Book Review: Steve Peha’s Be a Better Writer

Book Review: Steve Peha’s Be a Better Writer
Kate Walker

Half the fun of the NCTE conference is the spontaneous conversations that occur over meals, at the sessions, in the exhibition hall. One conversation happened when I was at the Norton booth chatting with Jim Burke and a gentleman with a pin that said “optimism.” That gentleman was Steve Peha, and not only did he gift me an optimism pin of my own, we had a great conversation about teaching, metaphor, and writing.  We exchanged cards and went on our way.


Lo and behold, a month later Steve’s book Be A Better Writer arrived in the mail for me, and while it took me a bit to read it (end of the marking period, you know how it is) I am so glad I did. Be a Better Writer has the kind of voice and approach that balances knowledge with concrete activities, and a bit of fun mixed in. Although the cover says “for school, for fun, for anyone ages 10-16” these techniques are useful for any beginning writer. I particularly appreciated the checklists before each chapter, as they served to let me know what the chapter would be about–better than a chapter table of contents. My favorite might have been #9 for chapter 2: “There are things that need to be said in the world. You might be the only person who can say them.” Great advice.

Be A Better Writer also gives teachers a way to teach strong writing with concrete approaches. For example, writing memoir can sometimes be hard to teach, but Peha gives us 3 ways to start an essay that could even be combined to create a strong introduction to a memoir. Using a thought, a description, and a question together, and you’ve got a powerhouse introduction. unnamedI found myself noting useful portions of the book with sticky notes, and now the book seems to have a pink sticky-note mane encompassing it.  I have to admit, though, seeing Peha reference Moby Dick when writing about punctuation might have been my favorite portion (I am a bit of a Moby Dick-head, as Stephen Colbert has said).

So if you’re a new teacher, a new writer, or even an experienced teacher or writer, this book is worth the read.And I also didn’t mention yet Margot Carmichael Lester, journalist and founder of the Word Factory, weighs in on each of the chapters with her views, too. Well organized, with strong content (I didn’t even mention the author interviews, the writing samples, and the vast lists of activities and ideas), this book should be on every teacher and student’s shelf of writing advice. So if you see a nice guy at NCTE next year walking around with an optimism button, stop him for a conversation, you won’t be sorry.


Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Book Review: Steve Peha’s Be a Better Writer

Book Review: The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Book Review: The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
Kate Walker

I’ve been determined to read more diverse books this year, rather than just stay with books and authors I know, and it has been enlightening and enjoyable. I picked up a copy of The Association of Small Bombs at NCTE when I was looking for potential texts for my Modern Classics course.  Published in 2016, Mahajan’s book examines the complexities leading to and rippling out from a single bombing event in May 1996 in a crowded market Delhi. We learn of this event from the parents of victims, from the perpetrator of the event, and from people who were present.

imgresI particularly enjoyed Mahajan’s writing.  In the first paragraph, he writes of the bombing, “a flat percussive event that began under the bonnet of a parked white Maruit 800,” and explains “a good bombing begins everywhere at once” much like a crowded market, which is mentioned in the next paragraph. This novel, like many these days, takes on multiple perspectives. We see into the victims homes as well as the terrorists lives, which humanizes them in ways that can make the reader uncomfortable. I enjoy books that make me uncomfortable, where the world is not black and white, but more of a complex gray.

If you asked me to name a favorite character, I might choose Deepa, who negotiates the loss of her children along with her husband Vikas , but I was also fascinated by the way the characters’ lives intertwined, and so I would be hard pressed to truly choose a favorite character because they were so intricately connected. I enjoyed reading this novel because I haven’t read much Indian literature beyond Jhumpa Lahiri (everything she’s written) and Aravand Adiga’s White Tiger. If I were to be honest with myself, India is perhaps the country I am the least familiar with in terms of literature. So I googled myself a list, and realize I actually have The God of Small Things and The Inheritance of Loss on my to-read bookshelf. I plan to move these up on the list so I can read them sooner.

I would highly recommend The Association of Small Bombs for anyone looking for an interconnected story about the human condition, about why people do the things they do.  Also, if you enjoy beautifully wrought prose, written with clarity and precision, this would be an excellent choice for you.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Book Review: The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Friday Five: Free Writing Contests for High School Students

Having a real audience with real prizes can be motivating for many students. Here are 5 places for students to submit writing.

1. Barnes and Noble Favorite Teacher Contest (March 1, 2017 deadline)
“Students write an essay, poem, or thank-you letter (500 words or less, in English on 8.5″ x 11″ white paper) sharing how a teacher has influenced their life and why they appreciate and admire them.”

2. Gannon University HS Poetry Contest (February 1, 2017 Deadline)
Students can submit 1 or 2 poems.

3.Sejong Writing Competition (February 28, 2017)
“Contestants are to read Chon Kwangyong’s short story “Kapitan Ri” and write an essay in response to the provided prompt.”

4. National Federation of State Poetry Society Student Contest (March 1, 2017  Deadline)
32 line limit. Any topic.

5.Signet Essay Contest on The Tempest (April 14, 2017)
For juniors and seniors. Respond to a prompt. Essays must be at least two and no more than three double-spaced pages.


Friday Five: Free Writing Contests for High School Students

Book Review: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Book Review: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Kate Walker

I ordered this book after I was only half way finished with Roxane Gay’s book Bad Feminist–that’s how enamored I was with her writing and her topics. Reading the short stories in Difficult Women was a powerful reading experience. I found myself putting the book down between stories, contemplating the women, their stories, and the writing. I wanted all my friends to read this book immediately so I could talk about it with someone.

I wanted to talk about how “Break All the Way Down” made so much sense, even though it felt hard to read about the loss.  I tried explaining it to my students, who had read The Kite Runner–this story of a woman who lost her child and wanted to be punished reminded me of Amir, who wanted to be punished for his childhood crime his entire life, and that moment when he finally is becomes a release. For the past week, every time I’ve been in a parking lot, I have an eagle eye on small children running around, and I drive slower. These stories are real. Visceral. Powerful. And the women in them are strong, especially when they experience something traumatic.

I wanted to talk about the recurring motif of twins in this story collection, which reminded me of some of Helen Oyeyemi’s books (and I also immediately sent a copy of Difficult Women to the former student who introduced me to Oyeyemi’s books). As the youngest child, I always wondered what it would be like to have a twin, to have a built-in playmate, or even a sister so close she’d follow me directly into danger, like Carolina does in the first story of this collection, “I Will Follow You.” These stories offer explanations for any future behaviors that may be read as out of the norm by society, but reading these stories explains how simple words from our parents when we are young children can influence the rest of our lives (as seen in “A Pat”).

This collection of short stories also contains a number of tales with magical realism, something I appreciate more and more as I age.  The story of how the sun goes out in “The Sacrifice of Darkness” makes more sense to me than many stories I’ve read in the past without elements of magical realism.

Everyone should read this book, but just a heads up about the content–it is strong, powerful, and at times graphic (just like life can be).  I’m reticent about putting this book on my high school library shelf, on the other hand, there might be young women who need to read this book. In the mean time, I’m recommending it and gifting it to friends, and I will continue to talk about it (more generally) with students who might be interested in it.

If you have a chance, and you’re close to Pittsburgh on March 6, 2017, Roxane Gay will be speaking at Carnegie Music Hall, and tickets are only $15!


Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Book Review: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Adapting Shakespeare for Everyone

Adapting Shakespeare for Everyone
Erin McDonnell-Jones

Students across the state are, in their own words, “forced” to study Shakespeare in their high school English classroom. While they may not appreciate these canonical pieces of literature, through experience and adaptations, students can find relevant connections to their everyday lives. In a moderately sized high school in southeastern Pennsylvania, where forty percent of the student body is Hispanic and thirty-nine percent of the students partake in the Free and Reduced Meal plan, every senior student studies Othello. In order to encourage a love for the Bard, especially for students who are not college-bound, teachers here encourage the use of adaptations in the classroom in order to help students establish meaningful connections.

The unit begins with a brief introduction to Shakespeare and the play. Students are encouraged to recall what they know of their own experiences reading Shakespeare before being introduced to the essential background information of the text. Then, students begin to read utilizing the Othello Parallel Text Edition published by Perfection Learning. They are assigned nightly reading homework; however, the reading itself is structured slightly differently. They are assigned to read the more Modern English side of the text on their own and answer guided reading questions. Then, the next day, they are given a small reading quiz, utilizing the same questions. After completing the quiz, students stand and act out the scene that they read the night before, reading Shakespeare’s original words. By doing this, not only have they set a foundation for understanding on their own, but also they are hearing the words the Bard wrote and using their analytical deduction skills to decipher meaning.

Each day involves discussion and connections, but the most important point comes at the end of each Act. As Shakespeare intended his words to be seen, and not read, students view two adaptations of the play: “Othello” (1995) directed by Oliver Parker and “O” (2001) directed by Tim Blake Nelson. The students only watch one act of each adaptation at a time, but in addition to setting their own contextual understanding of the work they are enhancing their understanding by viewing the adaptations.

Upon completion of reading the text and viewing the adaptations, students are then assigned a research paper to answer the prompt “Which adaptation is faithful (or not), why or why not?” by responding in a five-paragraph essay offering outside academic research to support their thesis.075691485x

While many schools are moving away from the canonical texts in favor of more non-canonical works to help encourage a love for reading, the importance of classics cannot be understated. Regardless of whether or not these students will attend a prestigious four-year university after graduation, they should all have the opportunity to read with and connect to literature that helps them through their own tumultuous transitions of relationships and life altering events. Adapting these works to establish a sense of relevancy and meaning is important for every student at every level.

Erin McDonnell-Jones is a teacher, reader, and avid travel enthusiast living in Chester County, PA. Follow her adventures @emcdonnelljones

Adapting Shakespeare for Everyone

Friday Five: Reasons to Read Diverse Books in 2017

Friday Five: Reasons to Read Diverse Books in 2017
Kate Walker

There are many reasons to challenge yourself to read outside your regular reading genre, favorite authors, or topic of reading. Here are 5 reasons to #readdiverse this year:

  1. I often tell my students the best way to learn about other people is to travel and meet diverse people–and if you can’t do that, to read.  Try a book about a place you’ve never been to, written by a person who lives there.
  2. Another reason to read diverse books this year is the sheer number of possibilities. So many new books being published this year, including the anthologies published by the organization We Need Diverse Books.
  3. Studies have shown reading can help create empathy. Understanding each other is more important now than ever. Our society needs to be less fractured, and reading can help us understand others.
  4. You could earn some fun badges if you’re a blogger or write goodreads reviews. The folks over at Read Diverse Books have a challenge this year where you earn a badge for your profile when you read and post at least 5 reviews of diverse books.
  5. This is a new year’s resolution that you can actually accomplish pretty easily.  Losing 20 pounds or running a marathon can weigh on you more than a resolution to read a little differently this year. Trying new things keeps you sharp.

How can you find more diverse books to read? Ask your friends to suggest some books, or check out these links:

close-up-rainbow-colored-book-arrangement-13775360Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Friday Five: Reasons to Read Diverse Books in 2017

MLK Day Book Review: March by John Lewis

MLK Day Book Review: March by John Lewis
Denny Connolly

March: Book One released in the summer of 2013 and just a few years later the full award-winning trilogy is now available and more relevant than ever. The ambitious comic project is a collaboration between iconic Civil Rights hero John Lewis, writer Andrew Aydin, and Eisner and Ignatz winning artist and letterer Nate Powell. The powerhouse trio come together to tell the story of America’s Civil Rights Movement as witnessed through the eyes of one of its key figures, Congressman Lewis. The result is a stunning biography that transcends tear-jerking period piece and enters the realm of political action blueright for future generations.

The first volume opens on a defining moment of Lewis’ life and American history, as he and other peaceful protesters kneel to pray on Edmund Pettus Bridge while armed police approach with billy clubs. From there, the story elegantly dances back and forth between Washington, D.C. on President Obama’s inauguration day in 2009 and Lewis’ formative years in rural Alabama circa the mid 1950s.


March: Book One follows Lewis as he comes to the realization that he has the spirit of an activist and follows his journey from aspiring preacher to central figure in the lunch counter sit-in protest. Unlike some history texts and other less ambitious books about the Civil Rights Movement, March doesn’t present the proud protesters as men and women who stood in line respectfully and quietly until things went their way. Although Lewis always stands by his call for non-violent protest; he uses March as a venue to clearly recount the pain, suffering, and abuse that the movement had to withstand while causing their ‘good trouble’ as he likes to call it.

March’s greatest strength is that it reads like a political education manifesto, without sacrificing any artistry for its goal. Lewis lays out what it takes to stand up and make a difference and, hopefully, spurs a new generation of Americans to always fight for equality and push forward. Always forward. These lessons are all the more effective and emotional thanks to the superior craft that Nate Powell brings to every panel.

screen-shot-2017-01-14-at-9-50-11-pmIn case there was any doubt after 2008’s Swallow Me Whole (a must-read examination of young people and mental illness), letterer Powell continues to prove that he is the contemporary master of greyscales and negative space. His style floats in a magical place between expressionism and realism that make every panel uniquely his own. His splash pages with black ink poured over the majority of the page draw the reader’s eyes exactly where he and the writers want it to be. Powell’s powerful style is so closely associated with his own voice that it was hard to imagine him inking someone else’s words, but after three volumes of March, it’s clear that he has the talent and power to bring any story to life on the page.

March is that special kind of YA novel that can truly connect with readers of any age from as young as 10 or so all the way up to senior citizens. Whether you’re an expert in the Civil Rights Movement or totally uninformed about Lewis’ battles, the page turner will keep you hooked through three emotional volumes of essential American history. The series provides a snapshot of the country’s past that was an essential stepping stone in the social justice movement, while helping readers of all ages realize that there is always more work to be done and always a need for strong, smart citizens to step up to the challenge.

Readers can find each volume of March seperately or a collection containing all three at their local comic shop. (If you’re near State College, that’s the Comic Swap.)

Denny Connolly is a writer and content strategist living in State College, PA. Find more of his work on Twitter @DennyConnolly.

MLK Day Book Review: March by John Lewis