Monday, April 24, 2017

It's Almost Read-a-Thon Time!

And I'm so excited!  (Check out the details about Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon here.)

Though my class of reluctant readers thought I was super weird when I told them about it.  "You just read?  Sounds boring!"

HA!  If only they knew.  If only I could help them find a book they don't want to put down.

Well, D. keeps telling me the new Scott Westerfeld is good, and S. is pretty dang engrossed in the Brody's Ghost omnibus I finally tracked down.

Here is what I would read this weekend if I had all the powers of concentration needed to do so:

A Gentleman in Moscow
The Upside of Unrequited
A Conjuring of Light
The Lies of Locke Lamora

But that would be a tiny bit intense, don't you think?  Plus, there's a lot of reader expectation riding on all of these, and I don't want to get too bummed out by any disappointments, nor do I want to dilute the amazingness of any of them by cramming them back-to-back with the rest.  So, realistically, we're looking at 1 or 2 of the above, and then some lighter stuff for balance.  Graphic novels, accessible poetry, middle grade fiction, novels in verse, and YA contemporaries.  Potentials for that include:

The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price
Tell Me Three Things
Keesha's House
House Arrest
Giant Days 2-4

Soon I will have to go buy my Read-a-Thon snacks as well as figure out how to handle the family obligation side of my life.  I will probably take my daughter to her language class, which means I lose an hour in the car (I COULD listen to an audiobook, but I think I want to actually interact with the kid for that time).  But I can hole up in a coffee shop for 3 hours while she's there, and that will be fun.  I've never taken the Read-a-Thon public before.  

I turned down an invitation to get together with some friends and their friends to have an art evening.  Normally I'd love that, but Read-a-Thon is only twice a year!  

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Grumpy Reviews: Wires and Nerve, The Hemingses of Monticello, and My Life in Black and White

Are you ready for some grumpiness?  I have read three books recently (well, read two books and gave up on the third) that just didn't do it for me.

And as much as I kind of hate to be negative--I mean, I LOVE other books by the same author--I also know that it can be both entertaining and helpful to be told why someone didn't like a book.  So I'm going there.

(Let me also say that I've read a few spectacular books lately as well, but I'll talk about those another day.)

Wires and Nerve by Marissa Meyer is a book I treated myself to after we took a crap-ton of books into Powell's and got a gift card in exchange.  I wanted to complete my Lunar Chronicles collection, and I loved the idea of a graphic novel, and that it would star Iko.

So this evening I sat down to read it and--blahness ensued.

The pictures are too cartoony and cute.  There's no grittiness in any of the characters, and very little glamor either.  The storyline seems desultory.  Iko herself does shine, but the other characters all feel flat and dull.

The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed is one of the first books I ever put on my Goodreads "to-read" shelf.  It sounded fascinating--a history of the enslaved family that was both owned by and in later generations fathered by Thomas Jefferson.  But it also sounded pretty serious and clocks in at over 600 pages, so I decided it would be a good candidate for listening to in the car.  After all, that's how I conquered both Columbine and Pillars of the Earth.  But after a few weeks, I had to give it up.  I feel like a bit of an asshole being the white blogger lady who couldn't get invested in this book, but it was just too dense and scholarly for me.  The author analyzes and argues minute point after minute point.  This is not a work of popular history.  It's worthy and well researched and all that, but it just doesn't make for fascinating reading/listening.

My Life in Black and White by Natasha Friend
This one pisses me off the longer I think about it.  I'm just going to copy and paste my reactions from Goodreads here.

This is the kind of YA book that really isn't meant for adults to read. It's goes by quickly enough that you might not notice at the time, but for all that its heart is in the right place, there's a lot of problematic nonsense involved.

The premise--a beautiful girl with a powerful best friend loses her looks in a scandalous car crash and has to reassess her sense of self--is a good one. And yet for a book that sets itself up to show how wrong it is to value someone (including yourself) for their looks, it sure is obsessed with looks.

There's the whole offensive "Annoying girl's main annoying trait is that she's fat, but then she loses weight and becomes less annoying" thing. There's the "I thought my sister was a loser because she totally does her own thing, but actually, she's so cool that she's hooking up with the super hot guy" subplot. Because of course, sister has no value for being an interesting and confident person unless it's validated by a hot guy. And of course the "I thought I was no longer worthy of the male gaze because my face is disfigured but a BETTER guy came along AFTER the accident, and anyway, I'm not actually disfigured, I just have a tiny patch on my cheek that only I would really care about, and I still have princess hair and a smokin' hot bod." 

Okay, the more I think about it, the more I'm having problems with this. I'm not saying teenagers don't obsess about things like where they sit in the cafeteria and how their mom reacts to their food choices, but why would I want to read about it?

Monday, April 17, 2017

TTT: Ten Must-Read Authors

The delightful bloggers at The Broke and the Bookish host this weekly list challenge.  If you want to quadruple the size of your TBR AND find a bunch of great book blogs to follow head on over and check them out!

The topic this week is Top Ten Things That Will Make Me Instantly Want To Read A Book 

I certainly have topics*, formats**, settings***, and genres**** that I'm more likely to pick up, but I don't think any of them guarantee I'm going to read a book.  The only thing that makes a book a must read for me is if the author is one I trust completely.  So here are my top ten "I'd even read their grocery list" authors.  

I'm going to keep myself focused by only including authors who are still writing (no Dickens or Austen) and whom I've read more than just one series by (no Suzanne Collins or Marissa Meyers, even though they've both written more than that one series).  I'm also not adding any authors I've only read one book by, no matter how eager I am to read their other work (Zentner, Albertalli, etc.)  Also, I'm not saying I've read every single book by these authors, or that they've never written a book I was just "meh" about.  But they are consistent enough that I will always give them a chance, and I will probably work my way through all of their books eventually, even if I haven't yet.

Alphabetical because I can't rank them!

M. T. Anderson
I love how varied Anderson's work is.  The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is the first book I read after joining Goodreads, and it was a doozy.  Feed is very different in style and tone--from a gigantic faux journal or historical fiction to a straight forward dystopian novel. And then there's the composer's biography.  Because that fits right in.  I am eager to keep reading his work and see what else he's come up with.

Matt de la Peña
Another author who isn't afraid to try new things. One of my colleagues introduced me to Mexican Whiteboy.  I went on to read Ball Don't Lie and We Were Here , all three of which fit into the same genre category.  I Will Save You went in some new directions, and The Living/The Hunted took that world and moved it into science fiction, and then BOOM Last Stop on Market Street wins the Newbery and reveals more beauty to me each time I read it.  Plus, seeing Matt speak on an author panel made me an even bigger fan (and made me feel like I can call him Matt now).  So much heart, and so damn smart.  And his dialogue sounds like he's been eavesdropping on my students.

Neil Gaiman
I have not loved every single thing I've read by Gaiman, but I've found all of it interesting, and I always want to see what he comes up with next.  He's a Literary Figure at this point, like Twain or Hemingway.

A. S. King
I saw Amy King speak on the same panel as Matt de la Peña and was blown away by her ferocity and complete lack of (and intolerance for) bullshit.  Her best-known work, Please Ignore Vera Dietz, won a Printz award.  Her books all have varying degrees of magical realism.  I Crawl Through It was too challenging for me (though I will come back to it during some summer vacation), but I adored Everybody Sees the Ants, Glory O'Brien's History of the Future, Reality Boy, and Ask the Passengers.  I'm looking forward to reading Still Life with Tornado too.

Barbara Kingsolver
I used to read books written for grown-ups too, and when I did, loved me some Kingsolver.  Bean Trees, Pigs in Heaven, and Animals Dreams were my introduction to her, many years ago.  I then went on to read her essay collections High Tide in Tucson and Small Wonder, both of which I loved. I even read her first book, which was nonfiction, as well as some of her later fiction that branched away from her southwestern setting.  I was embarrassed to get a bit bored and put off by Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, but I'm still game to try anything she's written.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guin will always be my #1 writing hero.  I read the first three Wizard of Earthsea books in middle school, when they were fairly new.  I went on to read some of her adult sci fi, but I think it was when I started reading her essays in college that I really understood what a phenomenal thinker she is.  I love how she's revisited Earthsea as her own understanding has developed--at the time of her original writing, she's said, it never even occurred to her that the strong central figure didn't have to be male.  Her historical fiction is also terrific, and I love many of her poems and stories.   I was recently super excited to come across two gorgeous volumes collecting her short stories and novellas, respectively.  I bought one and am saving up for the other.

Patrick Ness
I don't quite remember how I first heard about Ness, but I know the premise of The Knife of Never Letting Go sounded interesting.  I adored all three books (and bonus stories!) in the Chaos Walking series, and when I saw another book with his name on it (More Than This), I bought it even though I hadn't heard of it yet.  I went on to get A Monster Calls and The Rest of Us Just Live Here.  All these books are different in tone and style, but all push boundaries of imagination and build empathy.  I got to meet him once and found him absolutely lovely.  He's pretty terrific on Twitter as well.  I can't imagine ever not reading something he wrote.  Like, I've never seen a single episode of Dr. Who, but I'm definitely going to try to track down the Dr. Who spinoff he writes for.

Rainbow Rowell
I liked Fangirl.  I loved Eleanor and Park. (I think which of those two you like best is a generational thing.)  Landline and Attachments were okay.  I wasn't that excited about Carry On, and then I read it, and loved it, even though it was so, so different than her other books.  I will definitely read whatever comes next.

Ruta Sepetys
I had to read Between Shades of Gray, since it's about a Latvian family that is exiled to Siberia.  I lived in Latvia for several years in the 1990s, and pretty much everyone I met had a connection to someone that had been deported during the June, 1940 Stalinist raids.  I liked it, but maybe not as much as others did, because it wasn't quite as startling to me, having heard pieces and variations of it already.  I didn't think Out of the Easy would be quite my thing, but I gave it a try because I do want to support Sepetys's work.  I thought it was fantastic.  Salt to the Sea was as well.  I can't wait to see what she does in the future.

Neal Shusterman
Neal Shusterman is pretty much god.  Everlost was interesting and creative, but I wasn't compelled to read the rest of the series.  My students, however, gobbled them up.  Then came Unwind.  WOW.  This series rivals Chaos Walking for my favorite modern sci fi series.  Challenger Deep took a completely new direction, and I read it while I was taking a class for people with family members who have major mental illnesses, so--yeah.  Powerful.  I jumped back and read one of his Antsy books and couldn't stop laughing.  Read Scythe, and while it didn't quite do to me what Unwind did, it has the same quality of raising really interesting and important questions without telling you what to think about them.

* siblings, pioneers, medieval history
** multiple pov, epistolary, double timelines, unreliable narrator, alternative history
*** the far north, Oregon, USSR/Eastern Europe
****fantasy, not super cute contemporary, mystery

Friday, April 14, 2017

Creativity, Reading Choice, and Eavesdropping on a Birthday Party

There are five 4th grade girls and one 1st grade girl sitting at my dining room table, painting.  My daughter is turning 11, and just like the past three years, she's invited some friend over to play, craft, and eat.  It's pretty simple, especially now that I've started judging the party by "Did they have fun?" instead of "Is it Pinterest-worthy?"

The first year she wanted a princess theme, and we planned several games, but all the girls wanted to do was the craft project and playing outside.  So the next year, we just got supplies for a different craft--sharpies on mugs.

Now, if you got a bunch of 40 somethings together to paint mugs, there would be much hemming and hawing, with a lot of "oh, mine is dumb" and "I don't have any good ideas."  The 8 and 9 year olds, however, just jumped right in.  They had their ideas immediately and proceeded with confidence.

So this year, we left it even looser.  We got a bunch of cheap flat "canvases" and paint and turned them loose.  Again, everyone got straight to work, and the range of ideas is stunning.  They are also encouraging each other and praising each other constantly.  They occasionally ask for advice, and their friends think about it seriously and share their thoughts.  It's beyond sweet.

They're also chatting the entire time they paint.  One girl mentioned her great-grandmother is 104, and I added that Beverly Cleary just turned 101 the other day.  Many of the girls knew her books, and that started a talk about other books.  Percy Jackson, Mysterious Benedict Society, Warrior Cats--their enthusiasm was almost as touching as their creativity and kindness.

They also talked about reading levels, which their school color codes.

"I'm orange, but I hope I'm going to be purple pretty soon."

"I'm just a white."

"I can't wait until I move up a level so I can read other books."

I'm trying to be unobtrusive about my eavesdropping, so I don't know if jumping in to say, "That's bullshit! Read what you want!" is really the right move.  Still, I'm disturbed by the juxtaposition of their natural sharing about books they love with the rigidity which I know is enforced in their classroom regarding which books they "supposed to" read.

I wonder if next year they will still feel as free to create whatever they want, or if they will start the smothering self-criticism that so many of us do around creativity.  The idea of being "good" at something or "not good enough" is poison we breathe in.  Instead of enjoying the process, we get hung up on comparing our results. I want them to read what they want, create what they love, and support each other's attempts to do new things.

I want that for all of us.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

April Six Degrees of Separation: Room (Part 2)

I've seen this on Wilde on My Side, and she pointed me to Books Are My Favorite and Best as the originator.  Basically, everyone starts with the same title each month, and then using your own personal trains of thought, lead your readers through six books, one to the next to the next.  It could be authors, covers, time of life when you read the book, or any other connection that comes up in your mind.

I missed doing this last month, what with the SOL frenzy, so I'm being completely self indulgent and doing two lists this time.  Part one was yesterday, and here's part two! 

My first list spent quite a bit of time on classic works of literature.  Today's list is more modern and fairly bleak, which seems fitting too.  

1.  Room
2. I Hunt Killers
3. The Game of Love and Death
4. Snow Falling on Cedars
5. The Merchant of Venice
6. The Haters

The starting point this month is Emma Donoghue's Room, which I read about five years ago.  
It is told from the point of view of a 6 year old boy who has lived his entire life in one room.  It becomes clear pretty quickly that he and his mom are prisoners of a man who kidnapped and raped her.

That's pretty grim, right?  I mean, besides all the rest of it, it means that the kid's biological father is a creepy kidnapping rapist.  Which makes me think of Barry Lyga's I Hunt Killers series, in which the protagonist's dad is the worst serial killer of all time.  (Well, the best.  Which makes him the worst.)

I really like the black and white and red on the cover of the entire series.  It's a classic color combo, and it was also used to great effect on Martha Brockenbrough's The Game of Love and Death.  Take a look:

So cool.  I first heard of the book when Brockenbrough spoke at the Oregon Council of English Teachers conference in 2015.  She's from Washington and the book is set in 1930s Seattle,  A wealthy white boy falls for a cabaret singing, airplane flying black girl--but they are pawns in the eponymous game.  Another beautiful book about cross-racial romance in historic Washington is Snow Falling on Cedars.  

Several years ago my mother-in-law took us to a stage production of it, which was wonderful.  Even the scenes in the small fishing boats were beautifully done, which requires a complete buy-in from an audience.  I can't remember if she'd gotten us season tickets or what, but we saw an extremely avant-garde* rendition of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in the same theater around the same time.  

There was a sign outside the theater warning of male nudity and cigar smoking, which was our first sign that this was not your typical Shakespeare production.  They kept the language exactly the same, but created new action around the dialogue--gay lovers, a rape scene, and well, I don't remember where the cigars came in, but they were there.  My final connection is the loosest one yet, but I'd have to say reading The Haters gave me a similar sense of "Wow, did he just go there?  Yep, he sure did.  And now he's taking it a step further."  The humor is crude and the characters are in some ways not very likable. (I saw Jesse Andrews speak at the national convention for English teachers and he trumpeted, "Down with plot!  None of my characters learn anything!" with tongue only slightly in cheek.)

These are so much fun to put together.  I hope they are worth reading as well.  I'll be playing next month as well!

*I'm not actually sure what avant-garde means.  I'm basically using it here as a fancy word for "weird."

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

April's Six Degrees of Separation: Room (Part one)

I've seen this on Wilde on My Side, and she pointed me to Books Are My Favorite and Best as the originator.  Basically, everyone starts with the same title each month, and then using your own personal trains of thought, lead your readers through six books, one to the next to the next.  It could be authors, covers, time of life when you read the book, or any other connection that comes up in your mind.

I missed doing this last month, what with the SOL frenzy, so I'm going to be completely self indulgent and do two lists this time.  Part one is today and part two will be out tomorrow.

The starting point this month is Emma Donoghue's Room, which I read about five years ago.  
A movie version came out more recently, but I didn't think I would enjoy it.  

List one:
1.  Room
2.  Emma

Room is written by someone named Emma.  Emma is, well, about someone named Emma too.  

Emma is also the favorite Austen novel of my sister, who named her daughter Emma in her honor.  My sister is also largely responsible for introducing me to mysteries when I was a kid, and one mystery author we both read faithfully is Elizabeth George.  Her most recent addition to the Inspector Lynley series is A Banquet of Consequences.

Banquets, in turn, remind me of feasts.  I've never read Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, but it has been recommended to me many times over the years, and I really truly intend to read it.  Soon.  

Decades ago I wrote off all the tough-guy early and mid-century authors as not to my taste, which is one reason why I haven't read much Hemingway.  It's also why I hadn't read much Steinbeck, until I was living in Riga, Latvia and had access to a very small English language library.  With such limited options, I gave Grapes of Wrath a try, and it blew me away.  The experience of reading the first page, in which a turtle crosses the road, and being AMAZED at how fascinating he made it will always remain with me.

One of the rare English language books with a Latvian protagonist is Between Shades of Gray.  All of Sepetys's historical novels are excellent, but this one, despite taking place mainly en route to and in Siberia, is the most distinctively Latvian to me.  Nearly everyone I met had an aunt or neighbor who'd been a victim of the mass deportations in June of 1940.  

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

This or That: Bookish Edition

During my Slice of Life month of blogging and commenting, I read a post called "This or That," and thought--ooh, that would be fun to do a bookish version of!  It's probably been done before, but I don't think I've seen it, so if I'm ripping off your idea, give yourself credit in the comments.  Otherwise, play along in the comments and/or create your own post!

Buy new or buy used?
Either, but I'd rather buy used (or remaindered) when I can, because I'm cheap like that.  As long as the book isn't gross or stinky, I don't care if it's used.

Eat while you read or read while you eat?
There's a quote about this, but I am too lazy to look it up right now.  I prefer to eat while I read--snacking on a chocolate chip cookie or caramel while I sit on the couch with my book.  If I'm eating something messy or soupy, then I have trouble reading while I'm eating at the table.  I want both hands for the book.

Re-read old favorites or pre-order upcoming possibilities?
I didn't even know about pre-orders until a year or two ago, and it's not something I've done very often, but I HAVE pre-requested books at the library several times lately.  I re-read constantly as a kid, but now I have too much FOMO.

Read every single word or skim at times?
I'm a skimmer.  I have to force myself not to accidentally read the next page if things are tense, and I feel totally fine with skimming if I'm bored.

Happy endings or tragic?
Happy, but not too happy, you know?  Like, I don't want to feel pandered to, and I want the characters to earn their redemption or what-have-you.

Audiobooks or ebooks?
Audiobooks, though I'm not a huge fan of either.  Audiobooks go too slowly, and ebooks are hard on my eyes.  But I like that I can listen to Audiobooks while I drive.

Multiple books at once, or one at a time?
This is another one that has changed over time. Lately I seem to always have multiple books going.  First the obvious ones--the book I'm reading to a class, the book I'm reading to a kid, the book I'm listening to in the car, and my book.  But sometimes that morphs into my book at school and my book downstairs and my book upstairs and my book that I started but then got distracted.

Mostly one genre, or a little bit of everything?
A little bit of everything. Except horror.  And most Westerns, romance, and erotica.  And business books.  Okay "everything" was clearly overstating it, but I do like fantasy, sci fi, mysteries, historical fiction, memoirs, YA, picture books, classics, and some fancy-pants literature.

Lifelong obsession or later (re)discovery?
Family legend has it that I taught myself to read at age three.  I've never stopped.

Classics--yea or nay?
Yea.  I don't read as much as I used to, but I used to read a lot of Dickens, Hardy, and Austen, and a lot of my childhood favorites were classics too.

Read aloud to others or be read to?
I really like reading aloud.  I get super into it too.  I like being read to also, but it goes too slowly.

Absolute silence or background noise/music?
Whatever.  I don't need quiet, but if I start out listening to music, I tune it out pretty quickly.  Recently I was reading a book at an elementary school event in the midst of gleefully shrieking kids.

Cover on or naked?
Naked.  Covers drive me nuts.  Except occasionally lately I've come across covers with a really pleasing texture that doesn't feel like plastic to my fingers and doesn't slip around annoyingly.

Dog-ear or bookmark?
Trick question!  Neither!  Usually I just have a sense of how far into the book I was a flip through it to find my spot, or if I'm leaving for just a short time, I put the book upside down.  This is part of where being a fast reader comes into play--I am only looking for my spot a couple of times during any one book.

Movie covers or originals?
Just kidding.  Everyone knows movie covers suck.

I'm linking this up with the Discussion challenge on Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight, so go ahead and discuss your take on these choices!

Sunday, April 2, 2017

March in Review

Last month was all about the reading and not so much about the writing; this month was the opposite.

My Reading

# of books read: Ten.  TEN! That's like a normal person or something.
Best(s):  This is tough, since I had a lot of 4 star books, but nothing higher.  I'm going to to with Girl in Pieces and The Other Boy.  And not just because they both have beige covers, which is fairly unusual.


Mt. TBR progress:  Four, bringing me to 21 this year.  I've passed Pike's Peak and am near the summit of Mt. Blanc.  79 to go to reach my Everest!

Bookish Events and Happenings:

I participated in the Nerdy Book Club's #titletalk Twitter chat for the first time and came away with approximately 739 ideas about how to keep my students reading over the summer.  I've stopped buying (as many) new books for my classroom library, and INSTEAD I'm buying books to give away at the end of the year.  If I get enough, I'm going to hand a book to each of my students and say, "Here, I think you might like this."  If I don't make that goal, then I'll have massive raffles and give away books to as many kids as I can.  There are also some more sustainable systemic ideas I am going to run by my boss when I get back from spring break.  

I also fiddled some more with my Goodreads shelves, sorting through the nearly 2,000 titles on my "to-read" list and putting 155 on an "urgent" shelf and another 614 on a "maybe" shelf.  Basically, the 155 are books I actively, eagerly want to read right now.  And I blame ALL OF YOU for the fact that I actively, eagerly want to read 155 books.  The 614 are books I'd put on my to-read shelf but have no memory of what it is about them that made me do so.  The rest are books I am at least dimly aware of, but don't have that sense of urgency about.  

I found this poster my dad brought back from a trip to DC when I was in high school, and I finally put it in a cheap frame.  I hope to find a spot for it in my classroom.  Yes, that right there is a poster that spent thirty years wrapped up in a cardboard tube.  

Finally--already getting excited about my third Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon at the end of this month.  Sign up!  It's the best!  

On the Blog

You may have noticed that I participated in the Two Writing Teacher's annual daily slice-of-life challenge in March.  Unlike last year, when I posted 45 times, I pretty much ONLY participated in the challenge, and I'm excited to get back to focusing more on books and reading.  (Hey, did I just discover a way to get over a slump?  Focus on a different type of blogging for a month?)  I only missed one day all month and ended up with 32 posts total.  I included a couple of super personal posts and a few psuedo-poetry posts.  I indulged in a few posts about my kids and students, and a few posts that included mostly photos.  It really is fun to play around with different topics and formats like that.

Last year I found a few particular blogs I enjoyed and really focused on reading and commenting there.  This year I found SO MANY interesting blogs and posts and really jumped around every day.  


Today is the last day of spring break.  Sob.  But I'm enjoying what I'm doing at school, so it's not too painful to consider returning.  We didn't do any one big thing this week, but a bunch of smaller things--a movie, a trip to OMSI, haircuts, ice cream, sleepovers, crafts, Goodwill excursions, etc.  My highlight was spending the night at my sister's with my other sisters. We ate and drank a bunch, talked and laughed a bunch, did some doodling, and started sorting through the HUGE amount of art our parents left behind.  Our dad was a professional photographer, and our mom was a fabric artist.  There's a lot of things that we don't feel right discarding, but there's no value in just storing them either--and we all already have more than enough of their art for our personal use.  

I'm still really enjoying my bullet journal, and finding that between that and the SOL challenge, I'm looking for opportunities to be creative myself.  Like when my daughter and I played with Fimo dough one day:

I'm a native Oregonian, so the rain really doesn't faze me as much as it does some.  But even I am getting tired of the incessant gloom and drip, so the few bursts of spring weather we've gotten are doing me good.

Enjoy your April!  Read good books!

My monthly summaries are always linked to the Monthly Wrap-Up Round-Up on Feed Your Fiction Addiction, along with many other terrific blogs' monthly reflections.  Nicole usually puts together a fun scavenger hunt giveaway too, so go check it out!

Thursday, March 30, 2017

SOL #31: What I Know About Myself as a Teacher

This March writing challenge is organized by Two Writing Teachers

Last year, I wrote a SOL post (actually, two posts)  about what I know about myself as a reader.  (I found this out because on this, the last SOL post of the month, it finally occurred to me to look back and see what I wrote about last year.)  That inspired me to try to write about what I know about myself as a teacher.

1. This is going to be a lot harder, because I feel much more vulnerable talking about my professional life than my favorite hobby.

2.  I did not always want to be a teacher. Specifically, when we had a very nice student teacher in chemistry, and everyone treated him terribly DESPITE liking him just fine, I resolved to NEVER put myself in that situation.

3.  I got into teaching because I really wanted to live in Eastern Europe after graduation, and it was a way I could afford to do that.

4.  My first students were four years younger than me, and I had no idea what I was doing.

5.  That first year I started jotting notes at the end of each day about what had gone well, what didn't work, what I needed to think about differently.  I only did that on paper for that first year, but I am so glad I stumbled into the habit of active reflection.

6.  I once wrote "bowel" on the board when teaching an adult ESL class about "things in a kitchen."  One young man looked up from his dictionary a few moments later, with furrowed brow, and said, "Is that the right word?"

7.  I am not a scary teacher.  I have to work very, very hard to be stern when it's appropriate.  As a younger teacher, I would be nice and nice and nice, then lose my temper, slamming the door or raising my voice.  I'm better now at being forceful before I am enraged, but students usually describe me as "chill." I am aware this can be code for "pushover."

8.  I have learned most of what I know about poverty and racism from observing the lives of my students.  Some of the things they've told me and some of the things I've seen have permanently affected the way I view our country and society.

9.  I taught overseas for four years, then taught ELD in one district for ten years, then moved to my current district nine years ago.

10. For a long time I thought I'd peaked in years 8-10 of my previous district.

11.  My last year at my old job, I fell off the stool in front of the class one day, and not one kid laughed.  My first year at my new job, someone went behind my desk, unzipped my backpack, got into my purse, and stole my wallet.  Also, my old principal cried when I told her about my new job, while my next principal gave me the first "basic" ratings I'd gotten since my first year of teaching.  So you can see why the transition was rough.

12.  I loved the 17 years I spent teaching ESOL.  I never felt sure of myself in the four years I spent teaching ELA.  I've loved the past year and a half of teaching reading.

13.  I hate standardized testing.  My grad school program didn't give grades, and I'd love it if we could do that k-12 as well.

14.  I wish I had a teacher voice.  One year I got to use a voice amplifier, and I really liked it.

15.  I am really bad about enforcing things like dress code and bathroom passes.  If you are in my class and doing what you're supposed to be doing, I don't really care what you're wearing or if you need to take a three minute break.

16. I love collaborating with other teachers on the planning end, but I don't like having to stay in sync with what other teachers are doing.  This is one reason why I do better when I'm in charge of the entire program (ELD, reading) instead of part of a department teaching the same curriculum (ELA).

17. There are nearly 2,000 books in my classroom library.  I got a grant last year for about 500 of them, and now I can't stop adding to it.  My family wears thrift shop clothes and shoes so I can buy books for my classroom.

18. I'm really bad about setting up routines.  I don't think I've ever made it through a whole year using notebooks.  I always peter out mid-year.  I brought in alternative seating last year, but I do a terrible job at setting my expectations, so my pillows are always getting torn, the couches are always getting hogged, and it's just not what I know it could be.

19.  I used to pride myself in my ability to connect with the difficult kids.  Now that I have a difficult kid in my family, I sometimes have to take a step back so I don't transfer my feelings from home to school and back.

20.  Since adopting my kids my eyes have been opened to the number of students in trauma I have.  I wish this also meant I was an expert in helping them, but it doesn't.

21.  Middle school students make me laugh.  Sure, they're not cute and eager to please like younger kids, nor are they capable and relatively calm like older kids, but they are funny every single day.  In a lot of ways, I feel like middle school teachers can have a huge impact on kids' lives.

22. Some teacher friends made me sign up for twitter four or five years ago, promising that a "PLN" would be transformative.  I didn't get it.  At all.  This year I finally started to see how twitter and the connections made there can improve my teaching.  So many great minds to learn from!

23.  Some of my best times with my students have been on field trips and hiking trips.  You see a different side of many of the kids who don't thrive in a traditional classroom environment, and both teacher and students get a chance to interact as just people.

24.  I love it when I have a student who likes to read, who talks about books, who asks for and offers recommendations.  I really love it when I hear something like, "Mrs. Gassaway, I don't even LIKE reading but I can't stop reading this book!" or "I'm not a reader or anything, but this book is actually really good."

25.  I believe in a semi-superstitious but also totally serious way that I am healthier and happier when I teach in a room with windows.  I've done six without, four with, three without, one with, four without, and one with.  I really hope I get to keep my window room next year too.  (Why does anyone design classrooms without windows?!?)

And so we come to the close of another glorious month of writing and commenting, of noticing and bearing witness.  I hope everyone here got something they didn't even know they needed.  And I hope to see you again, on my blog and yours.

SOL #30: I Did It and I Will Do It

This March writing challenge is organized by Two Writing Teachers

I can't believe there's only one more day left in the challenge.  I missed one day completely (16), and my very first entry came in past the deadline because I didn't quite comprehend the whole "12-12 Eastern time" thing yet.  Days #20 and #28 were the only two I felt like I just published something because I had to--the rest, successful or not, were from the heart.  So I'm definitely calling this a win.

Last month, inspired ironically enough by a tech conference, I took up bullet journaling.  It's sounded cool for a year or so, but I didn't think I'd have the stick-to-it-iveness to make it worth my while.  I have a tendency to get super excited about every new idea, but be lazy in the execution.  The hands-on practice, specific examples, and yes, the tutorial in how to draw a banner convinced me it was worth a try, and I've been loving it ever since.

One of the many (MANY) lists I've started in my journal is called "I Did It!"  I know we're all supposed to focus on gratitude, but at the risk of sounding insufferably smug, I kind of already do.  But I also tend to sell myself short, so I decided to write down one accomplishment each day.  Nothing huge (unless it's that kind of day), but something I did that I can take a little pride in.

Looking over what I've done in the last month, I see everything from my horrifyingly overdue storage of the Christmas boxes to using a new recipe, from making the gloriously feminist dishtowel to participating in my first twitter chat.  I noted the weekend I commented on 60 SOL posts, and tomorrow I already know I will commemorate this month of slicing.

There were times when I had to really wrack my brain to come up with any accomplishments for the day.  I want to keep my list pretty focused.  My husband and I started a new TV show together--fun, but not an accomplishment.  I was happy that a family member with mental health issues did something that showed significant progress--an accomplishment, but not mine.  I got up and went to work, I washed dishes, I folded laundry--basic expectations, not accomplishments.  I joined Weight Watchers--an important step, but not yet an accomplishment.  Still, knowing myself means I can identify things that are accomplishments for me, even if they wouldn't be for someone else.  I am ridiculously afraid of confrontation for a supposedly mature woman, so the first accomplishment I noted was pushing back with data when my principal questioned the value of daily read-alouds in my middle school classroom.   I love my introversion and my peaceful nature, but I want to celebrate when I show some gumption, some energy, some follow-through.  

The past few years have been mostly a matter of hanging on.  Things have been challenging, and I have needed every second of quiet recharging time I can get.  But some things are shifting and settling, and I'm remembering that I used to Get Things Done, even with my passive tendencies.  I traveled.  I organized an exchange camp for students from two different countries. I founded and ran a hiking club.  I learned how to knit socks.  I went on a Fulbright teaching exchange.  

I painted every wall in this house, some of them more than once.

In my second twitter chat, the day after the first one, I jokingly said that since Michigan's nErDcamp is too far for me to travel to, I would have to organize one here in the northwest.  Another participant said she'd been thinking the same thing, and now we are in touch and cautiously committed to trying to make this happen in summer 2018.  It would be a big project, and not like anything I've ever done before.  It will mean working with people I don't actually know (yet), and balancing my own ideas with theirs, trying to co-lead without being a control freak.  

The acts of taking risks, trying new things, building community, and following my passions--this all sounds a lot like what the Slice of Life challenge encompasses.  

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

SOL #29: The Art of the Brick

This March writing challenge is organized by Two Writing Teachers

For a variety of reasons, it's somewhat rare for all four of us in my family to leave the house and do something together.  There was a period of about 16 months when the only place we went as a family was to extended-family events, and even then, we were likely to take two cars.  But some of the issues have calmed down, and some compromises have been made, new habits formed, and today we all piled into the car to drive across town to OMSI.

OMSI is the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and if you don't have something similar near you, then I am deeply sorry.  It is full of hand-on building and experimenting and playing and learning.  It is also a SUPER popular rainy-spring-break activity, and the line was humungous, but it moved quickly and we got inside before anyone completely melted down (though I was pretty close, to be honest).  We were meeting friends there, because we got a membership last summer when a bunch of the Winemaker's relatives were in town, and we wanted to take full advantage of our membership, which lets you bring guests.  They have five kids, so we definitely felt like we got our money's worth!

OMSI is currently hosting a "Brick Art" exhibit.  This is what you and I call Legos, but apparently legally if you are not Lego Company, you have to call them bricks.  Remember when my son sold a bunch of his Legos?  He did so at a Brick store.

I went in expecting something like Legoland, which I've only seen pictures of.  Structures built out of Legos. What I didn't realize is that the creator, Nathan Sawaya, actually makes art, with bricks as his medium.

 The first few rooms featured reproductions of famous works of art.

I liked how even the reproductions of paintings had a 3D aspect to them.  There were "paintings" hung on the wall that had a textured surface, there were sculptures, and then my favorites were the ones like the American Gothic and Whistler's Mother pictures above--where a sculpture and a flatter surface worked together to recreate the painting with depth.

Then we got into his own art.

I didn't take a lot of pictures here, not because it wasn't good, but because it's hard to get the nuance of brick and shadow in dramatic museum lighting on a phone camera.  This piece represents his worst nightmare--losing his hands, his tools of creativity.

Some pieces were whimsical, some thoughtful, and some both, such as this one:

I neglected to get ANY pictures of a section that had these hyper-realistic photos of people posed in weirdly flat American Southwest landscapes with one item in the picture made out of Legos--a cloud, a dress, an umbrella.  It's hard to explain, but they were sure fascinating to look at.  

The exhibit ended with a huge dinosaur-fossil sculpture and a take on the classic PDX carpet, something that has become a pop culture icon locally.  

The rest of the visit to OMSI was as usual--loud and overstimulating, but stuffed to the gills with interesting things to look at and try.  I get overwhelmed pretty quickly, but luckily it's not a place that needs a ton of adult intervention unless you're all about making sure the kids get the EDUCATIONAL side of what's going on.  I just let them play with stuff.  Even the 12 year old, who was huffily blasé about our plan for the day, had a great time--and even said so!  So we're calling this a successful spring break outing.

Now we all need a nap.  

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

SOL #28: Cleaning out the Storage Barn

This March writing challenge is organized by Two Writing Teachers

I can't believe this month of writing and reading is nearly over.  The next big blog-related event I'm looking forward to is Dewey's 24 Hour Read-A-Thon in late April  Join the fun!

So, there's a lot of background that I don't want to get into right now, but yesterday we spent several hours going through boxes and bins that have been in storage for about eight years.  Some of the boxes had severe water damage, others had severe varmint damage, and one particularly exciting box featured two mice scurrying away in panic as we leapt back in panic after lifting the lid on their home.

But it also included some very satisfying finds, such as my Christmas mugs, a poster I had literally been trying to find online the day before, my two Madame Alexander dolls (which my daughter was THRILLED to receive), and The Winemaker's extensive shell-and-rock collection, which both kids were super excited about.

It was obvious that when we boxed all this up, we anticipated un-boxing it a few months later.  There were stored items that we brought back home during that first year, but at this point, it seems that we could probably throw away every single thing, since we've lived this long without it.  I wish I'd sold all the books, 98% of which are now ruined. Still, we found a good amount of things we want to hang onto or that are in good enough shape to donate.

It's a bit of a problem that we are sentimental about different things, but it also helps us to be patient with each other.  I have a tendency to just want to jettison everything (besides those items I'm sentimental about, of course), while my husband wants to check all the way to the bottom of each box, and wonders if we could use or sell all sorts of things.  His caution kept me from a few rash decisions, and my "it's a chance to lighten our load!" philosophy convinced him that nobody really is going to want textbooks from the early 1990s.  But I kept those mugs, the un-ruined journals, the charm bracelet, and he kept the shells, the Russian dictionaries, and the parts from his friend's motorcycle.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

SOL #27: Kids, Expectations and Boundaries

This March writing challenge is organized by Two Writing Teachers

Truly a slice of life here:

The Boy has been grounded for three weeks, meaning no playing with friends, and very little screen time.  This is due to several back-to-back incidents that kept resetting his time owed.

Today his buddy came by hoping to play.  It's spring break, and refusing to let a kid play during spring break just seems wrong.  Still, it is the same buddy he's gotten into trouble with before, so I said yes, but you need to stay within view of the driveway.

They did that for awhile, then they came in and baked cake without a recipe, then they wanted to head back out, and asked if they could go further afield, to a nature path one street over.  I went over some ground rules, then said yes.  Then the buddy asked if my daughter could come too.

"Great idea!" I enthused.  "That way she can tattle if you guys do anything dumb!"  The friend looked embarrassed, but shrugged and nodded.  My daughter eagerly started to put her shoes on.

"Wait," said my son.  "She doesn't have to tell on us for swearing, right?"

Such are the compromises of parenting.

Later, everyone was home again.  The friend came in to the living room where The Winemaker and I were sitting and said, "Can I borrow your phone to call my mom and ask if I can spend the night over here?"  I'm sure the looks on our faces were comical.

"Let's talk about that for a minute," I said diplomatically.  We offered to have him over tomorrow night instead, but it seems he's busy.  "Maybe some other time, then," I concluded.

After they scampered off again, my husband and I looked at each other.  "Seriously?  Can I borrow YOUR PHONE to INVITE MYSELF over?" I said.  "How does that seem like an okay question?"

"You know, I think I expected kids to show up already thinking like adults," my husband confessed.  "I am always surprised at the things they don't get."

"Your expectations were..." I started.

"Misguided?"  he finished with a grin.

Edited: I just heard my son call his friend, "You raw turkey breast!"  Is this what the kids are saying these days, or is my kid really good at off-the-cuff invective?

Saturday, March 25, 2017

SOL #26: What's good about...

This March writing challenge is organized by Two Writing Teachers

"What's good about my dolls' heads,"
she tells me gravely,
"is that I can rest my chin on them if I get sleepy
while I'm holding them."

What's good about this truck,
I think,
is that you sit right next to me on this bench seat,
your dolls in your lap.

What's good about late March
is that the cherry blossoms look lovely
even on a day as grey as today.

My daughter made this little comment while we were driving home today, and it sounded like the first line of a poem to me.  So I tried to write the rest.

SOL #25: The Dish Towel to End All Dish Towels

This March writing challenge is organized by Two Writing Teachers

There's a blog I follow that is neither a teaching blog nor a book blog.  I believe I found it back when I was reading a lot of adoption blogs, but although the writer's family includes adoption, I wouldn't call it an adoption blog either.

And "Mommy blog" is so dismissive.  Family blog?

The best I can do is tell you it's like Erma Bombeck, although that's not quite accurate either, as Erma took the seeds of real life and spun them into exaggerated stories.  This blogger doesn't have to exaggerate (much) in order to hit over-the-top.  But the incredible humor still reminds me of Erma, and she has the ability to switch gears into poignant reflection as well.

Enough of the intro.  I'm talking about Beth Woolsey's Five Kids is a Lot of Kids, and if you click over there right now, you'll find her latest piece, which literally made me laugh until I cried (and we English teachers make a point of using "literally" correctly, right?), as well as the piece from a couple of days ago, which just made me cry.  A pretty definitive showcasing of her work.

Anyway.  Beth is my hero in a lot of ways, and I was fortunate enough to meet her last summer at a welcoming and fun writing retreat she runs on the Oregon coast.  And one concrete thing I've learned from her is (drum roll...) you can embroider whatever the hell you want onto dish towels.

When I first learned this amazing fact from her blog several years ago, I set to making dish towels for my sisters with family sayings on them.  Then I had my daughter draw a picture onto a towel, and embroidered it as a gift to her grandma.

But I think I have reached new heights with this, the dish towel I'm presenting my friend Kristi with at her birthday brunch in an hour.

Kristi and I have been friends since she joined my class in third grade.  Which is to say, 40 years next fall.  We have celebrated a LOT of birthdays together.  She is one of my favorite human beings, and I made her a dish towel that is both topical and timeless.  Check it out.

I totally free-handed the cat, by the way, so its legs are mildly hilarious, but that's okay.  I also thought seriously about adding a Georgia O'Keefe inspired flower/vulva type thing to the fourth corner, but decided to rein myself in.

So, thanks to Beth's blog, Kristi is receiving perhaps the coolest dishtowel ever stitched.  Who says blogging won't change lives?