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Teaching Tuesday: A rare break

Today is one of those sort of unprecedented days: I have no grading to do. It’s not that I’m putting grading off because I don’t want to do it. I actually don’t have a single item that needs to be graded. I can count the number of days this occurs in a year on one hand.

Since I teach English, and more specifically Advanced Placement English, the moments where I don’t have some sort of writing assignment to grade are like tiny vacations to me.  Heck, I wasn’t even grading free on the first day of school. My AP students all had summer reading assignments, so each showed up to class on the first day with a book they’d annotated which I then had to check and grade.

My AP seniors actually just wrote an essay today in class, but in order to help them understand the AP grading rubrics and scoring, our next class will be devoted to peer editing, so I have at least another few days before I’ll have to grade a more polished copy.

My AP juniors are in the middle of reading The Crucible, and since it is a drama, they’ve chosen parts and we are reading it together as a class. We just finished act 1 and I am all caught up on grading their vocabulary, so I am free of work for them as well.

As for my Film Lit kids, their chapter 3 notes aren’t due until tomorrow and their preliminary thesis statements for their research papers aren’t due until Friday, so I’m off the hook for grading here too.

Before I left school this afternoon, I graded the four newspaper assignments that had been turned in (we have staggered deadlines), so I am completely up to date in there too.

All my planets, so to speak, have aligned and there is nothing to be done. I mean, sure, I could work on lesson planning. Thanks to upcoming testing dates I already know I’m going to have to rework some of my units, but I am just too giddy at the lack of grading. I can’t do it.

Instead, I think I’ll force myself to catch up on Stranger Things! I know I won’t have another “day off” like this during this grading period.

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Free Reading Friday: Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles bookI’m not just giving this book 5 stars because I love John Green. Although I do very much love John Green. Especially after seeing him live for the Turtles All the Way Down book tour. John Green is an amazing human being who is funny and poignant and a spectacular writer.

But this review is not about John Green (although I would also give him 5 stars for his excellentness as a human being). This review is about his first book in five years: Turtles All the Way Down. As much as I wanted to read TAtWD the moment it came out, since I am lucky enough to live in one of the tour cities, I bought at ticket which included a signed copy of his book, so I had to wait a little over a week to get it. Of course, I started it that very night.

Like all of Green’s novels, it is a YA novel. This particular book centers on a high school junior named Aza. Aza transcends the usual nerdy, slightly socially awkward protagonist of most of Green’s novels. Unlike his other protagonists, Aza is suffering from some pretty serious mental health issues. Although she tries her best to hide it from her mom and best friend Daisy, Aza gets caught in these thought spirals, which she calls “invasives” that do exactly that: they invade her mind to such a degree that she becomes a danger to herself at times.

When Green was speaking during the tour, he talked quite a lot about psychic pain and a bit about his own struggle with mental illness. His words were extremely personal and it was easy to tell that Aza is a character he connects very deeply with. While he made it clear that his mental illness is not the same as Aza’s, he wanted the audience to know that the book was his attempt to accurately portray what it feels like to struggle with mental illness. As he makes clear in both the novel and on the tour, it is nearly impossible to describe pain, whether it is physical or psychic pain. When doctors ask us to describe the type of pain we are in, words tend to fail us. Grunts, moans and screams cover it best.

A member of the audience, who happens to be a professor at a local university who plans to teach Green’s book next semester, asked him what questions he would like her students to consider about mental illness when discussing this book. Green didn’t so much have a question for them to consider about a message in the book so much as he wanted them to consider whether or not he was able to portray mental illness accurately. He wants to know whether or not Aza’s experiences right true for people who suffer. His goal was not so much to make everyone able to empathize with Aza as it was to just try to give voice to what it’s like to live with mental illness.

While I consider myself very fortunate not to be fighting a life long battle with mental illness, when I lost my father five years ago, I sank into a pretty deep depression. I do not pretend to speak for anyone who suffers on a regular basis, but I think Green did a damn fine job of putting words to what I could not. Not even when doctors asked me to describe what I was going through. I could only communicate my pain in sobs, and not very well at that. However, I found Aza’s words so very fitting. The idea of feeling like you are and are not connected to your body, spiraling thoughts you can’t get out of and the inability to shut out those thoughts were all elements I struggled with. Finding myself swimming in dizziness and panic I could not explain or stop followed by an inability not to weep made me feel like I was so very lost. My depression made me feel like I was not me, but some sort of physical embodiment of the depression that was eating away at me. The monstrous depression took over and I was not sure who I was anymore.

While mine was a temporary depression that has eased over time, Green makes it very clear that Aza, like most people who struggle with mental illness, will not be so lucky. There is no miracle cure. There is surviving and there is moving forward.

I think this book is a crucial read for teens, especially for those who are living with mental illness. After all, “we’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.”

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Throwback Thursday: Ghost tours

full graveyardI am a sucker for a ghost tour. Not because I believe I’m going to see any ghosts on the tour, but rather because I like exploring new cities after dark and hearing all the sordid tales that live below ground and don’t get told during the nice orderly guided tours through museums and official buildings. I like hearing the hidden history of places almost as much as I like the fact that ghost tours are almost always walking tours that let me explore parts of the city I might otherwise have glanced over or missed entirely.

I was introduced to my first ghost tour when I took a group of high school students to London. As part of a lovely tradition called May Term, students finished their finals in mid-May and spent the last two weeks of the year taking mini-seminar courses over topics ranging from the films of Alfred Hitchcock to orienteering to Asian literature. These courses, which ranged from 2-6 hours a day, gave students a chance for intensive study, often in a very hands-on way. During my 6 years at that wonderful school, I got to lead two May Term courses on trips to England.

It was during the second trip (which my best friend got to go on with me) that we all decided to take both a Jack the Ripper tour and a Haunted London tour. Both tours took place just as twilight was setting in. Even though we saw no ghosts (not that I thought we would), as we moved through crooked cobblestone streets and dark alleyways, I found myself giving into the “spook” and having a great time. There may not have been any jump scares, but picturing myself in Victorian England with the Ripper on the loose was fun. Our guides were very entertaining and could really spin a good yarn.

A few years later, I got another taste of ghost tours when I lived in St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in America. I lived on historic St. George street, right next to the St. Francis Inn, which is one of the oldest inns in the country. St. George street is a mess of  brick road that is always filled with either tourists or horse drawn carriages. I can count the number of times I was able to turn onto the street and make it all the way to my apartment without getting stuck behind a carriage on one hand.

Although the carriages drove me absolutely bonkers, living in the heart of such a historic city, especially one with so many fun tourist attractions did guarantee there was always something to do, especially during the summer. While I never went on an official ghost tour while I lived there, many nights as my husband and I were walking back to our apartment after getting some ice cream at Kilwin’s or having dinner at The Columbia Restaurant, we would find ourselves walking behind one of the many ghost tours that haunted our street. It was impossible not to get caught up in some of the tales.

While leading students on another trip, this time to Scotland in 2015, our guide offered us a chance to go on a haunted catacomb tour. The stories weren’t really that creepy, but being down in the catacombs had its eerie moments. Especially while our local guide was telling us the story of a young boy who had perished in the tiny room we were all scrunched into (it was lit by a single candle). It wasn’t the story that made me jump and scream. It was the ginormous football player I’d brought on the trip who had snuck up behind me and grabbed my leg during the story that had me wanting out of that room.

All in all, my experience with ghost tours, while not even remotely spiritual, have been pretty darn fun.

small graveSo, when 9 of my dearest, if not geographically nearest, friends and I got together for a vacation in Charleston, SC a week ago and they asked what there was to do in the area (I’m the “expert” as I visit Charleston every year), one of my first thoughts was ghost tour. Since everyone was pretty keen on the idea, another friend found a tour company, bought tickets and we were on our way.

Unfortunately, since several people also wanted to visit a gastro pub and spend the night on the town, she booked us on the 6 pm tour. Even in September, 6 pm is not only well before the witching hour, but also well before it even gets dark. Unbeknownst to her, it was also the family friendly version of the tour. Our haunted look at Charleston, which our guide kept reminding us didn’t necessitate going into actual graveyards since the entire city is basically built on top of a graveyard, was not exactly spookified.

Even though the tour wasn’t even remotely scary, our guide was charming and had some great historical information to give. Unfortunately for him, he had a group of English majors, one of whom has her PhD in Victorian literature, so his story claiming that Edgar Allan Poe wrote Annabelle Lee based on his romance with a young Charleston girl (who supposedly still haunts the house they courted at), did not fly. And since we are such big geeks, we spent quite a bit of time after the tour looking up “facts” he gave us. Turns out a lot of them were sketchy at best.

Still, he did take us into a really cool graveyard at the Circular Congregationalist Church, which is the city’s oldest burial ground. He wasn’t supposed to. Apparently only one tour company has permission to give tours in said graveyard. But we promised to pretend not to know him if anyone questioned us. He told us some great stories in that graveyard and we got to see some super neat old graves, some of them dating back to the late 1690’s. On our way back to the meeting point, he also took us past St. Phillip’s Cemetery where the famous ghost of Sue Howard Hardy was supposedly caught on film mourning over the grave of her son.

While a few of my friends thought the ghost tour was a bust, I had a great time on it. I loved being out, walking the city with my best friends. I may not have been scared and I may not have seen a ghost, but I got to spend time with people I love and that’s all that I really wanted.

 

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Wild Card Wednesdays: Evil Apples

I have a phone that just barely qualifies as a smart phone. I’m someone who likes to pretend I don’t spend nearly the amount of time on my phone that I actually do. As a result, I refuse to throw hundreds of dollars away on a phone when I can get a reasonable priced phone for just over a hundred. Yeah, I know, you get what you pay for. I buy a cruddy bottom of the line “smart phone” and I should not be surprised that it is mildly intelligent at best.

My biggest complaint about my phone is its complete lack of storage. Even though I bought an additional memory card (which is only half full), several of my apps won’t allow me to transfer them to my SD card (looking at you flashlight and Overdrive apps). And, over half of my storage space was full before I ever put a single app on my phone–stupid “miscellaneous” category that holds .files I have no idea what they do.

Although I immediately upload all videos and photos I take on my phone to Google photos, on a good day I have about 622MB free on my phone. Thankfully that was just enough for me to download Evil Apples, an app that will, in fact, allow me to transfer it to my SD card.

For anyone not in the know, if Cards Against Humanity is one of your go to games, this app might be perfect for you. Although Evil Apples does not have the same social dynamic to it, I like that I can kick back in my comfy marshmallow chair, pull up Evil Apples and play both with friends and strangers any time I want without having to clean my house.

I have not yet played the game against strangers as two of my good friends also play the game. About once a week, usually as we are unwinding after putting our kids to bed, one of us invites everybody else to the game and we play a few rounds before bed.

Just like Cards Against Humanity, it’s gross, irreverent, and often of questionable taste. But it is pretty darn fun. Just like CAH, once you earn enough points from winning games, you can buy extra decks. I recently bought the Dirty Disney, Kama Sutra and Bookworm decks. Coupled with the decks my friends have “purchased” with our winnings, the game is pretty fun.

While the games I play on my own aren’t quite as fun as the game of CAH I played on my recent vacation to Isle of Palms, SC, I’m still glad I was able to add the app to my phone.

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Free Reading Friday: El Deafo

El DeafoIf my 100 book reading challenge on Goodreads and my Pop Chart Lab 100 Essential Novels challenge was not enough, I’ve also decided to take on the Pop Sugar reading challenge. Although I didn’t officially jump on board with the Pop Sugar challenge until two weeks ago, I went back through my Goodreads list for this year to see how many categories I could check off the new list.

Thanks to my rather diverse reading habits this year, I already have 80% of the Pop Sugar list done. I was in the school library last week talking to our librarian (who is one of my best friends) about the categories I’d yet to fill. When I mentioned that one of the boxes I had not yet checked off was a book by an author with a disability, she immediately headed for the stacks and came back with El Deafo.

Even though this is a graphic novel, it took me a bit of time to read. It’s a fairly substantial sized graphic novel and while it does not overwhelm the reader with words, the words Bell uses are weighty and really make readers pause to put themselves in her place.

This autobiographical graphic novel is Bell’s story of being born into the hearing world, but losing most of her hearing to meningitis at age 4. The book, which has all the innocence of young childhood, is an amazing look at how hard it would be to find oneself suddenly pitched into silence. And as if that was not hard enough for Bell, growing up in the 1970’s, hearing aid technology was overly clunky and anything but stealthy. So not only did Bell feel isolated from the hearing world due to her disability, but because of the large, bulky hearing aid pack she had to have strapped to her chest so that she could hear her teachers (who were using a microphone connected to it), she was an instant target for speculation and mockery by her peers.

Interestingly, my first year of teaching, I had a student in my 7th grade English class who used a microphone/hearing device. Thanks to the passing of a few decades, all her peers could see were the hearing aids in her ears, but every day during class, I had to wear a rectangular microphone device around my neck. The device, which was about the size of a Galaxy phone, although MUCH thicker, enabled her to hear everything I said in class very clearly. Unfortunately, as one of the science teachers found out, it was powerful enough to also follow teachers out of the room and into the bathroom, where the poor girl then had to listen to her teacher pee. Bell has similar situations with her device and her visual portrayal of it, immediately called to mind the red-faced embarrassment my colleague felt when she realized our student really could hear everything, pretty much all over the school, if it was not turned off. I can only imagine the conversations that young lady heard over the years.

Bell takes readers on a journey through her elementary years, which find her struggling both to find a way to “hear” everyone in her world, but also to make friends. Making friends is hard enough for the new kid in school, which Bell is when her family moves after her kindergarten year. Bell shows readers how those difficulties are compounded for students with disabilities.

However, through it all, Bell shines. Her alternate persona, El Deafo, becomes a superhero sweeping in to save the day. In doing so, she manages to save herself.

A simply wonderful book that I think every teenager (and adult) should read.

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Throwback Thursday: The Enchanted Forrest

My parents divorced when I was 5 years old. I really don’t have many memories of living with both of them. Just some hazy pictures that might not even so much be actual memories as remnants of stories or actual pictures I’ve seen from my earliest years. One very real memory I do have moving from Indiana to California via Amtrak train. It was quite an adventure, which for the most part I enjoyed. I do remember getting some sort of turkey with brown gravy dinner that I thought was disgusting, but other than that, I loved our tiny little sleeper car (which did not seem tiny to me) and watching the country fly by before my eyes.

This trip, while exciting, meant starting a new life in California with my mom, step-dad and little brother. And that meant leaving the rest of my family, including my dad, behind. That part was beyond awful. I spent 46 weeks out of most years with my mom in Southern California, but for 6 glorious weeks every summer, I got to come back home and be with my family.

Those 6 months were, without a doubt, the most exciting of the year. Since my dad got me for such a short amount of time, he made sure not to waste a single second of it. It was 6 weeks spent in an almost non-step quest for fun. Sure, my dad had to work during that time, but he was a paramedic and usually worked a 24 hour shift followed by 2 full days off. That meant that of the 6 weeks I came to visit, he only had to work about 2 of the weeks, plus, he always took off vacation time, so really he only worked a handful of days during my visit.

While we did have “normal” days where we stayed at home, watched TV, played in the yard or ran errands, we had just as many days where we went to parks–both the natural and themed variety. Despite the fact that back in SoCal, I had Disneyland pretty much in my backyard, I LOVED visiting theme parks with my dad and anyone else in the family who wanted to tag along, which usually meant my aunt and grandma.

My favorite destination was definitely Six Flags Great America, just outside of Chicago. Not only was it a day filled with delicious (and completely unhealthy) snacks, rides and tons of souvenir stuffed animals, shirts and knick-knacks, but it also meant a long drive with my family where my dad would tell stories, we’d sing songs and he’d let me hold the money for the toll roads. It was heaven.

As much as I loved Great America, since it was a bit of a drive, we usually only went once each summer. However, that hardly meant only one day of thrill rides for me. Not too far away from my dad’s house there were a couple small, locally owned amusement parks. My favorite was the Enchanted Forrest, located in Porter, Indiana. My aunt and I used to ride the Mad Mouse roller coaster until I had screamed myself hoarse and was ready to puke. As much as the crazy jerks terrified me, I loved it. I also was crazy over the Tilt-a-Whirl. And don’t even get me started on the mini-train that we could ride all around the park.

The Enchanted Forrest actually hosted corporate type events all the time. I remember one time the steel mill my grandpa worked at rented it for the day and we got to go along. Not only did we get to ride all of the rides, but there was a huge company picnic. Another year, my dad’s fire department had an event there and while we didn’t quite have the whole place to ourselves, I felt so important being there with all of the firefighters. The Enchanted Forrest was the first place where I drove a go-kart. It was also where I began my love affair with skee-ball. Since it was located right next to the Indiana Dunes, even when we weren’t going to spend the day there, we drove by it quite often on our way to play at the actual Dunes.

Sadly, it closed in 1991. I had just started high school and was not old enough to drive there to hang out with my friends, but too old to ask my parents to go with me. I did, however, watch as it transitioned into an entirely new theme park: Splash Down Dunes Water Park. I went off to college before it was actually finished, so I never went there. It was odd to watch one of my favorite childhood playgrounds become something so very different.

I only came home for college one summer. Once I returned for the start of my sophomore year, I never lived near the Dunes again. I didn’t even realize that SDD closed in 2009 and then was reopened as Seven Peaks Water Park. I know my aunt still went there with her kids, but out of habit she still called it Dunes water park. Apparently as of June of this year, even it has closed down due to guests getting chemical burns from the water. There are currently no plans to reopen it.

It’s odd to think that a place that has brought so much fun to so many people for almost 60 years is closed. Even though I’m not a huge fan of water parks, I hope that they are able to fix the problem and that it does reopen. Families need places like The Enchanted Forrest and Splash Down Dunes and Seven Peaks Water Park to build those memories.

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Free Reading Friday: Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans

Drowned City.jpgI’m a big fan of graphic novels. I actually started teaching a graphic novel unit when I taught sophomores and was amazed at how much my students really enjoyed reading the books and doing the assignments. Even my reluctant readers found graphic novels they enjoyed and my more advanced students could challenge themselves by examining the levels of symbolic depth that can be added in the graphic portion of the storytelling.

I was excited to see Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans on the Eliot Rosewater nomination list. This is a great look at a fairly recent historical event that so many current high school students have only a very passing knowledge of. They may know the name Hurricane Katrina, but few know real details.

 

This book is a great resource for them. The story is laid out chronologically, taking the disaster day by day. There are not huge chunks of text to dive into, but the pictures speak volumes. Although I would not call any of the images graphic, exactly, they are haunting and upsetting because they help readers understand the devastation in a very real way.

While the book does a pretty good job of keeping bias to a minimum, it does present the multitude of ways that local, state and federal agencies failed the people of New Orleans. The author also makes it very clear who was most impacted by the disaster: the poor.

I think this is an excellent book for anyone who likes graphic novels, but particularly for 7-12th graders who need some historical perspective

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