A Peculiar Book Review 

Two years ago,  I won a classroom library of about 150 brand new beautiful young adult literature books at a district professional development training session. Since then I’ve been able to add a second full library collection, and many of my own copies. 

I’ve scrounged up bookshelves from surplus, Craigslist, garage sales, and the dusty corners of the garage. At the end of last year, I entered each isbn# into an online classroom library for individual electronic check out, so hopefully I’ll be able to easily track the books–and get them returned! We haven’t gotten to that point yet this year, so we’ll see how it goes.  

Since then I’ve planned to read a different ya novel every month, on top of my teaching duties, but I admit I’ve heavily failed. Best laid plans, and all that. But I was able to read a few, one of which was Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.

I fully enjoyed this part fantasy part science fiction part historical novel part thriller. You can find a good summary elsewhere on the webbernet, but my favorite aspect is that Riggs has taken actual fabulous photos found in antique stores–you know the ones that make you wonder whose baby that is or the story behind that couple, and why it’s in an antique store instead of  displayed as a cherished family hierloom–only these are the weird ones, 

and he’s crafted background stories that connect like the old erector sets to formulate this funky, creepy tale.

Technically, I give Riggs a pass for a few raggedy seams because he’s so creative. These improve in each book that follows Miss Peregrine’s to complete the series. Riggs spins a story I didn’t want to put down; I can only imagine it’s that much more fun for kids.

 I don’t subscribe to the “it doesn’t matter what they read, as long as they read” mantra; there are concepts and images that have no business in young minds. But if it’s age appropriate, absolutely. This series is probably best for age 12 and up. There are a few adolescent scenes and scary monsters. There may be some curse words. I tend to be conservative in my assessments. 

I’ve been planning to use old pictures as prompts for my students when I can work them in, which certainly isn’t a new approach, but I haven’t employed it before. I’m excited to give it a shot and watch creativity blossom. 

If you’re looking for a book for a young person, pick up Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and enjoy it first – then give it to your kids.

P. S. Skip the movie. It’s rather terrible. 

Prescriptive Necessity

In the Pacific Northwest we’ve been focusing on Common Core standards for several years now.  I automatically include references to the standards in my lesson plans, white board objectives, PLC notes, data protocol charts, WICOR evidence, and evaluation summaries. I cover as many as humanly possible. The district has chosen specific standards for us to focus on and we’re to imbed as many of the others as we can throughout the year. The list of standards in language arts (apparently it’s gauche and noninclusive to call it English anymore) is mammoth, and to properly pretest, teach, assess, reteach, reassess for each is ridiculously impossible in one school year.

Of course, this creates a palpable sense of time whizzing by as I spin and grasp to catch just a little more. (Feels like being fifty, by the way.)  Anyway, it also makes me really think about what’s important. What do I want my kids to leave my class knowing and thinking and believing and hoping about themselves, our country, their future. And how do I impart that in a balanced, nonindoctrinating, skill (& fact) -based, critically-thinking English class while covering the standards?

Today’s teacher indoctrination camps- er, training programs – like to celebrate Noam Chomsky as the hero of language acquisition and “social justice” warriors. He’s the guy who falsified research (No matter – he is a flaming anti-Israel, anti-America, Holocaust and genocide-denying Communist, so education elitists love him) who basically contends that memorization is useless in grammar and spelling because language is acquired naturally via hard-wired instincts. This has become clearly inaccurate, but change in education is slow when it upsets the elite.

So for years teachers have been instructed to avoid prescriptive grammar rules and rote memorization, and simply give students encouragement and time to self-discover grammatical truths in texts. Prescribed rules are oppressiveanti-woman, etc. If you ever have trouble sleeping, you might try reading the white hot iron missives driving the very real, very angry grammar wars.

All this to say that as much as I’d love to have time to nudge each child to self – realization, sometimes rote memorization is the best approach. I want my freshmen and sophomores to know and love words. They need to define and spell them, understand how they function in a sentence, and what their roots are. Kids need structure. Knowing that there are basic rules, albeit sometimes confusing and seemingly random, helps build confidence. Sure, they have a computer in their hands,  but if they don’t have basic linguistic knowledge, they won’t know when, why, or what to search. In my experience students who have few learned prescriptive rules rarely take chances with language. They use basic vocabulary and simple sentence structure.

To boost writing confidence, I frontload 10-15 vocabulary words weekly from the texts we read:

1. Taking Cornell notes: words on the left, definition on the right. I walk the class through predicting definitions using root words, labeling parts of speech, discussing the role each word plays in a sentence, declention, etc. Yes, this takes time, but I strongly believe that magic happens in the brain when a hand writes a word, and inquiry encourages critical thinking. I do not allow students to take pictures of any of our notes.

2. Writing a story using all the words (also functions as Cornell notes summary).  This is completely open to student interpretation. I grade on proper word usage, spelling, and as we progress with rules, grammar. My only restrictions are that the stories are classroom appropriate and demonstrate understanding (no long lists of spelling words just to include them). They can be half a page to (yes, actually) ten pages long. With Common Core emphasis on non fiction texts, exposition and argumentation, the joy of writing and reading is headed for extinction. This weekly fun story has become so popular in my classes, that when I decide to give them a break or we have to juggle time, inevitably there are students who continue to write them anyway, sometimes finding their own vocabulary words.

3. Weekly vocabulary quizzes. I say the word, students write it and write the definition. We assess the quizzes with partners and as a group for immediate feedback.

Nobody really likes to memorize anything because it takes effort. But maybe more effort is really what we need.

Summer Reading: James Joyce

Contrary to popular belief, ​English teachers haven’t read every work in the literary canon. Despite my best efforts, I only manage to make little dents in my ceiling-high pile of to-get-to books. Every year I add everything from classics to nonfiction to politics to fluff to this collection, thinking that I’ll catch up during the summer, and then every summer I find myself attending at least one education workshop or seminar that requires its own stack of reading, and the others are doomed to cobwebs. 

Last year I moved to Atlanta for the month of July to study Communism in America with Harvey Klehr at Emory University. We read Whittaker Chambers, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, etc. Fabulous and fascinating, highly recommend. 

This July found me studying the history of the Grand Coulee Dam, and training to teach AP English. 

Tackling the AP course this year, I have impetus to buckle down and read more classics. Today I am paying homage to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which I just finished. My previous exposure to Joyce was a few snippets in college to illustrate linguistic experimentation. We didn’t read an entire work that I can remember. 

My gut reaction to Portrait: I really enjoyed the first four chapters. Joyce takes me on a nostalgic journey back to childhood, experiencing the innocent world bubble through a child’s sensibilities. His subtle changes in descriptive imagery and maturity grow as Stephen’s experiences and awareness increase. I love the countless allusions and historical references; the Penguin Classics edition, as pictured, provides an exhaustive notes section annotating these. I found myself flipping back and forth constantly to check my knowledge and understanding, particularly about Irish revolutionaries and Catholic tradition. 

Joyce loses me in the fifth chapter, though. Intellectually, I get it. The evolution of boy to man, immature to mature, servile to free.  The myth of Icarus and Daedalus, flying. But it feels self-indulgent to me in its philosophical rambling. Pedantic and didactic. And I don’t know if this is because it’s supposed to. 

Frankly, I don’t want to teach this book in my AP course. I just don’t like it enough to reread it, and I don’t know that I want to subject high school students to it. There are way too many other fun challenging novels waiting to be read.