Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Reading Life, 2012

I often say I have the best job in the world: they pay me to read! Reading for Pleasure is designed so we all read...most of the hour. I don't hold student conferences during class for a couple of reasons: I want students to see me reading and responding to my books. I want them to see me reading the books they recommend, and I want distractions in the classroom to be minimal. My room is designed for an occupancy of 24, and my smallest class this semester is 29! There's no room for a quiet conference without bothering someone.

So, I read when students read. I can remember reading Mem Fox for the first time and finding this quote. It is deep in my heart as I read with my students."We need, as teachers, to be seen reading and loving reading in front of children. We need to be seen laughing over books, being unable to put books down, sobbing over sob stories, gasping over horror stories, and sighing over love stories—anything, in fact, that helps our students to realize that there is some reward, that there are many rewards to be had from the act of reading."

I make it my business to laugh over books...we call that 'snorking', and crying. I lose track of time and need to be pulled from my books at times. I gasp out loud. I respond to my books. And often my books are those students have pushed onto me...insisting I read. They watch me slyly. Once, as I finished the end of Twelve, by Nick McDonnell, I was crying. I put the book down on my desk, and a girl in the front row quietly crept out of her desk, tip-toed to my desk, picked up the corner of the book and sat back down, with her new treasure. My tears and snorks and gasps sell books as much as my book talks. I know that.

I read with my students. I record all my books, with reviews, on Some students are goodreads friends, but I tweet all my reviews using our hash tag:#northr4p. For the past two years I committed to the goodreads challenge. Last year, I challenged myself to read 160 books, the number I had read the year before. Kids kept me honest, as did goodreads. I reached my goal, and surpassed it! BTW -- cool goodreads graphic courtesy of my friend and fellow blogger, Jason Stephenson! Thanks for teaching me something new today.

I began 2012 finishing The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Howard Pyle. It was a recommendation, and a loan from a student, so I had to get it back to her at the end of Winter Break. I ended the year with Perfect Escape by Jennifer Brown. She is a favorite of my girls, and we'd read her first two. I brought it back to class after THIS Break, and it's already in the hands of a student.

Goodreads lets you rearrange your lists, and I organized my reads for 2012 by recommendations. I wanted to see what my top books were for the year. I ended up giving 43 books five stars. Fifteen Young Adult (YAL) books, Nine adult novels, four picture books -- mostly read to Kati, my five-year-old granddaughter. Hey, they count! Four nonfiction books earned five stars, as did seven professional books and four classics. 

I want to share the 'best of the best' -- the ones that will stay with me, haunt me, taunt me to reread them. Each has rewarded me. I was going to limit myself to ONE recommendation from each category, and of course I broke my own promise My top two (or so) from each category.

YAL -- What an amazing field this is now. When I was young, there were very few books with young protagonists...I only remember Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames (student nurse). My mother despaired my reading either...but I just wasn't emotionally ready for the adult fiction and classics she preferred.

My first two picks in YAL are two books that won't even be published until later this year. 

Period 8, by Chris Crutcher, has all the elements of a Crutcher novel: strong, smart, athletic boy who gets in big trouble by telling the truth. A recent addition to his fiction is strong, independent girls. And this one has a great female protagonist. Two new twists -- a teacher's point of view and a sociopath in their school. Several of us have torn through this. And, yes, scroll down on Crutcher's page...that's me, getting my books signed!

Game by Barry Lyga, is part of a new trend: serial killers and psychological thrillers. This is a sequel to I Hunt Killers. I was introduced to the series by one of my avid readers, and I'm sorry to say I used the bribe of reading Game after I had to extract some late work. The waiting lists for both of these books are insane, and we have a long wait for the third. We follow Lyga on Twitter, and he's already teasing us about the next book.

But, YAL published recently? Available for all readers? The Fault in our Stars, by John Green is magnificent. I read it twice, once with my North students, and again with my OU students studying YAL. We had deep conversations about this book in the classroom, and finally decided it was a grenade. The issues of cancer, and death and dying, are ones students suffer from...and we don't know how that book would be received as a class assignment. But we all agree Gus and Hazel have one of the world's best love stories.

October Mourning was a shock to me. It's a novel in verse, but instead of being a romance, it tells the story of the horrific kidnapping and murder of Matthew Shephard. Leslea Newman, the author, was slated to speak to a Gay Rights group, including Shephard, just days after he was murdered. Each poem is in the voice of someone close to the crime, and each is written in a unique form. Possibilities as an English teacher were tacking as I was weeping reading this book.

I read lots of adult novels, but not many seemed to be 'fives'. The one I know will stay with me is J.K. Rowling's Casual Vacancy. I've tried to share it with other friends, and they have not been touched as much as I have been. I absolutely believe Rowling wrote this in revenge for all the snobby people who made judgments about her when she was living on welfare. There was a page in the book where characters are looking down their noses at people on welfare, and I could hear the discussion this summer about the 47%. Rowling gives a face to poverty. Several. No, the characters are not likable. No, not many of them are redeemed. But, this book knocked my socks off. It's no Harry Potter, but I didn't mind at all.

Nonfiction? My husband can't understand my love of fiction...I can count on one hand the number of novels he's read in our 45+ years together. I don't usually read nonfiction, but two impressed me this year. What I did love ended up being nonfiction narrative. I have stories in my DNA!

In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson, is about America's ambassador to Germany just before and during WWII. No one in the Roosevelt administration believed trouble was brewing and they gave the post of ambassador to an unexpected supporter who tried to contribute, but found himself at odds with people in his own diplomatic corps. Larson weaves history into compelling, accessible narration.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Slook had been recommended for years, and for years I'd steadfastly ignored those recommendations. When I finally found my copy again, I was dumbfounded by the ironies of this tale of a poor black mother whose cancer cells are somehow still alive, and still offering scientists the ability to do all kinds of research. Her children, tho? They can't afford health care insurance, and were unaware of the fact that a part of their mother was still alive. Slook spent her own money and years to research and write this story. Compelling storytelling.

My walking buddy and I read a classic every summer...this year it was The Sun Also Rises. But, we went on a Paris orgy...reading A Moveable Feast, both the fictionalized and nonfiction biography of Hemingway's first wife, Hadley, the Paris Wife...we wallowed in Paris all summer long in Norman, OK. I decided to reread Great Gatsby because Fitzgerald and Hemingway were so close those years in Paris. Every time I read this, I'm older and see something new. Now I'm ready for what one student called 'revisionist filmmaking' when the movie comes out.

Even though I'm months from retirement, I read professional books. Some say it's silly for me to read about Common Core and other reforms, but I'm impelled to do just that. But the two books that will inform my practice for the next months are not about CCSS.

Note and Notice by Beers and Probst gives an easy-to-understand framework to sharing tools for comprehension. They call the tools 'signposts' and these signposts will truly allow students to be independent comprehenders of text. I appreciated the authors' narratives about their test-drives in real classrooms. They give step-by-step guides for how THEY introduced, modeled, and gave students time to practice. BUT they absolutely understand each teacher must make the work her own. I'll be using this work next semester, wishing I had years to practice. Now I can tell my students to look for "aha moments" and "tough questions" and "memory moments" within their stop and reflect on those signs...

From Tired to Inspired by Mary Kim Schreck, was a gift...a friend of a friend asked me to read a galley proof, and possibly write an endorsement. Well, I was tired when I started...but inspired as I read. I love the subversive elements of the book: the total trust in the teacher, the creative lessons, and the underlying philosophy. Yes, our classrooms need rigor...but rigor means giving work to students and expecting the unexpected...unpredictable outcomes, creative outcomes should be the norm. I loved this book, but was worried I couldn't count it toward my 160 total. Petty, I know. But, my recommendation IS on the back cover! Woohoo!

Who didn't make the 'cut'? I'm ashamed to admit, Lois Lowry, Neal Shusterman, Patrick Ness, Matt de la Pena, Ellen Hopkins, Christopher Moore, Ernest Hemingway, Andrew Smith, Terry Trueman, Gillian Flynn. I could have easily chosen their books too...Lucy Calkins...

Maybe I should reconsider.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Legislator Responds to my Letter Guns in Schools

I sent my letter to the two authors of the bill to allow teachers to carry weapons, and I cced it to all members of the Common Education Committees of the Oklahoma House and Senate. I also sent a copy to MY Representative; my Senator is a member of the Education Committee. I received three responses...from my Senator, a thanks, from one other member a thank you note. And from Representative Donnie Condit, I received the following note. I include my response to him. I realize I sent my note during Winter Break, but I hope more legislators choose to respond.

Ms. Swisher,
First, I want to thank you for your input. I am a member of the House Common Educ Committee. I'm also a retired educator with over thirty years experience in the McAlester public schools. My wife is also a kindergarten teacher with thirty-two years experience. 

If you do some research on the members of the State House of Representatives, I think you will be surprised how many are former educators. I mention this knowing that all of them are very much concerned about safety in our schools. When I was a building administrator, I would tell teachers and parents that my main concern was students safety. I believe that children cannot learn if they are concerned about their safety.

If you would also do some research on individuals with concealed carry permits, I think you will find that there are about 140,000 individuals in Oklahoma with a permit. It is estimated that over 10,000 teachers already have a concealed carry permit. I will never vote for a bill requiring anyone to carry a weapon. If I understand the proposed legislation correctly, it would be volunteer. If an administrator or teacher feels comfortable carrying a weapon, I believe that we should at least look at and discuss the possibility of allowing them. Many years ago legislation was passed making it against the law to have guns on school campuses. This was intended, back then, to prevent guns on campuses. The sad thing about it, now people (with mental disorders) see it as "open" game. They know that (by law) there should not be any resistance. I personally do not like guns on campuses either, but are we in a way putting our school officials at a disadvantage? Another thought, if you place armed police officers in each building, the shooter will know that if they take the officer out first, then they will have no resistance. 

I do agree with you that Oklahoma and all states need to start treating mental illness like another illness and get people help. 

Again, thanks for the input and good luck with the rest of hour school year.

Donnie Condit
Dist 18 State Rep
McAlester, Okla

And my response

Thank you for your response...your prompt, thoughtful response. I so often find our Legislators do not respond to our concerns. I know several other Legislators who are former educators, and I hope they, as you, help get our voice out there.

I was under the impression that the bill as it's drafted now will require CLEET someone who does not own a gun or has any interest in carrying one, I'm not certain if the training for concealed or open carry are the same as the CLEET training. Others have told me that this training is more involved and demanding.

I am not at all comforted by the thought of my colleagues carrying weapons, concealed or not, into their classrooms. The parents I've talked to feel the same. What will your answer be to parents who threaten to homeschool their children rather than have them exposed to teachers carrying guns? I am concerned about the parents who will desert us. I know you'll say there are parents who will feel MORE secure with professional educators carrying I don't have an answer. I hope your committee will ask for input from parents across the state, as well as educators. This is our workplace, and many of us feel guns will destabilize already stressful situations.

You mention a security officer who would not be available or a target in an attack. My school has over a hundred classrooms. There is no guarantee that a deranged crazy person with a gun is going to randomly pick an armed teacher's room to attack. And, again, since I know so little about guns, how can a teacher armed with a hand gun stand a chance against a gunman with the kind of weapon Adam Lanza used? To suggest the teacher stands a chance is nonsense. An FBI agent who was interviewed immediately after Newtown strongly recommended NOT arming teachers. He talked about the reaction time of the person who would be the target opposed to the original shooter. He said reaction time always lags 5 or so seconds behind action time. In those five seconds, children could be killed in a deadly gunfight...

IF this does become law, I hope the liability issues are resolved. I see this as a nightmare for our state in so many ways. 

I hope you will solicit input from parents and educators as this goes forward. 

I am not convinced armed educators will make the classrooms safer. I fear they will create new stress for all...

Again, thank you so much for talking to me. I tell my students I'm always eager to consider other people's points of view and test them against my own. Your note has helped me think through this.

Thank you!!