Posted in Reading

Reading During the Pandemic

It’s been five months since the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, shutting down schools and businesses and sending us to our homes like children being sent to their rooms to think about what they’ve done.

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There is nothing good about COVID-19, but I’d be lying if I said the stay-home situation didn’t come with a few perks. For some, long commutes have been shortened to the walk from the bedroom to the home office, and although we can’t see friends in person, the switch to online meetings has allowed people to hang out in new ways. Some virtual gatherings have actually been larger than their real world counterparts because people who couldn’t attend due to distance can now participate.

For me, one of the benefits of this stressful situation has been the extra time to read.

Can’t go anywhere interesting? Read.
Got insomnia due to anxiety? Read.
Avoiding household chores? Read.
More walks mean more audio books.
Fewer friend gatherings mean more pages.
Ever-present bad news means greater need to escape reality.

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My dad saved this comic strip for me, which is why it has my name on it. 🙂 It hangs on my wall.

I’ve finished thirty-two books since March 13th, reading eight in June alone. Although I wish my summer had included travel and swimming and brunch and kickball games, this time with books was time well spent. Here are a few of the standouts.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, finished March 28th

This is the book that bridged the gap between the real world and the pandemic world. I started it before everything shut down and finished it after. I spent a lot of time reading it in the porch bed I made for myself. (I spent a lot of time in that porch bed this spring and plan to recreate it in the fall when the weather is cooler.) Magpie Murders is a clever murder-mystery-within-a-murder-mystery that was a nice distraction during troubling times.

Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin, finished May 18th

24807186This YA alternate history was much more engaging than I expected. I listened to the audio book, and I found myself taking longer walks so I could hear more of the story. Set in a world where the Nazis won the war, the plot is about a Jewish girl on a quest to kill Hitler. The experiments conducted on her as a child in the concentration camps turned her into a shape-shifter. Now she’s working with the resistance and using her unusual gift to masquerade as someone else in order to win (hopefully) a high-profile motorcycle race which will give her the chance she needs to assassinate the dictator. The book is fast-paced with ample twists, and the sequel is equally good.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson, finished May 25th

32191710._SY475_The universe is BIG. Like, blow-your-mind-and-make-you-want-to-crawl-under-the-covers-and-hide big. I love listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson talk, and he narrates the audiobook himself, so I highly recommend you listen to it. It’s not very long and is really interesting. I didn’t understand everything in it, but Tyson has a way of explaining things so that even non-scientists can grasp them.

*Funny story: I first started listening to this one night and accidentally fell asleep with it playing. I had the most irritating dream where my husband was following me everywhere talking about physics, and I couldn’t get him to stop. Walking the dog– talking about physics. Shopping at CVS– talking about physics. I kept saying, “Be quiet!” but he wouldn’t. I was SO annoyed with him! Lol. However, once I tried listening to book while awake, I really enjoyed it and did not fine Neil deGrasse Tyson annoying at all.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, finished May 31st

This novel about a man sentenced to house arrest in a Russian hotel is one of my favorite books. I read it and loved it in 2018 and then re-read it and loved it even more this summer. This funny, touching, thought-provoking story full of unique and lovable characters is the perfect companion for when you’re stuck at home and lamenting your inability to go anywhere. It wins for the most sticky notes I’ve ever left in a book.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths, finished June 26th

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My mom recommended this book to me, and I’m glad she did. It’s a murder mystery about a high school English teacher who’s also a writer and who’s obsessed with a horror story written by a mysterious deceased author whose study was located in the attic of her school. Oh, and it’s also a ghost story. Um… check, check, check, check, check. This book was right up my alley! Despite all the gruesome murders, it still felt like a fun escape from the world.

Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga, finished July 11th

IMG_20200816_125101This middle grade novel-in-verse about a Syrian girl who moves to America really grabbed my heart. The writing is excellent, the main character is clever and relatable, and the struggles she goes through are perfect for middle school readers who have had to learn how to straddle two cultures and for those who haven’t. I marked so many memorable lines, including:

Americans love labels.
They help them know what to expect.
Sometimes, though,
I think labels stop them from
thinking.

And…

Hoping,
I’m starting to think,

might be the bravest thing a person can do.

I recommend this book to kids and adults alike.

The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives by Dashka Slater, finished July 17th

33155325._SY475_On November 4, 2013, on a city bus in Oakland, California, a black teenage boy named Richard flicked a lighter at the hem of the skirt worn by an agender teenager named Sasha. Within seconds, the skirt went up in flames, severely burning Sasha and changing both of their lives. The 57 Bus tells the story of these two teens and their very different backgrounds and the consequences of a moment. This was a hard book to read but an important one that has me thinking about my role as an educator and a citizen and a human and how I can help create a society where the Sashas and the Richards of the world can both live safe, successful lives.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, finished July 29th

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This slow, creeping, ultimately sad horror novel is full of atmosphere and subtle but persistent spookiness. Writers are told that their endings should be both surprising and inevitable, and Susan Hill nails it. This book is still on my mind weeks after reading it.

 

Love, Teach: Real Stories and Honest Advice to Keep Teachers from Crying Under Their Desks by Kelly Treleaven, finished August 3rd

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Ignore the very messy desk in the background, please.

I have been reading the Love, Teach Blog for years, and I’m so excited that Kelly Treleaven’s book is finally in the world! Her combination of humor, heart, and crazy competent teaching advice has gained her a huge following of tired, stressed, but fiercely dedicated teachers who are thankful for her unflinching honesty and welcoming kinship in a profession where it’s really true that anything can happen. Treleaven’s book has fewer funny stories about “whisper turtlenecks” and the time she was late for work because she got a squirrel stuck on her head (true– there’s a video), but it is jam-packed with super useful tips about everything from setting up your classroom to dealing with unsupportive administrators. But don’t worry. Even though the book is serious in its mission to help teachers through the rough parts of the profession, there are still plenty of quirky stories and embarrassing moments sprinkled throughout. It made me both laugh and cry (but not under my desk). The book is aimed at first year teachers, but I’ve been in the classroom for twenty years and still found so much of the advice inside helpful. I recommend it for teachers of all ages, all content, and all stages of their career. You won’t find a more honest and heartfelt guide to education anywhere.

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What books have kept you from going crazy during the pandemic?

 

Posted in Reading, Writing

Book Review: Becoming a Writer

Becoming a WriterBecoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I often read writing books really slowly. After all, the best writing books make you want to WRITE, which makes them easy to put down. It took me almost a year to finish this little 175-page volume by Dorothea Brande, but I’m glad I took my time. It enabled me to let her advice seep in and stay there, infusing my process with better habits. I recommend this book to writers, especially ones who are feeling stuck or sluggish or, as Ms. Brande would say, in the “slough of despond.” There are a lot of good, practical tips in here to get you going again. And don’t be deterred by the fact that it was published in 1934. Replace “portable typewriter” with “laptop” and “talking pictures” with “movies” and most of it is still relevant today.

Here are 10 of my favorite quotes from Becoming a Writer:

From the forward by John Gardner: “Ms. Brande comments on the workaday world’s stereotypic idea about writers– how they’re childlike, undisciplined people, possibly witches, since when writers are very good at what they do, they seem to know more than a decent person ought to know.” (page 14)

“The writer is at a disadvantage shared by no novice of the other arts. He does use the medium of ordinary conversation, of friendly letters and business letters, when he exercises his profession; and he has no impressive paraphernalia to impose respect on the layman. Now that everyone has his potable typewriter, not even that badge of his profession is left to the young writer. A musical instrument, canvas, clay, carry their own persuasiveness by seeming exotic to the uninitiated. Even a good singing voice does not issue from every throat.” (page 50-51)

“When you have completed a fair first draft you can, if you like, offer it for criticism and advice; but to talk too early is a grave mistake.” (page 52)

“When you have found a passage, long or short, which seems to you far better than anything of the sort you are yet able to do, sit down and learn from it.” (page 106)

“It is well to understand as early as possible in one’s writing life that there is just one contribution which every one of us can make: we can give into the common pool of experience some comprehension of the world as it looks to each of us.” (page 120)

“If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are very large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions.” (page 123)

“How your hero meets his dilemma, what you think of the impasse– those are the things which make your story truly your own; and it is your own individual character, unmistakably showing through your work, which will lead you to success or failure.” (page 125)

“Once we have learned to use words we must be forever using them… The conclusion should be plain. If you want to stimulate yourself into writing, amuse yourself in wordless ways. Instead of going to a theater, hear a symphony orchestra, or go by yourself to a museum; go alone for long walks, or ride by yourself on a bus-top. If you will conscientiously refuse to talk or read you will find yourself compensating for it to your great advantage.” (page 133)

“Every author, in some way by which he has come on by luck or long search, puts himself into a very light state of hypnosis. The attention is held, but just held; there is no serious demand on it. Far behind the mind’s surface, so deep that he is seldom aware… that any activity is going forward, his story is being fused and welded into an integrated work.” (page 160)

“Teach yourself as soon as possible to work the moment you sit down to a machine, or settle yourself with pad and pencil. If you find yourself dreaming there, or biting your pencil end, get up and go to the farthest corner of the room. Stay there while you are getting up steam. When you have your first sentence ready, go back to your tools. If you steadily refuse to lose yourself in reverie at your worktable, you will be rewarded by finding that merely taking your seat there will be enough to make your writing flow.” (page 174)
View all my reviews

Posted in Teaching

Advice From a Teacher: Recommendations for Writing Help

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As a teacher* I’m frequently asked for advice on teaching, learning, studying, reading, and avoiding getting sick. While I don’t consider myself an expert on any of these things, I always try to give some helpful suggestions.

So… I’ve decided to start sharing those suggestions on my blog, hoping that my small pieces of advice might travel a little bit further.

* NOTE: I’ve decided to stop referring to myself as a “former” teacher. I am a teacher. I have a valid, current teaching certificate and over fifteen years of experience in the classroom. Regardless of the fact that my current job is not teaching, I am still a teacher.

Advice From a Teacher

Last week, a friend of mine sent me this question about his daughter:

“Any recommendations for helping a new 5th grader to write better? Any good grammar books for her to learn from? Any habits I should be forming with her for reading and writing? She did not do so hot on the STAAR test, but super enjoys school.”

Here’s my reply:

The short answer is that I don’t have a good short answer. But here are some thoughts:

#1:
Does she like to read? Find something she loves to read and get her to read a lot. Reading good writing is key to writing good writing. If she likes Star Wars, I’m currently loving the Origami Yoda series by Tom Angleberger. Some people probably consider it more of a “boy book” (<– ugh, I hate those words) but I love it. I also love many other books and can compile a list if you want. (I did compile that list! See below.)

#2:
Rather than force a grammar book on her, which could easily kill her passion for writing and/or her soul, get her to practice writing about things she likes. Letters to people, a description of a favorite movie or book, a story she made up. If you’re really serious about getting her some help before school starts, you could hire a writing tutor, but I would try to find one that will make the experience fun and interesting and not just drill her with test prep. There might also be a camp or something she could attend. I know we have some in Austin. (I’ve compiled a list of those too.)

#3:
For essay writing, I do have a book I recommend. It’s called Reviving the Essay by Gretchen Bernabei, and it’s an awesome teaching tool. It comes with many useful exercises and great examples. But it probably wouldn’t be seen as a “fun summer activity” by most kids, so you’d still need someone to guide her through it. Also, the exercises teach kids how to write REAL essays, not 26-line timed standardized test crud. Which brings me to my last point…

#4:
Standardized tests are mostly crud. (See example of cruddy test materials below.) If she’s doing well otherwise in school, I wouldn’t worry too much about it. However, not worrying is easier said than done. If getting better at the test questions will make you and your daughter feel better, you can always access released tests online and practice with those.

Resources

Books

Books I Love That I Recommend for Fifth Graders:

  • The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
  • Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar
  • Wonder by R.J. Palacio
  • The Lost Track of Time by Paige Britt
  • Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
  • The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin
  • The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
  • Greenglass House by Kate Milford
  • A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
  • The Screaming Staircase (Lockwood & Co. #1) by Jonathan Stroud

Austin Summer Writing Camps for Kids:

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The Awesomeness of Gretchen Bernabei:

If you’re a writing teacher, I highly recommend buying a copy of Reviving the Essay. You will definitely get your money’s worth. But if you’re a parent looking for some writing exercises for your child, check out Gretchen’s website. She offers a wide variety of downloadable writing advice, including strategies to help with the STAAR test.

Speaking of the STAAR Test…

THIS is what the STAAR Writing Test answer document looks like.

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Ugh.

But don’t worry. Good teachers know it’s crud and they will teach your kids to write well in spite of it.  🙂

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Need advice from a teacher?
Send your questions to cariejuettner[at]gmail[dot]com.