Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Read a Banned Book This Week

In honor of Banned Books week, there's a lot of discussion going on in the literary blogosphere about author's own personal experiences with their books being challenged and banned in schools. Both John Green and Ellen Hopkins have written some really thought provoking posts about their own experiences with this topic.

What people who are trying to ban books don't realize is that all it does is make everyone want to read the books even MORE.

When I found out the children's book And Tango Makes Three is the most banned book in the country right now, what do you think the first thing I did was? Checked it out from the library to read what all the fuss was about.

It's the same for kids and teens. You tell them of forbidden fruit and they're going to want to eat it.

What I'd like to see instead of banning books is parents sitting their kids down and having a discussion with them about why that book is so objectionable and what lessons they as a parent hope their kids will learn from the book. They should be the person their kids hear these things from rather than their friends. There's no doubt that there are obviously books that parents are justified in banning due to age appropriateness (or lack thereof), but banning it completely is what disturbs me. For example, I would be horrified if I were a parent and found out that my child was reading John Green's Looking for Alaska in the 6th grade because the themes in that book are much too mature for 11 year olds. But banning the book for high school juniors is upsetting and downright sad.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Poetry Friday


Still one more year of preparation.
Tomorrow at the latest I’ll start working on a great book
In which my century will appear as it really was.
The sun will rise over the righteous and the wicked.
Springs and autumns will unerringly return.
In a wet thicket a thrush will build his nest lined with clay
And foxes will learn their foxy natures.

And that will be the subject, with addenda. Thus: armies
Running across frozen plains, shouting a curse
In a many-voiced chorus; the cannon of a tank
Growing immense at the corner of a street; the ride at dusk
Into a camp with watchtowers and barbed wire.

No, it won’t happen tomorrow. In five or ten years.
I still think too much about the mothers
And ask what is a man born of woman.
He curls himself up and protects his head
While he is kicked by heavy boots; on fire and running,
He burns with a bright flame; a bulldozer sweeps him into a clay pit.
Her child. Embracing a teddy bear. Conceived in ecstasy.

I haven’t learned yet to speak as I should, calmly.

- Czeslaw Milosz

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Allez Cha-cha!

I was so excited to see The Chairman from Iron Chef America, Mark Dacascos, on Dancing with the Stars last night. And I was equally excited to see that he has a personality -and that he is capable of a smile or two. In fact, I couldn't believe how amiable and amusing he was on camera outside the Food Network studios. I will be making sure to tune in to vote for The Chairman every week!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Denny and Enzo are coming to the big screen!

I was elated to read online today that one of my favorite books of all time, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, is set to become a movie in the near future. This was one of the most touching, emotion-wrenching books I've ever read and all dog lovers should be REQUIRED to read it. Patrick Dempsey will produce the film and star as Denny Swift. Okay McDreamy, I have total faith in you that you're going to make this movie as beautiful as the book was!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

I be talkin' like a pirate t'day

I gather me be gettin' carried away with the celebratin' of International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Me most recent Facebook post:

Arrrr.... I be a pirate with a snaggletooth, mateys. I be half blind in one eye and broke me paw when I be a pup, so where's me hook and eye patch?

(This is our loveable pug Guenter who almost lost his left eye to a corneal ulcer and did, in fact, break his left front paw when he was a puppy, so we often say that we should dress him up as a pirate for Halloween)

Giving students choice is not a free for all

A recent New York Times Article titled "A New Assignment: Pick the Books You Like" created such a stir that famed English teacher Nancie Atwell responded to snarky comments in an eloquent video response. Atwell has been such a great mentor from afar that I was pleased to hear her put all the naysayers in their place.

One commenter who said "The student who loves reading 'Captain Underpants' but who is never forced to move beyond that material has done nothing to prepare for a life of active, intelligent, inquisitive citizenship" obviously didn't read the whole article. If he did, he would have clearly read that students are asked to move beyond what is beneath their ability. Giving them the option for something easy in the beginning is just to get them interested in the process. And what kills me about the responses of people complaining about Captain Underpants is that they overlooked the fact that these teachers were also nudging students to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Kite Runner... I could go on and on. Reading workshop is NOT a free for all. The teacher is guiding the students rather than dictating. There is class discussion and common texts are discussed. It creates not just a love of reading, but the habit of reading, which can then help students to better understand those difficult novels discussed in high school that most of us never understood anyway.

I interpret reading workshop as creating lifelong readers which then moves them to become lifelong learners and thinkers. When a student develops a love of reading and learning, then they have the drive and the fire to learn on their own what they might have missed in school. School can only take you so far. It's like Ivern Ball said, "Knowledge is power, but enthusiasm pulls the switch." Reading workshop is designed to help pull that switch.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Poetry Friday

First Flight

All the way home
I tried to forget
how your lip twitched
how your face flinched

I walked alone
under a huge rainbow
beautiful and damaged
upper arch worn away
just two broken pieces
dangling from the sky

- Ralph Fletcher

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Columbine by Dave Cullen

I probably chose the worst time of year to read this book: right before school started. And I equally chose terrible times to listen to it: often at night right before bed. Because I listened to this book and the narrator's haunting voice before drifting off to sleep, I often found myself having nightmares about being one of the teachers caught in the crossfire.

Not only does Cullen set the story straight regarding how the media got it wrong and blew the false information out of proportion, but his writing is so vivid that you FEEL like you were one of the students or teachers fighting for their lives on April 20, 1999. As Cullen describes the scenes where students are hiding under tables and come to be face to face with the killers, I found myself transported to that terrifying place and I felt like I, too, was fighting for my life.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were NOT outcasts like the media declared over and over again. They chose to run with that story by interviewing a few students who knew nothing about the boys and who just made assumptions and over-generalizations. Because the media took the word of a few hysterical students, the story was spun as two kids getting revenge for being bullied and treated like outcasts. As you continue to read the book, you realize how incredibly inaccurate the media spin really was.

This book is absolutely gripping and even though the subject matter is horrifying, it's one that sucks you in and makes you want to keep reading.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

My kinda lasagna

So I was completely glued to the TV all summer whenever new episodes of The Next Food Network Star aired on Sunday nights. I was all about the drama and cat fights, but I was really elated when stay-at-home-mom Melissa D'Arabian won.

Having said that, I was also a big fan of Jeffrey Saad, the runner up to the title. What I loved about Melissa is all the great tips I took away from her on camera presence, but Jeffrey always made my mouth water whenever he'd cook and talk about his food.

He recently created some webisodes on FN's website and I happily watched all of them. One of the webisodes featured a Spanish-stlye smoked paprika and chorizo open-face lasagna. As I watched, I furiously wrote down all of the ingredients for the recipe so I could make if for dinner sometime.

Well that sometime was tonight and oh boy was it delicious. The smoked paprika and chorizo gave it a completely different dimension than what you're used to eating with traditional lasagna. Not only was it faster and easier than traditional lasagna, but it tasted better too.
spanish style lasagna

Back 2 School

I survived my first week back in the classroom after having spent my entire summer just sitting around doing nothing.

So many people make sly comments to me about how nice it must be to have weekends, holidays, and three months of the year off. To those people I quickly jump down their throats, reminding them that teaching is not a job - it is your life. It is all-encompassing. We as teachers spend our weekends planning lessons and our evenings grading papers. For nine months of the year, our free time is nonexistent. If you think this is a cushy job, let me remind you of the huge responsibility we face every single day.

We have to deal with answering to parents, administrators, and standardized test scores all the while dealing with curriculum, content, and behavior. We have to constantly be honing our craft by attending workshops and taking graduate classes to keep our certificates current, often out of our own meager-salaried pockets. We have to be easy and hard, fast and slow. No matter how hard we work or how many hours we invest outside of the school day, there will always be someone who disapproves of the way we do our job.

And we wonder why so many young teachers leave the profession after 5 years.

I have to admit, I worried for the past few months if I would one day become one of those statistics. As much as I love being in the classroom and have a passion for teaching writing and literature, it's easy to be blinded by all those variables that keep us from doing the job the best we possibly can.

The nerves I felt entering the classroom on Tuesday were more than just "first day of school" jitters. I knew a lot was riding on this week. Would I feel the same elation being in the classroom again? Would the exhaustion get to me or make me feel satisfied that I was making a difference? As the week wore on, I continued to question my stamina and drive to do this job well.

Then something happened that reminded me why I do this in the first place. It was Thursday and I was still going over some procedures that I hadn't covered with my classes yet when I looked around and noticed that I had 25 sets of eyes on me as I explained the steps for checking out a book from my personal classroom library. As I finished explaining the steps, I told them how much I loved books, how I've read a large number of the 200+ books on my shelves, and then proceeded to show them a few of my favorites. As soon as I finished talking, multiple hands shot up, asking all sorts of questions like, "Mrs. S, have you read the book..." "What was your favorite book in the Harry Potter series?" "Oh, Mrs. S if you like travel memoirs, my mom read this book over the summer that I think you'd like..." When I gave them a few minutes of free time, many of them rushed over to my book shelf to choose a book to check out.

It was then that it all came flooding back to me, my reason for being here. If I could bottle this feeling up and bring it out every time I have a bad day, I would. Twenty-five students, all eyes on me, talking about books like we're just sitting around the kitchen table having a casual conversation. This is when teaching is free and easy. This is when I leave at 3:15 with a smile on my face. This is... why.

There will certainly be days where this feeling of elation will be long dormant in me as I deal with not just the joys, but the heartaches of the job, but if I can remind myself that days like Thursday are the reason I do this, I need not worry. I'll be in a classroom for many years to come.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Poetry Friday

I probably use onions more than any other food in my cooking. This poem just makes me happy (and hungry).


How easily happiness begins by
dicing onions. A lump of sweet butter
slithers and swirls across the floor
of the sauté pan, especially if its
errant path crosses a tiny slick
of olive oil. Then a tumble of onions.

This could mean soup or risotto
or chutney (from the Sanskrit
chatni, to lick). Slowly the onions
go limp and then nacreous
and then what cookbooks call clear,
though if they were eyes you could see

clearly the cataracts in them.
It’s true it can make you weep
to peel them, to unfurl and to tease
from the taut ball first the brittle,
caramel-colored and decrepit
papery outside layer, the least

recent the reticent onion
wrapped around its growing body,
for there’s nothing to an onion
but skin, and it’s true you can go on
weeping as you go on in, through
the moist middle skins, the sweetest

and thickest, and you can go on
in to the core, to the bud-like,
acrid, fibrous skins densely
clustered there, stalky and in-
complete, and these are the most
pungent, like the nuggets of nightmare

and rage and murmury animal
comfort that infant humans secrete.
This is the best domestic perfume.
You sit down to eat with a rumor
of onions still on your twice-washed
hands and lift to your mouth a hint

of a story about loam and usual
endurance. It’s there when you clean up
and rinse the wine glasses and make
a joke, and you leave the minutest
whiff of it on the light switch,
later, when you climb the stairs.

- William Matthews

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Don't listen to Kermit, being Green is getting easier

Students have not arrived at school yet. Michigan has been blessed with an extra week of summer vacation this year due to the lateness of Labor Day. But the lack of hot days and abundance of temperatures in the 60s and 70s has left many people scratching their heads proclaiming, "So where's this global warming BS that Al Gore's talking about?"

I'll be the first to admit, I'm a lover of all things Green, but even I had to ask myself this question a time or two. Then I remembered that I teach English and not science for a reason. I'm never going to fully understand how the cycles of weather and sea levels work, and for me, it's not just about global warming; it's about being a good citizen of the earth.

People who balk at others trying to make greener choices, implying that we're all tree-hugging, granola eating, electricity shunning, Ralph Nader following hippies, need to open their eyes. Making greener choices is not about giving things up - it's about choosing better ways to maintain the lifestyle we're already living. I don't see how buying a few reusable water bottles and hydrating yourself that way rather than consuming water from a disposable bottle that clogs up landfills and creates a ridiculous amount of carbon emissions is asking you to give anything up, especially when study after study has shown that tap water is actually better for you anyway .

In 2009, Green innovation is attempting to create jobs that help evolve technology, not devolve it. No one's asking you to give anything up. We're not asking you to sell your cars and start getting around via horse and buggy. We're asking you to be part of the paradigm shift that's helping to promote the technologies that are helping to create a better sustainable living model. Let's find ways to get solar and wind power to work en masse so that we don't have to rely on polluting coal fired power plants anymore. Let's find a way to farm more responsibly so that we're not ingesting potentially harmful chemicals into our bodies. Let's find a way to make transportation more efficient and less wasteful of natural resources.

For me, being Green is not about politics. It's about respecting God's creation. It's about remembering that what we do today will impact what we leave behind for our children. So I'm sorry if some of you out there find that irritating because I personally just find it being a responsible citizen.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

More Bacon Love

Is there something wrong with me that I crumbled bacon all over the orechiette carbonara I made for dinner, took one look at my greasy, bacon-bit covered hand, and found it very difficult not to lick it clean?

(Incidentally, I didn't lick it clean. I just licked it once.)

The Flip Side of Facebook and Friendship

The timeliness of a WSJ article titled How Facebook Ruins Friendships is not lost on me given the fact that I just recently wrote about how Facebook has helped me to rekindle some friendships that had faded over the years.

Writer Elizabeth Berstein did make some valid points in her article, but despite the following arguments, I still stand behind my original thesis that, on the whole, Facebook does help rather than hurt friendships.

Having said that however, Bernstein does pose some really convincing arguments that are worth discussing. Some ways she says Facebook can ruin friendships:
  • trivial updates that waste space on everyone's news feed (a la, "just dropped the kids off at school", "makin' dinner", "watching Letterman...") If we don't call people to tell them these things, then why are we posting about them? All we're doing with these kinds of status updates is showing people how narcissistic we are.
  • posting quiz and game results on your news feed implying your ability to spend hours online yet explicitly telling people in person how busy you are
  • passive-aggressive behavior is seen as more acceptable because people feel they can hide behind their computer screen
  • losing the benefit of body language to help gauge a person's intent.

I admit that some of these behaviors can mar friendships and make in-person communication awkward. I have experienced those passive-aggressive posts from people that I felt were directed toward me and so there's an uncomfortableness when speaking to that person face to face. I'm not really sure how to explain how I feel about those people. I don't think Facebook has changed their behavior; they've just suddenly found a venue with which their vices can be more openly on display. Some people are just worse at filtering than others.

I also scratch my head at the banality of posts that iPhone and Blackberry users write like "sitting on the subway" or "waiting in line at Target," because as an English teacher, one of the first lessons we teach our students about writing is the rule of "So what?" You want to write about the first time you fell off your bike? So what? Why was that important? You want to write about your vacation to Disney World? So what? Millions of people around the world have gone there as a kid. Why should I care about your trip there? When writing for or addressing an audience, you always have to ask yourself, Am I answering the internal so what? that all people ask when reading a piece of text? Despite the 140 character brevity of status updates, I think some of our Facebook and Twitter friends haven't learned this rule yet.

So let me help you out here Facebook users. A status update like "...sitting on the subway" is boring because everyone on your friends list is going to say to themselves So what? But if you post something like, "...sitting on the subway, smiling at the young man with piercings and a mohawk who gave up his seat for an elderly lady and then chatted with her for the rest of his ride," people are going to be more intrigued by what you have to say. Suddenly there is no trace of a so what? mulling around in their heads because you gave them the answer to that question. In that short amount of text, you just told everyone, "Appearances aren't always what they seem. Someone whom I initially judged to be intimidating, scary, and defiant, turned out to be courteous, respectful, and likable." Wow! We just witnessed someone learning a life lesson in 140 characters or less!

There's no doubt that some of the things I post on FB could be considered a bit mundane, but for the most part, I really do try to make my posts conversation-worthy. Yes, every once in a while, I'll post something boring like, "I'm tired. Going to bed," but as a general rule, I like to post updates that I feel I would discuss with friends around a dinner table or over the phone.

But for those people who, after reading this blog post, have deemed themselves in the category of mundane status updates, just ask yourself, the following before you hit submit: Is this something that people are going to ask So what? about or did I answer that question for them in these 140 characters?

So yes, turning your internal filter off when using Twitter or Facebook can negatively impact your friendships, but that's the same for us in real life. I was (and still kinda am) someone whose mouth could get her in trouble because I would speak before thinking. I'd like to think that, while there is a trace of that girl with foot-in-mouth disease, I've also learned to scale it back a bit. As social networking continues to grow, the points mentioned by Bernstein are, just like any other life lessons, ones that some people will just have to learn the hard way.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Poetry Friday

The Introduction

I don’t think this next poem
needs any introduction –
it’s best to let the work speak for itself

Maybe I should just mention
that whenever I use the word five,
I’m referring to that group of Russian composers
Who came to be known as “The Five,”
Balakirev, Moussorgsky, Borodin – that crowd.

Oh – and Hypsicles was a Greek astronomer.
He did something with the circle.

That’s about it, but for the record,
“Grimke” is Angelina Emily Grimke, the abolitionist.
“Imroz” is that little island near the Dardanelles.
“Monad” – well, you all know what monad is.

There could be a little problem
with mastaba, which is one of those Egyptian
above-ground sepulchers, sort of brick and limestone.

And you’re all familiar with helminthology?
It’s the science of worms.

Oh, and you will recall that Phoebe Mozee
is the real name of Annie Oakley.

Other than that, everything should be obvious.
Wagga Wagga is in New South Wales.
Rhyolite is that soft volcanic rock.
What else?
Yes, meranti is a type of timber, in tropical Asia I think,
and Rahway is just Rahway, New Jersey.

The rest of the poem should be clear.
I’ll just read it and let it speak for itself.

It’s about the time I went picking wild strawberries.

It’s called “Picking Wild Strawberries.”

- Billy Collins

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Flight Canceled? Try Invoking Rule 240

You learn something new everyday. I was watching a show on the Fine Living Network called "The Top 20 Travel Tips" and the number two rule was to invoke rule 240 if you're ever in the unfortunate situation of experiencing a flight cancellation.

Rule 240 states that if the airline cancels a flight for a reason other than weather or an act of God, then they are required to put you on the very next flight to your destination regardless of the airline. So if Delta flight 1780 to Los Angeles is canceled and they can't get you out on the next flight until 8 hours later, but United has a flight leaving in two hours, then they must put you on that United flight - even if the only seat left on that flight is a first class seat.

You have to keep in mind, however, that the flight cancellation must be due the fault of the airline and not unavoidable circumstances. It might be a good idea to carry a copy of this rule with you whenever you travel just in case you find yourself in this position (and just remember that each airline has a different version of the rule, so print out a copy of your airline's version). Just remember that if you miss a connection due to weather, the airline will not honor the rule and you'll have to wait it out in the airport with everyone else.


Here's another great tip I learned when watching the aforementioned travel show: scan a copy of your travel documents and email them to yourself so that if, God forbid, you were to lose your passport or other identification, you have a better chance of more quickly resolving the problem and having new documents issued to you so you can return home as quickly as possible.