Monday, March 13, 2017

Teaching the Whole Brain

A couple of years ago, my daughter and I had the privilege of hearing engineer, physician, astronaut, actress, and dancer Mae Jemison speak at UT Dallas. She asked those who believed they were right-brained to raise their hands.

Photo credit:
I raised my hand.

Next, she asked those who believed they were left-brained to raise their hands.

I kept my hand in the air.

Not knowing where this was going, I expected the classical argument about how one hemisphere rules each of us more than the other, and that we should cater to that side. Waiting for Jemison’s response, I mused…

How many times do teachers hear students confirm “I’m a math person” or “English just isn’t my thing” or “I can’t draw”? By high school, students have categorized themselves according to what they believe they can and can’t do, and school sometimes reinforces these foolish notions by separating content areas by subject, curriculum design, and even areas of the building. This separation is understandable for several reasons, including the content teacher’s educational background and expertise, focus on subject-specific standardized tests, graduation requirements under different pathways (current Texas-talk for an area of focus – much like a major in college), and personal preferences of both teacher and student. However, we know that cross-curricular education is powerful, and that’s exactly why most schools offer their advanced students some version of a combined English & history course. That’s why we know that writing across the curriculum works for the students and for their test scores across subjects. That’s why successful coaches are beginning to have their teams complete book-studies together to reinforce teamwork and perseverance.

STEM education is all the rage. We hear about the shortage of engineers and particularly the shortage of females in the math and science fields. It’s true: this is an area on which we need to focus and support all young people who show an interest and aptitude in these areas. However, leaving the humanities out of this equation is a mistake, and perhaps one that makes these fields less appealing to well-rounded individuals like Jemison. Bill Gates supports STEM education through scholarships via The Gates Foundation, which accomplishes great feats but also neglects the importance of the humanities. One would think that the experience of being out-maneuvered by Steve Jobs’ focus on aesthetics, marketing (which involves communication), and artistry (think about the impact that those white earbuds made when the iPod was introduced, or the colorful look of the iMac) would have imparted the importance of the convergence of business, engineering, and art as integral parts of a whole, successful business model. We cannot engineer what people want or need unless we understand what people feel and desire. Likewise, the arts must be balanced by reason. In short, humanities are absolutely essential in conjunction with math and science.

Jemison knows this. As she continues her introduction, she explains that everyone should have raised their hands to identify as both right- and left-brained.

Whew! I thought. I’m not just being a rebel again. Maybe I’m onto something.

Recently, Natalya St. Clair illustrated how Van Gogh captured the mystery of turbulence and light in works like Starry Night. In her Ted-Ed video, St. Clair discusses the relationship between art, patterns, and science. This should come as no surprise, for what do we call the close study and observation an artist makes of nature if not the first steps in the scientific process? How could an artist conduct an in-depth study of light, the seasons, and the movement of the stars and not look for patterns through repeated occurrences?

This closely relates to what I tell my students who claim to loathe literature because “there are no correct answers like there are in math.” I get it. In algebra, you plug numbers into an equation, and if you follow the steps correctly, you will indeed get a “correct” answer. However, literature, too, is made up of patterns. These patterns work magic on us at a subconscious level. The more we study the writing craft, the more we understand how that magic works on us, but that doesn’t diminish its effects. I try to help my students embrace the relationship between art, science, and math. I remind them that math and science, too, at their most advanced levels, are largely theoretical and demand some artistry in their approach.

A doctor and an astronaut, Jemison states that she cannot imagine her life without dance. She cannot imagine life without the arts and sciences as expressions of her whole mind, and we should not imagine such lives for our students.

Maybe it’s because my background is in the humanities – in all the accomplishments and creations of human beings – that I find it advantageous to include historical, artistic, architectural, philosophical, mythological, scientific, and cultural contexts when studying literature. Teaching literature without discussing what was happening in the world when that literature was created makes no sense to me, and neither should it make sense to teachers in other content areas. I’m not saying that math teachers need to stop class to have a conversation about feelings, or draw a picture of an equation, but wait – why not? Okay, maybe not the “feelings” part, but drawing or writing to convey real understanding of the content? What a great way to determine what students actually know! I’m not suggesting that math and science teachers become writing or art instructors, but why not provide students with alternate means to process what they’ve learned and reinforce patterns? Why not support cross-curricular learning for all students, not just the advanced ones?

When I home-schooled my daughter, I interwove lessons around topics of her choice in order to meet state objectives. For instance, when she wanted to study alligators, we studied the ecology system in which they live, the biology of alligators themselves and the difference between alligators and crocodiles, the historical impact of alligators in certain regions of the U.S., and both non-fiction news stories and fictional representations of alligators. She completed art projects, wrote essays, and completed a scientific study of alligators culminating in a trip to the zoo. Honestly, I don’t remember all the ways I found to explore alligators, but she does. The cross-curricular approach to the different events we studied together cemented them in her mind more than any other lessons she experienced in isolation. This is something I try to remember and recreate as much as possible – all while preparing my students for a very specific standardized test. So how do we help students use both hemispheres of their brains while covering all the necessary content? Here are a few ways. Please comment with additional recommendations.

·      Art teachers can incorporate lessons from scientific texts such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain for those students who are math/science oriented and “can’t draw.”
·      Literature teachers can incorporate non-fiction texts to reinforce themes or ethical ideas posed by literature.
·      Science teachers can assign book studies including biographies of scientists, fictional accounts of what can happen in the event of an epidemic (like The Hot Zone), and many other choices from science fiction to works that track cause and effect.
·      Math teachers can have students create and color complex graphs and charts or read texts about famous mathematicians or thrillers in which math is applied to solve a mystery. Want to prove to students that they will use math in real life? Bring in some real-life examples!
·      History teachers can focus on technological innovations and how those affected the ways in which people interacted.
·      Coaches can assign journal-writing to process the athletic journey and set goals. How about drawing out “plays” to aid in memorization? Book studies are great for team-building, too.
·      All subjects: have students quick-write to process information. This can be turned in as an exit-slip or formative grade, but non-writing teachers need not evaluate the writing itself. Just look at the student’s thinking.

These are just a few ideas, but imagine how empowering our students to think of themselves as whole-brained will impact their lives and support a growth mindset.

The Sun is Also a Star, and it Shines on True Love

Wiping the tears from my eyes as I closed the book, I realized that what I loved most about Nicola Yoon’s YA novel The Sun is Also a Star is its idealistic affirmation that soul-mates exist and that true love can form quickly. Maybe I’m biased because, like the main characters Natasha and Daniel, I fell in love with my partner in crime of almost 30 years within a day. I can only assume that Yoon has felt the power of such a deep connection herself due to her realistic description of this phenomenon.

As I read, I imagined how many people might react more skeptically or pessimistically to such a premise, but Yoon weaves science and poetry together to explain such an occurrence. Through Natasha’s perfectly scientific and quantifiable observations and Daniel’s poetic and hopelessly romantic approach to life, we learn that love can be defined by both chemistry and magic. Yoon incorporates recent studies that find that discussing deep thoughts, important concepts, and even secret experiences creates a strong bond in a short amount of time, as does staring into each other’s eyes. Throughout the years, when people have asked how I knew my husband was “the one” (to use an admittedly corny phrase) within days of meeting, I have always told them that we talked about important issues, not just the superficial, fun ideas that most dating couples discuss. I guess we were on to something that science is finally figuring out, and Yoon beautifully captures this experience in her novel.

Yoon’s writing style reflects a refreshing blend of prose accessible to youth and a maturity that proves satisfying for sophisticated adult readers. Her references to bands from my teen years – Soundgarden and Nirvana, for example – helped me remember those angsty teen years and connect to the characters. I tabbed several pages for use in my classroom with insight ranging from metaphysical poetry to profound observations of the parent-child relationship such as: “My father is shaped by the memory of things I will never know,” and “Who are we if not a product of our parents and their histories?”.

If all the talk about love isn’t a reader’s thing, how about the idea that each day, we alter the course of people’s lives in ways we will probably never know? The one driver who slows us down, so we curse them, but they might have saved us from a fatal accident down the road? What about the smile or the “thank you” we offer someone that might make that person reconsider suicide? Our fates are intricately intertwined, and we must make the most out of our interactions with others while always remembering that we have no idea what struggles they might be facing. I recommend reading this book and writing about various chance encounters that have altered the course of your life.

Note: Nicola Yoon’s novel Everything, Everything will soon be released as a motion picture in May, 2017. I am eager to read that novel before seeing the movie (although this generally backfires, as I love the book so much more than the film based on it). 

Special thanks to Mary Heffner for recommending this book to me!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Choosing Readers over Choosing Texts

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a North Star of Texas Writing Project summer institute. The colleague who recommended me for the program informed me of the impact that the experience would have on my teaching, but I had no idea that I would come to define my career by pre- and post-workshop.  Not only did I write like I hadn’t written in years – both in terms of variety of genres and in sheer quantity – but I also formed deep connections with teachers across content areas. I remembered what it feels like to be a student and a writer. I learned how authentic reading and writing workshop works miracles. This corresponded with my chosen inquiry. As a fairly new AP English literature teacher whose conscious didn’t feel at peace with a narrow test-prep approach with a standard survey of British literature, I researched the pedagogical principles that supported choice in the classroom. I sought to incorporate choice into a workshop-based AP course that would not only prepare students for that AP exam but also create readers. After all, as ELA teachers, don’t we want our students to want to read for the rest of their lives, long after they stop receiving reading assignments? 

I am currently in my fifth year of teaching AP Lit., and I feel confident that the feedback I have received supports the idea that choice and Advanced Placement courses are not mutually exclusive; in fact, choice might just be essential to our students’ future as readers. Not only have my AP scores supported this (I taught the class of 2013 using full-class novels which were chosen based on how many times they were referenced on the AP exam as well as the desire to cover all of the major literary eras, and my AP scores have increased, and have remained above national averages, since I began to offer students some choice in which texts they read), but my students have also provided positive feedback about how the ability to choose what they read has provided them with more incentive to thoroughly read and explore their texts.

I should probably note that the reason I felt compelled to write this post is because recently, I heard several well-meaning, experienced teachers express genuine concern that the classics “are not being taught anymore” and that “we should make students read them because if we don’t, they won’t ever choose to read them on their own.” Yes, that’s right – I clearly heard the words “make them read…” – because yeah, that works.

I understand the fear that students will miss out on this [white] cultural heritage that has been passed on for decades. I understand the longing for tradition and the idea that our students should read book X because we read book X in grade X. I understand the fact that some of our students, if given the choice, will choose less-complex books than we might expect from a student in a specific grade-level. But you know what? Those students might need to choose a less complex book – for now. If told to read books like The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before they’ve learned the skills to analyze such a text, they’re merely going to give up or refer to Sparknotes instead of reading the book, and teachers who don’t believe that aren’t actually listening to their students.

Since I’m already guilty of crafting a lengthy blog post, here’s a brief description of how I provide my students with choice:
1.     My course has an overall theme that connects to essential questions.
2.     Each unit in my course has its own sub-theme and questions that connect to the larger thematic idea. I chose 8-10 novels of “literary merit” that relate thematically but represent different genres, eras of literature, and style. I begin each unit with a book talk, and I encourage my students to read a sample from each text to choose one that feels right to them.
3.     If students do not wish to read one from my list, they may choose another with approval. It must have merit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean canon. As a great friend and mentor, Amy Rasmussen, once told me: “They didn’t stop writing great literature in 1950.” If a book has won a Pulitzer Prize for literature or comparable honor, it has merit.
4.     I teach the skills necessary to analyze longer texts through the exploration of shorter ones in class: poetry, prose, drama, and film analysis serves to give students the tools they need to connect to form and meaning as they read their novels. Meanwhile, I regularly conference with students about their reading experience.
5.     Instead of multiple-choice tests that require students to regurgitate what they memorized about their novels (and likely gleaned from Sparknotes), I assign carefully-chosen projects, facilitate discussions (yes, it works quite well even when students have read different books), and have students write in a variety of forms to demonstrate their thinking. Yes, grading takes more time. But my students remember what they’ve learned, connect with their texts, and start reading as writers and vice versa. It’s magical.

Before I share some of my students’ thoughts, I want to note that the most surprising benefit of this system is that students almost always end up choosing to read the classics that they would avoid reading if told to do so. As students talk to each other about their books and gain comfort reading – because they feel ownership in their choices – they branch out and try new texts that might have previously overwhelmed them.

This feedback came as a response to some final questions, asked and answered via blog, which included: Which book did you like the MOST that you read during this course, and why? Which book that was assigned for you to read, during any English class in grades 9-12, was your LEAST favorite, and why? Those are some of the most basic questions I’ve ever asked, but the responses were insightful and informative, and they support choice in the classroom. Note: Beowulf was the assigned summer reading text and not my choice.

Here are a few snippets from students:
  • “Being able to pick our own book to read made the class even better, because we got to choose something to read that would fit our own styles instead of being forced to read something we may not like.” –Tiffany
  • “The book I enjoyed the most…are all the ones I chose to read. I had been wanting to read 1984 for a while and I got the chance. It was so interesting to me because my favorite books to read are dystopias. I liked The Picture of Dorian Gray because it’s different form what I’m used to reading. I like the fact that it was controversial. The Nightingale just had me feeling all kinds of emotions. It was hard to put it down because it was full of suspense. Although I loved 1984, Animal Farm was not for me. I was excited to read it, but it let me down. I don’t think it was the book itself, just the fact that it was assigned with a lot of work. Also, that we had assigned chapters every week, so I couldn’t read it and enjoy it at my own pace.” -Isela
  • “By you giving us freedom, we’ve been able to produce more creative ideas and products. You have definitely helped me prepare just a little bit more for college. Thank you!” –Kara
  • “I suppose I should designate Beowulf as my least favorite book that I had been assigned to read in the duration of my high school years.  I did not despise it entirely; it simply was not very appealing.  In addition, I never completed it.  With only a handful of chapters left, it is one of the few books I have not at least forced myself to finish.  Thus, it will always be a sore spot on my conscious. For my final remarks (at least my final mandated remarks, but I am not making any promises), I would like to state that I prioritized this class over my others even though from the grading perspective this made the least amount of sense.  I honestly felt the need to learn and not just merely make last minute memorizations.”  –Allison
  • “The book I liked best that I read for the class was Les Miserables because I liked it the best and because it was so long I cracked and got the audio book, and I enjoyed having the book read to me as I followed along even though it was a 12 1/2 hour audiobook. My all time least favorite book from my high school Englishes was Bless Me Ultima. It was plainly a boring book and the more I tried to read it the less I was interested in it. I didn’t even end up reading it, honestly. I just sat in class and listened to everyone else’s discussions and from that I got the general gist of the story and such.” –Clancy
  • “My least favorite book that I have been forced to read during high school was Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. The storyline was not necessarily bad, but I feel it moved too slow and the ending fell flat of what it could have been. I also believe my distaste for the teacher at the time lead to my distaste in a book she wanted us to read, and the fact that she did not have us do anything exciting with the book. Hands down your class has been the best English class I have had throughout high school. You have been the only English teacher (and almost teacher in general) that has made me truly think and want to be a better writer and read more. I truly thank you for the experience I have had this year.”  – Hannah B.
  • “I have to say The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde had to be one of my favorite books. It was beautifully written to the point where everyone line seemed like a piece of literary art. My least favorite book that I had to read in high school had to be Beowulf. Nothing about it pulled me in. I almost just skipped it entirely, but I felt too pressured.” – Hannah T.
  • “THE BOOK I HATE LIKE REALLY HATE IS BEOWULF OH MY GOSH! Yes, I understand it’s a classic and whatnot but it just doesn’t catch my eye I don’t enjoy it. I would definitely not recommend that book to upcoming juniors.” –Julio
  • “I enjoyed reading Frankenstein quite a lot. Something about Mary Shelley’s writing style appeals to me, perhaps because it vaguely matches my own in fiction stories (or rather, to say I try to match her writing would be more accurate). I love her attention to detail and delightfully thorough descriptions—really, the overall utilization of imagery. I also love dark, depressing novels, so I may have a bias. I’d have to say either Beowulf (“Seamus Heaney”) or The Road (Cormac McCarthy) is my least favorite assigned novel. I honestly don’t remember what I read for freshman or sophomore year. The problem with Beowulf was that I just didn’t want to read it for school. Thinking I had to annotate and write note cards for it ruined whatever excitement I may have originally had for the epic, and I find that unfortunate. It was never even finished. (…oops.)” –Katherine
  • "I’d have to say that my favorite book to read this semester was The Help. I watched the movie a few years back, but the book destroyed the movie. The book has so much detail and I could never put the book down. I’m usually not the type to read about racism because the topic makes me extremely rigid, but having multiple points of view throughout the book was intriguing. Beowulf made me fall asleep at least 5 times every time I read it. I love a lot of the books I read this year but Beowulf will never have a place in my heart. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t fight off the urge to absolutely hate the book.” – Katrina
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain was by far the most enjoyable book I have read this semester due to Garth Stein’s intelligent use of wordplay and characterization of the dog, ... but books like Animal Farm… I can not! I understand the historical context of the book, but I never got into it. You know whenever you’re reading a really good book, that it’s physically hard to put it down. Not caring that it’s 4am and you have school tomorrow. Well, I could put that book down faster than it takes a bullet to hit something, and that’s pretty darn fast. It got to the point where I got nowhere reading it and ended up reading the Sparknotes on it. I would read it again if someone paid me a million dollars, but I would loath every minute of it.” –Mari
  • “One of my favorites that I read was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I remember this novel being on the reading list last year for English 3, but I never actually read it. I really enjoyed this book because the plot was very interesting to me and I had never known that the monster’s name was not actually “Frankenstein,” until now. This all being said; I did have a least favorite book as well. Some may disagree, but I did not find To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee to my greatest liking. It may have just been the circumstances under which I had to read it, but I was not super interested.” –Sebastien
  • “My favorite book from this year was probably Station Eleven. I have a tendency to gravitate toward classics, but I’m glad that I chose a more contemporary novel (and I’m glad that this was an option). Station Eleven was really well-written – along with the non-linear style, it had a compelling plot line and fleshed-out characters.  The story and its themes have remained with me all semester. It’s actually very rare for me to dislike a book. Most of the time, I find something to enjoy about everything I read.  However, I really couldn’t enjoy any part of Beowulf.  I know that it’s a historically important text and laid down an archetype for countless future literary endeavors, but neither the plot nor the language really gripped me.  I never felt involved, so finishing Beowulf never seemed to have any pay-off.” –Gioia 
  • “Anyway, my favorite book that I had to read this semester was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which is strange because I never would have thought that my favorite book would be a classic. I think I liked it because it was a gothic novel and I liked the dark tone in the book. I also liked that I my favorite and least favorite character changed periodically throughout the book, as things were uncovered. I would have to say my absolute least favorite book that I was forced to read was Animal Farm. I don’t know what it was about it, but I never finished the book and I hated every page that I did read.” –Isabelle
  • “The book I enjoyed the most during the course would have to be The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I don’t really like reading so much but this book got my attention from the beginning. The story was very emotional and I enjoyed how it included a little of history in it talking about Afghanistan and their differences groups. My least favorite book was Animal Farm by George Orwell. We had no option but to read it but that book was boring and I was so lost while reading it. It lost my attention from the very first page. I would skip pages towards the end because it just seemed like a waste of time if I kept on reading it when I was lost the whole time.” –Jessica
  • “I also have a new found appreciation for Shakespeare and the English classics thanks to you.” –Jonmarcus
  • “I enjoyed reading Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen the most. I have always loved the romantic era in history and literature. The writing style was not what I’m use to but it has sparked an interest in reading more similar material. My least favorite has been Beowulf. I could not get into that book but the history behind it I found intriguing. I basically choked it down and avoided it as much as I possibly could.” –Prescilla
  • “Out of the many books I read (all the way through, while understanding them completely- very rare) during the course of AP English Literature, Hamlet by William Shakespeare was by far my favorite. I related so much to Hamlet himself (though not his struggles), and the plot was so intriguing and engaging. I’ve also found one of my new favorite quotes from him: the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy/monologue. My least favorite book, probably of all time, was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I couldn’t read it because of many reasons, some of them being that the pages smelled like my dead hopes and dreams, the language was outdated and therefore extremely difficult to understand, and it was straight-up boring. I loathed the characters, I loathed the plot, the time period, everything about it. I also spent a good two hours making every ‘A’ in our presentation scarlet, as a joke, but it was traumatizing. It just made me more bitter.” –Rana
  • “Although yes, there were often times I became bored with the text I was reading, I loved having a list to choose from as opposed to a “you must read this” kind of thing that usually occurs. My least favorite book I read, however, would have to be Beowulf. (And no, I will not apologize because this book was trash and my eighth grade self said the same thing.) As of books I was forced to read that I hated the entirety of high school? I’m going to go with most books in AP English III. (I’m so sorry Mrs. --- for living off of SparkNotes in your class, however, I always had a great understanding of the work and could answer a multitude of questions regarding scenes that weren’t covered by SparkNote people. Maybe I just got lucky?) As the memories come flooding back of this class, one of my favorite books I had the opportunity to read in this class was The Help, and mainly because the character build up and hidden jokes throughout really make the novel great.” –Siera
Every student shared similar reflections about what worked for them; they want what all of use want – some sense of autonomy and ownership in our own learning, a chance to make decisions based on individual preferences, needs, or curiosity, and for their time to be valued. So when teachers have a choice, we need to offer choice.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Review of Ready Player One

Entering the world of Ernest Cline’s SF novel Ready Player One is like taking a trip back to the future, for this futuristic world has embraced a resurgence of 1980s pop culture due to a high-stakes contest that necessitates knowledge about the era. The 80s nerd in me – the one who obsessed over certain movies, music, and video games – felt a thrill each time Cline alluded to one of these iconic friends who journeyed with me through my youth. 

Today, people claim to be “geeks” and “nerds,” and those titles are largely celebrated; however, this was not always the case. During the 80s, it was deemed perfectly acceptable to obsess over sports trivia, spend hours watching football, and spend obscene amounts of money at the mall, but waste time and money in the arcade, plaster your bedroom walls with posters of bands whose entire catalog you know by heart, or try to build a robot in your spare time? Only loser nerds who needed to get a life would do such things. These activities were not celebrated, except by the other nerds with whom one could commiserate over a game of Dungeons & Dragons or a debate about which Star Trek captain is superior (#JeanLuc4Life). One only has to view the classic film Revenge of the Nerds – briefly mentioned in Cline’s novel – to understand how nerds were regarded (or not really regarded at all) during the decade.  I find it ironic, since so many cultural influences seemed poised to push all of us into nerdom. I certainly fell into this world as much as possible in the 80s, though social status would determine to some extent how far I could go. Not everyone had access to Atari systems or endless rolls of quarters, so like other tech-deprived nerds, I played when I could but focused largely on more accessible media like movies, music, and TV.

Cline doesn’t merely allude to an array of favorites from the best decade ever; he also captures its essence. The nod to War Games serves as a reminder of a decade wrought by tensions with the Soviet Union and the notion that technology could either save us or destroy us all. These are still very relevant ideas. The idea that a kid – a nerd who spends too much time on his computer – can save the world not only celebrates nerdiness, but also provides hope. In fact, the entire novel offers hope as a solo nerd faces off against a large, evil corporation in a race to the ultimate goal. Again, Cline captures extremely relevant currents in our society by fusing a vision of the future with one from the past. 

There’s so much I want to share about this book – far too much for a blog post. The only problem is that I don’t know who else to recommend it to. My students won’t get the allusions, and though the story stands on its own merit, it just won’t be as magical to them as it is to me. For example, in the audiobook version, you can hear Wil Wheaton refer to Star Trek: the Next Generation, in which he played the prodigy Wesley Crusher, and even to himself, as he reads. I’m not sure my students would get why that’s cool or appreciate the sincere joy with which Wheaton reads about the various games, TV shows, and movies of that time. They certainly didn’t obsess over Stand by Me, one of the best films ever made, like I did when I was young, so they also won’t recognize the actor from that iconic role as Gordie Lachance. I knew every line of dialogue, every expression that crossed each actor’s face, every song lyric, and, of course, every deep thematic idea in the film, and the fact that such nerdy obsessions have been so beautifully respected and celebrated by Cline in Ready Player One makes me feel like I wasn’t so alone in my obsessions after all.

Ultimately, the message that I wish my students could harvest from this book is that the truly important connections in life are those made with real people in the real world. I often watch them stare at their phone screens while ignoring their peers sitting right next to them, and I worry that they have already traded the messiness of true interaction with others for the safety and anonymity of a virtual world.

Check out fan art and collections inspired by the book:

Steven Spielberg will direct the film version of the novel:

A review and brief interview with the author:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

I am Still Alive

In poetry club today, my colleague shared this spoken word performance to remind students of the ways in which they are lucky. Sometimes we all need a reminder not to sweat the small stuff. Students were encouraged to find inspiration in the poem and write their own. Shout out to Ms. Heffner for finding the inspiring poem and leading the club meeting! Remember to look for inspiration in your surroundings and the people around you, and please share if you find a great poetry performance or written piece!

Here is mine, inspired by a line from Rudy Francisco’s poem “Complainers” – I took a line from his poem for my title.

“I am Still Alive”
By Amber Counts

I am still alive.

I didn’t always think I’d make it,
and don’t think my story
is the most tragic –
others have had it much worse –
but things weren’t always easy,
and I often dreamed
of being somewhere else –
sometime else –
someone else –
but I’m still here.
Still present in the now.
Still me.
Sometimes I went without
But eventually,
I found most of them.
They say that
What doesn’t kill you
Makes you stronger.
I’m a freaking Jedi Master.
Wonder Woman.

And I am still alive.

Thursday, September 15, 2016


By Amber Counts
September, 2016

I sit at my grandmother’s vanity,
And her eyes stare back at me.
Well, not her eyes, exactly –
Mine lack that degree of warmth –
Her twinkle of wisdom –
But the knitted eyebrows are there –
Furrows that rise into dramatic peaks
When worried about my family
Or relax into sophisticated arches
When at peace,
Over pools of empathic blue.

I used to open the drawers
And peer inside with the excitement
Only a child can muster at the wonders within –
Lipstick tubes made of metal from long ago,
Dramatically Different Moisturizing Lotion
And the trial-size gifts with purchase
That accompanied it,
Wrinkle creams that were utterly unnecessary
On the smoothest, kindest face.
Beauty from within belied the years,
As youth was always a state of mind.

My arms rest on the smooth edge
Of the worn, wooden top
Where the paint has eroded away
Under decades of graceful arms resting there –
Arms that wrapped around me
In hugs that enveloped me in love,
And it pains me that those embraces
Live only in my memory.
So I place my arms alongside the ghosts of hers
And wonder:
Will my arms mean as much to the world?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Review of Transit, by Anna Seghers

I hesitate to review Transit because I don’t feel that I connected with the book at all. Perhaps this prospect was doomed from the outset. I only read the novel because I felt it would be the responsible thing to do since I’ll be coaching Academic Decathlon, and this is the chosen novel to correlate with the 2016-17 topic of WWII. We never enjoy “assigned” books as much as those we chose for ourselves. The fact that I had recently enjoyed two other novels set during WWII, All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale, also served to raise my expectations. The further fact that I have studied WWII fairly extensively and have been so deeply moved by such profound writing1 and art2 from the period and its survivors also works against a novel like Transit which I find incredibly dull.

If you’ve read Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises, incidentally, was Academic Decathlon’s choice for WWI) or works by some of his fellow expatriates, you will understand the feelings of restlessness and boredom, often experienced simultaneously, as the writers and the characters who represented them struggled to find meaning in their lives. Anna Seghers has written a novel in the same vein; however, it lacks the depth and complexity present in the works of her predecessors.

As I read on – trudged on, honestly – through the novel, I continued to remind myself that Seghers’ work had been translated, and I do believe that it is important not to underestimate the impact this could have had on the syntax and language of the text, its deeper meaning, and, ultimately, my enjoyment of the story. Knowing all of the nuances in the English language as well as the subtle connotations in each available synonym, I can’t help but think about how much power the translator (Margot Bettauer Dembo) held. How many of the words, phrases, and sentences that annoyed me would have annoyed me in the original German text? I wonder.

Yet, those aspects that I found most offensive in the novel could not be blamed on translation. The inane chatter of people worried about trivial things when so many were experiencing such devastation and loss, the narrator’s constant complaints about being bored, or worse – annoyed that the attached woman upon whom he had fixated didn’t fall immediately into his arms despite the fact that he constantly lied to her, and the narrator’s wishy-washy and indifferent approach to life left me wanting him to experience an awakening. I wanted him to learn, to grow, to lose something he truly cared about, to stop whining and do something with his life.

In the end, he does, but it’s all so subtle. What works for Hemingway’s iceberg model of writing doesn’t work as well for Seghers. I cared so little for the narrator by the end of the novel, and felt so bored by his boredom, that I barely noticed his character’s growth.

Just as the narrator finds himself in an endless cycle of bureaucracy, I found myself trapped in it with him. In his shoes, I would have an opinion about what I wanted to do, whether to stay or go, and how to treat my friends. I would have a plan to stop dealing with the bureaucracy as soon as possible and continue my journey with the hopes of a destination. The narrator did not. Thus, I found myself trapped with fictional company that I did not like nor respect. I wouldn’t find myself drawn to the company of such a character in life, and didn’t enjoy spending 252 pages with him through the novel.

1 Check out the written reflections of Lawrence Langer and Charlotte Delbo

2 Everyone should see painter Samuel Bak’s work. Here’s a link to a gallery: