Summer Reading Challenge #1: Read a Book Someone Else Chooses for You

Over vacation, I read Tim Dorsey’s Atomic Lobster. I would never have read this book if not for my husband. He confesses he judges books by the covers, and at the recent AAUW booksale bag sale day, he grabbed this book (among many others). It looked like a fun vacation read.

So he read it for the first part of vacation last week, and I read it for the second part. He kept giggling, reading lines aloud, and generally making noises of approval as he read it. My husband and I don’t normally read the same books, so not only was I intrigued by his reaction, I wanted to have a common book we could talk about. I’m glad we did, because in the week since we’ve read it, we talked about what we liked and disliked in it, we’ve discovered Dorsey’s other books, and we’ve used the characters as reference points.

In many ways, Dorsey’s fiction reminds me of Dave Barry’s fiction: hapless characters enter into conflict, coincidence and hilarity ensue. (If you haven’t read Insane City, Big Trouble, or Tricky Business, check those out.) There are three character arcs in the book: the G-Force, a bunch of grannies who discover cruise ships are less expensive than retirement homes (if you stay away from drinks and gambling); Jim Davenport and his wife (he’s non-confrontational to a fault); and Serge Storms, a serial killer who seems to have a good heart. The situations are hilarious, but I’ll warn you, there’s lots of sex, drugs, and rock and roll–this is not a book you’ll give to your students to read.

While I would not have normally picked up this book on my own, the experience of reading the same book as my husband was priceless. So here’s your first reading challenge of the summer: read a book someone else chooses for you. Hopefully it will be a book that person has read, so you can discuss it together.

Happy Reading!

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

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Summer Reading Challenge #1: Read a Book Someone Else Chooses for You

Friday Five: Teacher To-Do List for the Summer

So now that you’re done with school, the time to decompress and recharge has arrived. Whether you’re at year 3 or year 30, teachers need the summer to relax and build up that energy reservoir for the next year. Summer professional development is important and useful, and I know many of you will do training, meet with teachers, attend conferences, and read professional books (I will, too). But here’s a summer to-do list for teachers that will help you really relax and recharge so you can return to school ready for students.

1. Binge watch that one show all you students were talking about. Especially if you wouldn’t normally watch it. Even if you just watch 3 episodes in a row, you’ll at least know the characters and the basics when you see your students next. (Pro tip: ask students via social media like twitter which show to binge watch). My high school students recommended, among other shows, both Orange is the New Black and 13 Reasons Why.

2. Stay in your pajamas all day and do not cook one meal. Pretend you’re back in college and do not be productive for one entire day. If you have kids, they probably won’t mind pjs and cereal all day. Allow yourself one full day with no responsibilities. This can be hard for us, since we’re so used to getting things done, and the summer is time to get things done you can’t do during the school year.  However, you need to take a full 24 hours off from doing things. Order in, or just eat from your cupboards. Ask your significant other or kids to make food. If you’re not sure how to *not* do things all day, try #1.

3. Leave your computer and phone and go outside all day. We’re so connected, even during the summer. Whether you’re checking the news, finding summer PD, or trying to work on curriculum, give yourself a day without any screens. No TV, no computer, no phone. Go enjoy the natural world. This will allow you, as Thoreau says, to “maintain a little bit of summer, even in the middle of winter.” Recharge your nature batteries, whether it is at the beach, on a hike, or in your backyard. Just don’t forget the sunblock.

4. Call a non-teacher friend and go out to lunch. You should go out with teacher buddies, too, but this one is important. If you go out to lunch with a non-teacher, it means you will probably not talk about school, lessons, administration, students, parents, or curriculum.  It means you’ll have conversations about family, the news, movies, or the food you’re eating.  Enjoy a full conversation and meal without being a teacher, you’ll just be a friend.

5. Freewrite about what you never have time for and then do it. OK, so this is kind of an assignment. Take out a piece of paper and a pen. Freewrite for five minutes without stopping on this prompt: What do you feel you never have time to do, but really want to do? I did this and was surprised. I thought I would discover I wanted to write more. You know what? Deep down, I want to cook more elaborate meals, and in the summer, I have time to do that: time to chop veggies, simmer, prepare complex dishes that normally would not happen when I come home from school. Freewrite until you figure out what you actually wish you were doing. Then take some time this summer to do it!  In the meantime, I’m headed to the grocery store to buy ingredients and start cooking.

Happy Summer!

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Friday Five: Teacher To-Do List for the Summer

New Poet Laureate: Tracy K. Smith

We have a new U.S. Poet Laureate: Tracy K. Smith! In 2011, her book of poetry Life on Mars won a Pulitzer. She currently teaches at Princeton.

Some things you might not know about this position:

  • The official title for this position is: Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.
  • The librarian of Congress (currently Carla Hayden) appoints the position.
  • This position started in 1937 and the stipend accompanying it is only $35,000.

Here’s a link to NPR’s article “Tracy K. Smith, New U.S. Poet Laureate, Calls Poems Her ‘Anchor'”

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picture from NPR


The Good Life

Tracy K. Smith
When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine.
New Poet Laureate: Tracy K. Smith

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe
by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“Summer was here again. Summer, summer, summer. I loved and hated summers. Summers had a logic all their own and they always brought something out it me. Summer was supposed to be about freedom and youth and no school and possibilities and adventure and exploration. Summer was a book of hope. That’s why I loved and hated summers. Because they made me want to believe.”

Now that’s how you start a book! If you need a summer read, why not start with one, that also begins in summer? I had no less than three students recommend this book to me in the last week of school. Thus, when I went to the bookstore to buy my first read of the summer, I picked up a copy of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Honestly, I don’t know how in the world I hadn’t read this book yet.

With Ari’s voice, Sáenz’s writing, the short chapters, the engaging content–I didn’t put the book down once I picked it up. I read it almost all in one sitting.  It tells the story of a friendship between two boys. It tells the story two loving families. It tells the story many of us might have wanted to read when we were young. Ari and Dante negotiate their teenage selves and various identities: racial, sexual, and overall human identity. I don’t want to spoil any of the major events in the book, but I will tell you I loved that Ari’s mother is a teacher. And at one point, Ari talks to her about her job. The exchange just made me smile, nod, and realize just how remarkable Sáenz is, that he could pinpoint our work so succinctly:

“What are you thinking?”
“You like teaching?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Even when your students don’t care?”
“I’ll tell you a secret. I’m not responsibly for whether my students care or don’t care. That care has to come from them–not me.”
“Where does that leave you?”
“No matter what, Ari, my job is to care.”

This book is a must-read (or a re-read). It won the Lambda Literary Award, the Printz Honor Award, and the Stonewall Book Award.  And if you want to listen to the audiobook, Lin-Manuel Miranda reads it aloud! The good news if you read this and loved it, is that there’s a sequel in the making, so there will be more from Ari & Dante.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

 

Book Review: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Next Year’s Greatest Lesson: Mini Documentaries

Next Year’s Greatest Lesson: Mini Documentaries

Allison Irwin

Now that we’re winding down to the end of the year and all that’s left to do is proctor finals and tally the grades, I find myself looking for next year’s greatest lesson. What should I change about my instruction? What will captivate my often less-than-enthusiastic audience? Where, oh where should I go to find a resource that is worth sharing in the precious few moments I get with my students each day?

In my googling frenzy, I stumbled across this precious gem from The Learning Network at the New York Times:

8 Compelling Mini-Documentaries to Teach Close Reading and Critical Thinking Skills

When I wrote to Michael Gonchar, Deputy Editor of the New York Times Learning Network, he replied within hours.  It’s easy to tell that this educator-turned-editor has a passion for learning.  When you look to the Film Club, you will see that he plays a big part in that initiative.   In his reply to my email he wrote:

“Thank you for your email. I love the Op Docs in The Times, and I’m really hoping that Film Club will catch on with even more teachers. I think it’s a great resource, especially for ELA teachers. All of these very cool short documentary films make for engaging content for writing, discussing and thinking. I’m so glad to hear that you’re excited about it too, and that you’ll be sharing it with teachers across PA.”

Hopefully more teachers will begin using these valuable resources available on the New York Times Learning Network! I can’t express enough the importance of free, thought-provoking resources that have clearly been developed by someone who knows and understands education.

Here are five reasons why you should absolutely check this out.

1) There is no time to watch a 2-hour video.

I’ve never been one for popping in a movie at the end of the year and coasting through June. That’s what summer is for. Or lazy, rainy afternoons at home on my couch. This post on The Learning Network blog opened my eyes to the possibilities of showing and discussing a short (less than 10 minutes) film. I’ve never considered this before. I could easily plan a 50 minute lesson around a pre-reading activity, video (reading – treat it like a text), and post-reading activity.  While this could be utilized at any point throughout the year, I see this format being particularly engaging in June.

2) The mini documentaries in the Film Club are well produced!

I actually want to watch these films. They have enough created by now that you could either look for the latest additions to their series or you could search for a subject that applies to what your classroom goals are at the moment. As a reading teacher, I find it particularly easy to choose engaging texts – YES VIDEOS COUNT AS TEXT 😊 – since I can teach reading strategies regardless of the content of the chosen text. Even though other teachers may be more shackled to a curriculum, with over 50 short films to choose from, you’re bound to find something that is applicable.

3) “They tell stories that often remain hidden, and introduce us to people and places foreign to us.”

My favorite quote from the original blog post on The Learning Network.  Joyfully and unabashedly making connections to abstract places, feelings, and situations that are foreign to us is one of the most valuable skills we can teach teenagers and young adults. So often kids are afraid of being wrong or sounding like an outcast. Or sounding like they sympathize with an outcast. Or they simply don’t know how to (or don’t care to) connect with something or someone that is unfamiliar. It feels uncomfortable. Watch the 7 minute video on the original blog post called San Quentin’s Giants.  Students will be able to use their familiarity with baseball to bridge a connection to some of the more heavy themes in this documentary such as incarceration in America, self image, race relations, or stereotypes. Valuable, valuable gem indeed.

4) The lesson plans are already there for you!

Sort of. While I almost always adapt the lesson plans and materials provided from any resource, the building blocks of the lesson are already provided here. Have you ever used The Learning Network created by the New York Times? They have an incredible inventory of articles with accompanying discussion questions and activities. Today I learned that they offer the equivalent in video through this Film Club.  I’m so happy! If you’re looking for something worthwhile but already partially constructed for you, then this is the place to look. It does not feel like a scripted curriculum the way that some options do. It’s just the building blocks for you to use and adapt to fit the needs of your students.

5) The Film Club meets and produces a new addition to their inventory every other week during the school year.

Hooray! Constantly evolving content to choose from! I love that this is fresh and remains relevant. It allows us to build on the activity so easily. For example, I could pair their most recent film Turning Oil Rigs into Reefs with all sorts of other texts. Current events from the newspaper would be perfect. Or I could pre-select a few photos that connect with the film on some thematic level and encourage students to make inferences to reveal the theme I intended. The interesting part here is that students may discover themes that I hadn’t intended – isn’t this a great moment to teach students about perspective? Or for younger students, I could use that natural moment to teach them that background knowledge plus the text evidence is what creates an inference. If we all have different background knowledge, we could easily come up with different inferences (even when we’re looking at the same evidence). This means we might all come up with different themes to connect the selected texts! It’s so much easier to have a lesson like this with multimedia texts rather than just words on a page.


Allison is currently serving as the Director of Special Activities for PCTELA. She enjoyed almost 10 years as a middle level educator before making the switch to high school this past year. As a Reading Specialist, she works with small groups of students every day and helps them to build a solid foundation for using text to learn.

Next Year’s Greatest Lesson: Mini Documentaries

Author Breakfast Lineup for our Fall Conference

Join us on Saturday October 21 at our annual author’s breakfast portion of our PCTELA conference for food, professional camaraderie, and friendly dialogue.

Our PCTELA Conference this year is being held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Green Tree (Pittsburgh). Our featured speaker this year is Laurie Halse Anderson, and we also have a spectacular line-up for our annual author’s breakfast on Saturday morning.

Free teacher-swag to each person who registers for the Author’s Breakfast! Registration details can be found on our website at www.pctela.org.

Here is who we have confirmed so far, and we will be selecting 1-2 more authors before too long.

Cat Bruno

Pittsburgh-based, bestselling fantasy author Cat Bruno creates superhero-like protagonists and complex villains in her mythology-laced series, Pathway of the Chosen. Midwest Book Review praised Ms. Bruno’s debut novel, The Girl from the North, as “Exceptional entertainment with deftly created characters and unexpected plot twists.” A year later, Ms. Bruno continued the story of her strong female protagonist with the second book in the series, Daughter of the Wolf. In October, the third book and the author’s favorite, Queen of Stars and Shadows, was released and quickly entered the bestseller’s list in epic fantasy. For those looking for diversity in literature and atypical fantasy characters, Ms. Bruno offers an engaging read with uncommon voices, especially ones that areunderrepresented in genre fiction. With a focus on blending historical accuracy into her fantasy world, Ms. Bruno explores and examines the scope and role of women with a modern, feminist angle.

Sherrie Flick

Fiction. Food. Freelance. Sherrie Flick is the author of the novel RECONSIDERING HAPPINESS, the flash fiction chapbook I CALL THIS FLIRTING, and the short story collection WHISKEY, ETC, a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Award and the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year for Short Stories. Her work has appeared in THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, PLOUGHSHARES, and W.W. Norton’s anthologies FLASH FICTION FORWARD and NEW SUDDEN FICTION. She has received fellowships from PA Council on the Arts, PA Partners in the Arts, Creative Nonfiction, the Ucross Foundation, and Atlantic Center for the Arts. She teaches in the Food Studies and MFA programs at Chatham University and serves as co-director of the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival. In Fall 2018, Autumn House Press will publish a new collection of stories and In Fact Books will publish a book of creative nonfiction.

Catherine Dawgert

Through writing and illustration I hope to express the sense of wonder, humor and compassion I feel in this strange and beautiful world. Picture books are one of the most exciting forms of narrative to me because of the way illustrations and words work together to create multiple layers and multiple stories within one book.

Publications to date include the picture books ABC Disgusting, winner of the 2015 Moonbeam Award for best illustrator; Even in My Monster Hat; and The Dinglebeast Needs to Sleep, chosen as an Inkspokes Select Book Award 2017. The People on the Bus is forthcoming in 2017.

Author Breakfast Lineup for our Fall Conference

Using Diagrams & Infographics in Synthesis Essays

Using Diagrams & Infographics in Synthesis Essays

Last year, one student was struggling to formulate her topic for her final synthesis essay (I ask students to use at least 4 texts and combine them in a larger argument about some element of being human).  She stayed after class one day and I asked her if she could somehow graph out what she wanted to say about making decisions.  We talked for almost an hour, and she drew a number of different iterations of a graph.  This was one of the final ones she designed, and it ended up in her paper:

decisions graph

What adding this graph allowed her to do was then explain how it applied to each of the four books she analyzed.  It was a remarkable moment for both of us, as we both understood how the image allow her thinking to crystalize.

This year, as students began to draft synthesis essays, after they all thought they had solid topics, I asked them to draw an image that depicted their topic. It could be a spectrum, a graph, or some other kind of image.  For a few students, it served the same purpose as my student last year: it helped crystalize their thinking.

One student realized the more characters desired something, the more insane they seemed:

Another student made a gradient for what she termed “consumption,” and whether there was an obsessive element to the consumption. This helped her decide where to place different characters (like Hamlet, Ahab, or Frankenstein)  and allowed her to craft her essay around this concept. 

Another student used a graph to show the different kinds of archetypal figures he saw in the texts we read.

While not every student used these graphs in their papers, at least 20% of them did find them useful enough to incorporate into their final paper. As a reader, I also found them useful to refer to as I read their arguments.

So the next time you ask students to write an essay, consider having them translate it into an image. The act might help clarify their thinking and improve their writing.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Using Diagrams & Infographics in Synthesis Essays