PCTELA Blog’s Top 5 Books of 2016

This list includes the top books I read this year. While any list like this will be limited and slightly biased, these five books, which came out this year, were 5-star quality. I read 125 books this year, so this is only 4% of the books I read in total (meaning these are better than the top 5%).

I chose these titles because they had the best writing, the best stories, and the most lasting effect after I read them. Each of these books stuck with me at least a week after I read them. They are also the books I passed out to friends the most and had the best response after friends read them.

1.Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
3. The Unseen World by Liz Moore
4. Hagseed by Margaret Atwood
5. Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Posted by Kate, PCTELA Blog Editor

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PCTELA Blog’s Top 5 Books of 2016

Book Review: What Light by Jay Asher

20160210__USBooksJayAsher~1.jpg2016 was a tough year and I am not sad to see it coming to an end. Amidst news of war and death, despair and ridicule, I found myself escaping into literature to find solace. This holiday season, I found comfort in a story of forgiveness and redemption. Jay Asher’s What Light is a sweet, innocent tale of young love that left me feeling all of the good feels.

In this contemporary YA novel, Sierra, a teenager whose family moves from California to Oregon during the holiday season to run their family Christmas tree farm meets Caleb, a boy whose troubled past keeps most people in his small town from getting close to him. Although friends and family caution Sierra to distance herself from Caleb, the two develop an irrepressible attraction to one another. As the pair fumble through their first love, readers are charmed by their awkward, yet relatable interactions as our own middle and high school memories come rushing back.

Once again, Jay Asher draws readers in with his ability to develop meaningful characters and build suspense. While What Light is a much lighter read than the bestseller Thirteen Reasons Why, Asher’s talent for keeping readers invested in his characters is ever-present in his writing.

What Light was just what I needed right now. If you are looking for a break from the sadness that seems to be permeating the world, do yourself a favor: Curl up by the fire with a peppermint mocha and enjoy the feel-good novel, What Light.


Sara is a 7th grade English teacher in the State College Area School District. She enjoys reading and spending time with her two sons, husband, and dog.

Book Review: What Light by Jay Asher

Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah writes brilliantly, balancing his wisdom and insight with humor and a lighthearted tone that belies the seriousness of the content. I would put this book in my top 5 books of the year.

I really enjoyed the format of this memoir. Noah intersperses facts and stories about life in South Africa with more personal stories and anecdotes. But he doesn’t just share his own stories, he shares the wisdom he’s gained from his experiences.  When he talks about how he was able to start a small business with a CD writer, it was only because a friend gave it to him.  This translates to his insightful observation about opportunity:  “People love to say, “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” What they don’t say is, “And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.” That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.”

There are a number of shorter chapters in this book I’d love to share with my seniors. Whether they were the chapters about learning to talk to girls or learning to be authentic or how much his mother taught him about having optimism in life, I found the writing to be relatable. On the other hand, I felt like I learned a lot about what it was like to live in post-apartheid South Africa. It was like reading an engaging history lesson by an insider. And yet, Noah made the point that as the son of a black mother and a white father, he was basically always an outsider. This balance throughoimgres-1ut the book, of content, humor, wisdom, and insight made it a fascinating read.

If you got a book gift card for the holidays, consider buying a copy of this book. I polished it off in less than 24 hours, and I’m excited to share about it with my students.

Posted by Kate, PCTELA Blog Editor

Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Friday Five: Our Best Posts from 2016

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 7.39.43 PMThis Friday, we’re celebrating a year of professional development, a year of teaching, a year of reading, a year of writing, a year of poetry. The list below contains five of our most popular blog posts this year.

  1. “Where’s That Diploma? Claiming Respect as Teachers” written by PCTELA’s own Bob Dandoy
  2. “Let’s Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable” by Danielle Ambrosia
  3. “Book Review: Up Late with Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian” by Kate Walker
  4. “Friday Five: Reasons to Watch Stranger Things Before Going Back to School” by Brian Smith
  5. “A Poem: “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith” (check out Maggie Smith on twitter)

And if you’re making a New Year’s Resolution to write more, or to put yourself out there professionally, you’re always welcome to share a post with us and we’ll publish it. Just contact Kate (kap 17 @ scasd . org). We accept book reviews, opinion pieces, lesson ideas, and many other types of writing.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor, PCTELA

Friday Five: Our Best Posts from 2016

Watching Proof with My Students

imgresSo we’re finishing up a modern play unit (see my previous thoughts about The Flick), and I wanted students to see how popular plays can turn into films. I decided to show the 2005 film adaptation of David Auburn’s Proof. What I love about this film is that we can watch 20-30 minutes of it and then have an in-depth 20-30 minute conversation about it. Also, it doesn’t hurt that the play is PG-13, so I don’t have to worry about inappropriate scenes (there’s one intimate one, and I just fast-forwarded through it.) The issues in the play include many my students want to talk about: mental illness, taking care of ailing parents, making decisions about college, relationships (between siblings and significant others).

Gwyneth Paltrow, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Anthony Hopkins do an incredible job bringing the play to life.  I asked my students how they can see this film as different from others since it was originally a play and they responded: the scenes seem to be only in a few settings, the dialogue seems more intense, and the setting seems less important. I was fascinated in the differences they noticed. imgres-1

So if you’re looking for a great mini-unit for your students, reading, watching, and discussing Proof might be just the thing to engage seniors in class discussions.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor for PCTELA

Watching Proof with My Students

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

imagesBook Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

This book, about what happens to the world after the Georgia Flu hits it and wipes out most of humanity, may not be the best book to read when you have the flu yourself.  However, I really enjoyed reading it, even if I was feeling under the weather myself. Perhaps it made it easier for me to imagine the world as we know it coming to an end.

We follow Kirsten, Jeevan, and Clark, people whose lives once touched the great actor Arthur Leader, who drops dead in the middle of a production of King Lear. The narrative jumps back and forth from when the epidemic hit to fifteen years later, and hits a few years in between.  One lovely element of this imagined post-apocalyptic world is the troupe of actors and musicians who travel from town to town with caravans painted with the saying:  “Survival is insufficient.” (A nod to Star Trek).

There are some heart-wrenching observations about what it means to be human, and what makes up humanity. One observation, “Hell is the absence of the people you long for” seemed especially poignant.  But I really enjoyed the conversation about how people who knew what the world was before the flu seemed to have lost more than those who never knew the ways things once were: “What I mean to say is, the more you remember, the more you’ve lost.”

I’ve been off the dystopian novel for a while, but this beautifully written rendition brought me back around.  I especially enjoyed the bits with Miranda, creator of the graphic novel Station Eleven, which weaves itself through the narrative in wonderful ways.

Book Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

What Happens When Teachers Get the Flu

First, we go into denial. No, my head is not hotter than the Sonoran Desert. No, my brain does not feel like a vise is squeezing it from all sides. No, I don’t have chills, you do.

Next, we move into acceptance. Accept that you’re sick and make those sub plans while you still have at least one iota of a brain cell still functioning. Accept that you’ll have to make a sub plan, accept that you’ll have to email colleagues to make sure said sub plans arrive where they need to be, copies have been made, and supplies are available for the guest teacher (also known as the sub).

After acceptance comes anxiety. What if the sub doesn’t arrive? What if the students are confused? What if there aren’t enough copies? What if the plans I wrote up in a nyquil-induced haze make absolutely no sense? What if students are bored in class and it is my fault for not creating the best sub plan ever? What if I don’t end up grading that big stack of papers I meant to grade but now I’m too sick to read?

After anxiety hits, reality arrives, in the form of cute emails from students telling you to feel better, drink tea, cuddle your cats. And the odd question or two (are these assignments due at the end of the period? do we have to read these aloud when we finish?) may actually show up in email, but nothing earth-shattering or shocking. No news that your classroom caught on fire or that your students rebelled en masse and walked out. And so you continue to snuggle in your blanket, sipping ginger-ale, petting your cats, whilst fading in and out of consciousness and only sort of watching daytime television.

Finally, as the flu drains from your system, so, too, does the anxiety, the worry, they unrealistic scenarios of what might have happened when we were out. We wake up, go in to school after a day (or two) of being out sick, and discover, to our delight or chagrin, that the world did not stop when we were out sick. A few students may confess they are glad to see me, and a few students may wish I were out one more day.

And, as Kurt Vonnegut so elegantly put it, “so it goes.”

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Image of the snapchat sticker I used most on the days I was out sick. 


Posted by Kate, Blog Editor for PCTELA, who should have gotten the flu shot this year.

What Happens When Teachers Get the Flu