#323: The Book Club

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I’m going to continue my trend of writing about the most recent fics I’ve been into, and the next one is about a book club. When I described it to one of my friends, after she finished reading it she said, “This is the most you subject matter ever.” And she’s right about that; writing about high school and book clubs is within my nature. I’m still an English major, even years after graduating from college, and I feel like writing about high school is pretty easy, considering I used to teach at one. It’s not difficult to imagine what it’s like to live as an average high school student when so many average high school students are in your classes and beyond. Being in a book club, though, is a different story entirely.

Being part of a book club would be great. I haven’t actually joined one in all my years of reading, but I remember in grad school when one of my professors wanted to start one with some of us after the course ended. It was our grammar course, in which I learned all about morphology and sentence diagrams and trees. The fun, nitty-gritty stuff that you don’t learn in school any more, but probably should. It helps to know the mechanics and grammar of English, even if grammar is a social construct. I don’t like how grammar is used to belittle people who speak or write differently, but I think some grammar instruction would go a long way towards helping people grow as writers and readers. Some kids aren’t able to identify parts of speech, let alone discuss what an independent clause is. I think some of the basics of grammar should be essential learning, even if it’s tough to grasp. It benefits our knowledge of English so much.

#211: The Nonfiction

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I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction lately, and so has Alex. She’s gotten super invested in some murder-related books, because those tend to be her favorites to read, and I’ve been reading Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. I’ve written on this blog before about my admiration for him, and although I do admire his work and writings, I never finished reading his book. I’m still hanging around pages 70-80, having enjoyed the first bit of the book but having not finished it because cooking, to me, is interesting but difficult to visualize in my head because of my lack of personal expertise. It’s like reading a book about hiking; I love hiking, but my experience is limited and if the book is littered with lingo that only professional hikers would know, then I’m probably not going to be as invested in the book.

Now, this isn’t to say that it’s a bad book; it’s far from it, in fact. But personally, I have a difficult time staying invested in it. I look forward to watching more of his travel TV show, because I love both TV and travel.

This blog post was originally going to be about nonfiction in general, but I’ve gotten a little off-topic and have dove into discussing a particular piece of nonfiction. I wanted to talk about CommonLit, a wonderful website and resource offered to teachers and students that gives them nonfiction texts, standard-aligned questions, and paired text ideas. It saved my butt while I was a full-time classroom teacher, and it saved my butt even more when I became a reading interventionist. Their resources are varied, interesting, and leveled by Lexile, which I remember also discussing on this blog in the past. Reading levels allow me to gauge whether a piece of reading is appropriate for my students, and the standards help me hit on all the important marking points.

#157: The Yearbook

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Remember being in school and having a yearbook? Remember passing it around to all your friends and fellow students, asking for signatures or messages to remember them by over the summer? Remember looking through to see your class picture, your pearly whites gleaming in the perfectly symmetrical lighting of every one’s pictures at once? Maybe you remember looking back at your yearbooks in the years and years that have passed since school was relevant to you. I certainly do; just a year ago, before we moved to Stamford, Alex and I spent some time looking at my old yearbooks before packing them away to be brought to our new apartment together. It was a nostalgia trip, just poring over those pages and viewing the signatures I had from friends I haven’t spoken to in years. It’s really been years, believe it or not, and it feels like it’s been years, too. Nothing compares to the nostalgia of looking at your picture from 8th grade, the year you hated the most, and seeing positive messages there that you forgot about. The phone number your first real crush left there, the HAGS and more and more, repeated forever.

I mention the yearbook because, as someone who’s currently working at a K-8 school, I was enlisted to help program the yearbook online. I’m a member of the faculty in charge of the yearbook, and we’re working together to complete this thing in time. We have about a month left (at the time of me writing this) to finish it. We’re waiting for pictures to be sent in from parents and students, but there aren’t many yet. It’s a work-in-progress, but it illuminates for me how much work must have gone into all the yearbooks people have made for me throughout the years. They weren’t just imagined out of thin air.

#150: The Program

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Get with the program!

No, but really. This is about the reading program that kids use at school, and how interesting it’s been for me to observe it so far. I may have written about this before, but hopefully not! I sometimes forget what I’ve written about already.

Essentially, a select number of title 1 students are given access to Lexia, a reading and literacy-improvement computer program, and then on certain days during the week, I take them out of their classes and they complete their Lexia assignments. It’s a fairly complicated program, in that it’s similar to the SBAC test; it assigns work for students based on their strengths and weaknesses, and then feeds that data to my end, where I can adjust my instruction based on their performance. In layman’s terms, they work on phonics or literacy questions and growth on their own, and then I use their work in the reading group I run on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. The kids love and request to use it, which makes me think that it’s probably a good thing for them. If kids are asking to learn, that’s always a positive sign in my book.

Lexia also tracks the amount of time people spend on the program, and it looks for “active minutes” to ensure that students are using their time appropriately. Sometimes, you catch a student who’s just staring at the screen, accruing minutes and minutes of time but not actually making progress in their learning. That’s a bit of a shame.

I don’t use Lexia all the time, though; sometimes, it’s more useful for us to take our instruction outside of Lexia and into a different context. For example, I’ve been using CommonLit a lot more recently, as it was a huge helper during my teaching the year before. The resources are entirely free and accessible to teachers so long as they have a school email account.

#126: The Lexile

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Lexile levels are a way of examining individual texts for language complexity. A text that has a higher Lexile level, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude, has more complex language than The Cat in the Hat. Lexile takes into account the individual complexity of the words used in a text, not so much focusing on textual features or figurative language, which is where it tends to fall short. It only takes into account prose as a framework for reading, without considering poetry or books of that type.

For example, Locomotion, the book I’m reading with my reading group at work, is not rated at all on Lexile. It is given an NP rating, or “Non-Prose,” to denote that it isn’t available for an actual rating because of its style. It’s a shame that Lexile doesn’t take into account poetry more often, as I think it would deepen the potential for using Lexile to teach poetry.

Solitude has a Lexile level of about 1410, which is at a college reading level. Meanwhile, middle school students are expected to be able to read books between a 900-1100 Lexile level, denoting that they shouldn’t have trouble reading the book or won’t run into any words that completely obstruct the meaning of the text. The reason I mention this is because, coming up soon, middle school students will be taking the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium), and the test uses Lexile levels to monitor where students’ reading levels are. Students are given a template text at a standard, middle school level, and then depending on how well they answer comprehension questions associated with the text, they are given either a harder or easier text.

Lexile is interesting to me because it quantifies what “complexity” means in terms of reading. It actually gives a definition to it, rather than just baselessly saying that a text is “harder” than another. It provides a scientific framework.

#108: The Motion

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The motion of the ocean, it’s time to discuss “Locomotion” by Jacqueline Woodson, a book I’ve discovered for the first time recently as part of my literacy reading group. It’s a fantastic story with a unique style and format, as it’s written primarily in poetic verse, interspersed with prose and epistle poetry. Lonnie, the main character, showcases his poetic development while simultaneously showing his story and character development. He grows as a character as he learns how to write poetry, and you can see him learn how to write poetry as the story continues, in a meta-textual sense; the poems rise in complexity as the story moves, and the variety of poetic formats increases page by page. I loved reading “Locmotion” for its easy to pick up style and quick pace. Kids love it, too, because the book is split up into dozens of short poems rather than chapters, and this makes it a more enjoyable read. I’ve found it to be a hit with the kids so far. It reminds me of “Carver: A Life in Poems,” which I read as part of my Adolescent Literature course in grad school.

But what’s most striking, to me, about this book is its plot and storyline. The main character, Lonnie, suffers as a result of his parents getting incinerated in a house fire. He lives in a foster home with an overbearing, oppressive foster mother who doesn’t listen to his suggestions. He and his sister live separately, in different foster homes, and rarely see each other. The plot is moving, and it made me reconsider in some ways how I feel about my own family, how nice it is to have people alive. I doubt my life would be the same otherwise.

#79: Reading

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Reading, it turns out, isn’t for everyone. And that’s okay. But harder than it looks, motivating a bunch of students to read when they don’t want to. It doesn’t come simply.

When I began my most recent job as an instructional aide (or literacy interventionist) at a local charter school, I knew from the beginning that I’d be taking over a reading group and leading them through grammar, comprehension, and language studies. I knew that the students would have low motivation, that they’d need a helping hand to guide them from start to finish. That’s where I come in. My job is to motivate, to excite, to instill a passion for reading that pushes them through the rest of their Humanities courses and into a lifetime of literature loving.

But how possible is that?

In anticipating the reading group, I thought to plan some fun activities, games with prizes, and worksheets. I adapted Taboo, a classic adult card game, into a more school-friendly version and printed out the cards for us to use. I also adapted Would You Rather? and wrote up an interest inventory, so that I would better understand where students were coming from, where their interests lie, and if they like reading but just don’t get how to read. I modeled Taboo for them, which helped them figure out how to describe the words in front of them.

When it comes to reading, not everyone is interested. Not everyone becomes a lifelong reader after exposure to an excitable teacher. More often than not, reading becomes a part of someone’s life when they make the choice to read. When choice is hung over someone’s head and denied from them, it’s no wonder reading tends to have a reputation for being boring and solitary.

Where Are You?

Where are you,
where are you,
where are you

Love, I have and share
To an extent unknown
Love forever

Locked up, tired,
Dehydrated and underfed
Sad, crying, moaning

Where are you,
right now?

Are you okay?
Are you nervous or scared?
Claustrophobic in there?

Don’t be afraid,
We still love you
We always will

Book Review: “A Confederacy of Dunces”

Two nights ago, I turned the last page on a novel I had picked up months before, A Confederacy of Dunces. I bought John Kennedy Toole’s book after I read the first chapter in Waterstones Piccadilly, and since then I had been reading the novel off and on. Ever since I finished reading, the book has been stuck in my mind and a multitude of critical possibilities have been transposing in my head. Here’s what I thought about A Confederacy of Dunces.

duncesAs you can see, the book has a bit of a weird front cover, but it displays the story fairly well. The main character’s name is Ignatius J. Reilly, and he’s a really funny fellow, though he doesn’t realize it. He’s ignorant of how he appears and ignorant of how his appearance affects others’ perceptions of him. He’s got a big brown mustache, an obnoxious green hat with two flaps on the sides, and an enormous, bulky body. Keep in mind, this book is a clever case of satire. The author uses humor and wit to debase certain characters or actions, to poke fun at them, to criticize their ignorance, and Ignatius, the baffling protagonist, is the most ignorant of all. Satirical books can be self-aware of their satirical nature, and this is seen mostly when outside characters condemn the behaviors of the characters being satirized.

A Confederacy of Dunces takes an interesting perspective on satire, as it places an extraordinary character — in this case, Ignatius — in countless extraordinary situations. The extraordinary frames the entire novel, even though the setting is mild. The main character is a medieval man stuck in a modern world. His favorite book is The Consolation of Philosophy by the Roman philosopher Boethius. He speaks with a high-level of vocabulary, but his hold on the modern world is tiny. He regularly visits the local movie theater in New Orleans and bemoans the actors and actresses’s abilities and the fictional events in the films aloud. Essentially, Ignatius is that guy, but he’s also charming in a very human way. His character, despite seeming so one-dimensional, occupies a great deal of space both literally and figuratively in the bustling world of New Orleans, and his actions in the novel’s exposition have boundless effects on the relatively normal people around him.

But what about the book’s title? First of all, the phrase “a confederacy of dunces” originates from Jonathan Swift’s writings four centuries prior to this novel’s publication. Swift is known as one of the premier satirists of his time, and he also wrote Gulliver’s Travels, another satirical novel. The title explains Ignatius’s mindset.

Four stars!


#70: The Rust

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Inevitably, time attracts rust. Nothing avoids it, except for ample preparation and productivity. Yet not everyone has access to those traits. Let’s talk about how corrosive unemployment can be, how it eats away at your mind and leaves you with a relic of what you once were, so that when you do inevitably return to work, you are a shade of your former working self. It takes time to rebuild habits and routines, rinsing and repeating. It takes time to make yourself a worker again, to build yourself back up after months of tearing down your self-esteem and happiness. Once a mountain erodes, it takes centuries to reform.

Being unemployed means you are always searching for a way out of being unemployed. At no point during my unemployment did I think, “I would rather stay this way than work again.” I had fun memories with friends that I wouldn’t have been able to have otherwise, but reliving my college summer vacation schedule while no one else is “on break” is not as fun as it seems. Every hour I was scrolling through and resetting my inbox to see if another application got back to me, or to hear back on an interview. There’s patience and madness in expecting an email that never comes. There’s doom and gloom in never receiving the validation you need. Being unemployed takes persistence, and it takes heart, and it takes your mind away, bit by bit. Slowly but surely. Sand castles build in your head, and they disintegrate upon close inspection; when you zoom in on any preexisting mental structure, its foundations appear shakier than they initially seem.

And yet there is always rust. After being away from work for months, actual months, is there any surprise that work can feel alien? Anxious minds gravitate toward worst-possible outcomes, as a natural way of things, and so prior to restarting work, I felt anxious that I wasn’t ready to go back, that I needed more time to prepare myself, without realizing that the longer I wait, the more rust that will build up around me. Rust from not working, from not being a 7-3 guy every day, from experiencing deep sleep and waking up whenever you feel like it, from going to CVS during the day and traveling to White Plains to get my prescription in the afternoon. So many things no longer possible, but thankfully, that phase of my life is behind me. It is time to move on, and the best way to move on is by releasing inhibitions and anxieties and just pushing forward. Pushing and pushing until something breaks.