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

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

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

Promoting Reading at a Young Age

In February, through a connection with e.e. Charlton-Trujillo, PCTELA received a picture book donation from author Sally Derby, who donated several cases of picture books to Never Counted Out. PCTELA has chosen to distribute these in a number of ways to promote reading at an early age. Below, PCTELA Board member Allison Irwin recounts her experience sharing copies of King Kenrick’s Splinter by Sally Derby.


It really takes a village to raise a child. I’ve never been so sure of that as I am right now. Walking into a community of people who know each other, as a stranger, and being welcomed with smiles and conversation, is just what my heart needed tonight.

I spent the last two hours sitting in a dining room at a local women’s and children’s shelter. Tonight was their monthly community dinner – which is very popular. In addition to meeting the women and children of the shelter, I got to share stories with people from the community at large. The hustle and bustle of little children running around while dinner was set up met with the rolling of stroller wheels, the tapping of canes and walking sticks, and the louder stomping of rough and tumble preteen boys play fighting with their cousins. As the gymnasium opened to serve the meal, the dining room filled with many eager to share in good food and fellowship.

Just before dinner I arranged the donated books on one of the tables. I also had some of my own books for the middle school and high school crowd. One mother stopped by to tell me her story. She has a little two year old boy and another on the way. He was adorable! But wouldn’t sit still long enough for me to even catch his name. Then two mothers of high school seniors stopped by to see what I was doing there. We chatted about their daughters’ interests, what they’re reading currently, and then I made some recommendations from my pile. This naturally transitioned into a conversation about their own interests, and each mother took a book for themselves!

One thing I found is that the value of reading is clearly not lost. I met strong, worn grandmothers who read to their grandchildren every day. One mother asked if she could take two books because she understood that if her seven year old son is reading the book to her three year old daughter, then her daughter should have her own copy to look at while he’s reading it to her. There’s something about knowing a book is yours that is pretty special at that age.

Two 6th grade girls came up to the table and talked with me about Twilight and some other recent favorites of theirs. One of the shelter’s Family Advocates who offered her time to sit with me this evening came right back with a book recommendation for them! She told them all about The Host by Stephenie Meyer and what a fabulous read that was for her.

As a high school reading teacher, I sometimes get bogged down by the feeling that we’re not doing enough to prepare our students for the real life reading tasks they will be faced with as adults. Knowing how to read strategically encompasses so much more than just interpreting text. It requires patience, logical thinking, stamina, and resiliency in the face of challenges.

Talking with these families tonight restored some of my faith in our ability to send the next generation off into the world with the soft skills they will need to be successful. If we work as a village, we might just be able to do this right.

**********

One young girl I spoke with took me by storm. She came in with a large group. Breezed right by me the first time – headphones in of course – and then circled back. Without saying a word she began paging through the books on the table.

She eventually made eye contact and engaged me in conversation. I could tell from her vocabulary alone that she was a voracious reader. We shared book recommendations which of course led to deeper conversation. This is where I noticed her soft skills.

Resiliency. She related stories about her friends and the drama that she often needs to mediate. This young girl was adamant about not letting her friends use her as a “back up friend” when her core group was fighting. “I’m either your friend or I’m not” she claimed.

Patience. It’s hard for any teenager to be patient. But when her little brother walked into the room, I watched her demeanor soften as she addressed him. She waited to see if there was something he needed from her before returning to our discussion. Any teenager that can stop talking about herself mid-story to address the needs of her little brother exhibits a great deal of patience and empathy!

Logical thinking. So we started talking about dual narrators, and I mentioned the book 13 Reasons Why. In my opinion, the quality of the book in its original form far surpasses the Netflix series. All of her friends keep trying to get her to watch the Netflix series, but she only likes to do one or the other (book or movie, not both). I told her to definitely read the book in lieu of the series. She continued to ask me clarifying questions, and I could sense her brain shuffling through the data she was collecting from me. She didn’t cave in and watch the series because all her friends wanted her to, she spent time thinking through what would be right for her. (Happy to say she chose the book after our conversation! She liked the idea of the dual narrators, disliked the extra vulgarity and drama the Netflix series adds to the story, and hoped to actually get a sense of the characters inner thoughts and motives which she felt would be easier to grasp through text.).

Stamina. This girl walked straight from school to meet her family at the shelter for the community dinner. Her siblings are mostly younger than her. The school district she attends is underfunded. When she’s emotionally frustrated, she admitted to expressing that frustration poorly, and this causes a rift between her and her teacher. And yet… she spends her lunch break reading in the library. She provides her younger sister with a role model who dresses modestly and has respect for her own self image. She doles out advice and encouragement to friends in need. She smiles and expresses a bubbly, personable attitude while eating a free community dinner with a stranger. She still enjoys school despite all the mandated testing she’s faced with each year. This little girl has stamina.

**********

As teachers, we only see one side of our students. It’s easy to believe that it’s us against the world – fighting to educate the youth! It’s easy to forget that parents are exhausted and that kids navigate a precarious environment each day. I’m left wondering tonight about this little girl’s teacher. How would the teacher describe her as a student? Has she seen the depth of character that this young, teen girl expressed tonight, or does the girl’s classroom persona mask all but one or two shades of her character?

Our job, in addition to teaching the eligible content, is to make sure we’re our students’ cheerleaders. We need to have patience, we need to think logically, we need stamina, and we need to be resilient if we ever expect to teach these skills to our students.

We also need help.

As a village, and only as a village, we can strategically instill those vital soft skills into their literacy education both inside and outside of school.

Promoting Reading at a Young Age

Friday Five: Reasons to Read Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle

Friday Five: Reasons to Read Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle

  1. Students will love these books and want to talk to you about them. One of my seniors gave me the first book, The Raven Boys and I’ve emailed and chatted with her and others about the book.
  2. Stiefvater can genuinely surprise me. It is rare for a book to surprise me anymore. I know the clues for suspense, I can pick out Chekov’s gun a mile away. But her books legitimately surprised me in some parts. Don’t worry, no spoilers, just take my word for it.
  3. They are an easy sell. Modern book about teenagers researching the paranormal? Sure, they’ll read it. Crafted, precise writing with original metaphor? They’ll read it. Realistic portrayals of teenagers and the way they actually speak? They’ll read it.
  4. The series is complete. One of my students  who is a fan of series said she was willing to start The Raven Cycle series because it was complete–she wouldn’t have to wait for another one to come out once she finished the last book. And I admit, I have been reading one after the other. While I was sad I came late to the series, the good news is no wait for the last book.
  5. Escape into a good story. I started the first book after a tough week at school. It was a Saturday where I didn’t have grading to do and I thought I’d tackle my to-read shelf. Hours went by and I sunk into another world. There’s nothing like a book that can transport you, and these will do just that.

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELAimgres

Friday Five: Reasons to Read Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle

Connecting Classics with Modern Texts: Using Slaughterhouse 90210 in Your Classroom

I discovered Maris Kreizman this summer at the Cape Atlantic Book Company. I’d taken a day trip down to see the lighthouse (and, of course, visit a few bookstores). Rain came down in torrents, prohibiting any view more than about six inches in front of my face. Soaked through and mildly disappointed, I visited the Cape Atlantic Bookstore and found sunshine in the form of books and delightful bookshop owners. Slaughterhouse 90210 was displayed facing out and I swear a spotlight encompassed the book and I heard flights of angels singing. I knew immediately I needed this book and the lessons it contained.

Essentially, this book takes classic quotes from literature and pairs them with images from popular culture: TV shows, films, rockstars, and political events. Originally a tumblr blog, the book showcases many pairings that make you consider how, as humans, we’re more alike than not alike (to paraphrase Maya Angelou). Fast forward six months later, and I’m using the book / blog as a jumping off point for teaching Hamlet to my students. One of my biggest goals in teaching Hamlet derives from the belief that we haven’t changed much as humans in the last few hundred years.  So I’m asking them, a-la-Slaughterhouse 90210, to take a quote from Hamlet, and pair it with an image from pop culture.  They then need to explain the connection for a reader who might not initially see the connection (or know the reference in the visual). So far, this assignment is going swimmingly. As I teach, I periodically stop and ask if students have noticed any passages, quotes, themes, or situations that seem familiar, or that they could connect to other stories. Unsurprisingly, Harry Potter has come up often, but also my seniors have mentioned Game of Thrones and other television shows (see Game of Thrones image below).

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So far, results have been impressive. This activity will also help scaffold our final synthesis essay, where students will be asked to choose a theme to write on and include at least five primary texts and three secondary sources and explain something significant about what it means to be human. This activity already has them thinking about connections between texts based on characters as well as themes.

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Plus, this is a transferrable activity. You could essentially do this for any book. It could be an in in-class assignment or homework for any text, really.  You could start by choosing one quote and do it as a class, or you could place students in pairs or small groups and have them match quotes and images. There are so many ways to incorporate Kreizman’s brilliant idea. The benefit of seeing the threads between texts are plentiful. Students begin to make connections on their own, they begin to see archetypes and tropes, and they can tie their own interests to the texts you read and discuss in class.

Let me know in the comments if you plan to try this out and what your results are with your students!

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

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This connection to Whiplash and the obsessive way he trains himself was one of my favorites–a connection I would not have thought of but that makes perfect sense.

Connecting Classics with Modern Texts: Using Slaughterhouse 90210 in Your Classroom