much time I waste on my computer. There was no downtime while an overhead heated up, no buzzing around mumbling to myself trying to get my audio working. Once time started, we were ready to go and stayed on task the whole class period.

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4. I had my eyes open to more teaching opportunities.

No technology means searching for hands-on activities, and as far as creative writing goes, those opportunities are everywhere. I was scouring the newspaper for articles to use to inspire stories, I looked through magazines for images and quotes. Some of my best activities came from just having my eyesopen to them in my day-to-day life, instead of digging through Pinterest for a Powerpoint.

5. No one missed technology in the least.

Not a single student asked if they could pull out their phone to do research (well, one did– she wanted to draw a wild dog for her book cover, and wasn’t sure what a wild dog looked like). No one asked if I could talk about the Hero’s Journey with a Powerpoint. No one asked if they could do their story on a blog instead of on paper. In teaching, especially in the arts, it can be so tempting to fall into “needing” technology to illustrate your point. That simply isn’t true.

It wasn’t all perfect. We had some cramped hands and some illegible handwriting. I also had to write a long activity on the whiteboard (which I did end up having at my disposal)…Screen Shot 2016-06-24 at 1.05.08 PM

which would have been better displayed on an overhead. But those minor things paled in comparison to the freedom I felt every day walking into my classroom and knowing that creativity was going to flow– and I didn’t need technology to make it happen.

Book Reviews, Commentary, Teachable Books

Favorite Books of 2015

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  The time when I list my favorite books of 2015!  Here is my very eclectic list:

 

1. We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

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I absolutely, positively, LOVED this book, and recommend it to everyone I know who loves an intense YA drama.  I cried and cried at the end.  A beautiful, well-told, and well-constructed book.

 

2.  The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

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Lots of parallels are made between this book and Gone Girl, which I didn’t like at all.  The difference for me was that The Girl on the Train never crosses into the realm of ridiculous, like Gone Girl does.  I loved the somewhat unlikeable and unreliable narrator.  This was a real page-turner, for me.

 

3.  So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

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I’m fascinated by how people behave online, so even though I didn’t love everything about this book, I find myself referencing it often.  Reading it forces you to re-evaluate your own online relationships, how you present yourself online, and how others do as well.

 

4.  The Book of Strange New Things, by Michael Faber

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I almost never read science fiction.  It just isn’t my genre.  However, I picked this one up and couldn’t put it down.  I loved how it was told– from the perspective of a religious man, far into the future, on a planet far away.  His relationship with his wife back on Earth is at the heart of how he understands life on the new planet, as well as the afterlife.

 

5.  Everything You Ever Wanted, by Jillian Lauren

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This is a beautiful memoir about adoption, but for me it was more than that.  This story forced me to look at parenthood as a whole, how we support mothers in our society (ahem… a post for another time), and how we support one another. I’ve thought of this book often since finishing it, especially in moments of subconscious judgement of other parents.

 

6.  The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, by Leslye Walton

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I quite literally picked up this book because I found the cover stunning.  (Yes, we do judge books by their covers!) But what I found was a first for me– accessible magical realism for young adults, set in the United States.  I loved the use of language and the lovely story, and will recommend it for any teacher struggling to teach the concept of magical realism.

Commentary, Digital Citizenship, Teachable Books, Teaching

Three (Well, Four) Titles for Teaching Digital Citizenship

How great is it that schools are beginning to implement curriculum around digital citizenship?  Even the term implies the importance of it– we live in an age where we are expected to be digitally savvy, and yet comes with that the need to be a “citizen” of that space.  The same way we are citizens of our homes, our schools, our state, our country.  This work is so very important.

My new book, Edge the Bare Garden, is the story of a girl who sees the opportunity to get revenge online against the people who tormented her in grade school.  My hope is that it opens up conversations about what our responsibilities are to ourselves and each other online.  Here are three titles that I have been using to create a presentation to give to schools on this topic.

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Extreme Mean, by Paula Todd, is similar to So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed in that it is filled with anecdotes about how the online world can easily spin out of control.  What’s great about this book is that it’s filled with examples that are relevant to young people, including horrible instances of cyberbullying.  I will be referring to this book a lot when I talk to kids this year, particularly Chapter 19 (The Maddening Crowd: How Online Bystanders Fuel Cyberabuse).  YES.

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LOL… OMG, by Matt Ivesteris a great resource for teachers and parents.   It is short, precise, and organized in such a way that it lends itself to an excellent weeklong unit.  (Each chapter even has key takeaways!)  This book had me rethinking my own online presence, and how I need to practice what I preach about being careful online.

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Screen-Smart Parenting, by Jodi Gold, is a really interesting book about finding balance with technology in the home.  I know I find this difficult.  What I liked was that this was not a “technology is terrible” book (I strongly believe it’s not!) but more about seeing apps and devices as something that need to be monitored closely and used respectfully.

What other great reads on digital citizenship am I missing?

Commentary, The Indie Journey

Thoughts on Publishing, Worth Repeating

In my last post, I started off by saying October was going to be crazy.  WAS IT EVER.  (And we still have another week. Let the week-long sugar high begin!)  But it was crazy in a good way, and crazy in all the right ways.  All the events went well, up to and including the publication of my second book.  I admit I was terrified of shipping the book myself, but it turned out to be super easy and really fun because I was able to sign the books as they went out.

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Me at MN ITEM- a conference full of school librarians and writers.  MY PEOPLE.

Book festivals and literary conferences attract all kinds of bookworms, and this month I found myself connecting with a lot of aspiring writers. Lots of them asked the same questions, so I thought I’d recap with my responses here.

  1. What’s the difference between self-publishing and independent publishing?

For a lot of people, these words are interchangeable.  For me, they aren’t.  Blogging is self-publishing.  Putting your manuscript, hastily or cheaply edited, up on Amazon for download is self-publishing.  Financing a book yourself, without any sort of help or guidance, is self-publishing.  I don’t knock this form of publishing at all– for some people, it’s great.  For others, it’s disappointing.  But that is true of any type of artistic endeavor (more on that later).  I consider myself “independent” in that I financed the books myself, without any backing of an agent or publishing house, but with the ENORMOUS help of my publishers, Wise Ink.  What they do is take my brand, my book, and my vision, and help me bring it to life.  So I’m doing it on my own in the way that a baker might start their own business– with a ton of help from people who know the larger picture better than I.

2. Money.  Give it to me straight.

I don’t mind talking about the financial piece of indie publishing with people who are truly curious about it. Here’s what I’ll say, without mincing words:  Figure out a budget that works for you.  Then sit down with someone to see if you can make that budget happen.  Each project is different.  If you’re writing a full-color cookbook, your printing costs are going to be astronomically higher than mine.  If you design your own cover, you’ll avoid the fee I paid to have a full time artist design my cover.  If you’re PDF savvy, maybe you can format your own interior.  Maybe not.  What I’m saying is that part of the fun of doing it yourself is figuring out these pieces along the way.

3.  Fine, fine.  Give it to me more straight. I want numbers.

Okay, fine.  (Can you tell I had some candid conversations?)  But I can only say this from my experience writing novels.  I promise you’ll find plenty of other idie authors with different stories to tell.  My first book cost about $8k.  That includes a publicist, coordinating logistics, a well-known interior formatter, my incredible illustrator, and the printing of 1000 copies of The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High.  $8k seems like a lot of money.  It is.  I know people who’ve spent far more than that, and I know people who’ve spent far less.  My second book, Edge the Bare Garden, was published for a fraction of that cost, partially because I did a much smaller print run but mostly because I was much smarter the second time around, and made some smarter financial decisions (ie, maximizing my direct sales opportunities.

4. Are you profitable?

Sheesh, enough with the money talk.  The answer is no, not yet.  But soon.  Hopefully super, super soon.  Two books in two years is pretty aggressive… and it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  But I do see a finish line fast approaching.

5. Wouldn’t a big publisher give you more opportunities than you’d find independently?  (In other words, aren’t you worried about the stigma of self-publishing?)

The answer to both questions is no.  While it would be wonderful to get a huge advance from a publisher, sit back with a cup of tea, and write while my royalty checks accrue magically, that is simply not the case for writers in general, no matter how they’re published.  For every John Green or Stephanie Meyer, there are hundreds– thousands– more authors like me, who are growing their audiences one positive review at a time.  My school visits are pure joy for me, and the kids reading my book couldn’t care less who or how the book was published.  They care if it’s good.

6. Is it worth it?

This was a broad question, asked many times in many forms.  Aren’t you exhausted with all those school visits?  How do you find time with two small children to write books?  What about rejection, negative reviews, etc?  I’ll summarize by repeating what I said at an author panel at the beginning of the month:  If you’re a creative person and you aren’t creating, then what are you doing?  Yes, the money is important, the investment is huge(ish), and the risk is high.  Crazy high.  But what of it?  Life is short, and if you are motivated to create, then do it.  And if you do it smartly, you won’t be sorry.

Book Reviews, Commentary, Teachable Books, Teaching

Go Set a Watchman, or How to Break a Bookworm’s Heart

I have written here about my skepticism about Go Set a Watchman, but now that I’m a couple weeks out from finishing it and have thoroughly wiped away my tears, I’m ready to write about the experience.  Full disclosure:  I know To Kill a Mockingbird better than most any other book in the world. It is the only book I’ve taught every single year in the classroom.  I have a whole lesson devoted to theories about why Harper Lee wouldn’t have published another book, and another devoted to the full analysis of the movie, beginning with why Gregory Peck is the ONE and ONLY Atticus. This is the bias I’m writing from, and I own it fully.

Okay.  Here goes.

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Go Set a Watchman was clearly a first draft of the masterpiece that is To Kill a Mockingbird.  The characters, the dialogue, the “plot”, the EVERYTHING. It read like a first(ish) time writer, trying to figure out her voice.  I didn’t mind that about it.  In fact, it was wonderful in some ways to read more from Harper Lee’s distinctive style.  I had heard rumblings about Atticus, that’s he’s a racist in the book (habba WHA???), that the Scout we know from Mockingbird was unrecognizable.  All of that was true.

THAT is not what broke my heart.

The only thing I could think of, page after page, was Harper Lee herself.  I obviously don’t know her, but as a writer now I feel much more in tune with the ups and downs of the writing process.  How each and every book on the shelf at the library is someone’s heart and soul.  I kept thinking about the drafts of stories on my computer, angsty tomes about unrequited love and other silly nonsense.  My writing at twenty is nothing like my writing at thirty-seven, and those pieces will never see the light of day.  That is okay.  I think Harper Lee identified with this on a much larger scale, considering her super-stardom in the literary world and her shyness from the spotlight and unwillingness to publish another novel in all this time.

And yet, this work was “found” and still published.  The timing is far too convenient for HarperCollins, the publishers raking in millions and millions with this book.

So my heart didn’t break for Mockingbird, which is untouchable in my eyes.  Rather, it broke for Harper Lee, for her legacy, and for the sad reality of publishing today.

Money is what matters.  Not content.

I would never recommend this book to be taught in a classroom, but if for some reason it were, I would have my students read it in conjunction with Mockingbird.  And then I would have them write an essay exploring the following topics:

1.  What is our responsibility in preserving the legacy of great works of art?

2.  What is our responsibility toward the elderly?  

And finally, probably most importantly:

3.  In what ways does the publication of Go Set a Watchman confirm the sad state of the money-hungry world we live in?

Okay, fine.  That last one would just be for me.

Commentary, Common Core, Teaching

How to Teach Two Books at the Same Time

Awhile back, I was told I had to teach a book to my seniors, a book which will remain nameless.  Being a gigantic book snob, I was not thrilled about the book choice.  The book itself was alright, but lacked the substance I felt my kids could handle.  I also felt like it didn’t give me much in terms of “teachability”.  (Looking back, maybe this was the impetus to “TeachableLit“!) Regardless, I was disappointed, and it nagged at me for awhile.

Ultimately, I decided that even though I was “forced” to teach this book as part of my curriculum, I also had every right to present to my department an alternative text, one that kids could choose in addition to or as opposed to the first.  After much back and forth, my department came to the conclusion that I was out of my mind.  Differentiation was one thing, but teaching two books at once was quite another.

I did it and LOVED it.  Yes, it was a lot of work, but planning any unit is a lot of work. Here are some tips to make it happen:

1.  Choose complimentary texts

This is so important.  Your two (or three) books should compliment each other in theme(s). That way your lessons can be broad and students can use their own texts to support arguments.  Both of my books were fiction, but a non-fiction and fiction pairing would also work really well.

2.  Create a very cool culminating project

My culminating project was an essay, which isn’t “cool”, necessarily, but the prompts I gave allowed kids to develop their own opinions and use their own personal experiences, more so than I would normally allow.  It made for very interesting essays, with plenty of evidence to draw upon.

3.  Create your own in-class book club

Two different books means two different “groups” in class.  Sometimes this is great for small group work, but it’s also entirely possible to mix the groups up and have the kids “sell” their book to each other or debate.

4.  Wait until the end of the year

Because I did this “experiment” at the end of the year, I knew my kids well enough to know which book they would probably get the most out of.   This was really helpful for the kids who just shrugged their shoulders when I asked them to make a choice, and also helpful for the many kids in my class who could read both books with no problem– all they needed was a little teacher encouragement.

Commentary, YA/MG Book Club

Books for the Reluctant Reader

I have fond memories of sitting outside on a hot summer day and reading books for hours on end.  Some of those books (Bridge to Terabithia, for example) I would finish and then begin again at page one.  I loved reading, and still do.

However, for parents who know the importance of summer reading, it can be really frustrating to not have your child have the same motivation.  Here are a few suggestions for parents of a reluctant summertime reader:

1.  Pick the right book.

There are plenty of studies out there that show that literacy is literacy, be it Harry Potter, Sunset Magazine, or War and Peace.  I’m not totally sure how I feel about that, but I would argue that summer is a great time to take your reluctant reader to the bookstore or library and have them choose whatever they want to read.  Even if it makes you cringe to think about it (Twilight, anyone?).  None of these suggestions make me cringe, but none of them are probably in your child’s curriculum, making them a perfect fit.

For the hopeless romantic (come on, you know you loved this one):

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For the silly middle schooler (this is a series):

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For the artist (both are great):

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For the kid who thinks non-fiction is boring:

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For the kid who loves satire and parody:

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For the kid who loves a great mystery:

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2.  Read with your child.

This is so powerful. Imagine sitting around the dinner table and, instead of forcing conversation, having an at-ready topic you can discuss with your child.  It’s like having a daily, no-strings-attached book club, with all the benefits.

3.  Don’t make reading seem like a chore.

I understand why parents set a “reading time” at home, but more often than not I see it backfire.  Reluctant readers will equate this time as a  a form of punishment.  Read at home, and often, but let it be organic.  The point is to get your reluctant reader to pick up a book for their own pleasure.

4.  Rent the movie

Many wonderful books are made into (sometimes not equally) wonderful movies.  But who cares, when the point is to spend quality time with your child?  If you can, rent the movie after you’re done with the book, pop gallons of popcorn, and talk loudly about how the characters do or do not match your expectations.

Commentary, The Indie Journey

When Writing is Hard

I’ve been all kinds of conflicted about writing lately, which is why I haven’t blogged here in awhile.  Without going into details, the writing itself is going great.  Awesome!  But I was ill-prepared to deal with the aftermath of “the first year out”.  The ups have been followed by… not “downs”, not really, but disappointments.  And as much as I would love to lie and say no big deal, the little things do become big things, and when they do it can be overwhelming to the point of wanting the throw in the towel.

(Don’t worry.  I’m not throwing in the towel.)

The nice thing about the connected world we live in is that you find people who get exactly what you’re talking about.  Not friends whose job it is to tell you you’re awesome, but fellow risk-takers and book-writers who understand the despair only a writer understands.  What if… Now what… What am I DOING?  Not answered, not really.  But understood.

I gave a talk at MN ITEM recently about the changing publishing world, and how it can impact the classroom.  I kept referring to Napster (remember them?).  Back when Napster was threatening to destroy music as we know it, artists were coming out shaking their fists and demanding to know how they can make a living when all of their art is available for free online.  Napster, of course, didn’t ruin music. But it did force artists to do “more” than hide away and create music.  They had to be a “brand”, be connected with the outside world, be willing to put on a killer concert and tour the world.  They had to sell themselves, and then in turn sell the music.  This happens all the time with writers now, and in most ways, it’s awesome.  The past year of hustling from school to school, conference to conference has been totally life-changing and fulfilling.

But I’m exhausted, truly.  And I really want to write.

This week, I’m working with Wise Ink on the compilation of the Inkpossible anthology.  So much beautiful work in there, and I was honored to edit it and write the forward.  However, as I wrote, I noticed a hint of cynicism.  This is no easy path, young writers.  Be careful.  Be aware.

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This is the part where I’d normally make a list of things to pull me out of the “hardness” of this part of the journey, but that would be disingenuous.  So instead, I’ll refer to a conversation I had with a teacher yesterday during a school visit, when she told me about her dream of writing a book, and how she was scared but wanted to give it a try.

“You have to see it as a legacy,” I told her.  “If nothing else, your writing is a gift you leave your children and family.  Your authentic voice.  If you see it that way, you will succeed.”

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Commentary, The Indie Journey, The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High

One Year Out

I can hardly believe it’s almost been an entire year since The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High launched.  I seriously cannot.  What a long road to get there, and what a long, continuous road I’m still on.  Book #2 is back in my hands after receiving some incredible feedback from a group of seventh graders, and I’m looking at the manuscript right now thinking, “Really? Can I actually do this again?”  The answer, of course, is yes.  But I sure will be smarter this time around.  Here are a few things I’ve learned on the one year anniversary of going indie.

1.  Don’t OD on editing

Believe me, I did my research before publishing.  Much of that research stated that editing is the number one thing you can do to ensure success, and the number one thing you should focus your investment in.  I agree wholeheartedly.  However, I was so paranoid about my prose/grammar not being “perfect”, that I spent way too much time and money on the process.  I have a wonderful editor now who knows and trusts my vision and voice, and she will likely be the only person who will content edit my manuscript.  And as far as proofreading goes, once is enough.  Fine, twice.  But that’s IT.

2.  Less online, more community

So many people talk about the importance of an “online” presence in indie publishing.  They are right.  But I think I let that overwhelm me to the point that I didn’t pay enough attention to the resources right in my own zip code.  This second book will be less about getting online reviews, and more about getting into the community to talk about the book.

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3.  Marathons are more rewarding than sprints

My wise publishers at Wise Ink mentioned this several times:  Publishing a book is a marathon, not a sprint.  But what they neglected to say is that the marathon is totally enjoyable.  One year out, and I’ve never had one giant “Amazon Day” when a billion of my books were sold and a check was on its way to me.  What I have had are awesome school visits, interesting conferences, and super fun book clubs.  All of those have added up to sales, of course, but they’ve also been some of the best parts of the publishing process.

4. Believe

I couldn’t talk about the one-year anniversary of the book without getting a little sentimental.  I’m not going to lie– this has been quite a journey.  Mostly ups, but a few downs.  As with anything artistic, I think there needs to be a greater purpose to what you do.  Simply “writing” isn’t enough for me– it’s the idea that what I write could possibly impact someone’s life positively.  You have to believe in that greater purpose, because if you don’t you are missing out on the greater happiness that comes from pursuing your life-long dream.

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My greater purpose.