Maybe you have read all the good books in your house. Maybe you need a new perspective on teaching or on God. Maybe you just want to help me clean out my bookshelves. Please peruse this list/photo of books and let me know if you would like one or two or more. Feel free to Facebook message me or email me at email@example.com and we’ll work out someway for you to get them over to your bookshelf.
These are non-fiction sources that I’ve used for information, inspiration, and assistance over the years; each title is a link to an explanation and reviews of the book.
FYI: My new, header photo at the top of the page is from our garden. I like the clarity of the photo as well as how it alludes to an openness, a hopefulness. Photographer: me.
As a country, the United States of America is still in a rough draft, test stage. We are in the middle school years of our life. We like to think we are middle aged with some wisdom but I think not.
Our current president is an indicator. He leads like a head bully. He personifies this country’s lack of maturity. He’s always been the self-centered, fragile, macho teen bully that the other kids (senators) are afraid to defy. You remember the type from middle school; no one really approves of the guy but the group tolerates him…to a point.
Other ways we act like middle schoolers: too often, we make judgments about others without knowing much about the situation; we are curious, but not great listeners; depth is not our strength; we like to try on “adult” actions with little success; we don’t appreciate the wisdom of adults (older countries…or even historians).
In order to grow up, people generally need a wake up call. Some eye-opening moment that requires self-analysis, that begs for a change of behavior. If the country hasn’t been having wake up calls lately, I’m not sure what these have been. Between injustices and murders of Black people by our police forces to denial of climate change in light of increased forest fires and rising oceans to rampant disrespect of women to the way some can’t follow safety guidelines to (insert your examples here) things seem a bit out of control and juvenile these days.
Growing up does not mean becoming liberal or conservative. It does mean moving on from those juvenile qualities of our early days: it means doing more listening for understanding, more learning and less judging, being more confident and comfortable with who we are and less likely to take things personally.
Empathy should not be political. It’s a human skill. QAnon is not an example of empathy…it is juvenile, paranoid, ridiculous…and way too popular. There are signs that empathy is still alive and well in our country and lately I’ve been seeking them out.
I recently took part in my first Living Room Conversation (albeit virtual). These are structured ways to have civil conversations with people from a variety of political beliefs. Here are the ground rules …
I found the time to be a useful exercise in listening to others. Though there weren’t as many conservatives in the conversation in which I participated, we did talk a lot about people’s varying ideas about our core values like freedom, access to work, and rising to a challenge. Some spoke of how the promise of America is so different than the reality for most people. People from around the country shared notions of balancing our hyper individualism with interdependence and our high hopes with a lowering of expectations; how understanding and tolerance may be more reasonable goals for us.
Another resource that I happened on is a book called Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide by Tania Israel. This book jumped out at me as I was dropping off a couple books at a Little Free Library near my house. Someone had left an Advance Preview copy of this 2020 book that’s on the market now. This book dovetailed nicely in with the online conversation I had. For example, the diagram from the book, below, points out some tips on having a meaningful dialogue. Though somewhat simplified, I found it a good reminder that we are more alike than different.
Both Living Room Conversations and this book focus on understanding the other side. They focus on tolerance for each other’s views. You may not think that’s enough or possible or worth it. I think it is. We’re not going to change each other. But in a peaceful society, we need to practice civility. We need to understand and appreciate each other. Respect our differences.
If we don’t aim for at least tolerance, the air in our bubble becomes quite stale and practically non-existent. And beyond tolerance, I wonder if another concept could be helpful. From the Living Room Conversations website, I learned a new word: sonder. Sonder is the realization that everyone has a story.
First, watch the video.
Then, practice juggling (re-watch the video as needed).
Finally, juggle as often as possible. It’s like learning to speak a language or getting better at playing a game (chess, for example). The more you do it, the better you (or at least most people) will get at it. What I don’t say in the video is that after awhile you’ll find that juggling is meditative. While at first it’s frustrating, over time it becomes calming. Enjoy!
Two thousand nineteen is about half over, and it has felt like ‘opposite day’ for that entire time, so here are two blog entries in one, to celebrate its half-ness and its oppositeness (as the math crowd knows, 1/2 multiplied by its opposite (2) is actually one, so yeah).
Here’s a draft of a poem that may have promise.
Instead, at 6 am
I need the cool breeze
Coming in through the screen
And that pervasive silence,
That welcome absence —
I need distant bird chatter
As the loudest sound
And an orange burst,
Pink spray, green leaved
Instead of physical activity
And its expectations.
I need this pen and my journal,
A few moments alone,
Time to contemplate the day
With a glass of water
In a soft recliner
That rocks when I say.
Stillness without sleep
Thought and observation without action
I began the next entry around graduation time. It’s incomplete, unfinished, lacking something…but then again, aren’t most graduates? Aren’t most of us?
Congratulations to the class of 2019 at every level.
Congratulations to those choosing retirement.
Congratulations to everyone who just breathed in and out.
Success is so hard to define. So, for everyone moving from one thing to another thing, I recommend the following podcast: How Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up? (You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript by following that link). It’s a recent On Being discussion on that elusive thing called “success” involving Krista Tippett, Abraham Verghese, and Denise Pope.
Here are a few highlights designed to heighten your interest:
* “Follow your heart…within reason”
* The importance of friendships across generations (a type of mentoring) — “I think it’s really a calling for this century because the wisdom of young adulthood, I think, is actually an urgency and an impatience and this longing and this aspiration to see the world whole and make it better. We want that. But there’s something so relaxing about living for a while and knowing in your body that life is long and knowing that there will be another side to whatever is happening. And so that’s really the experience you have of failure.”
*“on a small scale, [resilience is about raising] your hand in class and risk ‘sounding stupid.’”
* “failure, what goes wrong, what you get through that you didn’t know how you’d get through, this is the breeding ground of becoming wise and mature.”
I liked the discussion, partly, because of the speakers’ collective awareness that there is no one path to success. And their understanding that one hurdle toward whatever success is most assuredly involves failure. Many of the seventh graders I taught in the final years of my career were downright afraid of failing. That leads to a lack of taking risks (in writing, in class participation, in leadership…) and that can be quite immobilizing.
Generations of Allium look like waves of students over time
I recently had the honor and privilege of participating in the East Lansing High School Commencement. Two graduates asked that I give them their diplomas. That allowed me to have a seat on the stage. I became a witness to the graduates’ pride. A co-celebrator in their joy. As a retired teacher, this was a rare and singular moment. Our district (like many, I would imagine) is not that adept at using the talents of retired teachers, paraprofessionals, and secretaries in an on-going, integral way. The occasional invitation to be included in commencement, however, excuses that educational faux pas just a bit.
Witnessing young person after young person hearing his, her, or their name spoken, finally, at Commencement felt like seeing sunrise after sunrise after glorious sunrise. Each one had a face that mixed exhilaration, expectation, and trepidation with a dose of amazed wonder. They were beacons of hope, one after another. Each a success, but not in a ‘final package’ way; they found a way to cross the stage and it will lead to many more successes —— laced with failures —— on their journeys.
A teacher friend suggested I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Intrigued, I found the TED Talk by the author and I share it here for its important messages; it is, in an odd way, a success story. Not the author’s story, per se, but her awareness that generalizing one experience to fit a whole group (stereotyping) is at the heart of what’s dangerous in our world today.
Danger of a Single Story
I found a wonderful reflection on Adichie’s video that includes a way to incorporate it into a meaningful lesson, for you teachers out there. Both breaking stereotypes and offering self-awareness, this lesson seems important at this time in history.
* Challenge Success is an organization that helps schools and communities re-think what they are asking of students. They offer a way to re-think what success means for each student.
* Success in a concentrated way is a version of flow, a concept I use with students to help them find balance and confidence. Here is Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk on the subject.
I’m reading Donald Hall’s last book, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. His poetry and essays have impressed me for years and his recollections and insights in this memoir are surprising. (Sidenote: I didn’t know he died last year until after I had started the book.) Page after page, he recalls incidents from much earlier in his life when he knew Steinbeck, Faulkner, Roethke, Wright (who he called Jim), and many other famous authors. He is frank and specific in his recollections. I’ve heard that long-term memory is sharper later in life; that could be how he remembers things so clearly or maybe he was like that all along. Or, I suppose, he could be using poetic license to fill in the blanks. Whatever the cause, I recommend the book to anyone who is interested in the lives of literary figures from the last century.
Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs have always been a curiosity of mine. On one level, I am fascinated to learn about the lives of people, famous or ordinary, just because our life experiences are so amazingly varied. The more I read about the particular contexts in which people grew up, the more I appreciate the complexity of being human. And (hopefully) the less my default reaction is to jump to certain conclusions (stereotypes) when reading the news or Facebook. There’s almost always more to the story than we initially realize. The more we read (and travel) the more our minds are open and informed.
Beyond that fascination, though, I am constantly wondering if what I’m reading is true. Just because it’s in print (or online), just because someone “remembers” it, does not make it factual. While it is the best representation of what the person remembers, as I read a memoir like Hall’s, I am aware that the mind plays tricks on us and our memories distort what truly happened years ago. I have been journaling for over 30 years and looking back at my words, I sometimes don’t remember events the way I wrote about them. Listening to my wife or my mother talk about events from 10 years ago, I begin to wonder if I was really there…the differences in our memories of the same event are quite pronounced.
Here’s an example of me writing about a particular time from early in my life:
In seventh grade, my mom suggested I make new friends. I was hesistant, but started hanging out with a guy named Chris who lived about a quarter mile from our house. Between our houses was a grassy field with little pockets of trees and bushes. When Chris and I hung out, I usually went to his house because I enjoyed walking through the field and he wasn’t much of an outdoor person. We would play cards (War and Go Fish mostly), watch Batman and Columbo (when his mom was in a good mood), and annoy his older sister, Madonna. I had never met anyone named Madonna and, being Catholic, felt that maybe we should be nice to her. Instead, we would kick her bedroom door open as we passed and yell random things into her space. She would always scream back at us and turn up her music (often “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” by Cher), as if that would keep us out. Years later, after Chris and I stopped spending time together, Madonna became almost as big of a household name as her namesake.
That’s the sort of thing I would write if I had exceptional recall. It holds a person’s attention and seems plausible.
Some of it is even true.
Chris and I hung out. We bugged Madonna (yes, THAT Madonna). We were over at his house more often than my house. Madonna did play her music loudly.
Besides that, it’s all a blur. But isn’t my first rendition more interesting than ‘just the facts’? And all the detail that Hall puts in his memoir makes me wonder about how much and what parts are poetic license (otherwise known as fiction or pretend).
I enjoy a telling story. I think we all do. Maybe it’s true, maybe not, but if there are colorful characters, intriguing elements, and a genuine point or lesson, I want to hear it. Yes, I read Hall’s work and other memoirs critically — wondering about truth — part of the enjoyment, though, is in the remembered anecdotes, the individual moments that give life pizzazz and flavor. It’s a gift I wish my memory granted more often than it does…and so I read memoirs and other people’s memories to fill the void.
Suggested Memoirs, Biographies, and Autobiographies
Over a dozen parents have thanked me
for coming back to teach this year.
It’s been rather shocking.
It’s happened so many times that I was beginning to wonder if the Parent Council included it in their minutes with an “ask” that parents participate. These parents have made my day by appreciating that I chose part-time teaching over the relative ease of retirement (our administration and a few colleagues have thanked me, too). The students don’t seem as appreciative, but that’s asking too much and I realize that. What I didn’t realize was how much I would need some ‘thanks’ to balance out the other side of this decision.
Never before have I had more students failing than getting A’s. And never before have those failing students seemed to care so little about passing. Even the A/B students ask me often “what’s the least I can do on this assignment?” and still pass. Sure, I have a few parents getting after their kids to get their grades up, but the numbers are low; like their kids, many seem to have started summer break a month early. There’s an extreme apathy that is discouraging.
Never before have I had to explain what common sense means. The concept seems foreign to a great many students. Thinking about a situation and figuring it out for oneself is practically extinct. It’s exasperating. I find myself shaking my head and walking away from students so that I don’t say something I’ll regret.
Never before have so many students acted as if the rules don’t apply to them. They have their phones in their pockets (in 7th grade) when they know phones belong in their lockers. They sneak looks at their phones when teachers aren’t looking. They expect to get their phone back at the end of the hour when it’s taken (though their parent is supposed to pick it up from the office). A few slip out of class to go to the bathroom/locker/office without asking, without their planner/pass, without guilt. They leave trash around the school like it’s their bedroom. They bring food or drinks (other than water) to class when they know it’s against the rules. We enforce consequences for these rule breakers, but they repeat the behaviors with the certainty of a revolving door.
And all of this may lead to…
Never before have I seen teacher morale so low. Money is even less a motivator than it was years ago. Unless a teacher made it to the top of the salary schedule before times got bad, the money is quite mediocre and not improving. I’m thinking of teachers in the profession less than 10 years. Health care costs (which used to be one of the few perks of the job) are rising steadily and what’s covered is decreasing steadily. Most teachers are passionate about their content and about finding ways to entice/engage students about that content; when you have increasing numbers of students unwilling to bite at any engaging pieces of curricular bait, that passion starts to fade. Teachers are asked to do more and more every year — back in 2012, I made a middle school teacher’s to-do list and it keeps getting longer (though admittedly, since I’ve been part time this year, I haven’t had as long of a list). The teachers I know are swamped: teaching long days that go well past the time students leave; planning and correcting hours each night; meeting with students whose special needs require accomodations; making time to meet with many other parents who have unique concerns; juggling their job with hectic home lives; not feeling supported by the Education Secretary or strongly by their own unions. Yes, Teacher Appreciation Week was nice, but most feel like the other 35 weeks of the school year they are treading water with lead weights on their ankles.
The world is changing. Sometimes we don’t notice it when we’re in the midst of it, but being gone a year has tuned me in to changes in the attitudes of students. It may seem unfair to lump students into categories, but if you’ve taught for awhile, you’ll know what I’m talking about: there’s always an upper group in terms of effort and skills; there’s always a middle group that seems to go through the motions but does okay; and there’s always a group that no matter what I do, I can’t get much work out of them at all. This year (and the years before I retired, to some extent) the top group is shrinking and the apathetic, disengaged, in-it-for-the-grade-if-my-parents-are-watching group has ballooned. One of the reasons I came back was that I enjoyed working with students. Well, students seem much more concerned about the right answer than about learning. They are much more concerned about how their grade “looks” than about the reality of their engagement, curiosity, or challenge. Failure is a swear word to these kids and that bothers me. They think adults are just appeasing them when we talk about failure as a part of learning…as essential even. And they’re getting pressure from somewhere to succeed no matter what.
Success, though, comes from struggle. From making mistakes and learning from them.
I’m not saying, by the way, that part-time teaching this year has been a mistake for me. I have enjoyed reconnecting with colleagues. I have loved getting to know the creative, open-minded, curious students I see daily. Our class discussions about the 7th grade texts we’ve read have been thought-provoking on many occasions. We’ve laughed, sang, did a bit of dancing, shared high fives and hugs, had a couple amazing poetry readings, and went outside for a few walks. But it has been a struggle. If I’ve had success this year, it’s come from many a failure. Not reaching so many of my students seems like I’ve let them down. At the same time, though, I haven’t seen as much an effort from their side as I had hoped I would see.
Maybe those parents who thanked me realize that all of this is going on and so they were thanking me for coming back in spite of it all.
It all makes me wonder about my role in this change. Have I been too lax, too harsh, not shared enough of myself as a person, shared too much, asked too much or too little parent involvement, not made the curriculum engaging enough, moved too quickly or slowly from one unit to another…? There’s really not an objective way to know.
I went to a teacher friend’s retirement party today. People spoke about how she was a beacon of consistent, loving instruction to her elementary school age students. She spoke with great emotion about her appreciation for her colleagues and how she cared for every student through her 38 years of teaching. She also seemed proud that she had spoke her mind, even when it wasn’t popular or easy. My hope is that teachers will be able to say the same things years down the road. And that those future, retiring teachers will have seen a renewal in student motivation and purpose, as well as a willingness to learn from their mistakes.
Once in awhile, a book doesn’t hold my attention and I stop reading it. The book may have too much or too little of one thing or another — too much politics or swearing or war or too little humor or reality or adventure. Looking for Alaska by John Green was like that. I didn’t like the main character, so I stopped reading.
The Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon, has held my interest for each of the eight books — well over 7,000 pages. I just finished the eighth book, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, and I must say the books are an artful mix of all those elements I mentioned above…with several dashes of time travel added which make it even more intriguing. Gabaldon wonderfully balances all the elements of story-telling and keeps me (and millions of others) anticipating the next book. For those who like comparisons and haven’t read the series, think Barbara Kingsolver (for writing about nature & science and for story telling) meets Dr. Who (for his tardis) meets Ann Rinaldi (for historical fiction) meets Dr. Ruth (for spice), though that’s still not the whole picture.
I’ve always been a curious person and I learn new words on practically every other page in Gabaldon’s books. The photo, below, has just a few examples of the breadth of her vocabulary. She mixes in jargon from traditional and herbal medicine, gardening and mountain life, and a vast amount of Gaelic (Starz has several Youtube videos on how to speak Gaelic that are fun). She throws in quite a bit of French, Mohawk, and some German along the way, too. Each book is a lesson in language.
I’ve never read a novel that had so much romance in it until the novels of this series. Our daughter, Rachel, suggested I read the first book. She may have realized I needed a bit of spicy, dicey literature because it turns out that those are the scenes I reread most often. Go figure.
The term Outlander is a connection for me too. An Outlander is an outsider. The term Sassenach is a synonym for outlander in the books. We’re talking about foreigners and more specifically, an English person, which Claire is in the books (though the term sassenach can be used in an endearing way at times). Growing up Armenian, we had a similar word that meant “non-Armenian.” I always thought it was odd, but I’ve come to see that most languages have this type of term. The thing is, though, that we are all outlanders. Anytime we step out of our normal routine into another environment or culture we become an outlander. So I see the book as a reminder to welcome and learn from the “other” or different people in our experience. Claire, as an outlander, has much to offer the new communities she encounters and so do we in our travels and so do immigrants to this country.
(SPOILER: Stop reading (or skip the next paragraph) if you don’t want to know a vague telling of the end of the eighth book)
The eighth novel focused mostly on the Frasers and Greys as they made their way in the late 18th century in our newly emerging America (though the 20th century travels of Briana were of much interest at times). In a glorious, eventful way, Claire and Jamie end up back on Fraser’s Ridge and as the book comes to a close, Gabaldon re-introduces characters from several hundred pages earlier in an unexpected, triumphant, subtle, masterful manner that actually made me tear up. Her writing is a testimony to the power of story. To the intricacies of living. To the inventive imaginings of hopeful time travelers. To the richness of history and its potential power in the living of our days.
While it’s true that I’ve skimmed a couple chapters here and there and second-guessed Gabaldon’s overuse of time traveling, part of me feels like starting over from book one tomorrow. And I recommend you go to your local bookstore or library and jump into the series yourself. As diversions from life’s craziness go, it’s a winner.
Part of the wonderful craziness of teaching middle school students is the perpetual existence of catch phrases. Young people hear adults and their peers use a word or phrase and its meaning is vague to them; after awhile, students are testing out the word in various contexts, trying to figure out its actual meaning. We start hearing the word used incorrectly and, as teachers, decide whether or not to stop everything and jump into “teachable moment” mode.
Sometimes the word is just a novelty — words like “dab” or “lit” come to mind — and are soon forgotten. We don’t spend time on those words. In the past, we have taken time with insensitive uses of “gay,” “fag,” and “queer” and I like to think that those talks had a little to do with a more healthy attitude toward our LGBTQ community, as well as the emergence of the Alliance club at the high school. Words like “creeper” and “foreigner” are also misused often and we may need to address those soon (fear of the unknown is a powerful thing). More recently, though, students have heard the word “racist” being tossed about (with our President being accused of racist remarks and some police being seen as racist toward minority groups) and have started casually accusing each other of being “racist.” This seems like one of those teachable moments to me.
The dictionary definition is a good place to start: racist — “a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.” (Oxford Dictionary) Some middle school students don’t recognize how serious this accusation is. They toss the word around quickly and freely without realizing it’s actually in the same intensity as yelling “FIRE!” or “RAPE!” The word racist carries a history with it that involves Native American displacement, white supremacist groups, hate crimes, and lynchings.
It’s a challenging topic but that isn’t a reason to ignore it; as an educator, I believe we can discuss almost anything with students as long as we do it in a sensitive, thoughtful manner. I understand that I need to be aware of my own biases and that I’m not expert on the topic, only an authority on my own experiences. These experiences are influenced by a multitude of factors, not the least of which are the culture in which I was brought up and the degree of privilege I have benefited from in my life.
I have never consciously thought that one race is superior to another (as the dictionary definition describes the word), but having taken the Implicit Bias Test and (at the same time I realize the test is not the whole picture) understanding a bit about the power of unconscious behavior, I am fully aware that I have my biases. I try to stay aware of them as I talk with people of color, but I really try to treat each person I talk with as a person first and listen to their concerns; some people say they “don’t see color,” which I think is ridiculous. I focus on the person in front of me and that means trying to take into account the little I know about his or her experience, asking questions to fill in the blanks in my head.
So part of my message, students, is to think before you accuse and to know your own biases, in general.
Instead of calling someone racist, “concentrate on why the person’s words or actions hurt you. Explain why you take issue with the person…” instead of attacking them with this strong, hateful word. (ThoughtCo) By calling someone racist, you are making an unfair, quick judgment about the person and situation — that judgment itself is a type of pigeon-holing or stereotyping that adds to the problem instead of trying to solve it.
We have been talking about using precise language in our poetry unit. The importance of our word choices is a theme you’ll see played out in The Giver, also, which we read next marking period. It carries over to many professions like law and advertising; the words you choose make a difference. And words have more than one meaning and connotation. If I was to say that I want you to discriminate, you might think I’ve lost my mind. The word, “discriminate,” however, means more than one thing. It’s actually an important skill in this sense. I would like you to discern or figure out when it’s appropriate and when it’s inappropriate to accuse people of things…that’s one definition of discriminating…to be a thinking person who distinguishes between right and wrong.
Just like when bullying happens, there are bystanders when the word “racist” is spoken. Those bystanders have a major role in what happens next, just like when bullying happens. They have to discern if the situation involves a suggestion that one race is superior or if it’s an exaggerated, inappropriate use of the word; in either case, the bystander has a responsibility to speak up — to see justice done or to tell the speaker that he or she is wrong. Their role is key to ending this misuse of the word.
Using language (whether thought, spoken, written, visual…) is a complex thing. Learning how to use it precisely and effectively is a lifelong process. My hope is that, throughout your life, you will accurately communicate your ideas. To do that, always think before you speak.