Category Archives: problems with society

Spring Break Quarantine: Week 1

20200318_171023Although I have not traveled outside of the country, my famiy’s spring break trips have been canceled due to threat of the coronavirus. Since we’ve been stuck inside, I took to Facebook and started posted daily quarantine updates in a style I like to think mirrors a Jane Austen heroine.

What follows below are my famiy’s exploits from our first week in quarantine.

Day 1 of Spring Break under quarantine: The day dawned as usual, although it was with a heavy sigh that I lifted myself out of bed. Today I was supposed to embark on an adventure to a Magical Kingdom, but alas, I am relegated to spend the next month at home.

After a morning and afternoon spent trying to sort out various travel issues for my clientele, I was finally able to take a short repose in my favorite chair. I sent the children outdoors for a constitutional, hoping they would stave off cabin fever with a frolic in the snow. My youngest was delighted. My eldest is displaying his dissatisfaction by tossing snowballs at my window and glowering at me. I fear this will be the first of many withering looks in the weeks to come.

As food shortages have already begun at the local markets, I am baking bread.

I have finished reading the first of the novels I plan to read during this long spring. I have high hopes that all will be well.

 

20200315_144241Day 2 of Spring Break Quarantine: Everyone was beyond thrilled when I served bacon for breakfast, since breakfast is usually a rushed affair so that we can be on our way to school and to work.

As a family we took our first daily constitutional around the neighborhood. The wind was bracing and made me long for the tropical climate we were supposed to be experiencing as we toured the world in only a few hours thanks to the magic of Florida. But there is no use bemoaning what should have been. Jumping over mud puddles on our walks will have to suffice as our daily thrill rides.

Later I finished the second of the novels I brought home to read. I also made progress on two other heavier works of non-fiction.

In addition to our twice daily walks, I am also instituting a family game hour. My daughter chose Munchkin Shakespeare and although I should not take quite as much pleasure in this as I do, I trounced both of my children and more than my fair share of Elizabethean monsters.

Dinner was a hearty soup with some of the homemade bread from day before.

The children were enconsed in their beds with little fuss and I settled in to my favorite chair, blanket on my lap to play some virtual cards with dear friends.

 

20200317_175654

Day 3 of Spring Break Quarantine: Books are sustaining us through this long, cold, distance with others. I have finished the three of the books I brought home with me. My son has read twice that number. I fear he will soon run out. And with no libraries to sustain him, madness may set in soon….

I began cleaning our homestead. Although much was accomplished, my work was brought to an abrupt end when I found some mementos of my dear departed father and decided to seek solace under a warm blanket and Netflix.

Our morning constitutional was a success, but sadly as we headed out for our evening waltz around the neighborhood, a light drizzle began to fall and my children stubbornly refused to remain out of doors.

Despite the slight rain, spirits did improve with a delivery from Amazon which brought Nerf guns for my son. He is planning a full scale attack on his friends once this quarantine has been lifted. For now, he seems to be plotting against his sister. At the moment a peace holds, but I can’t help but wonder how long it will last.

 

20200318_103523Day 4 of Spring Break Quarantine: Cabin fever has suddenly set in. The day began with sibling squabbles which culminated in sibling shouting. It was truly much ado about nothing, but it is hard to reason with children in the throws of unreasonable anger.

Tempers cooled and clearer heads prevailed when a Lego challenge was issued. My son took up the gauntlet and created a new roller coaster for a theme park. My daughter created passengers for his ride. A small dose of teamwork brought them together.

Thankfully we were able to take more than just a turn around the room and actually escaped outside for our daily constitutionals. We desperately needed the fresh air and escape from the confines of our humble abode.

I was also able to finish my fourth novel of this quarantine and make impressive progress on The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Sadly, I did not make as much progress on my Fast and Furious quest. This was due in part to the hour I spent in a Zoom meeting with the dearest companions of my heart. They lifted my weary spirits and made this time apart a bit more bearable.

20200318_171030Day 5 of Spring Break Quarantine: The weather foiled our attempts to get some fresh air. The rain came tumbling down upon us and drove us back indoors. Since it did not cease until after dinner, we were a bit more desolate than usual. The dreary day made our spirits even drearier.

Thankfully a delivery of food arrived from the local market, so I had some beautiful carrots and potatoes to accompany my roast. I also made some biscuits to round out the evening meal.

My daughter decided we needed a special project to busy ourselves, idle hands and all…so she suggested baking cookies. Sugar cookies were her choice so that we could make a thorough mess of the kitchen. They have special unicorn chips in them and are quite tasty. But now we have three dozen cookies and only four of us. Normally I would take these extra goodies into school to share with my students, but alas, since school is not in session and we are quarantined, we will have to put our best effort forward and make sure none of these precious morsels are wasted. In hindsight, I should have frozen half of the dough. Clearly I have not adjusted to this new world we find ourselves in.

My son found solace in his drawing lessons and my daughter in her music. I retreated into books again, and have finished my fifth book during this isolation.

20200319_164603Day 6 of Spring Break Quarantine: Today we actually left our home! What was originally supposed to be our day of rest in between two whirlwhind visits, first with family in the bustling city of Orlando, and then with friends in the quiet countryside of Athens, was instead the first day we’d left our neighborhood in nearly a week.

Fear not dear friends, our sojourn into the world did not put us at risk. We had to pick up some medicine from our local apothocary and also had to stop by the local market to acquire some additional ingredients for our meals. We did not actually venture in to either of these establishments, but waited for our items to be passed to us outside. We were back home in less than half an hour.

We were home in time to take our morning constitutional, which was much needed, especially when the rain picked up again and our evening one had to be forgotten.

After luncheon, we moved to the parlor where we wiled away the afternoon playing games the children invented, which were surprisingly amusing. Later, while the children played more games remotely with their cousins, I found even further entertainment from one of my favorite musical groups, The Indigo Girls. They had a concert in their parlor and invited the world to watch. I was so excited at how so many people who were so very far apart were brought together through the wonders of this modern age. My heart delighted in it and I may have danced in my kitchen.

20200320_105341Day 7 of Spring Break Quarantine: It’s been a week and the days are beginning to blend into one another.

One noticeable difference was that my husband was not needed in town until later in the day, so he spent the morning with us. The children were happy to have some time with their father, and disappointed he had to leave before our morning constitutional around the neighborhood. It was windy and the sky was overcast, but it was suprisingly warm. Although we wore our coats, we almost didn’t need them. It gave me hope that maybe we’d see the sun again soon. My spirits were further lifted when my daughter reached for my son’s hand and he actually let her take it for a few minutes as they walked.

Once home, we sat and wrote letters to some of our nearest and dearest. My daughter was excited to post hers, but was filled with grief when I informed her that her cousins would not get her letter or the game she sent them for several days.

Upon my husband’s arrival back home, we decided to play parlor games. My daugther chose Apples to Apples and we had a delightful time playing with words and clever turns of phrase. Once again, I won, much to my husband’s chagrin.

I was downtrodden when one of the avocados was completely spoiled, but still managed to produce a passable guacamole that my family loved with the remaining fruits. It complemented the tacos perfectly. Even during a pandemic, it is hard to complain when there are tacos.

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Royal Caribbean Cruises: The Pacifica Theater

20191229_001033One of the reasons I love cruising is because I don’t have to “go out,” in order to be surrounded with tons of great entertainment. My latest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas was basically a miniature floating Vegas. Both have tons of bars and lounges. Both allow you to openly carry drinks as you stroll around. Both are brilliantly lit and have casinos. Both have FOOD, FOOD, and more FOOD. Both have elaborate stage shows with a little something for everyone.

The only real difference is that the cruise ship has kid-friendly activities and no one trying to hand me flyers for escorts or sex shows.And It’s actually why I prefer cruising to Vegas.

On our first night we decided to see the Welcome Aboard Show in the Pacifica Theater, which had bits of every major act on the cruise. It started with a welcome from our cruise director, who was both funny and charming. He was followed by a comedian whose name I have forgotten. He actually only did the opening show and then a 10 pm adult show because he was getting off of the boat in Grand Cayman to join another cruise. At first I thought he was kind of funny, but then he started telling a ton of jokes about a woman he called “Orca” who was parasailing on a beach in Mexico. He then proceeded to tell pretty much every fat girl joke that exists. It was so trite and cheap, that I almost left the theater. Thankfully the kids didn’t really seem to understand him, but the adults in our group were not amused.

20191229_195929I’m glad I didn’t leave, because there were also some really fun musical numbers. I’m a sucker for musicals, especially Broadway-esque style musicals full of elaborate costumes and dance numbers. The few songs they performed were upbeat and even had the audience singing along, especially to “Sweet Caroline.” Even my kids sang along. It was pretty standard variety show fair, but everyone in our group of 9 liked the musical numbers.

My sister and brother-in-law went to see The Company Men, a group that describes itself as Motown meets Boy Band. Although I had wanted to see the show, I knew I wanted to do karaoke that night and since there was a limited karaoke window of only an hour, I had to get there early to get a seat and to sign up. So my sister and BIL went on without us. They raved about the show. My sister said they had amazing voices. She was excited when she saw the performers the next night hanging out in the Colony Club where we were once again waiting for karaoke. Sadly they did not perform for karaoke, but did stay and cheer on the cruisers.

20191229_195925My absolute favorite performance, was by Aaron Bonk, a comedy juggler. I know that may sound a bit lame, but this guy was crazy talented. And potentially just a bit crazy. Bonk is actually holds four Guiness Book of World Records. All of his records center on his whip cracking skills, which are very impressive…and very dangerous. A good portion of his live shows centers on his whip skills, although on the cruise ship he cannot perform them all as several center around fire. Fire on cruise ships is a big no-no, so instead Bonk showed us this video of his most recent record for fire whip cracking while in a full body burn. What possesses someone to even think up a stunt like this is beyond me. It was definitely a bit scary to watch, even though I knew that since he was standing on the stage that he was fine. He was funny and talented. We all loved him. When we told my son and nephew who did not want to see the show what they had missed, they were very upset they decided to play video games in the room instead of joining us. My 15 year old nephew loved the show.

Overall I was very impressed with the shows in the Pacifica Theater. With the exception of the comedian, everything else we saw was great. We laughed, we sang, we clapped. We had a good time. My nephew was a bit worried he might get bored on the cruise, but thanks to shows like this, he never did. Cruisses are so much more than just buffets, pools, and ports of call. Each ship offers unique entertainment options. Just like Vegas, there are all kinds of shows you can see. They may not have six different Cirque du Soleil shows going on on board, but they have so much to offer travelers.

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And the bathroom remodeling saga continues

refinished floor part 2Dear Journal: 

I fear I must write this quickly before I succumb to the vapors escaping from my room. As if the hardship of once again being reduced to one toilet and having to reside in the guest room was not enough, the smell of the polyurethane wafting beneath the door is making me light-headed.

But the smell does signal a step in the right direction, even as it hinders me from taking a step on my floor. And we probably won’t perish from the fumes, right?

I do hope not as I would like to actually be able to shower in my bathroom at least once before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Before he began work on the floor, he did refinish the mirror frame, so I suppose that is also a tally in the positive column. I am still uncertain whether or not our vanity can be installed tomorrow. I do not believe that tomorrow will bring an end to this saga.

vanityDear Journal: 

The second deadline for completion of the bathroom renovations has come…and gone. As I feared, it is still not finished. While on the surface it appears to be a fully functional bathroom, there is something evil lurking within. Or rather there is something broken sitting right in plain sight.

When I walked in the door, I was thunderstruck at the addition of the vanity. I remembered it differently from the photograph I was shown, but considering that the fleeting photo I saw was viewed over a month ago, I chalked that up to a mere fault in my memory. What is not a trick of time, however, is the fact that the faucets my husband was so proud of finding at a stellar discount, are both broken, although interestingly in different ways. One has a hairline crack which cannot even be detected unless the water is turned on. The second is missing a thingamabob which does not hinder its function, but according to my husband cannot be endured.

So, in addition to the time we will be unable to use the shower due to painting and allowing the paint to dry, we also cannot use our sinks until these faucets are returned and the new ones are ordered and installed.

My husband’s prediction is a fully functional bathroom by Tuesday. I smile, nod my head in agreement, and secretly assume it will be another week.

Oh, did I mention the floor has to be resanded and resealed on Monday as well?

paintingDear Journal:

As we enter the fifth weekend with only one bathroom, I was prepared to rise from bed, sighing heavily at the prospect of two more days without progress. Miraculously, this did not end up being my lot today. For today, there was progress. Granted, that progress is completely due to my husband’s obsessive nature.

While I am still faced with the prospect of at least three more days without a functioning bathroom, today my husband took up a brush and began painting. For the past 10 hours he has been working toward two full coats of paint on the walls. The inner shower room has been completed. Now he is working on the outer area, which is much larger.

The paint is darker than I anticipated and I am anxious to see how it all comes together. But, as of this moment, I have hope.

bathroom painted with toilet.jpgDear Journal: 

While technically there was no further progress made today, late last night my husband set his paintbrush to rest.

Last night I was not able to fully appreciate it, but in the dawn of this new day, I was able to truly view his endeavor. While the paint is still darker than I expected, I do think it will grow on me.

I have been assured that tomorrow our house will be completely restored to us. Our contractor claims he must away and instead of starting the kitchen job for another client, he now says he is leaving the country. Maybe I have become a bit jaded as a result of this project, but this latest development sounds dubious.

Nevertheless, the final payment is on the counter and tomorrow our garage will once again be capable of holding two cars. Alas the project will not be finished as we are still waiting on the replacement faucets to arrive. So we will have two sinks but no way to use them. But maybe by Tuesday I can actually shower in my own bathroom.

Here’s to dreaming.

 

no faucets.jpgDear Journal: 

The bathroom is finished! Of course the floors are still drying so we must sleep in the guest room. And if you look at the photo, you’ll notice there are no faucets on the sinks. We are patiently awaiting replacements for the defective ones that at least made our sinks look usable. Our best estimate is that we might have working sinks on Friday.

The trim still needs to be painted and some sort of shoe molding also must be applied. In addition we need two additional lights and a vent for the shower room.

Alas, it appears I have at least one more day to endure the children’s shower. Although at this point I have become numb to the torment.

Dear Journal: 

It is a Christmas miracle! Yes, of course I do realize it is not yet Christmas. But there were snowflakes yesterday and a simple jaunt across the street today found my legs and ears nearly frozen stiff, so it’s close enough. Although really the miracle has nothing to do with the season and everything to do with with five weeks this bathroom fiasco has persisted. But as I have mentioned, this morning there was a minor miracle. Not a water into wine miracle, but a water based miracle nonetheless.

Yes, that is right dear readers, I was able to shower in my bathroom for the first time in five weeks! It took a bit of adjusting. My first hurdle was the fact that now there is only one shower door to slide open. This may not seem like much of an obstacle, but I did not want to be pelted with cold water while I waited for the water to heat. Nor did I want water to pour from the shower while I kept checking to see if the water was ready. It was a bit like being in a hotel.

Before I’d had a chance to completely digest the door dilemma, I realized there was an even weightier matter to deal with: I did not even know how to turn the water on. It took a moment or two of finagling, but then a cascade of warm water rushed out and I was able to step inside with minimal water leaking onto the floor.

Of course, since we still do not have working faucets, I still had to use the children’s bathroom to relieve myself (so I could wash my hands). I had to venture back in there right after the shower because my contact lens was bothering me and needed adjusting. Still, it was a relief not to have a child banging on the door, demanding to be let in to use the toilet while I showered.

It really does seem that this nightmare will be over soon.

Dear Journal: 

I did not write last night on the eve of our bathroom’s completion date. After all, it seemed silly to me to crow over some painted trim when today I was finally going to have working sinks, a finished floor and lovely shoe molding…the finishing touches on a job that began so long ago on that much warmer November day.

But alas, Fate has stepped in and dashed my hopes yet again. It seems at every turn I am crushed by the universe’s cruel sense of humor. Each time this job is brought to the precipice of completion, something pushes it back so it is miles from finished.

What malicious turn befell my bathroom today? Just after nine am, my husband received a message from our contractor. Despite waiting the entire week in anticipation of his arrival today, he did not appear. The message explained that he’d been delayed on his return from Singapore. Yes, as in the country half the world away. He and an old friend were “piggybacking home,” and our bathroom would have to wait until at least Monday. Yes, that is correct, our two week bathroom project has now entered its sixth week. And yes, this is now the fourth time in those six weeks that our contractor has contacted us the morning he was supposed to arrive in order to tell us he would not, in fact, be arriving.

So, for my friends who felt sad these posts were ending, I hope you’re happy. I feel your longing for amusement has inspired Fate and prolonged my suffering.

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Baking for fun…and students

cran apple crisp #2When I make a trip to Tuttles Orchard, it means I have to bake! This is a cranberry apple crisp I made with my delicious bounty of apples.

Although this one looks slightly different, this is also a cranberry apple crisp I made.

cran apple crisp #1.jpg

Why make two that are different sizes?

Because this year I gave all of my juniors and seniors a reading challenge. Every year there are 25 YA books on the Eliot Rosewater Award nominee list. Every year I read them all and this year I told any student who also finished the list that I would bake for them. If they finish half of the list, they get a smaller version of the treat.

Well, it’s only November and one of my students rose to my challenge. So she gets her very own cranberry apple crisp. I was out of disposable pans, so I moved it into a disposable plastic container to take to her tomorrow.

For anyone who doubts the dedication of teachers, I would like to say I am not an anomaly. Not every teacher is also a baker, but they are all doing things like this to encourage and challenge kids. Kids are not just a paycheck for us. Nor are they data points on standardized test reports. They are people we care about and go way beyond the extra mile for.

I write this not because I want praise or awards myself, but because I hope people who are not teachers will take just a minute to think about all the extras teachers around the country are doing right now to help kids learn and grow. We are not just in it for the money (we’d be fools if we were). We are invested in our students. And if you are also invested in those students, you should be invested in us too.

Tuesday, November 19th is Red for Ed Action Day at the Indiana Statehouse. Many of your children’s teachers might not be at school that day. But it’s not because we just want a bigger paycheck. It’s not because we don’t think our presence in the classroom is important on that day. It’s not because we are lazy and want a day off. It’s not because we don’t care about your children.

It’s because we care so much. All the things that you want for your kids, we want too. We want our schools to be fully funded. And that doesn’t mean putting that money into our pockets. It means putting it into or schools so that we can fix some of the major shortfalls we are facing. Want to know more about them? Check out this infographic from the Indiana State Teachers Association. My guess is that you’ll be amazed at how bad it has gotten in Indiana.

Indiana facts.jpg

And just because I know that some people will want to say, “you knew what you were getting into when you were hired,” I will tell you that no, I didn’t. I was hired 22 years ago, when experience and level of education still factored into our pay scale. I was hired in when Indiana still provided good health care benefits and competitive salaries for our teachers. I was hired in when every year I got at least a cost of living raise for doing my job well. That has not been true in my district since about 2008.

And for those who want to bemoan the fact that teachers get paid even though we get summers off, you need to understand some basic economics. We do not, in fact, get paid for taking the summers off. Our contracts run from the start of school (in my case late July) until the end of school (in my case late May). I have a 10 month contract. My pay is for those 10 months that I work. However, my district (and most) require that our pay be spread out over 12 months. So they are actually withholding our pay from us for two months, not paying us for not working. And I have worked for districts that have not done this. I got a partial paycheck in August and a partial check in June (this school was in session for at least the first week in June), but no check at all in July.

And, after 22 years and a master’s degree, I still have to work additional jobs. Not only am I a Magical Vacation Planner, but I also work for the College Board as an AP Reader. I do these in part because I love them and in part because the small bits of supplemental income help my family. I have two children of my own who are in upper elementary and middle school. One needs braces. One is autistic and needs behavioral therapy. They will both eventually want to drive and go to college and I haven’t even gotten a cost of living raise in about a decade (that does not mean I haven’t gotten any raise, but that my salary has not increased enough to be considered a cost of living raise).

 

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Teaching Tuesday: AP Scores

AP scores were released at the end of last week. As usual, I was on edge all day. My student scores did not get released until 8 pm, so I watched the message boards as teachers across the country posted their reactions long before I got even a hint about how well my students did on the test. My nerves were up even higher than usual since Trevor Packer’s (the head of College Board’s AP program) tweeted with the score breakdowns almost a week before we got to see our scores. When I saw AP Lang had 57.4% of students who got a 3, 4 or 5, it got me wondering how my students compared.

Even though I shouldn’t, I can’t help but compare my student’s AP scores with the national scores. I also find myself comparing their scores with the scores other students at our school get on completely different AP tests, which is really quite ridiculous. I know I shouldn’t feel inferior when I see my own school tweeting about how wonderful it is that 95% of our AP Spanish students got a 3, 4, or 5 on the test. I should not let that diminish how well my students did or make me think less of myself as a teacher, but at some point, it always does.

My AP Lang students did not do as well on the test as the AP Spanish students did. It’s pretty hard to. But, 78% of my students got a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. However, no one in the district is tweeting about it. This is more than a little discouraging. Especially since last year, despite the fact that 82% of my kids got a 3, 4 or 5 on the Lang test, I was not one of the teachers recognized for having a history of excellent AP scores–even though my AP Lang score has never fallen below 78% and one year all of them got a 3, 4 or 5.

Now, I realize that neither 78% or 82% sound anywhere near as impressive as 95%. However, this year, 88% of all students who took the AP Spanish test (60,000 kids worldwide) got a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. Last year, 89% of the kids who took the test got a 3, 4 or 5 on it. That means, that students at my school did 7% better than the national average this year and 9% better last year (there was a 100% rate last year). This is impressive, however, this year just under 600,000 students worldwide took the AP Lang test. That is ten times as many kids as AP Spanish. Of those nearly 600,000 kids, 57% scored a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. Last year, nearly the same number of kids took the Lang test and 55% of them got a 3, 4 or 5 on the test. My students did 21% better on the test this year and 27% better on the test last year than the national average, which I think is darn impressive and worthy of celebration.

I also had nearly twice as many students take the AP Lang exam as took the AP Spanish exam.

Do I think I’m a better teacher than our AP Spanish teacher? Absolutely not. She is an amazing teacher. Those kids work to earn those scores and both she and her students should be celebrated and congratulated. But so should mine.

And that’s where I get hung up, even though I know I shouldn’t. When I first saw my student scores, before I’d seen the scores of anyone else in my building, I was pretty happy with my kids. Six of my kids got 5’s, six got 4’s and no one got a 1. My kids did 21% better than the national average. Fourteen of my students improved their AP Lang score (from their AP Lit score last year) an entire point. Two of my students improved 2 whole points. That is HUGE progress and a cause for celebration.

But then I saw those AP Spanish scores, the tweets from the school and the message of congratulations on the school website just for that class and it got me down. I wanted to send emails to everyone in my administration office as well as the district administration office explaining just how awesome it is that 78% of our kids got a 3, 4 or 5 on the AP Lang test and why it is every bit as impressive, and maybe even more impressive, as that 95%. I also wanted to include Packer’s message that unlike all the other AP tests, “the knowledge/skills measured by this exam [AP Lang] have a very strong relationship to overall college success.” On the test that specifically measures all those skills kids need to be college ready, our school not only got an impressive 78% of kids with great scores, but those scores are 21% above the national average. We should be shouting this from the rooftop because our kids are amazing and they will succeed!

Instead, I wrote an email to my students and told them how proud I was of them. I told them not to be disappointed if their score was not quite what they hoped for. I reminded them of all they accomplished and how amazing they are. I wished them luck next year, which I seriously doubt they will need. Because even if the district isn’t singing their praises and bragging about them, they are all going off prepared for college. Even the 22% who got a 2 on the exam are not going to struggle in college. They may  have to work a little harder, but they are all going to be ok.

And I have to keep telling myself that that is what really matters. Not a number on a website.

 

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Free Reading Friday: My Favorite Thing is Monsters

FMy Favorite Thing is Monstersascinating, disturbing, graphic, beautiful. These are the first words that come to mind when I think about Emil Ferris’s graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters.

I love how Ferris uses the idea of monsters to frame Karen’s story. Karen’s obsession with monsters and the little differences between dangerous and wonderful monsters is intriguing. It also tells readers so much about Karen, her experiences and how she not only thinks society views her, but how she views society. I think it is even more interesting when compared to Ferris’s use of gods and goddesses to explore Anka’s upsetting storyline. After all, who are the gods and monsters in our world? What sets them apart from the mortals? And who is truly dangerous?

Ferris creates increasingly compelling characters not only in Anka and Karen, but also in Diego and Franklin. They are all heartbreakingly real, flawed, dangerous and vulnerable.

And, if the great storyline isn’t enough, the artwork is simply epic. It is hauntingly beautiful. I love the way Ferris incorporates her renditions of actual paintings which hang in the Art Institute of Chicago (one of my favorite places) into the story. I adore the way Karen “falls” into the paintings in order to find more meaning in her life and to help her solve the mystery surrounding Anka’s death.

The only thing I don’t love is that the second volume of the story is not yet out. Ferris leaves the audience with some huge unanswered (if hinted at) questions. I want more!

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Free Reading Friday:Flawed

FlawedFlawed by Cecelia Ahern is yet another dystopian piece of YA literature that has found itself onto my shelf. It’s starting to feel like this is the only genre of YA being put out lately. Given all the problems currently facing our world, I get why the genre is so popular. I saw a great meme online the other day basically telling older generations that they cannot be surprised that a generation of kids raised on Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen and Tris are standing up, speaking their minds and rallying for change.

While I know a lot of “adults” would like to dismiss these young voices and pretend they are too ignorant and uniformed to really know what they are talking about, I fear those same adults are going to be greatly put out when they realized just how smart, informed and motivated today’s youth are. Literature is a powerful tool and these kids and young adults have grown up with literary heroes who have shown them time and time again that they can stand up not only to adults, but to unjust governments. Their literary heroes topple worlds. Is it any surprise they want to as well?

My latest read, Flawed, is a book with a clear message. In case the reader happens to miss it, Ahern even lays it out in the acknowledgments: “None of us are perfect. Let us not pretend that we are. Let us not be afraid that we’re not. Let us not label others and pretend we are not the same. Let us all know that to be human is to be flawed, and let us learn from every mistake made so we don’t make them again.”

While this message definitely rings true in this book and I think this is Ahern’s main message, the way she goes about delivering it speaks volumes to issues currently playing out in our world. Celestine North, the main character, lives in a world where people who are judged to have “flaws” in their moral character are literally branded and forced to live almost like modern day lepers. In addition to the government, which creates and enforces criminal code, Celestine’s world also has a Guild, whose job it is to enforce morality to ensure everyone in society is perfect. Those who step out of line from the morals deemed acceptable by society are tried, found guilty (only one person has ever escaped a guilty verdict) and are shunned by society. The shunning goes so deep, that giving any kind of aid to a Flawed person is a mark of being flawed.

The Flawed have visible brands, have special seats on public transportation, are not allowed to keep their children, can have only one luxury item a week, must eat a completely bland diet, cannot leave the country, have curfews and have to check in with what is basically a parole officer (called Whistleblowers) for the rest of their lives. In short, although they have committed no actual crimes, those who are deemed morally flawed are treated worse than criminals who get to serve their time and move on.

In the reinvention of public shaming that has come with the invention of social media, this system of being forever punished for moral failures seems a scary reality.

The book focuses on the corruption of the Guild and how one voice, and not surprisingly, the voice of a teenage girl, could expose that corruption and bring an end to it.

This is the first book in the series and I enjoyed it. There is definitely better dystopian lit out there, but considering all of the very public debates over morality and the way politicians are trying to force their morality on the world, I think it is a very timely and very interesting idea to explore. I think teenagers will relate to it and enjoy Celestine’s story.

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Free Reading Friday: Before the Devil Breaks You

Before the Devil Breaks YouBefore the Devil Breaks You by Libba Bray has me torn. Part of me is seriously disappointed that I didn’t get all the answers I was seeking. The other part is thrilled that this series is going beyond trilogy.

When I was given this book for Christmas, I assumed it was the last of a trilogy, so I started it expecting closure. As I neared page 500 though, I realized there was no way it could wrap up and there would have to be more.

The first book in the series, The Diviners, is one of my favorites. Because the series is by Libba Bray, I assumed it would be YA fiction, as everything else I’ve read by her is. However, this series takes a much darker turn and has slightly older characters, which I think takes it out of the YA sphere. It’s hard for me to quite categorize. Supernatural thriller might be the closest I can get. No matter how it is categorized, I loved the first book.

Book 2, Lair of Dreams, was good, but I found myself struggling through it at times. Not because it was complicated, but because it got dense at times in a way I found boring at times.

Number 3 completely makes up for it though.

This chapter of the journey gives even greater insight into Evie, Sam, Theta, Ling, Memphis and Henry, although Theta, Memphis, Evie and Sam get a lot more time. This seems fair as Ling and Henry were the real focus of book 2.

This book goes into more detail about the nefarious Project Buffalo. Readers learn more about the fates of Evie’s brother James, Sam’s mother Miriam and the potentially evil Bill Johnson.

The big bad in this book is the King of Crows. He is diabolical and ready to destroy not just the Diviners, but the entire world. This book offers powerful glimpses of him, but I have a feeling Bray will show us his true evil in the next installment.

This book does leave readers burying some well-known characters. It also leaves the majority of the characters in true peril…which is a great place for the next book to pick up.

One of the reasons I love this book so much is that it brings to light some of the truly ugly pieces of outer country’s history, which are frightening parallels to what is going on today in our country. The pursuit of eugenics and the idea of purifying blood to make better Americans by getting rid of inferior races is not only a realistic portrayal of our past, but also a scary look into where some of our disturbing current beliefs about immigrants are.

In addition, Bray brings up the idea of what makes a patriot. All too often the term patriot gets used to justify horrific actions and beliefs and Bray explores just how dangerous this term can be and how grossly it can be manipulated.

I think this book is a perfect reflection of what is going on politically in America right now. If we don’t learn from our mistakes, we are doomed to repeat them. This book reminds readers of this.

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Teaching Tuesday: AP review sessions

The AP tests are almost upon us and it seems like every morning I walk into the building nearly an hour before school starts to see bleary-eyed students heading zombie-like toward classrooms where dedicated AP teachers are holding review sessions.  I’ve witnessed this spectacle just about every morning for the last two months. It seems that as soon as we returned from spring break, many an AP teacher started cramming their classrooms in order to help their students cram for the big tests.

When I first started teaching, I too held these sessions. Since nearly every other AP teacher was holding them, I thought I was bound to do it as well. I’d hurry in to my classroom minutes before students started coming in, pass out some practice materials (poetry, excerpts from short stories and novels, writing prompts, etc) and we’d spend about 30 minutes talking our way through those materials.

It was difficult to accomplish anything as an AP timed essay takes at least 40 minutes to deconstruct and write. This meant we never got through an essay in one sitting. Even the shorter multiple choice passages and questions were hard to get through in that time as I wanted kids to take those apart as well and really focus on deconstructing the passage, the questions and the answers. This meant that most of my review sessions were actually a series of 2 or 3 sessions. In theory this would not have been an issue, but since students are not required to come to review sessions, one session 15 kids would show up. The next, only 12 would be there. Of course, they wouldn’t necessarily be the same 12 who were at the last session, so I was having to either stop to let them catch up or move on, leaving them a bit behind. At the next session I might have 14 kids, but at least one of them was bound to be a kid who hadn’t been to the first two.

After three years, I stopped holding review sessions.

Unlike many other AP disciplines, it’s very hard to study for either the AP Lit or the AP Lang exam. Both of these courses are completely skills based. Memorizing literary terms or rhetorical devices won’t really help them on the test. There are no important dates/historical time periods to memorize and know the direct impact of. There aren’t equations to memorize and solve for. There aren’t irregular verbs to conjugate.

My test requires students to read critically, analyze what they’ve read and answer questions based on that analysis. It also requires them to read critically, analyze what they’ve read and then write articulate, well-organized essays based on that analysis. These are skills we practice every single day in class, and not ones that work well with the drill and cram method. No matter how many books or short stories or poems or essays they read, there is little chance that anything they’ve read in the course of the year will actually show up on the exam itself.

Still, for the first time in nearly 10 years, I gave in to nervous juniors and scheduled three review sessions, which I planned to devote to one poem and set of multiple choice questions over that poem.

Sure enough, I had the same problems this year that I’d had in the past. And I have little hope that these sessions will really improve their performance on the test or help them understand the questions on the test any better. They’ve already practiced and practiced and practiced these skills. I think my students would have been better served sleeping in those extra 30 minutes. I know they don’t get nearly enough sleep as it is.

I’m not saying that review sessions are not beneficial in other disciplines. I’m not even implying that other teachers of Lit and Lang can’t find success with them. I haven’t seen the benefit of them for my students, so next year I’m going to be firm and NOT give in to review sessions.

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Teaching Tuesday: headphones

Students with cellphones and headphones are the current bane of my existence. At the start of this school year, our principal always reminds kids of the school rules. This year, a new rule was added: students are not allowed to wear headphones while walking in the hallways or in the classroom unless permitted by a teacher.

Now, this may seem arbitrary or like another way schools are restricting student “freedoms,” but the rule was actually put in place as a safety precaution. Far too many kids were messing with their phones and not paying attention to where they were going, which meant hallway collisions, which meant arguments and fights. AND kids weren’t able to hear announcements or teachers trying to talk to them.

I know this may still not sound like that big of a safety concern, but on Thursday, we had a lock down drill during 1st block. A students, who had gotten to school late had his headphones in and his music was so loud, that despite the fact that no one was in the hallway, he couldn’t hear the principal announcing the drill. He was in his own little world, just slowly dancing his way to class. The hallways were empty, but a teacher who has first period prep was sweeping the halls to make sure everyone was getting to a safety location for the drill. She called out to the student, who couldn’t hear her, and ended up having to speed walk to catch up to him, tap him on the shoulder and tell him there was a drill going on. He had no idea.

Because he didn’t have tiny earbuds in. He had gigantic Beats by Dre-style headphones on and as far as he was concerned there was nothing but him and his music around. Had it been a real emergency and not a drill, who knows what would have happened.

After the drill, our principal came over the announcements again, thanked the kids for their cooperation and reminded them of the cellphone/headphone rule. Without calling the kid out, he reminded them why headphones are an issue and why we do not allow them.

And yet, by the time I was in the hallway during passing period between 1st and 2nd block, I saw multiple students in the hallway, earbuds/headphones in, just cruising to their next destination. I told each one I saw to take their headphones out and they each looked at me like I was crazy.

On Friday I decided to do a little research. I kept track of every kid who I talked to about cellphones or headphones during they day. Between the hours of 10:00-2:05 pm (I didn’t talk to anyone before first block or after last block since technically the rule is only in place during school hours), I told 27 kids to either take headphones off their ears or put their cellphones away. So, in four hours, I was able to talk to 27 kids violating the rule, which is just about 7 an hour.

Of those 27 kids, only 8 of them were violating the rule during my 30 minute lunch duty. The other 19 were kids I saw in the hallway between classes. Five of the 27 couldn’t hear me the first time I asked them to remove headphones (not because I was too far away or too quiet–I am NEVER too quiet). I actually had to tap those 5 students on the shoulder to ask them to remove their headphones. Three of them got rather snotty with me, but complied (one went so far as to throw a hand up at me and say “whatever”).

Not a single one of them was one of my students.

And this doesn’t count the kids I saw with phones or headphones who I could not get to because they were too far down the hallway or turned into a classroom or bathroom before I reached them. I’d estimate the number of kids I saw violating the policy during those 4 hours (again, just one day after they were reminded of the policy) was probably double the number I talked to.

This coming week I plan on tracking this again. My principal is all about data, so I plan to give him some.

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