Wednesday, January 28, 2015

School Choice Conversation, with Strong Talking Points

I have very smart friends, face-to-face friends and online friends. I learn so much from them. Recently we had a conversation online about vouchers, and why parents might support vouchers and why they might not. 

The conversation is particularly timely for us in OK right now, School Choice Week, since several bills have been filed in the Legislature to allow vouchers -- they are euphemistically called 'empowerment' bills, or 'scholarship' bills.  They're sold as 'savings accounts,' just as ALEC recommends. They all mean the same thing -- taking money from the dwindling public education coffers and taking that money to private schools...religious schools, unaccredited schools. In fact, the major OK voucher bill actually has fewer accountability requirements than ALEC recommends. Let that fact sink in for a moment. 

I'll quote my smart friends' comments, using only their first names.

Sherri starts the conversation: 

I see them (vouchers) as a way to finally put school choice in the hands of parents. As a homeschooler myself, I pay taxes into a school district I don't use, spend money on curriculum that is not tax deductible & while I too fought CCSS, I'm still pro-vouchers. It would be nice for my children to receive the same x amount of dollars that public, charter, K12 & private students are entitled to receive toward their education. I'm just curious of your stance. (Please believe, I am not trying to be argumentative. I truly only want to understand your stance, if it's different than mine, so we can see if there's an area in which we agree. And if not, at least I'll be enlightened as to how the "other side" thinks. )

Angela responds: 
Very much against vouchers because I support public education. Also the bill g is ALEC model legislation. We've seen what ALEC is all about. No thanks.

Sherri hits on an important point:

I too feel public education when funded properly, staffed by the best of the best (who feel they're thought of thusly), will help all children succeed.

Oh, yes! What if public schools were properly funded, with all the resources -- and teachers -- needed to assure every child could succeed? What if...

Angela gets to the heart of the matter:

Parents have always been free to direct their personal funds to the private schools of their choice, for what they see as the additional private benefit of their own children.

But people pay taxes to support the public school system whether they are parents or not. If only parents are given a choice in the type of school system their tax dollars support, then only parents of school-age children should pay school taxes, and based on the number of children in school.

Private individuals are not entitled by any consideration of the common good to divert public funds for the sake of private corporate profit and personal religious preferences.

When people start seeing education as a private commodity that parents buy for their own children just another personal choice, like whether to buy designer jeans or that hot new toy then we are going to see a taxpayer revolt like we have never seen before, and public-funded education will cease to exist.
 Then what's next, people giving their tax dollars to only the specific roads they drive on? It's never ending

I laughed when I read Angela's last comment...that really shows how ludicrous it is to say someone can take "their" tax contributions to benefit themselves. I have some roads in east Norman I'd LIKE to support!

Sarah joins the conversation with a concrete example of how much it would cost to attend a private school in the OKC area, and how far our tax contribution would really go...

So what about the people that rent homes or live in an apartment and pay no property taxes? Does that mean that their child isn't worthy of getting a voucher to go to a charter school? What if that child is gifted? Should property owners be allowed to opt out because they don't want to send "that" kid to a charter school?

And if you want "the money to follow the student" then you should only be able to take out the money that you pay in each year and then pay the difference.
So for example, a (family member's) property tax bill is $977.89/year; of that 59.22% goes to public schools (K-12 not higher ed); by that figure just under $580 goes to public schools. SO say you wanted to send your child to Heritage Hall and they are in 2nd grade which tuition is $13,340 (not including books and fees) and use your voucher money to "make it possible." That means that you'd a) have to get accepted to Heritage Hall - which they're not required to accept anyone with vouchers, and b) be able to pay the difference of $12,760.

Because I don't want to pay for YOUR kid to go to Heritage Hall if MY kid doesn't get to go too.

Sarah puts the conversation into perspective...when my children were in public school in Norman OK, the student aid amount far exceeded what my husband and I contributed in taxes. The rest of the contribution was other taxpayers whose taxes were collected to support all public school students. I am not entitled to money I haven't contributed. I cannot take others' taxes and use them as I choose. That's downright unAmerican, I'd say.

Angela is a Mama Bear:
It definitely opens too many doors! Private and charter doesn't mean better. Someone wants your public schools to be failing but they aren't failing. Start digging into why this is. People profit from charter schools and private schools. They want to capitalize on our children. I won't allow it.

Brendan brings the conversation back to the inadequate funding of our schools. In OK, we have seen higher cuts to school funding than any state in the nation. Vouchers, in my opinion, would do exactly what Brendan suggest here:

The end result of vouchers would be to turn public schools into government dumping grounds for the student with the most challenges. A better solution would be to invest in our public schools and give them the resources to do even better than they are.

I love Sarah's combination of passion and facts:

 The point of property taxes paying for public education is that we have a WHOLE bunch of (hopefully) well-educated people which means they drive more businesses opportunities to our communities, industry for consumables and textiles, etc. 
I don't agree with vouchers because I don't believe it's the responsibility of EVERYONE to pay for a very small percentage (less than 1%) of students to go to a private school if EVERY STUDENT doesn't get to go too - and it's not about the parents not exercising the option but most parents of public school students couldn't pay the difference, or a private school isn't close enough to them to make it feasible, and there just flat out aren't enough private schools to handle all the students.
She is making the same point young adult author John Green did here:

Sarah continues -- and we come back to equitable funding of schools, and another issue...proper resources to help every child learn.

OH and let's pull back the curtain here: the school choice advocates really just want to publicly fund religious schools - I mean how many non-sectarian private schools are there in Oklahoma?

On the flip side, I fully support scholarships and grants that allow special needs students to attend schools that are properly equipped to handle their needs IF their local schools is not capable of doing so. Of course, I believe we should invest more in the special needs programs to prevent this from being a necessity but there's some districts that just aren't going to be able to adapt to that - sometimes because there's not enough students to "warrant" it.

And Brendan identifies the gorilla in the room:
 Special education is driven my unfunded federal mandates. That has always been a problem.

 Amanda has the last word: 

Vouchers/ESAs are just another way to send public dollars to PRIVATE entities!

Until someone can convince me otherwise, I'm right there with Amanda. No, the state aid is NOT your money. No, you can't just decide to let the state subsidize your choice to go to private school. No, this is not the best thing for public education. 

I think my friends gave us all some strong talking points when we visit with our Legislators about these voucher bills. 

And as my very smart friend Brett Dickerson says here, the choice is NOT ours...the choice is private schools. They will choose what students to take (not the challenging ones for sure). They will choose what services to provide. They will choose when to expel students and send them back to public schools. 

The choice is not ours.  

Sunday, January 25, 2015

ALEC + Oklahoma Legislature = Bad News for #oklaed They're Baaaack

Outside my comfort zone!! That’s a good thing, right? Learning occurs there. If you discover I have made a mistake, or misrepresented something, or misinterpreted, please know I welcome feedback to correct. Another way we learn.

I’m trying to look at education bills filed by the Oklahoma Legislature, and not jump on every one. I’m trying to look strategically. Who’s the author? What kind of public profile does the author have?

So, when I looked at HB2003, authored by Jason Nelson, who never met a voucher he didn’t love, I took notice. Coauthored by Newell, Rogers, Strohm, Bennett, Echols, Jordan, Kern (my favorite crazy), Hall, Brumbaugh, Moore, Fisher, Johnson, and McCollough of the house and Jolley in the Senate, even this Legislative novice hears the alarm bells. They’re already lining up the troops for this bill.

So, what is is? “Oklahoma Education Savings Account.” Twenty-one pages of dense language which boils down to a scheme to allow any parent to take a portion of the per-pupil funding and take it to a private school or tutoring concern, or private online school.

Alarm bells that spelled out A-L-E-C. American Legislative Exchange Council, the shadowy group set up by the Koch Brothers to court legislators with big donations and fancy trips.

ALEC promises to write model legislation FOR said Legislators, so they can just fill in the blanks. The Lindsay Nicole Henry Act was ALEC legislation, and we’ve seen the Parent Trigger bill fail once here. Our Legislators are proud ALEC members.

So, let’s look at the list of Legislators again and compare with ALEC membership. SourceWatch supplies a list, and their committee membership in ALEC. I cannot find any connections between the major author, Mr. Nelson and ALEC, except for the undeniable link between HB2003 and the ALEC model legislation. 

Kern – Education Task Force alternate
Moore -- Member
McCollough – Civil Justice Task Force
Jolley – Public Safety and Elections Task Force

This is not the first time Nelson has proposed this legislation and used the ALEC model.
Rob Miller wrote about his attempt in the last session here.  So did Rick Cobb, as Okeducationtruths, here.
 I attended an  OICA meeting where Rep. Nelson participated on a panel, telling professional child advocates that vouchers was one of his issues for the new Session. He is true to his word. He couldn’t get it passed last time, but he and his buddies are back for more.

 Rob provided a link to the 1014 legislation…it is the same number of pages (21) as this year’s bill…and the last pages are identical. Please forgive me for not reading all 21 and comparing, word-for-word.

I DID read the current bill, and compared it to the ALEC model legislation.

A few observations:

·         All definitions came straight from the ALEC model.
·         ALEC actually has more provisions for private school accountability than HB2003. All the accountability seems to rest on the public schools and parents for OK.
·         ALEC wants public schools to provide transportation to private schools; OK excludes transportation
·         Both provide protection for private schools taking public money from government overreach.
·         2003 creates more bureaucracy for OSDE, while allowing them to keep 5% of the funds for administrative costs. It also creates a Treasurer’s Education Savings Account Administrative Fund, and they can withhold 1%. ALEC suggests states use private financial management funds to administer. It appears that if there are funds left over, both OSDE and the Treasurer ‘shall be exempt from the provisions of law Req. No. 6281 Page 13 relating to lapsing of appropriations.” HUH?
·         The percentage of funding a parent can take from public schools to a private school are different for 2003 and ALEC, and I don’t understand it at all: OK suggests households under free and reduced levels be given 90% of State Aid. ALEC suggests 100%. For families earning less than 1-1/2 that number, 2003 suggests 60% -- ALEC suggests 75%. For families earning over 1-1/2 but less than 2 times, would be given 90% under 2003, and ALEC suggests 25%...That makes no sense to me. It appears that families most able to provide are given more. THEN in the next paragraph, 2003 says any eligible student will receive 90% of State Aid. I told you I was out of my comfort zone.

If you only read the endnotes on the ALEC link, it's well worth's folksy advice for Legislators who are filing this 'fill in the blank' legislation under their own names.

Where does this leave #oklaed? Right back where we were last year, fighting the exact same fight, with the same stakes: public education.

Last year Rep. Nelson called a news conference to announce ‘his’ bill during School Choice Week. We should expect the same, this time with a whole lot more ‘authors’ behind him…strength in numbers? They have the Koch Brothers behind them…with all their billions

This bill still stinks. It’s still wrong for public education. We must fight it all over again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Michael and Claudia's Infinite Book List

My friend, Michael Prier and I are participating in a reading challenge -- it's not a competition, just a mutual challenge to read 52 books in 52 different categories. We want to share our plans with you and invite you to join us.

I love to read and to write about reading. I'm hoping for a quieter year in #oklaed, so I can write more about reading here. I have already shared my top ten fiction and nonfiction titles from last year.

You all know me pretty well, and I’ll let Michael introduce himself here. We met through National Writing Project, and I believe we were actually in the same room once or twice. Nearly our entire friendship has been developed online.  We have always enjoyed discussing books, recommending books, comparing books. So, this challenge will be a great way for us to keep this conversation going.

My name is Michael, and I have known Claudia through the National Writing Project for a number of years.  We worked together on the E-anthology in 2007 and 2008.  I am a high school teacher in Kansas City, KS.  I have taught English sophomores through IB seniors, ACT Prep, Intro to Psychology, IBS Psychology, Etymology, Humanities, and Yearbook.  I have coached cheerleaders, debates and forensicators, boys swim, as well as advisor for Student Council.  This is my 18th year of teaching.  

I saw the Reading Challenge 2015 on Facebook and have been a member of for a number of years.  I thought it would be fun to use the challenge checklist as a means to read new books as well as work on the stacks that I have on my shelves.  The list is diverse and offered enough variety to select various books to complete it.  

My selection process was to only pull books from my shelves that fit the categories, and not buy any new books.  If I did not have a book that met the qualification on the list, I used Half Price Books as a wonderful source to fill in the blanks.  52 books had to be selected, with only 7 being purchased.  Interestingly, most of the books fit the Young Adult category, which has always been a favored genre, and very few being adult books.  Another reason I selected these specific books is some of my students had read them or were interested in them, which is a great way to connect with my kids, even though I no longer teach an English class.  Self-selection of books for pleasure is very important as the students invest more time reading rather than feeling forced to read a book for a class. (You can see why Michael and I are friends! We agree on so many important issues!) Interestingly, some of my educator friends challenged the books I chosen, thinking them not quality literature.  My mantra has always been, who cares if it is not quality, if a student is reading and enjoying the reading, then fine with it.  As of the 18th of January, I have only read four of the books, as I do not want to be forced into reading only the books on the list, and read others not on the list.

I agree whole-heartedly with Michael...a good book is one that moves me. It could be a picture book, a young adult novel, a good nonficition, pop-fiction or a classic. I have never let anyone judge my reading habits. I am very proud of the messiness of my reading choices.

As a child of the 60s and 70s, I’m not planning ahead and am letting my list evolve. “Going with the flow” so to speak.  I’m reading whatever I want, and then looking at the categories later to see if I can find a place for the books. So far, it’s been fun. My strategy, if you can call it that, will be much more expensive than Michael’s, I fear...

I’m very limited in my “a book you were supposed to read in school and didn’t.” I was a good kid. I read the books I was supposed to read...except for two. I DO know I didn’t finish David Copperfield and Silas Marner. So, I’ll have to pick one of them...probably go with Silas.  

One of the categories is “a book that came out the year you were born.” Goodreads to the rescue! The first several books in the list were ones I’d already read, and Michael and I are trying NOT to reread if we can help it. But Cannery Row will be my choice! I’m eager to read it, actually.

Another category is “ a book at the bottom of your to-read list.” My only question is “Which one?” I have stacks of books to read in every room of the house. I’ll choose it later. “A book written by an author with your same initials” may lead me to C.S. Lewis. My initials are C. L. S. I think that works, don’t you?

My selection was very methodical.  I created a spreadsheet on Excel and typed in the list of books according to the Reading Challenge 2015 list.  Then I printed out the list and sat in front of my double-stacked book shelves, pulling books that met the categories.  After I had pulled most of them, I went through the categories, deciding which I would read.

Many books fit into numerous categories, so that was the most difficult part.  The Twilight quadrology fit nicely into four categories (more than 500 pages, female author, one-word title, and love triangle), and I had not read them before.  I am rereading the last three Chronicles of Narnia novels, having finished the first four before the end of the year, and one is under the category of read during childhood, which requires a rereading.  Another book I have reread is Alph, one of my mother’s book club titles that I read back in the 70’s.  Other than that, the rest are books I have never read, but are all on my Good Reads to read list.  

Interestingly, nine of the titles have been turned into movies, and three will be turned into movies soon.  I am anxious to read the story rather than watching it.  Chitty Chitty Bang Bang came out the year I was born and was written by Ian Fleming of James Bond fame.  It will be curious to read the book without the musical version flitting through my head.  

I have to say that the book referred by a friend is Beatrice and Virgil, which was referred by Claudia.  I hope I have the same reaction she did when I read it.  Winger is another book she referred, but that is my set in high school book.  I often look to her Good Reads list for ideas of what to read.  I remember she read one book from a trilogy that she did not like, but I ended up loving and reading with a former student.  

The book I look forward to reading the most is the Maze Runner trilogy, as some of my students are reading it, and I loved the movie.  The book I am not looking forward to reading, or finishing, is Fifty Shades of Grey.  Many of my friends and former students have read it, which has made me curious.  It is a very difficult book, but I am enjoying the psychological analysis aspect of it.

I have spent under $30 to fill in categories, having all of the rest from my shelves, garnered from Half Price Books.  When I am done reading them, I can always resell them back to this wonderful store.  The only category I have not selected a book for is a book I did not read in school.  Like Claudia, I was a good student and read all of the books required in high school and college.  This has caused much scouring of my brain and an empty blank on my Excel spreadsheet.  I read more than what the teachers assigned, so this might be one category I do not get to complete.

Wow. I’m totally intimidated by your intentionality, Michael! I’m excited to see what develops from our two strategies...or your ONE strategy and my ‘let it emerge’ attitude. I’ll probably spend more than $30. My copy of Goldfinch, my Pulitzer book cost half that.

I will admit right now I have many more opportunities to read and to abandon and to try again. Being a professional reader, and volunteering at a middle school library and a middle school library actually gives me an unfair advantage.

Michael and I will check in with each other often, and we will report our progress...I know that will help keep ME honest.

If you have any suggestions, or if you would like to join our challenge, please respond. Online book clubs are a lot of fun!

**Extra Credit (our undying admiration and friendship) if you can identify the allusion in Michael's title!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Saying Goodbye is Complicated. First I Grieve.

Tonight, before a change of administration at the OSDE, I grieve for lost opportunities.

Folks much more knowledgeable than I have bid the Dentist farewell.  And adieu. They have highlighted the differences #oklaed has with her Jrb-Bush reforms.  They have given us a blow-by-blow account of the battle, and it was a battle. They have warned us not to grow complacent.

I sit here on Sunday evening grieving for the lost opportunities squandered in the last four years. From her first notorious Board meeting, to her 11th-hour hires, Dr. Barresi has squandered our positive regard, our willingness to work together, our deep commitment to public schools in Oklahoma. We were in the schools before she took office and we will be there well beyond her regime. We are left to pick up the pieces. And grieve the time we lost.

She came into office carrying the weight of our suspicion, but we cared deeply about our students and we could have been allies…uneasy allies, to be sure. But we could have found common ground. Teachers are by nature collaborators. We have borrowed and adapted our best ideas. We love to talk about what happens in our classrooms, and we love to hear about others’ successes. We would have worked with Dr. Barresi for the sake of our kids. We would have.

Instead, she made it clear from the tone of her first month that she didn’t need us, she didn’t want us. She got everything she wanted from a supportive governor and Legislature, and boxed educators out, labeling us, as the DOK did, as supporters of the status quo. I know better. I know that most teachers want to learn, to improve. We certainly did not go into the profession to be crappy teachers. But we need support – resources, funding, library books, promises kept.

I grieve for the last four years…our kids graduated from school, entered kindergarten. My own Grands progressed through four years of their education under the dentist. And she did not give them what they needed to succeed. I grieve for our students, and the support they did not receive.

Now that her office is cleared out and bare, will the resources magically appear? No. Will her misinformed reforms disappear? No.  Will mandates disappear? No. Will funding be restored? No. Will standardized testing be put in its place? No. Not unless we continue to be engaged in the process.

There is hope for the future, but our responsibilities are clear. We must stay informed, we must contact our Legislators. We must hold them accountable for providing our schools and our students what they need to be successful. We must build networks of like-minded citizens and talk to them. We must promise to vote, holding ourselves accountable for this behavior.

So, I do grieve. But all is not lost. There is nothing as resilient as the human heart. Our children deserve to have the grown ups in their lives to work together for their future. And in these last four years we have created a community of parents and educators and students who are ready to go forward together.

I’m ready.  I’m hopeful.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Yes, I Read Nonfiction...My Top Ten of 2014

These blogs are inspired by my friend and reading buddy, Nancy Flanagan. I learn so much from her, and we often appreciate the same books. We share our reading and keep each other honest. She is a treasure in my life. She posted a blog about education books she’d read this year, and I saw some books we read in common. Love her take on books.

My husband and I are both librarians…I’ve worked in schools and he’s taught in Universities. We both love to read. We literally have books in every room of our house…the laundry room is the last stop for books to be donated. We love to read and have sat together happily reading…completely different kinds of books…for nearly 50 years.

Bob teases me about my love of fiction, and I shake my head at the strange nonfiction turns his reading takes. We have read and enjoyed books together: Twain’s Letters from the Earth (as college students we actually bought two copies because the current reader would giggle too much and the partner could not stand to be left out), Killing Mr. Watson, by Peter Mathiesson, a wonderful crossover of fiction based on the life of Belle Starr. I also think we read The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance together years ago.

So, Bob expects me to read nothing but fiction and last year was surprised that I actually included nonfiction on my Top Ten.

This year I’ve done one better…a Top Ten Nonfiction list! Drum roll, please. Now, in all honesty, my new-found love of audible books really helped my nonfiction reading, as did a couple of research projects related to fiction reading, but Look at Me! I read nonfiction.

I will always read books on education, and four made my list…nearly half of my total

The Educator and the Oligarch, by Anthony Cody, is a fierce look at Bill Gates and his Foundation. Cody took on the education reformer early, and had several exchanges with folks from the Foundation. This book is a masterful compilation of these conversations, as well as a deep history of Gates’ work dismantling education. I said when I reviewed it that my favorite part was his evaluation rubric of Gates’ work in education reform. Still makes me giggle. I wrote a blog post here, with some background on Cody and his influences on my own education life.

The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein was enlightening. I remember stumbling into my History of Education course at Indiana University and finding out my instructor had the reputation of blowing off the history of education. So, my background was especially weak.  I learned a ton reading this book, and Goldstein put it into context for me. The research is top-notch; the writing is elegant.  I realized I didn’t review it because I was too busy collecting 10+ pages of quotes to reflect on.  Oops.

50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education by David Berliner and Gene Glass blew me away. I haven’t felt like such a book groupie about an education book since The Myths of Standardized Tests by Harris…maybe it’s the word ‘myth’. Seriously. My copy is marked and sticky-noted. What do you say when your State Representative absolutely believes voucher will save our schools? You turn to page 41 and read the research. Not opinions. Research. Everyone who cares
about public education needs to own this book.

Bad Teacher!: How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture by Kevin Kumashiro. Like Anthony’s book, I had read some of this, or had learned it. But it was put into context here…He organizes his book through questions and then investigates each.  Kumashiro is from Chicago, and he describes their efforts to build a real consensus around the schools around four visions. That was so inspiring…I wonder how it played out under the current mayor. I don’t have the heart to check right now.

So much for my professional reading…now onto nonfiction reading for pleasure.

One of my last audible ‘books’ was actually a Great Courses lecture series: Beethoven – His Life and Music, by Robert Greenberg. When I tweeted about the ‘book’, Greenberg retweeted! Fan girl moment.! Greenberg is knowledgeable and passionate about his subject. His lectures oozed with all the little details that made this so wonderful. He showed the composer with all his shortcomings, and there were plenty. He analyzed (and even played excerpts from) some of the pieces. What a sad man Ludwig was. Talented, driven,innovative, toxic, and  self-destructive.

Another audible book was Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. My first line of the review: “If a novelist had written this story, editors would reject it as totally unbelievable, unrealistic.” The book begins with Endurance being torn to bits by the ice that trapped the expedition. From that moment, Shackleton and his crew are forced to abandon the ship and make their way across open water, ice floes, solid ice. I listened to it as I walked and as I drove. There were times I groaned out loud at the extreme conditions the men faced.  And yet they endured.

A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, troubled me at times. Educators are victims of data-driven education, and this book explores data-driven philanthropy…how to get the best bang for your giving buck. It’s a combination of stories of successes and failures. It’s full of advice for people who want to give their money or their time to causes. The authors encourage us to follow our passions, but make sure our money will actually help.  I found a couple of literacy charities I want to share with my book club. It sounds like a great way to
read and help children here and overseas to read as well.

Two books were part of my research on OTHER books…This summer my friend and I went on a F. Scott Fitzgerald binge, reading novels by him and about him, memoirs, good and dreadful. We found a gem called The Romantic Egoists: A Pictorial Autobiography of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. This book  is pages from his scrapbooks (he loved scrapbooking!) and photos and newspaper clippings, copied in black-and-white as perfect facsimiles of the original. The book is coffee-table book sized and I felt like I was actually turning the pages of a real scrapbook, peeking into the lives of these beautiful, doomed people. This added such depth to my understanding of them both as lovers and parents and friends. Breathtaking.

My book club read a historical fiction called Mary Coin, which fictionalized the photographer Dorothea Lange and the woman who posed for her iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph. I’d read other books about the Dust Bowl, and Depression, but a former student suggested The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan . So, I read it to help me compare and contrast, to check the novelist’s research. I am a reading nerd that way. Farmers plowed, overplanted.  They tore up the land, and then they watched it blow away. Egan told stories of the survivors…those who stayed and watched everything change, watched crops die, livestock die, children die. This book  was a revelation, and so much more powerful than the novel. I wept at humanity's stupidity and courage.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea, was one of those books that was on my ‘to-read’ stack for a year. Not knowing much about it, I dived in. Fourteen men are saved from the desert close to the Arizona-Mexico border…fourteen.  What we learn is that thirty started out from Mexico to America. This is the story of the survivors, and then men who perished in their quest to make a better life for themselves. It’s the story of the men who try to get rich off the desperation of others. It’s the story of doomed me moving forward, despite the odds.  It is a true story. Thirty men walked into the desert. Fourteen walked out.

Any list of my reading once again shows I'm omnivorous. I want to know more, and the librarian in me knows books are how I can learn. I’m pretty proud of my nonfiction reading this year…believe me, I read more than these ten…they truly were my favorites. The ones that took me to different places and times, and allowed me to learn and grow.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

My 10 Favorite Novels (ok, 11) of 2014

 “Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” –Francis Bacon   

I tasted, devoured, and chewed over 200 books in 2014. allows me to rate and organize them for reflection. I enjoy looking back and seeing what my books mean to me, how they've changed me. 

This was the year I discovered audible books and roared through 50 of them…they added much to my reading life and several will appear on my two (Yes, two…) Top Ten Lists.

First, fiction. I’ve always believed fiction is truer than nonfiction and it still answers my heart and soul.

Two favorites were the final installments of beloved young adult series.

Undivided, the end of the Unwind quartet. Menace, paranoia, in a society who has lost their way, seeing teens as enemies.  This world has turned young people into spare parts, and a small group of kids are willing to pay the ultimate price to break this world to pieces. Shusterman makes us think about hard issues, and I’m grateful. I gasped, I cried, I shuddered.

Blood of my Blood, the end of the I Hunt Killers Trilogy shocked and horrified. I was in agony reading, even though I had to peek at the ending.  I met this author, Barry Lyga, and got an advance copy of Game, the second in the series. My students and I are obsessed. I loved the characters, and Lyga puts them into the most awful situations. When my students and I tweeted him to rail at him to write this book fast, he seemed to delight in keeping us in suspense about our characters.

Three other young adult novels made my list:

Laurie Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory, about PTSD. Her first novel with more than a one-word title, it is masterful. I listened to her speak of her own father’s PTSD, and this, in many ways, is a love letter to her father. I can see this book as a comfort, with all its fierceness, to kids who are suffering. Anderson is a treasure for our young people.

Winger – oh, why have I not read this one before? It begins with the narrator’s head in a commode. It made me laugh out loud and cry out loud.  Ryan Dean West, Winger, lives in a ritzy boarding school and plays rugby. In this book he learns more than he reckoned about life and rugby. Andrew Smith’s voice is utterly perfect. A sequel will be published next year that will show Winger dealing with the left-over issues from this book.

Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir in verse, and one of the last books I read in 2014. Jacqueline Woodson is willing to go scary places in her books, and I’ve always loved her ability to connect with my reluctant readers. This gentle love letter to the people who raised her, gave her voice, and encouraged her is beautiful.  Her honesty about her struggles to read and her inventive strategies warmed my heart.

I reread three books and fell in love again…

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite book. I have tried so hard to remember  the first time I read it, and I can’t. It seems like it’s always been in my life. This year when I reread a brand new copy (I still have the beat-up copy I taught from for years, and two autographed copies – one by Lee herself and one by Mary Badham who played Scout), I quoted lines and posted pictures on Facebook and created a reading community…it was a fantastic way to return to this book. I wrote about it here.

How can you NOT love the narrator of I Capture the Castle? Its first line: “I write this sitting in the sink” introduces us to Cassandra Mortmain, the younger, not-so-pretty daughter of an eccentric writer who lives in a broken-down castle with few prospects. But don’t count Cassandra out. With wit and affection, she will forge her path.

And then, Up the Down Staircase. I read the book, I saw the film, but I forgot so much. An online friend’s review reminded me of the book, and the used copy I got from amazon was the original white and orange pocketbook paperback…with yellow, brittle pages that crumbled in my fingers. The story, on the other hand, was startlingly current…the kids, the administrators, the demands…nothing new under the sun. I so appreciated Hook’s honesty about the life inside a school.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was a wonderful surprise. I’ve read other books by Zevin and had been underwhelmed. But this. It’s Silas Marner in a book store. It’s about creating a family when yours has been destroyed. It’s about love and books and grief. I loved it. Loved it. Loved it. Another one that made me ugly-cry, even rereading my favorite lines from the book.

I spent the summer reading F. Scott Fitzgerald, and reading about him. I knew The Last Tycoon was unfinished, but I was mesmerized by it. By the maturity of Fitzgerald’s prose, by the insights of people and business in Hollywood. Having read so many biographies, I knew how very unhappy and unfulfilled he was those last years in Hollywood, writing on demand, but this novel would have been his towering masterpiece…I just hope he would have changed the proposed ending…in a snowstorm in Oklahoma. He never came to Oklahoma, and it was apparent in his writing. This is now officially my favorite of all his pieces. And, as I go back to, I see  I did not review it. So, just trust me. I loved it.

Aarrgh! I tried so hard to stay with ten...but Hemingway's Girl keeps glancing at me, chastising me for leaving her off my list. This was another reread this year. I read it IN Key West, after dragging my husband to Hemingway's home, not once, but twice. Speaking to the clerk at the gift shop made me realize not everyone loves this book as I do...a glance at Hemingway and his second wife through the eyes of a fictional character who worked in the home. Lots of great history, including the horrible hurricane of ..... Reading the book and seeing the house will always be a treasured memory.

I read 204 books last year, as usual, a collection that makes no sense to anyone but me. I read omnivorously and hungrily. 

There are so many other authors that could  be on this list of my Top Ten…Shirley Jackson, Stephen Kellogg, Mary Hahn, Michael Chabon, Terry Tempest Williams, a second book by Andrew Smith, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Anthony Marr, Dr. Seuss and Jack Prelutsky. Phillip Pullman, Louise Erdrich. Sorry, friends.

It was a wonderful year in books.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Look Back -- This Blog is Three Years Old...2014, A Wild Rumpus

I can directly thank outgoing State Superintendent of Schools, Janet Barresi, for inspiring my entry into the blogosphere. I wrote a review of her very first Board meeting (the rumor was she didn’t even know there WAS a State School Board until she was elected), and posted it as a document on Facebook…and it reached some people. But that format is so clunky…and I HATE HATE HATE long paragraphs with no breaks. I need white space in posts to encourage me to read on. Eventually I revised that rant and posted it as a blog entry.

I followed several blogs of face-to-face friend, Nancy Flanagan, and online friends, Anthony Cody and David Cohen. And their talents intimidated me. But attending a workshop presented by all three inspired me to start small and find my voice.

My first blog post on January 1, 2012, introduced myself and my interest in education…I am a fourth-generation teacher. My dad was my junior high principal. Granddad was Daddy’s high school principal, and Grandma was his English teacher. My mother’s grandfather was a teacher too. So..there it is: my title, my mission, my legacy.

I wrote about my classroom and books and my interest in the politics of school reform. I wrote for myself mostly, and wrote whatever interested me.

In March of that year, I attended the public comments Board meeting about the A-F grading system set to be implemented. The room was packed…with those ready to comment. No Board members, no Superintendent. Just us. I remember signing what I thought was an attendance form. Oops. I’d signed to speak. I HAD brought a note to the Superintendent and hand-delivered it to Dr. Barresi’s assistant, but I had not intended to speak. But speak I did.  And that experience gave me more motivation to continue being loud.

The last few years saw an explosion of amazing bloggers in #oklaed. Administrators, teachers, we found our voices, and we found our community. We used our teacher voices to point out our concerns.

In 2014, we fought the ‘learn to read and read to learn’ foolishness of our uninformed policy makers We rallied at the Capitol. We watched a bill breeze through both houses of the Legislature to halt the automatic flunking of our third graders. We watched the bill vetoed. I sat in the House and watched the override of the veto. I was on my way home when the Senate added its own override vote.

We watched a divisive election cycle, with Superintendent Barresi coming in third in her own primary, losing by almost 100,000 votes, and in typical style, blaming teachers who switched parties to vote in the Republican primary. By her own statements, 13,000 educators switched. Even this English teacher can do that math. She still refuses to admit she was soundly rejected by the rank-and-file of her own party.

The run-off and general election kept feelings high, but I am hopeful that we can rally around Superintendent-Elect Joy Hofmeister and go forward together for our students. There are so many problems to solve in our state. But there are so many folks who are willing to assist.

I looked back over my posts from last year to see what I could learn: I ranted a lot, and I don’t like ranting.  I found my own niche within the bloggers, most of whom are still practicing educators, and all of whom have expertise and knowledge I don’t.  Because I’m retired, I have time to read through the hundreds of proposed bills, attend committee meetings at the Capitol, listen to debates on the floor, lobby during the school day when Legislators make their decisions.  I do this, representing all the teachers who are busy with students. As a reading teacher, I railed against the Reading Sufficiency Act, and the Superintendent’s mistaken, simplistic view of beginning readers.

My top-ten posts of 2014 show my hope, my concern, my frustration, my grief, my faith in our community and our efforts. I wrote about books, about the bills before the Legislature, about the March in March I couldn’t attend. I wrote about the loss of a former student, and my own shortcomings as a teacher preventing bullying, an issue that exploded my hometown. I am grateful for each person who took the time to read my words.

I’m proud to be part of the #oklaed community of voices and will continue to write. I’ll write about books and students and education. I’ll write about what our children need from us, the grown-ups in their lives. I’ll write about educators’ responsibility to vote, to participate.

 I’ll write, because I can’t NOT write.