Happy Birthday, Maggie

MaggieIt’s this funky girl’s birthday, today! My middle child, Maggie, turned fifteen today. I can’t believe she’s old enough to be a student of mine. I can’t even believe she’s a teenager. The last fifteen years have flown right by.

The first things we noticed about Maggie were her shock of red hair, dimpled chin, and one pointed ear (either a Vulcan ear or elf ear, depending on which family member you ask). She was just about born talking, and she was the kind of kid who was so interested in what was going on that she quit taking naps at 18 months.

As you can probably tell from the picture, she’s an artist. In fact, she would like to go into animation. Check out this self-portrait she had in an art show in 8th grade.

Maggie Self-PortraitMaggie has always been the kind of person who doesn’t put up with nonsense. She sticks up for herself, and she’s a very strong person. She just doesn’t care what others think. In some ways, I really wish I could be like her, and I look up to her. She’s a brave person.

She is a genuinely funny person. And she has my number. Not too long ago, she was making her lunch for school, and she was taking her sweet time about it. I made a remark to the effect that she was not making her lunch very fast, and she said, “You don’t do anything very fast.” If you ask around, you will find that’s a pretty accurate assessment of me. I couldn’t even be mad.

Maggie has very strong opinions. She’s willing to listen to reason, but don’t get her going on things like Minions, Donald Trump, or most modern popular music. She is definitely the kind of person you want to have in your corner, but you don’t want to cross her.

She’s a loving child, and she’s kind to her little brother. Since he started middle school, they’ve been riding the same bus in the morning, and she looks out for him while keeping her distance. Lately, the two of them have been having lots of discussions about the presidential race.

I feel very lucky to be her mom. Happy birthday, Maggie!

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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What I Make

Autumn Fig Harvest SoapSomething many visitors to this blog might not know about me is that I make soap. I have been making soap for almost four years now. One of the reasons I started is that I fell in love with the homemade soap sold at my local farmer’s market back when I lived in Georgia. I did some research, thinking that once we moved to Massachusetts, I might take it up as a hobby. I looked at websites, saved money for supplies, and read books. I made my first batch of soap within a few weeks of moving. I didn’t want to start a new hobby as we were attempting to move, especially as it would mean packing those supplies I had purchased. It seemed better to do research and wait until we moved.

Over time, I learned to develop my own recipes for soaps, and I’ve learned my own techniques for design. It has become a creative outlet—a form of art. It’s conveniently a useful art, as well, but not any less creative for all of that.

In the years since I started making soap, I have had some spectacular failures. The first time I made soap using coffee, I forgot one of my oils, so my soap had too much lye in it, and it was not usable. There are ways you can salvage batches like that, but I didn’t want to because my design had been ruined. The first time I used honey and goat milk together in soap, my soap overheated and had very interesting-looking caves running through it.

Honey and Goat MilkFragrances can sometimes be difficult to work with. Sometimes they contain ingredients that cause soap to darken (which is cosmetic, but some people don’t like the way it looks). This is usually because of a high content of vanillin, but other ingredients can discolor soap.

Cedar & SaffronSome fragrances speed up the exothermic chemical reaction between oils and lye that results in soap, making it difficult to work with the soap batter. This problem is known as speeding up trace (when it’s mild) or seizing (when it’s severe). Soap batter is a mixture of oils and/or fats and lye. “Trace” is a term given to soap batter when it’s thick enough to leave little traces or trails on the soap batter.  You can just see it if you look at this image of soap batter.

Soap at TraceOnce a soap reaches “trace,” it’s ready to pour into the mold. If a fragrance causes a soap to reach trace faster, it might be more difficult to pour into a mold because it’s thicker. This can sometimes leave gaps or holes in the bars, but is usually not a problem aside from cosmetic issues. I do work with some fragrances that cause my soap batter to thicken more quickly, so I have learned to compensate for this issue by mixing the oils and lye at a lower temperature and/or not mixing them as long as I typically might.

Lilac SoapYou can see the holes caused by soap made with a fragrance that thickened up really quickly. I had to glop it into the mold, and it left holes like the ones near the bottom of the bar. After I learned how to work with difficult fragrances, I learned produce soaps like this one, even with fragrances that thickened the soap batter.

Hobbit's GardenNo holes or gaps!

I have only had soap batches “seize” on me a few times, and it’s always been because the fragrance caused it. Seized soap starts to solidify before you can even get it into a mold, and it often heats up at the same time. If a fragrance causes my soap to seize, I just don’t use it ever again because you can’t really work around that issue. The best you can do is glop the soap in a mold and hope it doesn’t look too terrible, but it nearly always does.

Soap in the MoldI have learned to enjoy the process of making soap. It’s calming. I usually listen to audio books while I work. I love experimenting with different colors, designs, and scents. I like trying things like infusing my soaping oils with herbs, like chamomile and calendula.

I have developed a favorite recipe that makes a really nice lather. It’s a go-to recipe for me, but I still try different combinations of oils sometimes. The fun, for me, is discovering something new—a design technique I have never tried, or a color combination that looks gorgeous. I have learned a great deal about art through making soap.

I’ve also learned resilience in the face of failure. It took me several tries to make a good goat milk soap. Working with milk in soap is hard for beginners. It also took me several tries to learn how to make swirls in my soap. This was my first successful swirl.

Coconut Lime VerbenaI’ve also learned the value of experimentation. I have ruined some batches of soap, resulting in loss of materials, but each time I had problems, I learned from them, and learning what NOT to do next time is probably more valuable than doing everything right the first time every time. It’s disappointing to have a ruined batch of soap, but I always learn from it when it happens. And it still occasionally happens.

I’ve learned a great deal about chemistry, too. I never took organic chemistry, and I had a great deal of trouble with chemistry in high school. I understand a lot more at least about the kind of chemistry involved in making soap, and it is fascinating to learn about. One of the reasons I took up this hobby in the first place is that I love to learn. I have tried my hand at many crafts over the years—making candles, cross stitching, crocheting, knitting (still learning that one), scrapbooking—and none of them has captured my imagination or given me the same kind of artistic gratification that making soap has done. I’ve also made friends that only know me through my love of this hobby—most of them fellow soapmakers.

We should all find some artistic outlet that fulfills us, teaches us, and allows us opportunities for expressing ourselves.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Five Question Challenge

top five photo
Photo by quapan

The other day, I saw this challenge posted on Sally’s blog. It looked like fun.

  1. What has been your one biggest struggle this year?
    My absolute biggest struggle this year is not one I feel comfortable airing in public, but suffice it to say it’s a personnel issue.
  2. Share two accomplishments you are proud of this school year.
    I am really excited and happy that my department is beginning to plan a humanities curriculum with the history department. They are a fantastic bunch of teachers, and they have some great ideas. I’m also really excited that our department will be featured in an upcoming alumni magazine as part of an issue devoted to the school’s writing program.
  3. What are three things you wish to accomplish before the end of the school year?
    I want to figure out a way to become more involved with our local NCTE affiliate, NEATE. In fact, I’ve already reached out to my friend Kim, the NEATE President, and we have begun that conversation. I want to buy a new car. We are overdue, and I’ve written about the issue before. We are close. Actually, we could probably do it right now, but we are trying to preserve some savings. Finally, I would like to help my daughter find a book. My son, thankfully, has discovered Lloyd Alexander. After he finishes Time Cat, he is planning to read The Book of Three.
  4. Give four reasons you stay in education today despite the current rough culture.
    The students are always the main reason. My job is never boring, and they are the most important part of everything I do. I also enjoy the mental stimulation. I never really do the same thing every year, and thinking of new ways to teach material is a challenge. I think it’s an important job, too. Helping students learn to understand their world through literature and to communicate well will take them far, and I take my job very seriously. Finally, I have had the pleasure to work with some great people in my career, and I have made many other friends through teaching. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience, even with the hardships.
  5. Which five people do you hope will take this challenge?
    This might be a cop-out, but I am just hoping anyone who needs the inspiration some day during the Slice of Life Challenge will take up this challenge.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Why I Love Wuthering Heights

wuthering heights photo
Photo by Dan Scurtu

Most people don’t have to defend their favorite books. At least, that’s my perception. Most people name their favorite books, and in reply, they might receive a sage nod. As in, “Yes, I could see that. I understand why that book might be someone’s favorite.” Or they might receive enthusiastic support. “Oh, I love that book!” When I name my favorite book, I usually get some variation on the question, “Why?” As in, “Why on Earth, would that book be your favorite?” I wrote the other day about how much I love the Harry Potter books, and I could make a strong case for their being my favorite books, but I find it hard to separate them. They tell one larger story, and they tell that story over seven volumes. If I am pressed to pick one book, however, I usually say my favorite book is Wuthering Heights.

I can hear you asking the question as you read this. I can see the look on your face. I can’t tell if you’re confused or disgusted, though. Believe it or not, I have met other people who love this book, too, and it is recognized as a classic—I think we can agree books don’t stand the test of time for absolutely no reason, right?

One question that usually follows my declaration of love for this book is how I can like the characters. They’re all horrible! Yes, I agree. They are. I have actually come to wonder if Nelly Dean might not be the most villainous character of them all. Lockwood seems bumbling and clueless with very little self-awareness. Heathcliff and Catherine are awful. Hindley is awful. Even Hareton and young Cathy can be pretty awful until the end. The minor characters, too, are unsympathetic at best and horrible at worst. So yes, I agree with folks who have trouble enjoying the book because of the characters. In spite of the fact that I don’t think I’d want to hang out at either Thrushcross Grange or Wuthering Heights, I do find the closeness with which the characters live to be intriguing. What I mean by “closeness” is that they seem to be existing right at the elemental level. They are all passion. I am not saying I hold with those who see Heathcliff as a romantic lead. I think anyone who views Heathcliff as some ideal boyfriend probably hasn’t read the book. He’s tormented, obsessive, controlling, and just plain mean. Why would you want to date that? Still, a book with characters who are absolutely impossible to connect to makes for a hard slog, so as horrible as they are, I supposed I see something intriguing in those characters.

So if even I don’t find the characters all that likable, what do I like about the book? Actually, I find the setting entrancing. I absolutely love the descriptions of the two houses and the moors over which Heathcliff and Catherine run. I have a clear picture in mind of this place. It’s forbidding, windy, mostly barren. It’s as if nature itself wants to break the people who live on this land. And they fight against it, yes, they do, but in the end, they aren’t broken. There is something of the indomitable spirit about the people who live in Gimmerton. Even old Joseph has it—tough, craggy, mean-spirited Joseph. This book uncovers something uncomfortable about human nature: that its possible to love what you hate and hate what you love.

Ultimately, I don’t really know why I love this book. I think about the answer to that question a lot, and the best conclusion I can draw is that the writing draws me in, though the world I inhabit while I’m in the pages of the book may be “a mighty stranger.” Wuthering Heights as it exists today is probably a ruin, much like Top Withens, which may have inspired it. Thrushcross Grange probably no longer exists. If you look closely, though, I’ll bet you can see the ghosts of those people who lived there, and something is alive in the crumbling brick of Wuthering Heights, just waiting to be uncovered. And somehow, each time I open that book to read it again, that whole world comes back to life, stark, beautiful, and turbulent as ever. The book surprises me all over again each time I read it.

Also, how can you not love a book that inspired something like this:

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Sunday Grading

red pen photo
Photo by faungg’s photos

I spent most of the early afternoon grading today. I am a bit mad at myself for forgetting my notes about my AP students’ poetry presentations at school. I would have liked to have graded those presentations as well. Perhaps it’s for the best, as one group still needs to present tomorrow, and it’s probably better to put in all those grades at the same time, though I’m not usually picky about that. I am really glad to be caught up otherwise because our mid-semester comments are due on Tuesday. I can usually write these comments fairly quickly because I leave comments on just about every assignment in the grade book as I go, so checking progress is not hard for me. We have an open grade book, and students and their parents and advisors can see the comments I leave on assignments as well as updates like mid-semester comments, so I think the communication is pretty clear. At any rate, I have never heard otherwise, and I was actually told by at least one parent that my comments were clear.

Over time, evaluation has become one of those things I can do fairly quickly and still point right to the heart of how and what the student is doing with an assignment. It is like anything else, I suppose. It takes practice. Would you believe, though, that I grow more and more frustrated by the fact that grades even exist? I was actually reading this article this morning (and tweeted it out). If grades are not really considered by graduate schools and employers (unless they are so low as to provoke alarm), then what are we doing here?

I allow my students to revise their work. I think it’s more important that they learn instead of that I am a hard-ass about a grade. I evolved into this belief. For one thing, my previous principal didn’t give me the kind of license to hold it, but for another, I had been conditioned to think grades were the only way to show what we’ve learned. Going back to school and getting my master’s really opened my eyes. I found that I, too, started to care more that I earned A’s than that I learned. In the end, I found the whole process of earning that degree frustrating, and I can’t say I feel like I learned a whole lot in that program. In some instances, I did, but overall, it was a waste of money that makes me angry all over again each month when I pay my student loan bill and wonder if I’ll ever pay it off. Did it open some doors? I guess you could say that it did, but I really wish I could also say that it was a valuable experience in the same way that my undergrad experience was. There was no emphasis on grades in my English education program. We did earn them, but the emphasis was on the learning, and that’s how I felt. B’s didn’t bother me. A’s were not all I was after trying to do in those classes. My motivation to learn was so much more intrinsic because I valued what I was learning. I was invested. I saw how it would fit with my chosen career. I can’t say that about most of my master’s classes.

So as I sat here grading my students’ work, I thought all these thoughts and felt all these feelings. I do want my students to see value in the work they do for my class. I want them to view it as more than a grade and be intrinsically motivated to learn. Grades stand in the way. I wonder if I am brave enough just not to assign grades. My school still gives grades, so it would be problematic. My students seem to appreciate the fact that they can revise writing, however. I am hoping they at least know that they don’t need to be satisfied with a grade. The learning is their own, and it decisions about what to do about their learning, when, and how should be in their own hands, too.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Harry Potter and Me

harry potter photo
Photo by halle stoutzenberger

The Freeform Channel, formerly known as ABC Family, is running a Harry Potter movie marathon today. I had already been thinking a little bit about Harry Potter for some reason when I woke up. When I logged into Facebook, the newish feature that allows you to look back on posts made on the same day in previous years informed me that two years ago today,  I posted a link to an article written by a writer who suggested that if J. K. Rowling really cared about writing, she should stop doing it and make way for others who couldn’t compete with her. The author of the article also suggested that adults shouldn’t read Harry Potter because it doesn’t “stimulate their minds.” It still makes me roll my eyes. First of all, I disagree entirely that it doesn’t stimulate my mind to read Harry Potter. Setting that argument aside, however, stimulating your mind isn’t the only reason to read. Sometimes you just love a book.

It was almost as if the universe was giving me a little nudge for today’s Slice of Life. You see, I’m pretty much a ginormous Harry Potter fan, if you didn’t know that about me. It was a thing at my previous teaching job in Georgia, and the kids seemed to enjoy it. I haven’t publicized it as much in my current teaching position. There are a few reasons why, I guess, but none of them are that I’m embarrassed. I find those books to be a deep well that I can return to time again, like old friends.

I first encountered the books at a time in my life when I wasn’t very happy. I was having trouble finding a job, for one thing. I had recently had a baby and was struggling financially for the first time in my adult life. I picked up the first book in either August or September of 2001. I rapidly read through the other three books that were published at that time: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The first movie had not yet been released (but would be later that fall). After I tore through those books, it would be almost two years before I could read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but the movies served to fill the void a bit. I do like the movies, though not nearly as much as the books.

Some time after the release of The Order of the Phoenix, I started reading the books to my oldest daughter, Sarah. Sarah is now 22 and in college, but at this time, she was still in elementary school. We only had one car, and we had an awful commute–over 40 minutes one way. I felt like we spent barely any time at home, and as a result, the place we slept never really felt like home to me. After school let out, it was our routine to pick up Sarah’s younger brother and sister from daycare and get something to eat. We then drove to wait for my husband’s shift at cable broadcast facility to end. It was too impractical to drive home and have to drive back out to pick him up. The time and gas we would eat up wouldn’t make it worth it. Sometimes when I think back on the crazy couple of years we spent living this life, I can’t believe we did it. I have never had such a long commute since, and it’s my goal in life never to have another one like it again.

While we sat in the car in the parking lot underneath a streetlamp, Sarah and I would read. We read all five of the books in this way. I remember before the scene when the Death Eaters come at the newly regenerated Lord Voldemort’s call that I warned Sarah it was scary and made sure she felt ready for it. She was.

Even though this was a hard time, I almost felt like those books got Sarah and I through. It was something we shared. It was something we did together. I miss those times. Those books gave us something to hang on to when times were a bit hard for us. I might as well come out and share that I had some issues with depression, and these books somehow made it better, just for a little while. How can I not be grateful for that?

Sarah’s sister Maggie and I have also read the books together. My favorite thing about Harry Potter has been sharing it with my family. My father and mother eventually became fans, and we went together to the midnight releases for the last three books. It was something we shared. It brought us together. And how can I not be grateful for that?

Over time, I did think a lot about what the books had to say about education, and I pondered the merits (or lack) of Severus Snape (who actually is my favorite character). I named my cat Bellatrix. I joined Pottermore and was relieved when I was sorted into Ravenclaw. I was even interviewed about Professor Lupin on an Irish radio show. I wish they’d called me again to discuss Professor Umbridge when the fifth movie was released. I have a lot to say about her.

I tend to re-read the books at least every other year. At some point, every time I read the series, I am right back under that streetlight in the dark, sitting in the front seat of the car with Sarah, reading until her stepfather’s shift ends and we can slog home late in the evening to the place where we slept at night.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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Time for Spring Break, Time to Write

My sleeping cat, Bellatrix, looking like I feel

I’m tired.

I think I’m ready for a break. Our spring break starts in a week. My students have been wonderful. Today, for instance, my AP Literature students presented poems through a variety of analytical lenses. They did a nice job, and in our debrief, they said that looking at the poems in this way was helpful in understanding them and also that it helped them think about others’ viewpoints and interpretations. Only one of my American Literature classes met today, but we read and discussed The Crucible. The students were particularly engaged today.

I am feeling tired, though. In some ways frustrated, too. I have a strong perfectionist streak, and as much as I wish I didn’t, I tend to internalize too many things that are out of my control. It would be nice if I were the type of person who could let that sort of thing go. Some people seem so supremely confident that they are absolutely right all the time, and I guess a lot of people would call that “arrogance.” I don’t really disagree. I think it is arrogant to feel like you are always right and others are always wrong and to refuse to see another person’s side. At the same time, sometimes I wish I had a little bit of arrogance.

In some ways, I feel very confident. In others, I second-guess myself in some pretty self-destructive ways. I’m not sure I’d be me if I didn’t have a generous helping of self-doubt, but I also admit I wish it were easier for me to set aside self-doubt when I know it’s not helping me. Sometimes, it actually does help me because I can catch myself before I make mistakes. It’s also part of being fairly reflective. I know I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. Most of the time, I think I do a pretty good job, and my intentions are certainly good. Today, though, was one of those days I allowed myself to be frustrated over a negative situation over which I don’t have a lot of control at the expense of celebrating the learning my students were displaying and some other pretty awesome things that are happening.

I’m about to say something that is probably obvious, but I actually feel a bit better getting this out. I have always thought through things on paper much better than through talking. Talking about this situation today really didn’t help and actually made me feel worse. Writing about it here helped me get some perspective. I can actually feel it leaving my shoulders.

I’ve been trying to keep a journal on mornings when I have time and space to write so that I can reflect on what I need to do and prepare for the day. I don’t write every day, and I decided I can’t give myself one more thing to be frustrated over, so I write when I feel like I can. This practice is actually helpful when I can do it, however, and perhaps what I really need to do is prioritize more time for writing so I can think. Perhaps it will help me with perspective.

Of course, yoga wouldn’t hurt either.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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My Rock Stars: An Exhibit by Hassan Hajjaj

Students Looking at Hajjij Exhibit

Today I accompanied Worcester Academy students and two of their teachers to the Worcester Arts Museum to see My Rock Stars, an experimental exhibit by Moroccan-born UK artist Hassan Hajjaj. The students are in our Postmodernism and the American Myth and 21st Century Identity: Race and Ethnicity courses offered by our English department.

Exhibit Information

The exhibit is completely immersive—everything from the wallpaper to the seating placed in various places around the exhibit. I have never seen anything quite like it. Photographs of Hajjaj’s subjects hang on the walls. Each photograph has a background with different patterned fabrics, and the colors are bright and beautiful.

Marques Toliver

Part of the exhibit is a video installation in which each of Hajjaj’s subjects perform a music piece while the other subjects appear to watch and enjoy the performances.

Video Exhibit

The exhibit even included an opportunity for students to color designs using ultra-bright colored pencils.

Students Coloring

After students had an opportunity to explore the exhibit, their teachers, Dave Baillie and Cindy Sabik, gathered the group together to talk about what they saw.

Students Discuss Exhibit

National Geographic Proof has a great article about the exhibit. In the article, Dr. Linda Komaroff, Curator and Department Head of the Art of the Middle East Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says, “if music videos existed in 15th century Morocco, this is what it would look like.”

I think my favorite performance in the video was violinist Marques Toliver, who performed his song “Charter Magic.” The video below is not the same performance in the video, but it is the same song.

I also really liked Nigerian musician Helen Parker-Jayne Isibor (who performs as the Venus Bushfires), who plays the Hang, an instrument I had never seen before. Here is the song she plays in the video exhibit (this is not the same video as the one in the exhibit):

I wound up going to this exhibit because Cindy, my friend and colleague, had a conflict and was not going to be able to transport the students to the museum, and not all the students would fit in one vehicle. I was initially going to spend the entire day planning curriculum with ninth grade English and history teachers. Our departments are working toward a collaborative humanities model, and as the English department chair, I’ve been collaborating with the teachers and overseeing the development of the curriculum. I ducked out of our planning session at about 10:00 and returned around 12:30 to find they had made quite a lot of progress. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have such a busy day, but I am glad I didn’t miss the Hajjaj exhibit before it closes on March 6.

I’ve lived in Worcester for almost four years now, but this was my first trip to the Worcester Art Museum, too. We didn’t have a lot of time to look around the museum because we were on a tight schedule, but this exhibit was definitely worth the trip and the minor inconveniences of transporting a group of students. All of the color brightened my day.

Students Enjoying the Hajjaj Exhibit

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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My (Non)Reader

reading photo
Photo by ZapTheDingbat

One of my students is a big reader. Since we started our independent reading project in December, she has read seven books. The last book she read was All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. She said the book was so good she can’t even explain it. She comes in and chats about her books, and she loves the independent reading.

One of the things I enjoy most about independent reading is putting the right books in the hands of eager readers. Students are starting to swap their own recommendations, which is really amazing. I have tried to share a book with them each time class meets, and I received a very nice thank you from one of my students for sharing so many books with them.

The truth is, as much as the independent reading seems to be working well with my students, I can’t seem to figure out how to get my daughter to read. I have tried buying books I think she would like and recommending favorites. I stay up on what teenagers are reading and what they like to read. If anyone is poised to raise a reader, I should think it would be me. I did all the right things. I read to all my children. I model a love of reading for them. I made sure they grew up surrounded by books. I’m just flummoxed.

Several years ago, I recommended Twilight to a girl I was teaching. She wasn’t a reader, but I thought she’d enjoy it. She loved it, and she talked her mother into a late evening trip to Barnes & Noble to buy the next one. Her mother was in tears of gratitude at the next parent/teacher conference because her daughter was now a reader. By senior year, she showed me she was reading a fat Alison Weir biography of Henry VIII. It was her own choice. She wasn’t reading it for class.

The year before, a student in my class discovered a love of reading after we studied The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. In his senior year, he was reading Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, which inspired the 2007 movie There Will Be Blood. It was his own choice. He wasn’t reading it for class.

I’ve been successful convincing my students to give reading a chance. One of my most reluctant readers just finished his second book. He read Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and just finished a Derek Jeter biography. He admitted at the beginning of the year that he really dislikes reading unless it’s a sports article or is on Twitter.  But now he’s read two full books of his own choosing.

I suppose partly it could be that teenagers will often listen to anyone except their parents. Perhaps my students’ parents tried to get them to read more and weren’t successful. I’m just not sure how to help my own daughter discover a love of reading, even after I’ve helped so many of my students discover the magic of books. What am I doing wrong?

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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I Voted

Steve and Dana Voted
My husband and I leaving the polls

On this date in 1692, Tituba, a slave owned by Reverend Samuel Parris in Salem, Massachusetts, broke down and confessed to bewitching several children who were suffering from mysterious ailments. She was one of the first three women accused of witchcraft in Salem, and by the end of 1692, the other two women would be dead and Tituba would be languishing in a jail cell until some unrecorded person paid her jail fees and took her away from Salem, after which she disappears from the historical record.

My students are currently reading Arthur Miller’s fictionalized account of the Salem witch trials, The Crucible. Though this drama is frequently taught in schools, it’s not exactly my favorite play. It’s a little heavy-handed, and Miller’s frequent interruptions early in the text don’t allow readers to form their own opinions of the characters (those passages could all be in a historical note at the end, I think). However, students do tend to respond to the play for a lot of reasons, one of which is that witch hunts are very much a part of our society even today.

It is a fascinating time in our nation’s history. Certainly we would like to think that we have evolved beyond accusing our neighbors of being witches. How preposterous! As we study the play, I ask my students to engage in an online scavenger hunt to learn more about the historical trials and about similar events in history. I asked my students what they found interesting, and invariably one of them mentions the fact that the witch trials were so similar to other events in history in which entire groups of people were cast under suspicion, sometimes tried and convicted, and sometimes even murdered—the Red Scare, the Holocaust, the Japanese Internment Camps.

I voted today because our country is in danger of engaging in another witch hunt. We have a presidential candidate who suggests that we prevent Muslims from entering the country until “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” And I think of my students sitting in my classroom. Some of them are Muslim. I think of Ahmed, who sat in my classroom last year. One of the gentlest, humblest, most unassuming people I have ever known, Ahmed was briefly jailed in Djibouti when he traveled there to get his visa to attend school in America because of a case of mistaken identity—he is Somali, and when police officers heard his accent as he spoke with his friend, they arrested him because another Somalian was suspected of engineering a car bombing in the city that day. Ahmed is one of the hardest-working, most earnest, kindest students I’ve ever taught. But because he is Muslim, there are people in our country who would prefer at best that he not enter the country and at worst that he didn’t exist. And they don’t even know him.

People have always probably feared “the other” and what they don’t understand in life. The danger in holding fast to that mindset, however, is that we not only miss out on some amazing people but also that we do great harm. I voted because I do not want a man who doesn’t even know my students, who can’t understand how wonderful and amazing they are, and who scares me to death to become president. If I had Donald Trump in front of me, I might just make him read The Crucible. Sadly, I think he’d miss the point.

I don’t typically write about politics, but I vote. I teach students about the ways in which our literature is both a window and a mirror, and I encourage them to vote, too. One of the reasons I teach is that I think my students can change the world, and I want them to be armed with the understanding, knowledge, and insight they need to do it. I don’t want them to go into the polls ignorant about who and what they are voting for.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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