Tag Archives: AP Language and Composition

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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Teaching Tuesday: book count

book count.jpgThe most tedious end of the year task I have to do is the book count. Every year before we can leave the building, we have to count every single textbook and novel in the English department. This may not sound like that bad of a task, after all, there are ten teachers in my department who are all equally responsible for completing this count. However, as the largest department in the school, not only do we have more textbooks than any other department, but we also have so very many novels.

And not just for the courses we currently teach. Right now, we house about 50 different works of both fiction and nonfiction that are not currently being used in any course. Some of the books have been in the book room (and not used) for at least two decades now. Some of the books have only one class set being stored in there, or half a class set. Some have three or four class sets. These means we have a couple thousand books to count.

It may seem silly to keep books that no one is teaching. In some cases I agree. However, the reason we keep them is that they’ve all been school board approved. If any teacher in the department wants to change out one of the novels they teach, they can easily do it. In addition, if we decide to develop a new course, like we are doing this year by adding 20th Century Literature, teachers have a lot of options to help them build the course.

Still, it means several weeks of counting before the end of the school year. The books are stored in rooms that are hot and the books are stored in cabinets where even I need a step stool to reach (and count) many of them.

Some years we are able to get students to help us with the count. Other years we get stuck doing it entirely on our own. In theory that means everyone contributes equally, but in reality that is never the way it works. Since I am department chair, it falls on me to make sure it gets down. If anyone doesn’t get their share done, the expectation is that I will do it. And since everyone in my department knows I can’t leave the book count unfinished (both for insurance reasons and because it is one of my duties to make sure it gets turned in), I usually end up doing more than my share.

This year I got started on it early. I had a few wonderful students who offered to help me during their study hall time. I made sure to close off the book rooms a few weeks before the end of school. I knew this would mean that a great many teachers would end up still having books out to their students and books in their classrooms, but the policy is anything in your personal classroom is 100% your responsibility. This year I got smart!

Since my students were working on projects, I collected their books as early as possible as well so that my study hall kids could help me count the books in my room (I store all the AP Lit and AP Lang books in my classroom). Since I have the largest number of books used for my classes, my personal count always takes awhile. But, with some student elbow grease, we got it done in two days.

When I left school on the final day, only two teachers still hadn’t finished their personal book counts, but I let my principal know that two were still finishing up (without throwing them under the bus) and he gave me the green light to leave.

Book count is one of the many things neither college nor student teaching prepared me for. In my four and a half years in the teaching program, I never heard even a whisper of it. While I am not saying my education didn’t prepare me to be a teacher, in many ways it really did, it still never ceases to amaze me all the unspoken duties teachers have.

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Free Reading Friday: Look Me In the Eye

look me in the eyeOne of my students lent me Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison to read. She wanted to read it for a non-fiction project in my AP Language class and my rule is that I have to read the book first before students can read/use a book for their project. Thanks to this rule, I’ve read some really interesting non-fiction works I would not have picked up on my own. I’ve also read a few books I really did not enjoy and still won’t let students live down.

I was not initially thrilled about this book. I read The Journal of Best Practices by David Finch last year and while I found it fairly enlightening considering I am married to a man who has only recently been diagnosed, it was a lot to take. And I was worried this book might be similar. While Finch’s book was interesting and informative, it didn’t quite have me hooked and there were definitely moments that I felt the book was a slog to get through.

Robison’s book was completely different! When I was only a few pages in, I was hooked. I’m not sure if this is because he begins by discussing his childhood, well before he was diagnosed, and I am currently waiting to have my daughter evaluated because she shares an awful lot of traits with her dad, OR because Robison’s writing was just so compelling. My guess is that both are true.

I had no idea that Robison was the brother of Augusten Burroughs who wrote Running With Scissors, a book (and movie) I enjoyed. I was caught off guard when Robison mentioned his brother and the craziness that surrounded his life for a brief time being treated by Dr. Finch. I found it fascinating though.

In general, I found the story of Robison’s life compelling. There are definitely connections I see between his experiences and ones my husband has shared with me, and more importantly now, ones my daughter is going through. One of the most profound moments for me was when Robison mentioned that all his life people had said he preferred to play alone, but in reality he never wanted to play by himself. He wanted to play with others but didn’t know how. This is something I have worried about with my own daughter.

I think this is a great book for anyone who has someone on the spectrum in their lives. It was eye opening and encouraging to me. And more importantly, well-written and interesting. It gave me a lot of hope for my daughter and her future.

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Travel Thursday: 9/11 Memorial

9-11 memorial at nightThe last time I was in NYC, nearly 20 years ago, I got to tool around with my best friends. It was one of the best trips of my life because I got to see an amazing city with four of the most important people in my life.

My most recent trip was for business, which is an odd thing for a teacher to say, but I was there to work for the College Board. I knew that I would be meeting with a group of 10 or so fellow AP Lang and Comp teachers to work as part of the design team, but upon my arrival in the Big Apple, I knew no one.

I touched down at LaGuardia and managed to find the taxi line. I also risked a ride share with a very nice couple from Australia. Unfortunately, despite very clearly telling our driver the address for their hotel three separate times, our driver managed to mishear them and took us to the wrong hotel. At that point we’d already been in the cab for about 75 minutes and the mistake ended up adding another 45 minutes onto our ride.

9-11 hotel view.jpgSo, nearly two hours after arriving in the city I finally found myself at the Millennium Hilton, exhausted, but also wired and ready not only to find some food, but to explore.

I have almost no memory of the hotel room my friends and I all piled into on my first stay in NYC, but I know it was nowhere near as nice as this place. The lobby was lovely. The room was glorious. And there was even a plate with three small macrons waiting for me, which helped to tide me over until I could find real food. It’d been about 8 hours since I’d eaten and I think the only reason I wasn’t hangry was because I was so excited about being in New York.

I knew from the map I’d checked before I left Indiana that my hotel was close to the 9/11 Memorial. However, since my first trip to the city was well before the horrific tragedy struck, if I saw the Twin Towers on that visit, I had no memory of them. And, although I’d seen pictures of the memorial, for some reason, I thought it was going to be monumentally big. However, when I looked out my hotel window, I immediately knew what I was looking at and it seemed so small. Granted, I was looking at it from 42 stories in the air, but from that glance it seemed impossible that such a major center for business for our entire country (and portions of the world) could take up so little actual space on the ground

I made a bee line for the monument. When I found myself actually facing the North Reflection Pond, it was much bigger. And yet, it still felt small in a strange way. It felt so unreal to me that I was standing where a titan had once been and where so many people who had just been going to work, as I would be the next day, lost their lives. It was beautiful and eerie.

It’s hard to describe the feelings that surged through me that evening, although I was immediately put in mind of my trip, 7 years ago to the 9/11 memorial my family had visited in Pennsylvania. The silence was almost tangible in both places. However, the silence in Manhattan was far more unsettling. It makes sense for the field in Pennsylvania where flight 93 went down to be devoid of noise. Had the flight not crashed, there’d be no real reason for anyone to be there. It would be quiet because it’s removed from everything.

But the memorial at the World Trade Center is different. It is surrounded on all sides by the most bustling city in the country. The quiet that sets in here is so unnatural. It’s so reverential. Reflecting on it now, the only other experience I’ve truly had that has come close was when I visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Although not the site of direct tragedy, it still offers that bizarre paradox of deafening silence amidst a bustling city.

I passed the memorial every day during my stay in NYC. It was directly on my route to the office I was working in. No matter when I visited, there was a quiet over it. Not a complete silence as there were tour guides and people in line to get into the museum, but a hush none the less. After four days it still amazed me. So did the dedication of those who work at the memorial. Every time I passed it, someone was cleaning off the the names that surround the reflection pools. Always silently and always with the utmost care.

9-11 memorial roseI was also touched by the flowers left and mementos left on the monument themselves. I’d seen them the night of my first visit, but it wasn’t until the next day that I could really stop and read the informational plaques surrounding the pools. Apparently every year on what would have been their birthdays, workers put white roses on the deceased’s names. The first night I’d only noticed a small smattering of roses, but by the third day there were quite a few. Additionally, some of the names had flags tucked in to them, no doubt left by friends or family members who’d stopped by to pay their respects. It was heartbreaking.


Although I would have liked to see more of the city on my visit, I am so glad I got a chance to visit this memorial.


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Teaching Tuesday: AP EXAMS!

Yes, that’s right, the AP exams are finally here. The moment I’ve been preparing my students for for the last 34 weeks is quickly approaching. In fact, my first group of students already took their AP Literature and Composition exams last Wednesday. My final group take their AP Language and Composition exams tomorrow.

AP testing time is equally hugely stressful and a great relief to me. As the days of the test near each year, I find myself trying to cram my students with last minute tips and practice activities. I spend their class periods reminding them of what they know and trying to fill in the gaps of what they don’t. I watch as my students stress levels go through the roof and my nervousness for them steadily increases.

However, the day of the test, so much of my stress evaporates. I have given them everything I could and now it really is sort of up to them. There’s nothing else I can do for them. They either got it or they don’t. And this year I feel most of them get it. Or at least I hope they do.

I did have on serious moment of frustration when I watched a kid who had been dropped from my class for failing two grading periods walk into the test. Since he’d been removed from the class well before the test, I didn’t understand why he still took the test. I was irked even more to find out he did not show up for the AP US History test. I’m still not quite sure what the rationale there was. It is a little disappointing to know that his score (which I am sure will be quite low), will drag down my overall success rate.

Tonight though, I get to breath a little easier. My last review is done. All I have to do is get to school a bit early (I always do) to make sure all of my students are at the test and that they all get the motivational packets of quotes and mints I put together for them and then go to my classroom and enjoy 85 minutes of solid grading time, which I really need at this point.

With the conclusion of this AP test, I only have one and a half weeks of school left and if I can just get through grading research papers, I might survive this year!

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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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Free Reading Friday: The Glass Castle

The Glass CastleIt’s very hard to read memoirs of absolute deprivation, especially when they involve children. Even before I became a mother I found it hard not to cringe when reading stories of abused, neglected or forgotten children. Now that I am a mother, I find it even harder. I cannot imagine anything that could induce me to allow my children to suffer. I would give up everything I have in order to keep them from experience true hunger or pain. When parents are not willing to do the same, I find it hard to understand.

I knew nothing about Jeannette Walls’ life when I bought The Glass Castle. In fact, other than the fact that her memoir had been turned into a movie (which I have not yet seen), I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I picked her book off the shelf in the airport bookstore. However, I was getting ready to board a flight to South Carolina to spend a long weekend on the beach with friends and I knew I’d need something to read. I also knew that my Pop Sugar book challenge for 2017 included a book bought on a trip, so I purposely did not bring a book with me on the trip so I could buy one. Ok, I’ll admit I brought my Kindle, but I didn’t bring any paper bound books with me, so I would be more inclined to read whatever I picked up at the bookstore.

Since I am always on the lookout for interesting non-fiction books to bring back to my AP Language and Composition students and since I knew some of them might see this movie and want to read the story behind it, I picked this book over several other interesting looking fiction works.

I’m glad I did.

While stories of abuse and neglect are hard to read, I think they are important to read. I think it is vital that we read stories like Walls’ so that we develop better empathy for our fellow man. Stories like the ones Walls tells help to make it harder to dismiss the homeless woman we see digging through the dumpster, or the children who come to school dirty and without food. Stories like these remind us that small acts of kindness toward those who may be in need go a long way.

Of course, those lessons don’t make Walls’ stories any easier to read. Her tales of her parent’s complete abdication of their parental responsibilities are cringe worthy. Like Walls, my children were also very precocious, however, the thought of allowing either of my children at age three to operate the stove, let alone cook their own meals is appalling. The idea of allowing my children to sleep in cardboard beds under roofs that are caved in and allow rain and snow to fall into their bedrooms is hideous. The mere thought of taking my children into a bar to help me swindle people out of money at pool and then allowing grown men to take my teenage daughter upstairs is disgusting.

But there are parents who do these things and as a teacher I am thankful to memoirs like Walls’ because it makes me look harder and with more compassion toward many of my students. Because of books like these, I find myself listening more intently to students I think may be being neglected or abused. I check in with those I know have difficult home lives.

Although a great many tragic events happen in Walls’ life and in the book, she manages to keep her memoir from being too dark. She does fill it with lighter moments. And while she clearly sees the neglect and abuse her parents committed against her, she also shows a sort of understanding for them and a deep love for them.

How she managed to write so kind a memoir after finding out what her mother’s land in Texas was worth is beyond me.

This is an engaging and well-written account of Walls’ life that I am glad I read.

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Free Reading Friday: The Big Tiny: A Built-it-Myself Memoir

big tinyI have a student who is absolutely obsessed with tiny houses. As long as I have known her, which has been two years now, she has talked about her desire to live in a tiny house. When she first told me about this, I thought she was a little bit crazy. After all, she was talking about having cardboard furniture and all I could think about was her either getting a ton of paper cuts all over her backside or sitting down to watch some TV and having her “chair” collapse.

After she showed me what her dream cardboard furniture looks like, I felt a bit less worried for her. However, I still didn’t think it looked even remotely comfortable, even with pillows and blankets piled on it. But, to each his own, right?

This student is in my AP Language and Composition class and as part of the class, students are required to pick 4 books off of a rather extensive non-fiction book list. Each book has a different project that goes along with it. The first book, which they read over the summer merely has to be annotated. The second book, which they read during the second quarter, gets an essay over the author’s bias. The third book, which they read during the third quarter, also gets an essay, this time over the theme. The final book, which they read during their final quarter of high school requires a creative project which explores both bias and theme.

Although the list I provide has a wide variety of books to suit just about every reading interest, I also allow students to suggest books for me to read and then approve for their essays/project. Due to her love of all things tiny house, she asked me to read The Big Tiny: A Built-it-Myself memoir by Dee Williams.

Unlike some of the books my kids suggest, I was intrigued by this one. I wanted to understand the tiny house craze and what would drive someone to give up a perfectly nice sized house for something smaller than my bedroom.

Williams’ journey from slightly hippy Washington homeowner to full-fledged, living off the grid hippy Washington tiny house owner began after a near fatal illness, which made her re-evaluate her life and her priorities.

Slowly, she began downsizing all of her possessions and building her tiny house. The book chronicles here entire journey from her life before her illness, through her sickness, through building her tiny house (almost completely on her own), to actually living in her house (which she parked in friend’s backyards). It was interesting to see Williams go through the planning process to see what was absolutely vital to her.

It turns out that in order to have the size of house that would fit on the trailer she was having custom built, everything would have to fit in a 6X11 area. This meant that there was really no way for her to have even a shower in her tiny home. She also made a rather large measuring mistake and could not fit the small fridge she had intended to use in her new pad. So, she decided she could get by with a cooler. After all, she only has one hot plate burner, so it’s not like she was planning gourmet meals. Since any sort of space heater would be an insane fire hazard in the house, heat was also out. Instead, she invested in thermal underwear, lots of think socks and warm blankets for her sleeping loft. She tells stories of the frost and snow right above her head as she wakes up seeing her breath each morning.

Luckily for Williams, she’s not completely alone in her tiny house. For the majority of the book she has her beloved dog with her. A dog she carries up into the sleeping loft every night and then back down each morning. This leads to more than one slip, one of which does some real damage. Williams was also fortunate not to have to buy any land for her tiny house. Two good friends of hers allowed her to “park” her house in their backyard. While technically illegal for her to live in someone else’s backyard, as long as she claimed to be the caregiver to her friend’s aging aunt, she could live in her house with no interference. Which is exactly what she did.

Living in her friends’ backyard solves a few issues for her. First, she actually has access to a power source if she needs it. Although she uses solar panels to charge the rather large battery which she uses to power her burner and laptop, if need be, she can also plug her tiny house into her friends’ power source. In addition, she had an easy place to shower, negating her original plan to shower at truck stops. This arrangement also gave her access to safer food storage and an extended ability to cook. Since she had not only befriended Rita, the aunt, but was also helping to care for her, she had daily trips into full-sized homes.

The access to some of these amenities makes it easier to understand how she can survive in only 84 square feet.

Although the book is interesting, I think at times Williams comes off as a bit sanctimonious. While I cannot, and would not want her lifestyle, I did like looking into a life so very different than my own.

For anyone interested in seeing inside her home, here is a video she made not long after the book came out. Amazingly enough, since the book has come out, Williams has actually downsized even further, giving up her palatial 84 square feet for just 54. This time she does have a shower–it’s just outdoors. Check out her new house here.

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Free Reading Friday: Girling Up

girling upIf I had read Girling Up by Mayim Bialik when I was 12 or 13 or 14, I think it would have made a much bigger impact on my life. Reading it in my early 40’s meant it wasn’t quite as illuminating. I saw this book in my school library and grabbed a copy for a couple of reasons. First off, I like Mayim Bialik. I think it is positively fantastic that she is using the platform she’s been given as an actress to help empower young women. I am one of those people who do no believe celebrities should just shut up and entertain us like some sort of dancing monkeys. Even when I don’t agree with their platforms (and I do not agree 100% with Bialik’s), I do believe celebrities have a right to use their fame to promote the causes they believe in.

Secondly, I am always on the lookout for non-fiction books which I might be able to use in my AP Language class. Since the course focuses on non-fiction and specifically looking for arguments non-fiction authors make as well as finding bias in non-fiction, I like to have a wide range of subjects for my students to pick from. Since Bialik has a PhD in neuroscience, I thought this book might really appeal to some of students who are really keen on science. I actually grabbed it because I have a specific student who is crazy about science and since I know that girls do not get nearly enough encouragement to explore different areas of STEM, I wanted to help meet her needs. I think students, especially female students, need more encouragement toward the sciences.

Finally, I picked up this book because she’s wearing a cape. Who doesn’t love a cape?

Although I am not the target audience for this book, I think that it will appeal to some of my students and I have every intention of adding it to my optional AP list. While it is geared a bit more toward students in 7-9th grade, even some of my seniors can benefit from the biological information she gives and the coping mechanisms she offers. I also plan on getting a copy for my daughter when she hits that horribly awful middle school period. I wish I would have had this book when I was in my early teens.

I have to admit there is something really satisfying about the idea of handing my daughter a book that may help her understand her period just a bit better written by Bailik, someone who helped me understand my own when I saw her dealing with it on her TV show Blossom.

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Free Reading Friday:The Pretender

The PretenderI have a policy that if a student asks me to read a book they either love or really want to read for a project, I always read it. This has lead to some wonderful literary finds.

It’s also lead to some real stinkers.

My most recent student inspired read is The Pretender: My Life Undercover for the FBI by Marc Ruskin. As part of my AP Language and Composition class, students have to read four works of non-fiction and do a variety of essays/projects based on them. The only catch is that the book has to come from a list of non-fiction books I’ve read. I do this in an attempt to not only curb cheating, but also to be able to provide them with helpful insights and discussion should they find themselves struggling when reading or when trying to figure out what to write/do a project about.

The list I’ve come up with for them to pick from is fairly extensive. There are about 200 books on the list (and I’m always adding more). Although a large chunk of them are memoirs, I also have everything from sports to politics to cooking on there. I have some great books that deal with social issues as well as ones that offer insights into other cultures I’m sure my students are completely unaware of. My goal is to broaden their horizons and make them view life through a different lens.

So, when one of my students brought me Ruskin’s book because she wants to get it on my list, I was eager to read it. Most of my knowledge about the life of FBI agents comes from The X-Files, so I figured it might be time to learn something slightly more factual.

The premise of the book intrigued me. I was excited about the prospect of hearing the ins and outs of undercover life. I wanted to know everything from all the background work that has to be done before an undercover agent goes on assignment all the way through sentencing the guilty parties.

This book definitely covered a lot of the backgrounding elements of the cases and even had some fairly specific details about the actual undercover experiences, but I found it lacking in follow through. Each chapter relates to a case Ruskin worked. After finishing each chapter, I was left with a lot of questions. Some of those questions probably couldn’t be answered due to confidentiality issues with other agents or case information which is still not available to the public. However, the majority of the missing info seemed like it was just oversight and bad story telling.

Ruskin admits right off the bat that he’s an FBI agent, not a writer. And that is very apparent. While many of his stories were probably fascinating, I got so distracted by his writing style at times that I found it hard to concentrate. I wanted him to tell the story, not tell me that he was going to eventually tell the story (especially since he rarely fully delivered on those promises). Ruskin has a nasty habit of starting to tell a story and then stopping and telling the reader they’ll hear more on that later. But he doesn’t mean later in the chapter, he means sometime much later in the book. And these attempts at foreshadowing are not effective as they completely distract from the story he should be telling in that chapter AND are set up to be hugely important bits of information that he doesn’t fully elaborate on later.

He also spends a lot of time complaining about all the aspects of his job he didn’t like. I totally get why he did it, but it not only got really annoying at times, but truly interrupted the flow of his story. I wanted to hear much more about what happened on the cases and less time about the red tape he got caught up in.

It also got harder and harder to swallow that he was the only one who really knew how to do things right. I realize that in many situations his life was in serious danger. He was completely in the right to demand that he was protected and to be very angry when he was not. However, his voice in the narrative is so cocky at times that it gets harder to sympathize with him when the Bureau leaves him in danger because I knew it was going to be paired with a huge excoriation of the Bureau that left him looking like the only competent person working there.

I’m interested to see if my student ends up using the book for one of her projects. She asked me for my honest opinion when I finished the book and I gave it to her: the stories were interesting, the writing was frustrating.


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