Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Power of Gratitude

Never underestimate the power of gratitude.

This year I have several students (Juniors) that I had as sixth graders. One of these students is a very serious boy who spends a lot of time in his own head. I recently learned that he lost his Dad in October. Couple this with the fact that his Dad was abusive, and you have a young man struggling to make sense of some very conflicted feelings. A few weeks back we passed in the hallway and it was clear that he was upset; fighting back tears, even. I pulled him into my classroom to give him some time to compose himself. He then proceeded to explain that another teacher has put him in an uncomfortable position by forcing him to talk about his Dad in class. I tried to help him make sense of people's well-meaning, albeit questionable behaviors.

 A few days later this student came to class and announced "Mrs. Blackler, I think I want to read. Can you recommend some books?" Obviously a rhetorical question ;o). I handed him Matt de la Pena's I Will Save You. That book became a fixture in his hands, each day the bookmark nudging a little closer to the final page. Soon he arrived in class, announced he was finished ("How was it?" "Good.") and asked for another. I handed him Stay With Me by Paul Griffin and assured him, despite the female figure in pink on the cover that it wasn't a "girlie" book. I continued to checked in with him, noting that good progress was being made as I covertly checked the bookmark position each day.

 Today this young man arrived in class and quickly asked "Do you have another copy of that book?"

"I do. What happened to the first copy?"

 "I left it at my cousin's house. I can't get back until the weekend, and I only have about 30 pages left. I really want to finish it." I asked him to come back at the end of the day, as it would take me a few minutes to locate the second copy. Needless to say when he returned, his request had slipped my mind. I stopped what I was doing and pointed him toward one wall of bookshelves while I navigated towards another. It didn't take long before I heard an excited "I found it." His search fulfilled, he assured me that he would finish the book tonight, return it tomorrow, and return the original copy on Monday.

 Sometimes the words "thank you" appear in magical ways. I believe that this powerful confession, "I think I want to read", came about as a result of this young man's gratitude. I validated his struggle. He repaid me by validating my passion for reading. As a teacher, book lover, and champion of literacy, it doesn't get any better. I am forever grateful.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Perfect Move

Through the beauty of a pink slip I have spent the last year teaching high school English @ our district's continuation high school. An avid reader and self-professed bibliophile, I believe I am honor bound to put books into the hands of my students. I discovered early on that my high schoolers were a different breed: Many have never read a novel; most don't read for pleasure, and for those that do, their genre of choice is very specific. Unlike my former fifth and sixth grade students who read voraciously, preferring fantasy over anything else, these students crave contemporary fiction and little else. I've pondered this and believe the reason for this difference is that many of my students are lost at sea. Unsure of their path in life, they cannot imagine a world of fairies, dragons, and demigods. They crave validation and take comfort in knowing that the pain they are likely experiencing is not unique.
Authors such as Walter Dean Myers, Sandra Cisneros, Laurie Halse Andersen, and Andrew Smith write of the journey to adulthood with realism that is unsurpassed in the field of Young Adult literature. No author, however, chronicles this more accurately than Ellen Hopkins. Written in free verse, her novels address controversial subjects such as teenage pregnancy, drug use, incest, homelessness, homosexuality and rape. The latest addition to her impressive body of work is Perfect. A companion to Impulse, and told from the perspectives of four protagonists; Cara, Kendra, Sean and Andre, Perfect examines the pressure we all feel: to fit in, to measure up, to be the best, and to find ourselves before we become lost.
Emotional investment is important to Hopkins (she told me so in a tweet), and Perfect takes readers on an emotional ride like no other. Family dynamics play a critical role, as her young people receive conflicting messages about the need to maintain decorum, the importance of physical beauty, the price to be the best and familial obligation. Each unique voice, oftentimes seeming to speak in unison, runs the gamut of emotions. Readers will share laughter, tears, and gasps; all the while marveling at the resiliency of Hopkins' characters. With each turn of the page readers will mourn loss, celebrate bravery, and, very often, be struck by a reflection long-forgotten.
Aside from the subject matter, one of the appeals of Hopkins novels, when they are first picked up by my students, is their scarcity of text. Yet this scarcity of text creates an intensity that is unsurpassed by more voluminous novels. I have yet to read a Young Adult author whose prose is as purposeful as Hopkins'. Readers will find themselves mesmerized by her word choice, reading many pages a second and third time, drinking in the imagery. Wordsmiths will appreciate the poems within the prose and will be awed as Hopkins further reveals her craftsmanship; seamlessly weaving the individual stories together oftentimes through the use of one or two strategically placed words.
As a high school teacher I will continue to champion tirelessly for authors like Ellen Hopkins. Her powerfully chosen words create a voice that speaks for too many. Her contemporary novels serve as a beacon for all who are navigating stormy seas and provide a lifeline to many who have contemplated giving up hope; hope that their own journey will ever be acknowledged or validated. Her voices are the voices of us all; voices filled with pain, confusion, frustration and hope. It is critical that we acknowledge them. It is imperative that we never stop listening.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


There is a legend surrounding the bumblebee. Quite simply, its wing size in proportion to its body size makes flight impossible. But like the bumblebee, there are people who find ways to make the impossible possible each and every day; whether they soar above their surroundings, or simply refuse to believe that their future is somehow anchored to its foundation, however shaky it may be. Like the bumblebee, some find a way to soar all on their own. Even more often some will find their wings with the help of others.

Two very different books tell the stories of characters that refuse to settle for anything less than that which their heart desires. In “Adios Oscar: A Butterfly Fable”, by Peter Elwell, a curious caterpillar eagerly anticipates his metamorphosis after a brief encounter with a Monarch butterfly. With the help of a bookworm, Oscar’s excitement is fueled by research into the Monarchs’ annual migration to Mexico. Oscar’s eventual flight, however, is around the porch light, rather than over the continent, as his destiny makes him a moth, not a butterfly. Refusing to accept that which seems inevitable, Oscar dares to dream “What if…” and like the Monarchs, Oscar makes the journey of a lifetime.

Kate DiCamillo’s latest work, “The Magician’s Elephant” weaves a tale of unwavering hope and steady resolve. Peter Augustus Duchene, a 10 year old orphan, has never stopped thinking of the sister lost to him many years before. Despite evidence to the contrary, Peter has held out hope that this sister, long thought dead, is somewhere, waiting. With little to go on but the word of a street market fortune teller, Peter embarks on a quest that will shake his foundation, as he asks “What if..?” DiCamillo is a master storyteller. Her magical manipulation of language, combined with Yoko Tanaka’s effective drawings will not disappoint readers.

Like the bumblebee, both Oscar and Peter refused to be defined by their station in life. As a teacher, this is a message I hope to impart to my students. What appear to be obstacles, once recognized, can be overcome. Whether it is a math problem, a science concept, an essay, or a fork in the road, questions should be asked; the “what ifs…” should be explored. And like Oscar, with a little help, flight is most definitely possible.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

I am doing what I love

The annual 10-day shuffle took place yesterday. Principals across our district count heads and make phone calls in an effort to sync enrollment projections with actual enrollment. A lot is riding on these numbers, including teaching positions. Classrooms with low numbers take on students from other classrooms where numbers are higher. Combination classes are created. Teachers’ grade level assignments are switched. Fragile new bonds with colleagues and students are stretched; sometimes even severed. So, after spending countless summer days preparing for a year of teaching sixth grade writing, as of Tuesday I will be teaching fifth grade Social Studies and Science. But I am doing what I love.

Ramon is reminded that doing what he loves is important in “Ish” by Peter H. Reynolds. Reynolds’ simple, yet evocative line drawings tell Ramon’s story. Harsh words uttered without much forethought by an older brother lead to discouragement and dejection, while an encouraging act of kindness and appreciation by a younger sister strikes a chord. Realizing that his work has value because he is following his heart, Ramon once again embraces that which he loves.

Shortly before they packed up their textbooks and walked out of our classroom for the last time, I shared Ramon’s story with my sixth grade charges. It was my final chance to instill in them a love of creativity and to let them know that I believe in them. And like Ramon, I want them to remember that they have a voice worth hearing, if they remember to follow their hearts.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Tried and True

Monday morning I will begin another 180-day journey; much of it, happily, is a complete unknown. I have seen my students’ test scores, but I have not seen them. I do not know their hopes, their fears, their struggles or their strengths. I am unaware of who has support at home, or of who is the support at home. Yet we will embark on our journey together, fortified by the power of our contributions to our community of learners.

After the proverbial question-and-answer period I will initiate a discussion around the word journey. What does the word mean? What is a journey? What types of journeys do people take? All of this will segue nicely into my task at hand: to craft writers.

Writing is discovery. We write for a variety of reasons; not the least of which is to have our voices heard. Perhaps the most challenging (and important) part of my role as their teacher will be to help my students believe that they have a voice worth hearing. To do this, I will rely on my own voice, as well as the voices of others.

Our journey of discovery will find strength in the Power of the Picture Book. Its evolution over my lifetime has been inspiring. Writers such as Patricia Polacco, Tony Johnston, and Patricia McKissack have penned stirring accounts, some of them autobiographical, of remarkable journeys of the human spirit. I will use these stories to help my students discover where ideas come from.

Patricia Polacco recounts the personal journey through the darkness of her learning disability in “Thank You, Mr. Falker”. With the help of a beloved teacher Polacco uncovers the sweet taste of knowledge. Written in third person narrative, the author’s note lets readers know that this is, in fact, Polacco’s own story; “an odyssey of discovery and adventure.” Students will recognize Polacco’s feelings of loneliness and despair and will celebrate her triumph. Filled with voice and imagery (a future lesson in writing craft), her writing speaks to readers of all ages.

Once you’re aware of her learning disability, it isn’t surprising to observe Polacco’s remarkable ability to recall stories and events from her childhood in her additional works. Pink and Say is one such story. It is, without a doubt, the most powerful picture book I have read. The story of Pinkus Aylee (Pink) and Sheldon Russell Curtis (Say) was recounted to Polacco by her father, the great grandson of Curtis. The inspirational story of Pink and Say’s journey and friendship is timeless. Along with Polacco’s amazing voice and imagery, themes such as friendship, family, and man’s inhumanity to man make it a wonderful choice to use as a mentor text within the Writer’s Workshop.

Journeys and discoveries come in all shapes and sizes. Patricia Polacco’s stories, tried and true, will undoubtedly stand the test of time. I look forward to sharing her work with students and colleagues each school year. After reading “Thank You, Mr. Falker” to last year’s class I had my students write an essay on their expectations for the year; our journey through sixth grade. Martin, a struggling reader, said it best when he wrote “I hope the 180 days will be long.”

Let the journey begin!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Top Pick this Summer

As summer comes to its all-too-familiar close and I head back to the classroom, I take with me a sense of delight. The gift of time afforded me the opportunity to become lost in literature; reading bleary-eyed well into the night on more than one occasion. I’ve had the pleasure to read wonderful new literature for children this summer. By my accounts I’ve read more than forty books, including several professional resources, since school was dismissed in June. Few left me wanting, and one in particular soared above the rest.

“The Year the Swallows Came Early” by Kathryn Fitzmaurice is a beautifully written story about families, friendship and forgiveness. Set in Southern California (a great connection for my students), it celebrates the resiliency of eleven year-old Eleanor “Groovy” Robinson, a budding chef with aspirations of attending culinary school. Just as her horoscope advises her to “expect the unexpected”, Groovy’s routine existence is shaken. Her father is sent off to jail at the request of her mother. Frankie, Groovy’s long time friend, experiences upheaval of his own when a long-absent mother suddenly returns. And the ever-reliable timepiece that is Mother Nature skips a beat as the annual migration of the swallows to Groovy’s town occurs earlier than it should.

The Southern California setting, Groovy’s honesty, and her family dynamic will connect my students with her story on a variety of levels. Fitzmaurice has created an indelible character in Groovy; through her voice, her compassion, and her resilience. Adults and children alike will be immediately drawn to her unshakable spirit.

Recently, I attended a one-day networking session with fellow teachers and I could not help but nestle my copy of “Swallows” into my book bag before leaving the house. As we collaborated and discussed best practice strategies I looked for an opportunity to introduce the novel, and went on to read the chapter entitled “Jasmine Tea with Limes”:

“He didn’t watch where he was going,” I said. Tears rolled down my cheeks. “He ruined it, Mama. He didn’t watch, and now it’s ruined.” And I started crying like there was no tomorrow. But it wasn’t the dandelion that made me so sad. It was how I was like the dandelion, minding my own business, waiting to grow and be something. And he hadn’t seen me waiting.”

If you’re a teacher (like me) funds are in short supply at the start of the school year. And if you’re like Desiderius Erasmus (and all too often me as well):

“When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.

Happy Reading!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Read and Review

Each summer my love of Children's Literature has facilitated my participation in an event via my Reading Council (Foothill) aptly called "Read and Review." Each Thursday morning we book enthusiasts descend upon the Stone Library, located on the campus of the Claremont Graduate School, to read and review all that is new in Children's Literature. I taught Summer School this year for the first time, which prevented me from partaking in this camaraderie until last week. Thus far I've read some great new novels, and two beautiful picture books.

"City Boy" by Jan Michael is a touching story set in contemporary Malawi and examines the AIDS epidemic from the eyes of a young boy named Sam.

"Tango, the Tale of an Island Dog" by Eileen Beha will appeal to all those who love a good animal adventure story.

In "14 Cows for America" Carmen Agra Deedy, in collaboration with Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah, brings awareness to an extraordinary gift given to the United States by the Masaai people of Kenya following the events of 9/11. I would be remiss not to mention the breathtaking artwork of Thomas Gonzalez which compliments Deedy's simple text.

Finally, in "A River of Words: the story of William Carlos Williams" the unique artwork of illustrator Melissa Sweet marries with Jen Bryant's account of the life of poet William C. Williams to create a beautiful picture book that would be a worthwhile addition to any classroom library.