Category Archives: teaching

Free Reading Friday: Secretariat

SecretariantSecretariat by William Nack was an obligation book for me. I read it because one of my students asked me to so that she could use it for her non-fiction book project. Since I’d read Seabiscuit the year before for a similar reason, I figured this would be similar. I’d already exposed myself to the world of racing, so this book would be easy to get through, right?

WRONG! At least not for me. Now, I am not a racing fan of any sort, so I’m sure that was part of my problem with the book. Actually, it was like 90% of my problem with the book. Since I am not a fan of horse racing and do not follow it in any way, my only real knowledge of racing comes from Seabiscuit and the one time I went to the race track with my family because my aunt had won some sort competition which entitled her to a party at the racetrack. I was 15 and wasn’t even allowed to bet, so my memories of it are hazy at best.

I was prepared for an underdog race horse story with lots of descriptions of the people surrounding the horses and the races themselves. And I got that. What I was not prepared for was page upon page upon page (seriously, like 1/4 of this book) devoted to begets. It was like reading Genesis in the Bible, only for horses. This horse beget this horse beget this horse ad nauseum. I was also not expecting very detailed descriptions of horse insemination. Seabiscuit was all about one horse and his racing career. Secretariat is all about those thoroughbreds that came before him, his amazing performance and those who trained him. It made the book awfully long.

I was also not a huge fan of Nack’s storytelling. I think part of the reason I enjoyed Seabiscuit so much was because of Hillenbrand’s storytelling. I actually liked her narrative so much that I went on to read Unbroken, which was a book that appealed to me even more and I found myself engrossed in. Nack’s narrative seemed broken up by all the begets and race times. It felt more like a list than a story at times.

I was also not a huge fan of Penny Tweedy. I thought her behavior spoiled and superior throughout most of the book. If Nack was trying to paint her as a heroine in the world of racing, it is not how she came across to me. She threw too many tantrums and was far too nasty to too many people for me to like her or even sympathize with her.

For true horse racing fans I’m sure this is an interesting read. It was just not the book for me. I felt each one of the 455 pages I read and I hate when that happens.


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Teaching Tuesday: Snow days

We had our first official snow day this past Friday. Technically it was an ice day as there was hardly any snow on the ground, but there was a thick layer of ice covering the streets, making travel unsafe.

On Thursday everyone was abuzz over the possibility of a snow day. Although the forecast was calling for up to 3 inches of snow (which we did not get) and some major ice after our nearly 60 degree temps which melted all the streets and fields, I had little faith in the forecast. It seems like every time we hear we’ll get 3-6 inches of snow, we get an inch at best. Usually I watch as all the surrounding schools close, but mine is open.

For the past two years we haven’t had a single snow day. Heck, I’m not even sure we had any two hour delays last year. I kept telling my students not to get their hopes up, but just in case, I brought home all of the grading I needed to do.

Low and behold, when my husband’s alarm went off at 5:50, I decided to get up and check the weather. The view from my front door was a tiny dusting of snow, so I didn’t hold out much hope of a snow day. However, when I went to check my phone, there was the text plain as day: school was closed.

I promptly headed back to my bedroom, poked my head into my daughter’s room and told her it was a snow day, so she needed to go back to sleep, set my alarm for 7:30 and went back to sleep myself.

I got up at 7:30 and headed straight for the computer. Since every student in my district has either an iPad or Chromebook (depending on their grade), our school qualifies for Electronic Learning Days. On any e-Learning days, we have to have our lesson plans uploaded for our students by 8 am.

I’d already planned the activities the night before, but wasn’t about to go through the extra work of setting them up just in case we had school. Since I knew what all my kids needed to do, I made sure the e-Learning attendance tab was open on Canvas, created step by step instructions for the class period and then emailed all my students when their tasks were up.

Then, I opened my email tab on my phone and my desktop and helped my own children log into their devices so they could start their e-Learning day activities. I’ll admit that juggling my children’s questions with my student’s questions was a struggle…for about 5 minutes! Luckily my son was almost entirely self-sufficient (he’s 10) and my daughter’s teacher made her activities pretty easy to follow. There were a few moments of frustration for my children, but with a little help from me they got right back on track.

Every half hour or so I told my kids to take a break and go play, which stretched out their day. Still, even with those breaks, they were both done with their work  by lunch time and thrilled they got to spend the rest of the day playing in their jammies. They actually didn’t even get dressed until 4 pm when they decided they wanted to go outside and play in the snow and I made them put on real clothes under their snowsuits. We may not have had much snow, but it was cold and I wanted them as bundled as possible.

I managed to not only answer all student questions, but get all caught up with my grading. Well, as much as I could. Although our students all have to sign in for attendance, they don’t technically have to finish the work given to them until the next class day…just in case there are internet issues. Since school was cancelled on a Friday and we have MLK day off, my students don’t have to finish their work until today. About half of them took their sweet time.

Not that I’m upset. In fact, it basically meant I had 3 whole days with no grading since I was all caught up. It’s a nice feeling being all caught up. Not that it’ll last, but it’s nice for now!

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Free Reading Friday: Unbound

I pickedUnbound up Unbound by Ann E. Burg in part because I liked the cover and in part because it is a novel in verse. I’ve read several novels in verse over the last few months and I have really developed an appreciation for them. I love the fact that authors are able to not only articulate brilliant plots, but also create characters with amazing depth without the long rambling sentences and paragraphs of most novels.

Books like Unbound remind me that Shakespeare was right, “brevity is the soul of wit.”

The journey that Grace goes on to obtain her freedom is one of bravery and inspiration. Although fictional, Burg does a great job of making the reader feel the true peril of the lives of runaway slaves.

Although I have read several fictional and true slave narratives, Burg still managed to introduce me to new information. I knew about slaves escaping North with and without the help of the Underground Railroad, but I’d never heard about people escaping by going even deeper into the South. I had no idea there were runaway slaves who escaped by living in the Dismal Swamp. This is a fascinating bit of history I now want to know more about.

I wish Burg would have given the reader a bit more of a look into Grace’s life of freedom in the swamp, but the narrative is still complete without it. The point is that Grace and her family will still have to endure hardships, but at least they will be able to get through them together and on their own terms. Though they may not follow that famous North Star, they still find their freedom and their home.

Great read for young adults. I actually plan to recommend it to my students, but only after my son, who is 10, finishes it.

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Teaching Tuesday: Last minute rush

As usual, despite having two full weeks for holiday break, I am grading up until the last possible second. Despite grading every single day (except for Christmas Eve and day), I still have three sets of essays and two sets of note cards to grade.

Although I know I’ll get it done–if only because I always do–right now it seems almost insurmountable.

I wish there was a way I could justify assigning and grading fewer writing assignments, but I want my students to be ready for college.

And so I grade.

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Free Reading Friday: All the Crooked Saints

All the Crooked SaintsI am a big Maggie Stiefvater fan. I was really excited about the release of this book in part because it is the first book she’s written since finishing up the Raven Boys series, which I adored, and in part because this book helped me cross one more book off of my Pop Sugar reading list: a book recommended by an author you like. It just so happens that when I saw John Green speak on his Turtles All the Way Down tour, he mentioned Stiefvater’s book and suggested we all go out and read it. Since I’d pre-ordered an autographed copy of All the Crooked Saints with a nifty bookplate designed by the author, as I heard Green make the suggestion, I knew I’d be easily able to check that book off my list.

With the pile of books I had waiting for me to read, it actually took me quite awhile to get to this book. So long that instead of being the last book I finished in 2017, it was the the first one I finished in 2018. Yes, it meant I fell a little shy of my Pop Sugar goal, but since it wasn’t the only book keeping me from finishing the reading list, I accepted my defeat gracefully.

I did, however, stay up until 1 am on New Year’s Day finishing All the Crooked Saints. I had to know how it ended before I could allow myself to drift off to sleep.
Crooked Saints owlI was especially excited to read this particular book because I had not one, but two copies of it. The first was my pre-order, which came with a cool owl postcard signed by Stiefvater and the super cute owl bookplate. When I got my copy in the mail, I thought it was pretty nifty looking.
Unbeknownst to me, one of my best friends went to a library conference where Stiefvater was a keynote speaker and not only did she get to meet her and take pictures with her–which she sent me–but when I begged her to get me a signed copy of The Raven Boys, she did. However, she didn’t know I’d pre-ordered All the Crooked Saints, so she also got me a personalized signed copy of it. So now instead of one autographed copy, I have two. One personalized to me and one that isn’t personalized but has a cool bookplate. I’m not quite sure what I’ll do with the “extra” copy. My guess is I’ll hold on to it and give it to one of my kids. They are both huge readers and really it’ll only be another few years before my son is ready for this book. He’ll love that it is signed and has the bookplate.

book plateAlthough this book is in many ways very different than the Raven series or her Shiver series, it still shares that wonderful sense of magical realism so prominent in all of her books. In fact, I think she may be at her best as far as magical realism goes in this book. Unlike the Shiver series or The Scorpio Races, she’s not depending on already established mythos to center this book around. Also, unlike the Raven series, she manages to keep this book a bit more in the realm of reality, which I think enhances the magical realism in it. This book is the one that reminds me most of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, although it is definitely not quite in that league.

But I don’t mean that as an insult to Stiefvater. Her book isn’t truly comparable to Marquez because she has a very different intended audience and she is very in touch with that audience. She writes for YA readers and those who love YA fiction and she brings magical realism to them in a way that I think is more accessible. And, in a way that I feel might lead them to Marquez.

Her prose in this this book is warm and rich. I love the way she introduces characters by telling the reader one thing they wanted and one thing they feared. For example, on page 4, she introduces Joaquin Soria by saying, “here was a thing Joaquin Soria wanted: to be famous. Here was a thing he feared: dying alone in the parched dust outside Bicho Raro.” She does this again on page 8 as a way to further introduce Beatriz Soria. “Here was a thing Beatriz wanted: to devote time to understanding how a butterfly was similar to a galaxy. Here was a thing she feared: being asked to do anything else.” These small moments of brilliance add great depths to the characters and allow the reader insights into them that they might not otherwise get.

I thoroughly enjoyed the miracles performed in this book. They were, of course, not at all what I thought of as miracles. How anyone could imagine someone who just wants to escape his life of fame and recognition receiving a miracle that turns him into a giant, is beyond me. And yet, it makes perfect sense. Tony’s fame made him a giant in his world and in order to truly find peace and happiness, he had to learn to deal with his problem in full force. The miracles themselves add those moments of magic–twins who want to be separate people but are too afraid to be are twined together by a snake that threatens to devour them if they get too far apart–a woman who cannot find a way to speak for herself who can only echo everyone else’s words–these are the perfect miracles for them because those miracles teach them to finally face their problems and overcome them.

The book has wonderful message that there are no miracles that can just fix lives. Problems need to be worked at and struggled through. And most importantly, they need the help of others. There are problems that we cannot fix on our own. It’s not only ok to ask for help, it is important to. We must reach out and try to solve our problems, but we must ask for and accept help from those who want to help us. Our problems are not insurmountable, but there are no real miraculous cures for them. We have to work through them, with those who love us to find solutions and a sense of peace.

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Throwback Thursday: Firefly and Serenity

I have loved Joss Whedon for about two decades now. Ever since I saw my first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer twenty years ago, I was hooked. Now, I’ll admit it, I didn’t see the first episode on it’s premiere night. I actually saw it when the WB reran it over the weekend. The show caught me a bit off guard as I’d seen the movie at the theater during its original run. This was due in large part to the fact that I actually worked at a movie theater at the time. If I hadn’t, I might not have seen it. The TV show was nothing like the campy, but fun, movie I remembered from high school. I was a bit confused about the different school and characters, but when her new principal mentioned the burning down of the gym at her old school, I realized it was still some version of the movie I knew.

I faithfully watched (and rewatched and rerewatched) every episode of Buffy. When Angel split off with his own series, I watched that too. I was especially enthralled when Spike managed to survive the seventh season of Buffy and moved on over to Angel.

Somehow I managed to miss news about Whedon’s show Firefly, at least until right after it was cancelled. Not that it was hard to miss considering how little publicity Fox gave it. Or the fact they aired the episodes out of order which confused people. Or that they only had it on the air for 12 of the 13 episodes. It was almost like Fox did everything in its power to tank the show.

Thankfully a friend of mine told me about it and lent me his DVD’s. From the moment I watched the first episode, I was hooked. And then I was devastated that I only got 13 near perfect episodes to love.

So when Serenity was made, I was in line on opening day. And I loved it. To this day it is still one of my favorite movies. In fact, I love it so much that each year I introduce my Film Lit students to it as part of their final. A surprising number of them end up really liking it as well and then go on to watch Firefly. Some even go on to watch Buffy and Angel. Of course, that might have something to do with the Buffy clips I show too.

Recently I learned that there are Serenity comic books. I knew that Whedon decided to add to the Buffy legacy by creating what would have been the 8th season of Buffy in comic book form. Right after they came out, my husband bought me the first few for my birthday. Then a friend lent me the rest of them. They were fun, but not quite the way I saw the show going (look, if it doesn’t somehow end with Buffy and Spike back together my interest level wanes).

I knew he’s also created Angel comic books, but I didn’t look into those. I liked the show, but it’s my third favorite of his shows (Dollhouse is my least favorite).

Until two weeks ago I had no idea he’d also created a comic book series for Serenity. When I found out, I logged on to my library to see if by chance they had them. Amazingly enough, they did. I put what I thought were the first four on hold, however, at this point I’m still not sure the order of the books. I’ve looked online and while I found a post about the correct order, it lists books I can’t find at my library or on Amazon. It also definitely does not list them in the same order my library (and Amazon does). So although I am a bit confused, I’m going to read them in the order I think they go in and if it’s not right, I’ll be ok with that and just enjoy them.

So far I’ve only read the first one (I think), Those Left Behind. It was definitely fun. It probably would have made a great episode of the show. I love seeing the characters drawn just like the actors and I love reading their words, which of course I hear in my head in the voices of the actors. I love getting to “see” Nathan Fillion play out more adventures of my beloved Mal. It’s not quite as good as more episodes would have been, but it’s a nice consolation.

I may have to get copies of them for my classroom for students who fall in love with the movie to read.


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Teaching Tuesday: Grading over break

It may be the most wonderful time of the year for many people, but now that the holidays are technically over, I have to kick my grading into high gear. Yes, that’s right, along with visiting loved ones, opening presents and ringing in the new year, I have also been grading essays. Lots of essays.

Miraculously, I was able to get all of my Advanced Composition grades done before I left school for break. I decided to ignore everything else that needed to be graded in all of my other classes in order to get all of these grades finished. Unlike my Advanced Placement English classes, my Composition class is only called “advanced” because it is for seniors. We also have a plain Composition class which is for juniors. It’s more like Comp I and Comp II than anything actually advanced.

I like teaching Advanced Comp, but since it is a course that every senior at my school has to take in order to graduate, I get a wide variety of ability, interest and motivation levels in that class each semester. And that means it is always the class students are actually in danger of failing. And since those students are always seniors, I do my utmost to get their grades in as soon as possible so that students who do not manage to pass can be put into some sort of remediation to get them back on track for graduation.

Unfortunately, this year I had quite a few students who were straddling the line between passing and failing. For far too many their fate was tied up in their final. Thankfully all but two managed to pull it off. One of my kids passed with a 59.5%, but it still counts as a D- in our grading program, so thanks to the last minute effort he put in on his final, he did it. I was grading until about half an hour after the teacher dismissal bell rang, but it was worth it to walk out of the building with one set of grades completely finished.

That big push to get all my Comp grades finished meant a LOT of essays to grade for both my juniors and seniors in Advanced Placement English. Since these students are actually advanced and taking the equivalent of college level classes, the requirements for their essays are heftier, my expectations higher and the amount of grading is double my regular Comp class.

So far I’ve only managed to get two sets of finals graded. That means I have a heck of a lot to get done in the next few days. I have to make sure I have it all graded by Friday as I still have to leave some time for planning for the next grading period. While I may have the entire year sketched out, I don’t have the day to day for every class finished yet and that is what I have to get to work on. I have a feeling the next few days are going to be crammed with reading essays until my eyes start to cross and the words run together.

It is moments like this when I am reminded of the thousands of casual comments I’ve heard non-educators make over the years about how lucky teachers are to get so much “time off.” While I will absolutely acknowledge that there is a difference between having to get up at 6 am every morning, drive in to work, teach for a full day and then drive home, and the ability to schedule my work time when I want to do while sitting in my pjs and taking breaks whenever I want to, I’m still going to spend a large chunk of my “time off” working very hard to make sure my students receive the best possible feedback on their work as well as the best lessons I can put together for them.

My “vacation time,” is almost never actually a vacation. At least not like it was before I got into education or in that year I took a break from teaching to work at a book store and then in publishing. Any time I had off at those jobs was exactly that: time completely off.

While I wouldn’t trade teaching for either of those careers, I will admit that I do get nostalgic from time to time about having real vacation days.

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