Summer Reading Challenge #3: Read Diverse Books

Summer Reading Challenge #3: Read Diverse Books

We’ve blogged before about the importance of reading diverse books.  This summer, challenge yourself to read a book about an unfamiliar place, about an historical event you want to understand better, or by a new author.

For example, this summer I’ve read a book about the Sri Lankan civil war, called Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera.  I had no idea the tension between the Tamil Liberation Fighters and the government. This lasted for 25 years. How did I miss this in history class or in current events? This book takes you in the the daily lives of people impacted by the fighting. It even gives you both sides, reminding me a little of The Association of Small Bombs.

island of a thousand mirrors book

I also finally read The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which recounts the Vietnam war from the perspective of a North Vietnamese mole in the South Vietnamese army. The writing was so rich and metaphorical, and the content was fascinating.  (This book would also count as one from a list, if you recall our Summer Reading Challenge #2)sympathizer book

A third book I read this summer was The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzie Lee. This playful YA romp/bildungsroman follows a privileged young man, Monty, his best friend, and his sister in the 1700s as they tour the continent before Monty must return to the responsibilities waiting for him at home. He’s a protagonist you’ll find flawed and frustrating at times, but since he seems open to change, you’ll stick with him to the end. As he slowly accepts his sexuality and his desire for Percy, he slowly understands both himself and the world.

gentleman's guide book

So try a new topic, a new author, a diverse book this summer. You may discover a new favorite author.


Posted by Kate, Blog Editor for PCTELA

Summer Reading Challenge #3: Read Diverse Books

NCTE Fund Teachers for the Dream Reflection #2

PCTELA was awarded the Fund Teachers for the Dream grant this year! NCTE was extremely generous in awarding this grant. They’ve given us the opportunity to mentor three fabulous pre-service teachers from Pennsylvania. In this series you’ll hear directly from them about their experiences this school year with engaging students in discussions about diversity and self identity. They each used grant funding to develop and facilitate programs in their selected schools. One pre-service teacher chose to establish a book club with fifth grade students reading The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake. Another chose to read, discuss, and create dynamic texts meant to guide students through tough discussions and self discovery. The third pre-service teacher offered movie nights to her high school students and used movies like Crash and Schindler’s List as spring boards for discussion. One of our mentors also wrote a blog post about her perspective, and that will be part of this series, too. Join us at our Annual Conference  this October 20-21 in Greentree, PA to hear these three pre-service teachers give a panel presentation about their projects and what they’ve learned.

Written by: Dr. Jolene Borgese

Role: Mentor of Daecia Smith throughout the grant period

I am uncomfortable writing or talking about the different shades of skin color. But the young African American girls in Daecia Smith’s book club were not. Daecia is a senior at Temple University, majoring in secondary English. She is student teaching this semester at a high academic performing school in Philadelphia.

The afternoon I joined them at the elementary school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for their book club I asked them two open ended questions: “How’s the club going?” and “How do you like the book you’re reading?” Like a fire storm, these 11 year old girls all spoke to me at once – eager to tell me about the book and the characters. Aiming to be the one I heard, their responses became louder and more animated but they were all talking about the bullying going on in the novel, The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake, and how it was all the about the lighter skinned character versus the darker skinned character. Without any inhibitions or fear of being politically incorrect they spoke to me candidly about the shades of being Black.

The teacher in me wanted to connect to these free spirited little girls so I shared with them what I knew about shades of skin color. I recounted quickly as to not lose their interest – “I am of Italian American descent and Italian skin color depends on what part of Italy you are from. The southern part of Italy is very close to Africa so if you are Sicilian- which I am part of – your skin is darker. Some of my sisters are very fair but my father, brother and I have darker skin.” They weren’t interested or cared. I got it. I was this white lady talking about getting a tan. I never got the chance to tell them that my mother sometimes wore pantyhose to the beach because her legs were so white.

The girls spoke with such confidence about shades of color that I asked them if they knew of this happening to people they knew or even themselves. With all of their heads nodding “yes” I realized why this was so important to them. Daecia gathered their attention back when she asked them to start reading. Having more girls than books they happily shared books and helped whoever was reading with words they couldn’t pronounce. They all followed along and listened carefully as their club members read.

Daecia would stop and asked them questions periodically about what they were reading. It seemed more like a conversation than comprehension questions because this was obviously important to them. They read for about 30 minutes never inattentive or disengaged. Reading the right book – the book that means something to the reader- was the key. It was obvious they saw themselves in the characters they were reading about.

At the end of the hour they cleaned up their snack wrappers (Daecia had provided snacks for them), collected the novels and journals. The girls put on their coats and headed out the classroom door. One little girl stopped and turned to Daecia and asked, “What are we reading next?” Daecia was exhausted from student teaching all day, and the extra hour she put in with these little girls, but she still managed a smile.

NCTE Fund Teachers for the Dream Reflection #2

Book Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Book Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

A former student sent me this book as a surprise gift, and I’m grateful, although I’m overwhelmed by all the feelings I had while reading it.  Another friend warned me I wouldn’t be able to read it all in one go, and he was right. I found myself reading about 30 or 40 pages and putting it down to process and to regain some emotional distance.  This book takes you on a rollercoaster of emotions.  Partially because you go from present day Griffin, who mourns the death of his best friend and former boyfriend Theo, to past Griffin, who comes out to Theo, begins to date him, and allows us to see how their relationship formed.

Silvera masterfully crafts the novel with just the right amount of information.  He keeps us waiting to figure out why things are awkward with Wade, what he said to Theo on the phone, and whether Jackson will be a part of his life, too (after all, Jackson was dating Theo when Theo died). He also waits to give us the whole story of the day Theo dies out in California. The suspense created kept me going back to the book even though it was at times depressing.  Additionally, Silvera writes all his characters compassionately. Whether it is Griffin explaining his compulsions (scratching, counting, walking on the left) or Griffin talking about Theo’s family (and younger sister Denise).  These are complex young people who have real conversations, real struggles, and real sex (yup, there’s some sex scenes in here, just in case you thought about handing this to a much younger reader). Plus, there’s plenty of references to Harry Potter, Star Wars, and imaginary worlds with zombie-pirates, so that made me pretty happy to read a book with nerdy people like me.

Image result for history is all you left meI would highly recommend this book for the writing, the storytelling, but also for the process of grieving.  Often in the book people tell Griffin to just move on, get over it, let it go. That’s much easier said than done, and this novel shows us why we struggle when someone we love dies sooner than we anticipated. And we need other people to help us through, just like Silvera writes: “There’s nothing wrong with someone saving my life, I’ve realized, especially when I can’t trust myself to get the job done right. People need people. That’s that.”

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA

Book Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

Book Review: Flying Lessons & Other Stories

Book Review: Flying Lessons & Other Stories
Edited by Ellen Oh, cofounder of We Need Diverse Books

This collection of short stories includes tales of basketball players, of students trying to be ninja elves, and of young people attempting to discover their identity in the world. Here’s the list of all the authors who contributed a story:

  • Kwame Alexander
  • Soman Chainani
  • Matt de la Pena
  • Tim Federle
  • Grace Lin
  • Meg Medina
  • Walter Dean Myers
  • Tim Tingle
  • Jacqueline Woodson
  • Kelly J Baptist, who won the We Need Diverse Books 2015 contest, which led to her publication in this anthology.

I enjoyed this entire collection of stories but I have to say, particularly enjoyed Grace Lin’s story “The Difficult Path” — not just because I’m enamored with Lin’s TED talk about Windows and Mirrors and use it with my seniors every year, but because her story involved lady pirates. I mean, what adventurous person wouldn’t love a story about female pirates? And it made me research Ching Shih, the pirate Lin based her story on, and I found myself reading all about this phenomenally successful pirate who I’d never learned about in history class. Isn’t that what we hope for with our students? For a story to connect with them and sparks their curiosity?

Tim Federle’s “Secret Samantha” also appealed to me, mostly because I feel like I’m a terrible gift giver and always second guess myself.  Sam (or Flame, her secret code name) attempts to find the perfect gift for the new girl, Blade, who’s from California and has never seen know. I just love Federle’s descriptions (“The mall is a zoo, if the zoo forgot to build cages”) and the way he creates Sam’s character–I root for her the entire story, happy when she grows bold and triumphant when she finds her voice.

Kelly J. Baptist also wrote a story I found myself identifying with, as Isaiah often ends up in the library reading or writing, or transcribing the stories his father left behind for him in “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn.” He takes care of his sister, and sometimes his mom, trying to fill the gap the loss of his father created. Once again, I was rooting for the protagonist, watching him make waffles for breakfast, color with his sister, or reminisce while watching the king fu movies he used to watch with his dad.

I could write something about each of the stories in this book and why I loved it, but I want to leave some things for you to discover when you read it. Now that I’ve been reflecting on the book, I think one thing that ties all these stories together (aside from the diversity, of course) is the skill with which the authors invite the reader into the protagonist’s lives. Each of them offers an intimate glimpse into a different life, and yet everyone wants a version of the same thing: strong relationships with others and people to love them as they are.

c1qtkaqxuaaic6gI’ll be giving away my copy of this to someone in Pennsylvania. So either comment below to be entered or retweet one of our PCTELA posts with this link. I’ll choose the winner on Sunday night (2/19/17).

Posted by Kate, Blog Editor and Book Reviewer for PCTELA



Book Review: Flying Lessons & Other Stories

Up Late with Homegoing

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi rises to the top of my books read this year, and discovering that it was a first novel by this author makes me love it even a little more. This epic story stretches through history, from Ghana in times where some Asante and Fante people were taken as slaves to modern day California.  The story focuses on two people each generation–the offspring of half-sisters Effia and Esi, both born to the same mother, but separated by paternity, distance, and circumstance. Each generation looks at a descendant of each woman.

While I thought it might be disruptive not to follow one character or two characters, the way Gyasi wove the family history into each chapter didn’t make me feel as if I missed the other characters, as they were mentioned in each subsequent chapters. Seeing the spectrum of possibilities for people born in the same time period was fascinating, and Gyasi clearly did her research. I found myself wrapped up in history, celebrating victories and mourning losses as if I were there with her.  There’s insight on every page of the novel.  Whether she’s commenting on how people do not closely examine their lives: “It was the way most people lived their lives,on upper levels, not stopping to peer beneath” or whether the medicine woman was explaining how people worked:  “People think they come to me for advice…but really, they come to me for permission,” I found the story compelling and easy to sink into. I read this book in just one day.

I could see pairing parts of this book with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book Between the World and Me or even as a companion to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. When I used to teach Things Fall Apart, I would refer to the proverb “where one thing stands, another stands beside it” and I was reminded of it by this line in Homegoing:  “The need to call this thing “good” and this thing “bad,” this thing “white” and this thing “black,” was an impulse that Effia did not understand. In her village, everything was everything. Everything bore the weight of everything else.”

Speaking of other texts this book made me think of, Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” could also be paired with this, as she talks about one way to steal power is to start with secondly. I remembered that when I read this line from Homegoing: “We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing?, Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

This entire book was beautifully written and empowering. Lines like this are hard to resist writing down and/or underlining: “You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.” What I loved best, though, was the hopeful ending to the novel. It ends with love and joy and a feeling of satisfaction and completeness as well as hope. So, if you need a literary read that will kidnap you for a few hours but will stay with you for a few weeks, check this out.


Posted by Kate, VP Secondary PCTELA

Up Late with Homegoing

Friday Five: Observations about my Classroom Library

A few months ago, I discovered Grace Lin’s TED talk about “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf.” I loved the framework this gave me to talk about books with my students, and it reminded me of why it is important to have diverse books in the classroom.  Then, last week, I discovered this blog, by fifth grade teacher Jess Lifshitz, “Crawling out of the Classroom.” She posted about having her students analyze her classroom library and analyze the diversity on her shelves.  I thought this was such a good idea, I wanted to do it, too.

This week, I asked some of my seniors to stay and help me create a list of books I had and to categorize them.  Needless to say, I thought I would have a great amount of diversity–and I was shocked when I realized how much diversity I lacked. My goal this summer is to find more diverse books for my bookshelf so I’ll start the year out with more windows and mirrors.

Here are 5 observations we made about my classroom library:

  1. Only 25% of my books are by people of color. And, there’s not a huge variety of authors–I have loads of Toni Morrison books, but not a huge representation of different African-American female writers.
  2. Only 38% of my books are by women.  This surprised me. A colleague suggested the publishing industry might be to blame, but I suspect it is my ingrained idea that the Western canon should be honored over all other texts. I need to fix this! 50/50 is the goal for next year.
  3. Sadly, I only have about 15 books on the shelf (out of 260) that represent the LGBTQ population.  My students argued that I gave a lot of those books to students and they didn’t always return those books (which I love–if they find a book they love, they should keep it). I’ve Give You the Sun flies off my shelf, just as Winger does, so those books I tell students about, but can’t always physically hand to them.
  4. Only 15% of my books are sci-fi/ fantasy, although almost 60% of my students listed a sci-fi/fantasy as a favorite book.  I personally LOVE sci-fi fantasy, but I think I mistakenly thought my classroom bookshelf should have more “literary” choices.  Sci-fi/fantasy needs more respect! (even from me).
  5. Only 10% are pre-1900, but I think that is OK–although I teach AP Literature, I think students gravitate to more modern texts when they read for fun.


Posted by Kate, VP Secondary PCTELA

Friday Five: Observations about my Classroom Library