YA (young adult) Literature in 2011

http://www.npr.org/2011/12/19/143589123/the-teens-are-all-right-2011s-top-5-ya-novels?sc=fb&cc=fp

I was happy to see that NPR posted a blurb about 2011’s YA novels. I’ve always loved to read YA fiction, and this year is no exception. So far this year, I’ve enjoyed Delirium by Lauren Oliver, Uglies and Pretties by Scott Westerfeld, The Iron King by Julie Kagawa, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, The Fablehaven series by Brandon Mull, and (a rereading of) the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. I hope as future teachers you all take the time to enjoy some YA literature in the next year! I have a huge list of books coming out in 2012 that I’m anxious to get my hands on, as well as the backlog for already released YA fiction that I haven’t gotten to yet.

 

 

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On Writing: My Thoughts

I think that of all the reading we’ve done this semester, Stephen King’s On Writing has been my favorite – for a lot of reasons.

I enjoyed how approachable his writing is, something that I completely did not expect from a bestselling fiction writer. King stays down-to-earth and tells it like it is, and I admire that. Granted, as a pseudo-memoir, it’s kind of expected that King will share things from his life that most of us probably didn’t know. But I find his candor in relating his addictions to be refreshing. He seems like a real person, like somebody I might bump into on the street if I lived in Maine, not a hoity-toity celebrity writer. This makes On Writing even more valuable because it shows a reader that (while not everyone will be a millionaire fiction writer) anyone with the tools and commitment to do so can be a competent, good, or even great writer. Knowing that King doesn’t have some big secret to his writing makes writing seem much more approachable to the average Joe (or Jane). Reading this book has me itching to pick up some more of King’s novels.

As others have mentioned in their blog posts, King’s emphasis on reading a lot is obviously an important one. I enjoyed his booklist and knowing that even great writers read outside of the canon. Overall, I most appreciated King’s honesty; anyone can write, but it takes knowledge, commitment, and a little smidgen of talent to make a good writer. Knowing that King struggles with writing at times, and knowing that he makes himself work through it, allows me to look at writing in another light; after all, if it isn’t easy for the masters, I can’t expect it to be easy for me. Perhaps I need to clean out the spare bedroom and create my own writing space as King suggests.

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A Poem

Here’s a poem I wrote last week when I drove home in the rain. It made me think about the semester I spent studying abroad in Wales, a land that will always hold a special place in my heart. Rainy weather makes me nostalgic and “homesick” for Cymru.

Cymru

 

Despite my waterproof jacket,

Feeling like I’ve been through the wash,

Soaked to the bone

After the chilly walk home.

 

Somehow,

The rain here

Seems to fly up from the sidewalk

Instead of falling from the clouds.

 

Peeling off

Denim doused in fresh rainwater,

Slick, wet socks clinging to frozen toes

Fused into waterlogged hiking boots.

 

Time for a cup of tea

With a bit of milk and honey

After changing into

Something un-wet.

 

Time to order in

Chips soaked in malt vinegar,

And wash it down with

A chilled can of Strongbow.

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Journals A.K.A. Volcano Write

I’m going to do another post about some of the writing I’ve come across during my practicum with seventh-graders at Northwest Jr. High. I still can’t believe I only have two weeks left of practicum! Anyway…without further ado:

The language arts teachers at Northwest do a form of regular writing called “volcano write.” My coop says that the actual assignment varies from teacher to teacher, but this is how she does it in her classroom: every other week, students write for 15 minutes in their composition notebooks about whatever they want. Sometimes she gives them a prompt that they can (but aren’t required to) use, such as rolling a die with letters on each side to give them a beginning letter for their writing, or a little figurine like a frog or a British-style red phone booth to spark some inspiration from writers who need a little help. Some students write about what’s going on in their lives, some write short stories (some of which continue through three, four, or even five different volcano writes!). They are graded on amount written, since the goal is to write continuously for 15 minutes. The grades for these journal entries are out of 20 points, and to get maximum points, they should have one full front page and half of another page written. The points go down from there, losing a point every few lines down to around 12/20 points if they have managed to write only 5 lines or so. There are also some exceptions, for example, some students have college ruled notebooks or small handwriting, so they receive more points for less “space” taken. They are not graded on grammar or content at all. This past Friday, I got to read the volcano writes for one of the classes I observe. I was so very excited. 🙂 I figured it would give me a better idea of what writing for this age group (12-13) looks like aside from the formula poems and name reports I’ve seen so far.

It definitely gave me an insight into the lives and brains of “my” students. And I was amazed. Almost every entry I looked at was at least a page long, even for the students who usually do not seem very interested or motivated in class. I was also very impressed with the creativity of my students, a side of them that is more difficult for me to see during the average school day. Many of them wrote fictional stories, and these kids knew how to write! Their grammar was not perfect, there were spelling errors, some of the handwriting was a bit difficult to read, but it was so obvious to me that these kids are much better writers than I am. Yes, I can write a grammatically correct and neat paper, but I don’t have the ability (though I’m working on it!) to write so creatively. Journaling has been a topic I’ve given quite a bit of thought to throughout this semester, but now I *know* without a doubt that it will have a special place in my future classroom. I think it is essential to give students a place and time to just write about whatever they want, to know that they can write freely and without worrying about every little comma or spelling error.

Sadly, during about an hour and half period of time, I only made it through one class period of entries…Why? Because I wanted to read them ALL and I was looking at 3 entries from each student. I really need to learn to skim them, but the writing was so interesting that I really wanted to read them fully! I ended up settling for reading 1 of the 3 entries of each student (aside from grading based on how much the student had written for each) and leaving a comment somewhere on that one entry, whether it was “Oh, that sounds awesome!” or “wow! that’s a really great phrase!” It was a very enjoyable Friday, and a very valuable learning experience. I can’t stand to think that I only have 4 days left of practicum with “my” students in this configuration, as this is this last week in the first trimester, so next week will be classes of probably 50/50 kids I do know with kids I don’t know. I’m going to miss them, that’s for sure!

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I Apologize for the Rant

Note: This is just something I started writing in a blank Word doc with no intention to post. Then I thought…hmm…perhaps maybe one other person in our Approaches to Teaching Writing class has a similar struggle? Here’s to hoping. I’m baring my soul on this one, so be gentle. 🙂 And as the title says…I apologize for the rant.

Sometimes I wonder how to write. I know how to physically write, of course. I learned that long ago and have since used it countless times throughout my life and through various circumstances. But sometimes I desperately wish I could write for fun. Not just to rant, not just to share my opinion, but to write fiction or poetry. I’ve enjoyed (immensely) writing memoirs and personal essays. I think I’m at least a little skilled in it. But I feel a loss, a sense of something missing in my own writing abilities. I can’t recall ever being encouraged to write a story, at least not past elementary school. And poetry? I don’t even recall writing formula poems in school. I have a poor memory, so I suppose it’s possible that we did at some point (note to former classmates: if we did do this, please remind me so I can feel a little better about our K-12 education!). But sometimes I get really depressed about it, especially being surrounded by writers of all kinds, whether my classmates, my professors, or even the seventh graders in my practicum classes. I joke that my imagination died a long time ago. But it’s not a joke. I know you have to write to learn to write better. But I feel like I’m too old to learn now. It makes me want to call up every language arts teacher I ever had and cry out to them, “Why?! Why didn’t you let us write for ourselves, for fun, for exploration?!” It feels as though something is missing. And it’s been missing for so long, I am completely discouraged from trying to begin. I can write literary essays with the best of them. (Okay, not the best, but I can definitely whip one out of thin air with appropriate evidence and support when the situation is called for.) Even writing this right now, I feel the tears welling up behind my eyes like an inevitable tide. I am grieving. I am grieving for the loss of what could have been. Sure, I probably would never have been a J.K. Rowling or a Dean Koontz, but shouldn’t I have been encouraged to try? To play with language? To learn to write something other than a five-paragraph essay, a persuasive opinion research paper, a book report? I didn’t learn personal essay until college, and even that was daunting. But I came to love it. Fiction? Poetry? Forget it. The short story and poetry writing classes at Central were probably full of students who had enjoyed writing on their own for years and took the classes to brush up on their skills. Of course, I’ll never know since I avoided those classes like the plague. I never get the urge to crumple one of my personal essays or literary papers. Sure, I might toil over a paragraph for an hour only to delete it and start fresh, and I certainly revise and rewrite (particularly when I’m writing memoir or personal essays), but I’ve never been so in doubt that I’ve wanted to erase an entire work-in-progress. But fiction? I tried NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month for those of you out of the loop) in my senior year of college because one of my friends/sorority sisters was doing it. She helped me think up a plot line; it never went anywhere. Why? Fear. An even bigger fear of mine is that this will follow me to my classroom like a big creepy poltergeist, like the mischievous Peeves from Hogwarts. If I can’t get myself to even attempt fiction or poetry, how the heck am I supposed to encourage my students to do so?

Questions: What kind of writing do you do for yourself, or do you at all? What, in anything, do you “fear” about writing? Any suggestions for me, either on how I can personally write or how to approach teaching this in my own classroom when I’m so discouraged about it myself?

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Linda Christensen & Teaching Writing

In my Language & Learning class we are currently reading Linda Christensen’s book Reading, Writing, and Rising Up. I am loving this book. Christensen’s writing style is so accessible and it really gets me thinking about how I want to approach the teaching of writing in my own future classroom. She brings up many concerns about teaching in a diverse classroom that I hadn’t previously thought about, particularly because I come from a small, rural community that is probably about 98% white. One of my goals as a teacher is to teach students that reading and writing can be fun and teach them how it can be relevant to their lives. I want the work my students do in my classroom to feel important; I want them to always know why we are doing any particular unit, how it relates to their lives. Christensen does a brilliant job of explaining and providing student samples and her own classroom activities to engage learners in her very diverse classroom with oftentimes reluctant students.

One part that I found especially interesting is when she talks about bringing violence into her classroom to allow students an outlet to write about their lives; students are encouraged to share and discuss the factors behind the things that happen in their neighborhoods, good or bad. They discuss social issues, how gender/class/race/sexuality are displayed in the media (even through cartoons), and the issue of “standard” versus “nonstandard” language. They talk about who makes society’s rules and why and how certain groups have been historically excluded. Her students write not only essays, but poems and stories as well. She encourages them to share their work in read-alouds and to go even further – she encourages them to submit their work for publication. She even helps reluctant writers to come out of their shells by showing them that there is no wrong way to write. This is the kind of teacher I want to be. I know I won’t get there overnight, and I know at times it will be incredibly frustrating, but I want my students to walk away with the feelings that Christensen’s students do – they are important, their voices are important, and their writing is another way in which those voices can be heard. Sorry that this post is a little ramble-y, but I’ve been thinking a lot about Christensen’s book and I contemplated all day what I should write about. I figure if it’s been on my mind this much, this book is probably a good topic, and obviously I have a lot to say/write about it! Overall, I think Christensen’s methods provide some really great inclusive ways to teach writing, and I hope I can incorporate even a little of her style and techniques of teaching in my own classroom. So if you haven’t read this book, you should really check it out. 🙂

Here’s a link to the book: http://www.amazon.com/Reading-Writing-Rising-Up-Teaching/dp/0942961250

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A Writing Memory

This is a memoir about a writing memory written for my Approaches to Teaching Writing class, for which this blog was created. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. 🙂 This was the sixth and final draft of this memoir, which I worked on for over a month and a half. 

From Writing to Teaching 

The more I think about it, it was less about what she taught us and more about what she showed us we could do. She always pushed us. ~ Christie  Simmons

 Our school library smelled musty, of old books. Smaller than most, its six short stacks, some amalgamation of cheap particleboard sides and flimsy metal shelving, represented the limits of our district budget. But the sunshine dappling the rough orange carpet somehow made it homey. Clusters of small study tables stood at either end of the long, narrow room; one set guarded the encyclopedias like a sentry, the other clearing a pathway to the audio-visual equipment room.

Our trips there usually consisted of sneaking down the stacks before the librarian spotted us. We whispered and giggled until Mrs. Allegra sent us back to class with a firm but cheery smile. However, on this particular day we chose books for Ms. Rosti’s seventh grade language arts class. We could choose any book we wanted, but we had to write a book report about it. It was a typical assignment: write a plot summary on the book you chose. Ms. Rosti directed us from her station near the card catalog, spectacles perched upon her nose, framed by the tendrils of iron-gray hair which had escaped her bun. We were ordered to please make our decisions quickly so we would have a bit of reading time before the end of the class period. Though her stature screamed “intimidation,” her daily insistence that she would only take our best work encouraged us to improve ourselves as students, as readers, and as writers.

Ms. Rosti’s tolerance for nonsense was nonexistent, and she could put you back to task with one angry-eyed look. David’s attempts to send pencils and bits of paper flying across the room while Ms. Rosti’s back was to the class were met with instant reaction – “Mr. Hargrens, go to the office” – if any teacher in the history of the world had eyes in the back of her head, Ms. Rosti was that teacher. That knowledge pushed me harder to be a model of a perfect pupil because I wanted Ms. Rosti to like me as much as I liked her. Gaining her approval provided a large incentive to make sure I always went above and beyond the bare minimum.

Back in the library, and trying to hurry lest I get a warning to “hurry up, Miss Wedekind,” I scoured the short aisles, looking for just the right book. Each time I leaned down to look at the books on the lower shelves, where the Lois Lowry books were, I wriggled my golden-framed glasses back up to the bridge of my nose. Finding the perfect book was hard work! I loved the notion that in just the turn of a page, I could be a million miles away in my own little world; books provided the perfect distraction from my boring and tedious life on the farm. The shelf with the “K” books contained a small selection of Stephen King’s novels, including Christine, Needful Things, and The Dead Zone. I chose the last of these. You may be thinking that Stephen King probably isn’t the greatest choice for a twelve year old…and you would be right. The fact that the library served grades 6-12 meant a large variety in reading level and content.

I began reading voraciously. Then I discovered my mistake. The tough-love Ms. Rosti  greeted my requests to write about another book with a coffee-colored tight-lipped refusal; I chose this book, and I must now write about this book. Looking back, I suppose she tried to teach me a lesson about my actions and the consequences of said actions. However, uncomfortable would be the mildest way to describe my feelings at being tasked with writing a paper on a book a little mature (to put it gently) for a twelve year old girl.

Painstakingly glossing over any statement that could cue the reader that I read scenes of adult romance, embarrassed that I hadn’t known the nature of Mr. King’s writing, I felt apprehensive, to say the least. I wrote as quickly as I could, hoping to be done with the project as soon as possible. Perhaps Ms. Rosti knew that I could handle it since, not to sound overly biased or egomaniacal, my innate sense of perfectionism made me one of the most mature, studious, and high-achieving students in the class. I suppose she was correct in her assumption since I did indeed survive the assignment and I did so relatively unscathed.

For this report, as with all my other papers for Ms. Rosti’s class, my revisions consisted of correcting carefully scheduled mistakes: a misplaced comma, a misspelled word, a forgotten title. Though Ms. Rosti challenged me in most things, and would have been well-suited as an English professor, she never managed to teach me that a large difference exists between editing and revision, though the difference is obvious now. As a future teacher, I know that I will emphasize the importance of revision as separate from editing, as I’m sure she meant to do.

To everyone else, Ms. Rosti was nothing more than a bossy wench who existed to make our preteen lives miserable, but to me she represented inspiration. Her unwillingness to take less than my very best and her stern but kind manner earned my respect. She encouraged me to memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” still one of my favorite poems, though I’m not sure I could recite it now. Her annual chess tournament delivered the incentive to learn the game. My crisp essays returned with streaks from her infamous red pen, and motivated me to strive to do better the next time.

I recalled my fondness for Ms. Rosti years later when I realized I was supposed to be an English major, not an anthropology student. Her views on the importance of reading and writing shaped my own perceptions. Now, after a few more “subtle” nudges toward education, I have discovered that I also have a passion for teaching reading and writing, though it took completing my B.A. in English and a summer serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA to make myself aware of the fact. If not for the influence of the formidable but admirable Ms. Rosti, I’m not sure that I ever would have ended up in an education program. Although my own methods of teaching writing will surely differ from those of my junior high language arts teacher, I am grateful for the strong impact she had on me.

While asking my former classmates for memories of the venerable Ms. Rosti, one response from an old high school friend, Christie Simmons, reminded me, “It was less about what she taught us and more about what she showed us we could do. She always pushed us.” I realized she hit the nail right on the head; I don’t remember a lot of the things that happened in Ms. Rosti’s classes because we didn’t have a whole lot of “memorable” moments – she taught us as people, not as students. Sure we practiced grammar, read literature, and worked through the “writing process,” but the most important thing she taught us was the depth of our own capabilities. Her high expectations remained so high because she knew we could reach them; if she asked for any less, we wouldn’t have been motivated. The twenty-five years of teaching experience she gained before having us as students taught her how to teach the important things – recognizing our own potential and endeavoring toward that no matter what. She pushed us because she cared, despite whether or not we realized it then. She was a great teacher because she taught us not only the typical junior high language arts outlined in the Illinois State Standards, but also the skills we needed to be lifelong learners and to never give less than 110%.

I don’t remember the specifics of that old Stephen King book report, though despite disliking my book choice, I did well. If my memory serves me, it earned a bright red A-, a high grade from Ms. Rosti. The assignment experience did not sway my feelings about writing toward either hatred or infatuation. However, it is interesting how, years later, truly learning the meaning of revision is part of what nurtured my love for the craft. The greatest knowledge that Ms. Rosti instilled in me is that you must never expect less from yourself than you are capable of giving. This is a valuable lesson that has guided me toward teaching; now that I know it is what I am meant to do, it would be selfish of me to pursue any other path because I know through experience it is something at which I have to ability to do great things. Whether it is aiding a college student in revising a draft, helping an 18-year-old with a third grade reading level to prepare for the GED he so desperately wants, or assisting a seventh grader create an informative but personal report based on research of her name, I can and will teach. And I cannot expect any less of myself than becoming an excellent teacher.

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