Back to Middle School

A couple days ago I was back in my classroom when the “Sneak Peak” sixth graders were coming through the middle school to check it out in advance of their official arrival.

Here’s what I saw:

Curiosity, sure.

Anxiety, definitely.

Fear, somewhat.

The farther we get from middle school (just in time, some people kind of camp out there emotionally for the rest of their lives) the less likely we are to remember the turmoil that is adolescence.  It can be a time of intense loneliness for many young people. They don’t know who they are, or who they’re supposed to be, or who they want to be. What I wish most for my middle school students, aside from supportive involved parents, food and shelter,  is one good friend.  That’s really all you need to make it through.  But unfortunately there are a lot of kids who don’t even have that.

So for those kids I hope they can find a good book, preferably a lot of them. I hope they can find a book with a character they relate to, or idolize, laugh or cry with.  Because sometimes that’s all it takes to feel less alone in the world.  This has nothing to do with English class or curriculum or meeting state standards. This is about making connections, the kind of connections that can get you through a rough patch. It’s about opening your eyes to new experiences and knowing that the world is a big place.

The editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature were recently interviewed here about the 50th anniversary edition. At the end of the interview both were asked why study literature? Their answers are best read in full but here are a few quotes I liked:

“It broadens you, it makes you more human.”

“It expands you in every way. It illuminates what you’re doing.”

I want that for my students. I want that as a teacher, a reader and a writer.

I want to go in field

This morning I was reading a book to my two year old. (Incidentally, it’s one that she loves and I find mind-numbing) And she pointed to a picture of a sunny flower filled meadow and said, “I want to go in field.” I know what she means and I’m amazed that this kind of connection with books starts so early. Yes, I wanted to tell her. I want to be a student at Hogwarts too. Or years ago I wanted to gather trash and treasure with the Boxcar Children, play on the prairie with Laura and Mary, or fight the forces of evil with Alanna of Trebond.

I’m thrilled that books are exciting to her in this way; that they make her want to be a part of something new or go somewhere unusual. It is a limitless and life-long journey.

What’s the book you can remember wanting to be a part of?

When I Grow Up I Want to be Harry Potter

Today in school, apropos of I can ‘t remember what, a student asked me with disbelief and maybe even a tiny bit of disdain in his voice, “Did you want to be a teacher?  I mean like when you were younger?” I laughed out loud at the tone in his voice and the utter skepticism that anyone could choose this profession intentionally.  And there are moments when I wonder similarly, but regardless the answer is no.

I liked school.  I liked the structure and the tasks with neat beginnings, middles, and ends.  I loved to read, I was curious and had a great memory for facts.  So school was a relatively fun place for me.  But I never dreamed of being a teacher.  Even when I decided to go back to school and get my teaching certification, it wasn’t because I wanted to be a teacher.  I did it because I never wanted to work at a desk.  I did it because I wanted every day to be different.  I did it because I thought I could be a consistent adult for kids who might lack one in their lives.  I did it because adolescents make me laugh and think.

But never because I wanted to be The Teacher.  When I see little kids playing school or teacher, they inevitably end up bossing their friends or stuffed animals through a series of tasks.  Unfortunately, I know teachers like that too.  They are teachers who want to be The Teacher.

Which brings me to one of my favorite Harry Potter quotes.  It comes from the King’s Cross chapter in the final book of the series.  Harry is talking to Dumbledore about why he never pursued the position of Minister of Magic.  Dumbledore (also a teacher incidentally) answers him by saying, “It is a curious thing Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it.”

Curious, and true.

Voice versus volcanoes

I recently checked out two YA books from the library.  Both have been on my “to-read” list for a while, though admittedly one is by a favorite author.  I had high hopes for the first one.  It was a post-apocalypse survival story that begins with the eruption of a super-volcano!  I don’t know what happens next.  I put it down after about 15 pages.  It didn’t matter how exciting or action-packed the premise was.  The writing wasn’t there for me and neither was the voice.

Nothing much happened exactly in the first few pages of the second book.  A girl gets on to a train.  Another girl is angry about the loss of her father months before.  But the voice is there.  Two voices, in fact since the book is written from alternating perspectives.  I’m immediately drawn right in.  I tear through the book over the course of the next 3 days.  I need to know what’s going to happen to these characters.  What will they realize?  How will they grow and change?  There are no volcanoes, but when someone writes about life in a way that is so universal and yet specific and detailed to the characters they create, so that the reader feels they are somewhere new and somewhere familiar all at the same time it’s better than a volcano or an earthquake or a vampire zombie attack…..at least for me it is.

Middle school existentialism

I’ve been reading The Giver every year I’ve taught 8th grade English.  And every year I love it.  I love the conversations it provokes from my students; conversations about the importance of making your own choices, about safety versus freedom, about the meaning of life itself.  And inevitably we talk about death.

Those who live in the sheltered world of the Giver’s community know nothing of death.  They believe that people are “released” from the community and go to “Elsewhere”.  In my class we talk about denial, about grief, and about the role of religion in explaining the unknown.  It’s heavy stuff.  Today it provided this little gem of a conversation between two students.

Kid 1: Death is totally going to suck.

Kid 2: Yeah remember before you were born, it’s like that, nothing. Totally boring.

Kid 1: Yeah, it really sucks.

I’m sure there are scholars who could say it in a more complex way, but not nearly as entertaining and probably just as enlightening.

These are things

This is going to be a longer post.  WAIT!!!! Don’t click away just yet.  I promise it will also include life-changing wisdom and book recommendations.  At the very least, book recommendations.

The title of my blog; Ideas in Things figures into today’s post.  William Carlos Williams (so much depends on a red wheelbarrow -guy ) said this in a poem he wrote.  A lot of other people have taken it on as an idea about good writing.  What I take it to mean is that the things you write about; the purple plastic hairbrush with the rainbow sticker that your character always has in her purse, should tell you about the character more than any adjective or passage of description.

That said, I’ve just recently read three of Jennifer Egan’s books in reverse order from their publication.  I finished up her debut The Invisible Circus a week or so ago.  I find it fascinating to read an author this way and observe how their plots become more twisting and complex, their characters more multi-layered and original.  This was certainly true for Egan.  I enjoyed The Invisible Circus but found in unsurprising in the same way that sometimes in a predictable movie, I can picture the lines written on the script as the character recites them.  I noticed how often she described people’s faces falling in reaction to the events of the story; her face fell, his face sagged, her face sank imperceptibly, that sort of thing.  The book is good, but nowhere near what she achieves in her later books.   Once I read Egan’s brilliant National Book Award winning  A Visit from the Goon Squad and cosmic surrealist The Keep, I felt, in reading her debut, that I was witnessing the learning process that is inevitable with all art (with anything really).  It’s good to remember that art has a learning curve too and the writers I admire weren’t birthed with this breath-taking ability.

These are ideas (not so much things) I find hopeful and encouraging.

Keepers

Sometimes there comes a point while reading a library book that I realize, “Oh shit, I have to go buy it.”  This usually happens when I read a sentence or passage so unbelievably well written, or so universally truthful, that my hands itch to bend down the corner of the page or underline with the nearest pen.

I have to be selective though, because excessive book-buying, whether new or used, usually elicits a heavy amount of eye-rolling from my loving husband.  Who, truth be told, is the one who’s had to heft those ridiculously heavy boxes of books on each of the five moves I’ve made in the time we’ve been together.

But as the holidays are approaching, and books do make the most wonderful gifts, I thought I’d throw together a short list of some of the Keepers I’ve read this year.

Fiction for Grown Ups

  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • The Keep by Jennifer Egan
  • A Visit from the Goon  Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • Bossypants by Tina Fey  (Not really fiction, but snort yer milk out the nose funny)
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

YA Fiction for Grown Ups or not so Grown Ups

  • On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
  • You Don’t Know Me by David Klass
  • Ball Don’t Lie by Matt De La Pena

Please comment if you have a good one to recommend.  I love to add to my list!

Recommendations from students

Every so often I end up with kids in my class who geek out on reading as much as I do.  We talk books and swap recommendations.  It’s always interesting to me what YA books kids like and which ones I like.

I’ve posted before about my reticence to recommend books with a lot of sex, drugs or booze in them, even if they’re really good.  But occasionally it happens the other way; where a student recommends a book with a lot of smuttery.  This is always an interesting moment.  Really?  You wanted your teacher to read this?  And discuss it with you?

I just read Repossessed by A.M. Jenkins, which I LOVED.  This was a student recommendation from a few years back.  The student has since moved away, so I’m not worried that he’ll show up and want to discuss the story of the demon who overtakes a high school student’s body with the main objective of experiencing sex and masturbation.  (Full disclosure; the book is about a lot more than that, but those are the smutty parts.)  I guess I’ll take it as a compliment that a 13 year old boy thought I would like this book.  He was right.  It’s smart, and well written and a bit naughty.   And apparently it appeals to middle school students and their teachers.

How to get kids reading

At the beginning of the school year I like to have a book talk with my students -where I share a bunch of the YA books I’ve read over the summer.  I find it’s a good way to model some different ways to talk about books instead of the usual;

“I liked it.”

“It was okay.”

“It was dumb.”

So I talk about plot and characters and genre, stuff like that.  Sharing the books I read is always a bit tricky, because some of them are books I can’t really lend.  I tend to read more YA aimed at the 14-17 set, and I teach 13 year-olds.  I didn’t used to think there was a big difference but there definitely is in terms of the big 3!  That’s drugs, sex and alcohol.  Much more of these in the older YA books.   I found this out the hard way when I lent my copy of Looking for Alaska to a student, only to have her father march the offending book (full of drinking and experimenting with oral sex) into my principal’s office.

My parents never censored what I read.  So I suppose I was a little surprised at his horror.  But I understand.  (After all, my parents also used to take us to nude beaches.)  Some kids are more sheltered than others and some parents want more control over what their kids read.  (As a side note, I think the way sexuality is explored in Looking for Alaska is brilliant and not at all gratuitous.  Great book -read it!)

So even though I don’t necessarily lend the stuff I read, I do talk about it and always make sure to mention that it’s available at the public library.  Because even though I can’t lend the physical book out, there’s nothing more enticing to a 13 year old than being told a book is “dangerous”.  Or that the content is too risque for their teacher to lend out.  I pat the book lightly, talk about how good it is, and then slide it to the side and watch them stare hungrily at the forbidden fruit.

I had this experience this year with Matt De La Pena’s book Ball Don’t Lie.  This book has great voice and a story that most of my suburbanite kiddos would find somewhat shocking, exciting, and enlightening.  I was especially excited because it has a male protagonist and a basketball focus.  So it sits on my “special” shelf where I hope it will entice some of my more reluctant readers to go get a library card.