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

Bellatrix
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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Slice of Life March Challenge

blog photo

During the month of March, I will be participating in the Slice of Life Challenge. If you have been reading for a little while, you may have noticed that I try to participate in the Tuesday Slice of Life Challenge, which involves writing a post on Tuesdays. The March Challenge kicks it up a notch. Instead of writing on Tuesdays only, the goal is to write every day. I am not sure if I’m up to this, but I want to give it a try and see what happens. In any case, I am not going to beat myself up or pressure myself. Life happens sometimes. However, the goal is to try to post each day. I’ll see you tomorrow for the first post.

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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Slice of Life #24: Idea Slam!

idea photo
Photo by Celestine Chua

February is a rough month for teaching. It’s cold and bleak outside (in many places, anyway). Everyone seems to be a bit lethargic and tired. Many schools have started having breaks in February. My children’s school system, for instance, has a week-long winter break in February. Dylan was so excited to go back to school Monday that he woke up at 3:00 A. M. I realize he’s different that way, though.

I decided it was time to have a really fun department meeting that (I hoped) everyone would look forward to, so we are having an idea slam. The goal is for each of us to bring one (or more) ideas/tips/tricks/etc. we use in the classroom to share with the others. I think we will not only learn a lot from each other but also have fun.

I’m still trying to decide which ideas I will bring to the group. I have several in mind. There is absolutely no reason we can’t have another idea slam, though, and we have a dedicated shared folder in Google Drive that we will use to share electronic copies of anything we have. I can also scan anything that is only available in hard copy and put it in the folder later.

Some ideas I’m considering sharing*:

  • Literary 3×3. This is an idea I learned about when I was looking online for ideas to teach Mrs. Dalloway.
  • The Cartoon “Did You Read?” Quiz from the Making Curriculum Pop Ning.
  • Literary analysis bookmarks (an idea stolen from my Dean of Faculty, Cindy). (Page 1, Page 2—example is from Song of Solomon, but could be adapted for any book)
  • One of the literary analysis tools from AP Literature training this summer (besides TPCASTT, as my department knows that one pretty well).
  • Thesis statement Mad Libs (another idea from AP Literature training).

If you have a really stellar idea, I invite you to share in the comments. We can make this post our very own idea slam if you all want to play.

*If I know where the idea came from, I attempted to give credit. In many cases, I don’t know where the idea came from, so I have shared where I learned about it at least.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge 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 Harper Lee Means to Me

to kill a mockingbird photo
Photo by Bruna Ferrara;

I wonder if I would be an English teacher if not for To Kill a Mockingbird. I first encountered the film when I was in 6th grade, and my teachers showed it to us as part of a reward—I forget exactly for what. Two years later, I found a paperback copy of the book in my English teacher’s classroom. She used to have one of those spinning book racks like you see sometimes in the library or in some bookstores. I took the book off the rack and probably read the blurbs on the cover. I don’t remember. I do remember opening it up to the first page and reading

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury. His left arm was somewhat shorter than his right; when he stood or walked, the back of his hand was at right angles to his body, his thumb parallel to his thigh. He couldn’t have cared less, so long as he could pass and punt.

The passage grabbed me. I turned to see Mrs. Hoy standing next to me, excited look on her face, rocking back and forth on her heels as usual. “Do you want to borrow that book?” She asked me this question a bit too eagerly, and it made me suspicious, so I put the book back and said, “No.”

Actually, I am not totally sure that I put the book on Mrs. Hoy’s rack together with the film I had seen two years before.

Three years later, I was in Mrs. Keener’s American literature class. I was a junior. In all of high school, I can’t recall having liked anything I read for English class up to that point. I don’t actually remember reading anything in English class in tenth grade at all. I remember sitting at my desk doing grammar exercises out of Warriner’s while my teacher sat at hers. It was a miserable class. Until I landed in Mrs. Keener’s class, I hated English class for the most part. I hadn’t really had a good English teacher since middle school. I loved to read, and I loved to write. Something is wrong when a student who loves to read and write can’t enjoy English.

Mrs. Keener assigned To Kill a Mockingbird. I think it might have been the first novel I read in her class. I had moved to Georgia in February, and the class was in the middle of a research paper. I needed to come up with a topic quickly, and I think we read To Kill a Mockingbird after finishing the research paper, but I admit I don’t recall for certain. We were assigned a number of pages to read each night. I remember reading ahead. I remember being well ahead of where I was required to be. Mrs. Keener opened all our classes with journaling and allowed us to read silently in class. For me, these were the best times of the day. I loved her class, and I loved her. In some ways, I think that it started, really, with that book. I fell in love with To Kill a Mockingbird.

And so, when I entered college, after having entertained the idea of being a French teacher (I always knew I wanted to teach, but what I wanted to teach took me longer to figure out), I wanted to be like Mrs. Keener. I wanted to teach English. The first novel I taught my students in my first year of teaching was To Kill a Mockingbird. The school had no novel sets at all, and when I asked my department chair, she said I could order them. I taught the book many times since.

Nowadays, it has sort of moved down into the middle school, and I think it is probably fine for middle schoolers. Many of my current students read it in middle school and remember it fondly. When we were talking today about Harper Lee’s death, I shared with them how much I disliked English class until Mrs. Keener and this book. In so many ways, I have Mrs. Keener to thank for the fact that I am an English teacher. We have remained friends since I graduated, and she was my own department chair for a while. I owe her a real debt of gratitude because she has always advocated for me and supported me. I know I owe many of my teaching jobs to her recommendation. She was the one who finally put that book in my hand and made me love English class, and I always think of her whenever I read or teach anything she taught me in high school. I wonder sometimes if I don’t also owe Harper Lee a debt of gratitude  because as much as I wanted to be Mrs. Keener, I also wanted to put books like that in the hands of my students, and maybe they could feel the way I felt when I read it. Watching kids fall in love with a book is one of the best things about my job. Maybe if I hadn’t fallen in love with To Kill a Mockingbird, I wouldn’t be who I am right now.

Rest in peace, Harper Lee, and thank you.

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Slice of Life #23: He Said

reading photo
Photo by katerha

This week’s Slice of Life is in the form of a poem.

At the beginning of the year, he said,
I never read for fun
unless it is a sports article
or something on Twitter.
A lot of times the books we have to read
are very boring and it’s like
torture to read it for me,
but if the school or a teacher assigns
an interesting book
(they never do)
then I don’t mind reading.

The first book he chose
Wasn’t grabbing him, and I told him
to pick a new one.
He said, I can do that?
He picked Into the Wild
and it was good.

Today he was reading a
Derek Jeter biography before
class even started.
He didn’t put it down, even
while I was giving a book talk.
He said,
maybe not out loud
(but loud enough),
I like reading
now that I have figured out what
I like to read.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge 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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Slice of Life #22: Hello to my Students

hello photo
Photo by Franck Mahon

During a discussion with students today over Robin Bates’s wonderful blog Better Living Through Beowulf, and its potential for ideas for their papers, a student asked me, “Don’t you have a blog?” I said, “Yes, I do,” and the students were curious. I told them where they could find it.

In the early days of the edublogosphere, educators often blogged under pseudonyms or were discouraged from blogging at all. Many feared retribution over what they might post, and at that stage, blogging was considered a bit edgy. I have been blogging here for ten years now (eleven in June), and I can’t think of anything I would write here that I would be nervous about administrators, work colleagues, students, or parents reading. In fact, I invite it. I want the people I work with, the students I teach, and their parents to know I think a great deal about teaching, and blogging is a big part of that reflective practice. Blogging about my teaching has made such an immeasurable difference in my teaching career that it’s hard to say what kind of teacher I would be if I hadn’t started blogging. It was through encouragement on this blog that I tried just about every initiative in teaching, and each of the initiatives that has worked has made my practice that much better. In fact, I am not completely sure that I would still be teaching if not for the support and reflection this blog has offered me. When I began teaching at a school where that support and reflection was built into the expectations and culture (in comparison with other places I’ve worked), I admit I slacked off on posting, but I have yet to find any ongoing PD that has been as beneficial to me as blogging about what I am doing in the classroom.

Even though I have improved my teaching practice over time, and this blog reflects that improvement (I find in reading older posts that my positions have shifted quite a lot in some areas), I am proud that my colleagues read my blog (and sometimes leave comments) and if my students were to find it interesting that I reflect on ways I can be a better teacher out here, then they are welcome to visit. (And hello!)

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge 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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Issues, ideas, and discussion in English Education and Technology

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