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Book Club Option Book Review READING

Talking, Language, Memory, Anthropomorphism, Mirrors & Love

  missing fern

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, By Karen Joy Fowler

“The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back once you’ve gone over that cliff.” Rosemary

The written word also reveals secrets so I will start this review by saying that I will do my best not to go over the cliff in order to allow anyone who reaches for this book – as the result of reading this post – the opportunity to experience it as the author intended.  Whatever you do, don’t read the book flaps or the back cover.  I read this unique novel on my kindle and for once, I feel I am the better for it.  I downloaded it after reading a 2013 Great Book Picks (or something like that) and didn’t recall what it was about when I decided to begin reading it the other day.

This is a superb read – loaded with suspense, cleverly written, fascinating characters and compelling subject matter.  It is full of beginnings.  Read it through to the end (it won’t be hard to) and I can almost guarantee that you will be enthralled by the narrative and the narrator.

fowler book

I immediately fell in love with the voice of Rosemary, Karen Joy Fowler’s narrator of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in the prologue of this story of families, academic scientific research, college towns, science,  ethics and the animal rights movement.  Rosemary immediately reveals that she was a “great talker” as a child and that her parents valued her “extravagant abundance” and “inexhaustible flow” of words; nonetheless, her mother’s tip to polite social behavior was to pick one thing to say (your favorite) when you think of two or three things to say. Her father advises her early on to begin in the middle of any story, especially given her propensity to use her words to prolong her encounters with anyone who will pay attention to her.

And so she begins to tell “the middle” of her story, ten years after her older brother disappeared and 17 years since her sister vanished.  And we begin to learn about Rosemary, a college student in her fifth year at UC Davis with no degree on the horizon.  She is arrested after throwing a glass of milk in the cafeteria for no discernible reason. And it is through the aftermath of her arrest, and the days that follow, that the reader learns about her unusual family, her struggles in Kindergarten (“kindergarten is all about learning which parts of you are welcome at school and which are not”), her journey away from talking to silence (“I’d come to silence hard”), and how a family will always struggle to be together even when staying together seems impossible.  

And as the narrative unfolds, past sins and secrets are revealed and mysteries are deciphered.  And Rosemary slowly begins to find herself in her search for her missing siblings.  She ponders: “I wonder sometimes if I’m the only one spending my life making the same mistake over and over again or if that’s simply human.  Do we all tend toward a single besetting sin?”  And we begin to understand why Rosemary must look more carefully in “the mirror,” despite her rejection of her own reflection, made ironic as she lectures a self-important college guy on the “mirror” test and how “we’ve been using it to determine self-awareness” since Darwin.

I loved this story and its thoughtful presentation of animal research ethics. Pieces of ourselves can “go missing” for years, much like Rosemary’s siblings, and sometimes the only way to find them is to look hard in the mirror and truly see what is there. Because who in this life has never been completely beside themselves?

beside ourselves Fern

Ages: 14 and up.  Some profanity.

Book Club Option Book Review READING

Talking, Language, Memory, Anthropomorphism, Mirrors & Love

  missing fern

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, By Karen Joy Fowler

“The spoken word converts individual knowledge into mutual knowledge, and there is no way back once you’ve gone over that cliff.” Rosemary

The written word also reveals secrets so I will start this review by saying that I will do my best not to go over the cliff in order to allow anyone who reaches for this book – as the result of reading this post – the opportunity to experience it as the author intended.  Whatever you do, don’t read the book flaps or the back cover.  I read this unique novel on my kindle and for once, I feel I am the better for it.  I downloaded it after reading a 2013 Great Book Picks (or something like that) and didn’t recall what it was about when I decided to begin reading it the other day.

This is a superb read – loaded with suspense, cleverly written, fascinating characters and compelling subject matter.  It is full of beginnings.  Read it through to the end (it won’t be hard to) and I can almost guarantee that you will be enthralled by the narrative and the narrator.

fowler book

I immediately fell in love with the voice of Rosemary, Karen Joy Fowler’s narrator of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves in the prologue of this story of families, academic scientific research, college towns, science,  ethics and the animal rights movement.  Rosemary immediately reveals that she was a “great talker” as a child and that her parents valued her “extravagant abundance” and “inexhaustible flow” of words; nonetheless, her mother’s tip to polite social behavior was to pick one thing to say (your favorite) when you think of two or three things to say. Her father advises her early on to begin in the middle of any story, especially given her propensity to use her words to prolong her encounters with anyone who will pay attention to her.

And so she begins to tell “the middle” of her story, ten years after her older brother disappeared and 17 years since her sister vanished.  And we begin to learn about Rosemary, a college student in her fifth year at UC Davis with no degree on the horizon.  She is arrested after throwing a glass of milk in the cafeteria for no discernible reason. And it is through the aftermath of her arrest, and the days that follow, that the reader learns about her unusual family, her struggles in Kindergarten (“kindergarten is all about learning which parts of you are welcome at school and which are not”), her journey away from talking to silence (“I’d come to silence hard”), and how a family will always struggle to be together even when staying together seems impossible.  

And as the narrative unfolds, past sins and secrets are revealed and mysteries are deciphered.  And Rosemary slowly begins to find herself in her search for her missing siblings.  She ponders: “I wonder sometimes if I’m the only one spending my life making the same mistake over and over again or if that’s simply human.  Do we all tend toward a single besetting sin?”  And we begin to understand why Rosemary must look more carefully in “the mirror,” despite her rejection of her own reflection, made ironic as she lectures a self-important college guy on the “mirror” test and how “we’ve been using it to determine self-awareness” since Darwin.

I loved this story and its thoughtful presentation of animal research ethics. Pieces of ourselves can “go missing” for years, much like Rosemary’s siblings, and sometimes the only way to find them is to look hard in the mirror and truly see what is there. Because who in this life has never been completely beside themselves?

beside ourselves Fern

Ages: 14 and up.  Some profanity.

Book Review READING Teaching WRITING

Take Me Out to the Ballgame… A Triple Play Review!

Spring Training is underway and pitchers and catchers in both the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues reported last week, with position players reporting this week.  And for many, this winter’s fiercely frigid weather has made us anxious for the baseball season to officially begin as that first pitch is a definite sign that spring is in the air!  So in honor of all things baseball, together with recognition of Black History month, this review looks at a few titles that explore baseball before and during the Civil Rights movement and the efforts to break the color barrier on the baseball diamond.

I love books about baseball, well, because I love baseball.  It is a quintessentially American sport and its history reflects the challenges we have faced as a culture (and those we continue to face in this age of desperate measures to be the very best).  My classroom library has always contained a bursting bin with books about every aspect of baseball, including one on the physics of baseball.

My favorite books in the baseball bin are the picture books — which capture the beauty and movement of a sport that is demanding, exacting, front-loaded with failure, torturous (extra-inning games), but always (almost) unpredictable, with great potential for dramatic action.   Three of my favorites are laden with pictures, paintings, and photographs which can be enjoyed by baseball fans of all ages and can be meaningfully incorporated into a K-12 ELA and Social Science curriculum.  They can be used alone or together.

We are the Ship (The Story of Negro League Baseball), by Kadir Nelson

front of we are the ship

Kadir Nelson’s breathtaking narrative about the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues is packed with punch.  Hank Aaron penned the foreword and the story is told from the point of view of an unnamed “Everyman” who provides a “first-hand” chronicle of life as a black player beginning not too long after Abner Doubleday was said to have invented the game.  The book is divided into nine chapters or “innings.”  The “first inning” details the story of Rube Foster, the founder of the first Negro League and the “ninth inning” accounts the journey of Jackie Robinson as he crossed the color line into the previously all white major leagues.  The paintings of the players, the stadiums, the baseball cards, the ticket stubs all add to this detailed and compelling story of baseball and many important players, who may not all be as famous as Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth, but who forged a path that led to Jackie Robinson’s dramatic debut.  The pain of bigotry and segregation is detailed in the words and the eyes of the players Nelson so beautifully depicts.  And yet the joy of playing baseball leaps from every page.

back of We are the Ship

Satchel Paige, by Lesa Cline-Ransome, with paintings by James E. Ransome

 satchel paige

“Some say Leroy Paige was born six feet three and a half inches tall, 180 pounds, wearing a size fourteen shoe. Not a bit of truth to it. And some argue that when Mrs. Lula Paige first held her precious Leroy in her arms, she noticed his right fist was tightly curved around a baseball. Pure fiction. It would take him eighteen years to grow to that size and about half that amount of time to realize that his hand and a baseball were a perfect match.”

Lesa Cline-Ransome and her husband James Ransome have collaborated together to create a number of extraordinary books and “Satchel Paige” was their first joint work, and is a lovely tribute to the first black player named to Baseball’s Hall of Fame.   James Ransome’s paintings bring the amazing Leroy Robert Paige to life as we learn how he came to be called Satchel (from carrying bags at the train station in Mobile, Alabama where he grew up).  Lesa Cline-Ransome’s narrative is enthralling as the reader learns that Satchel was caught shop-lifting and spent five years in reform school where he perfected the art of pitching.  “And no one pitched  like Satchel Paige.”  The writing, the paintings, and a chart of Paige’s vital statistics at the book’s end make this book an informative, entertaining and visually compelling read.

  Teammates, by Peter Golenbock, Illustrated by Paul Bacon

Teammates-Golenbock-Peter-9780152006037

“The general manage of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team was a man by the name of Branch Rickey.  He was not afraid of change.  He wanted to treat the Dodger fans to the best players he could find, regardless of the color of their skin.  He thought segregation was unfair and wanted to give everyone, regardless of race or creed, an opportunity to compete equally on ballfields across America.  To do this, the Dodgers needed one special man.”

And so begins the story, as told artfully by Peter Golenbock, of Jackie Robinson’s early days in what has been called “the great experiment.”  This short but powerful narrative of the many challenges faced by Robinson in making the Dodgers and traveling with the team is told simply and directly.  And the stark truth of the death threats and the constant cruelty and humiliations by fellow players and opposing team players is seen in the short, muscular, declarative sentences describing Robinson’s life in the major leagues.  Golenbock’s dramatic description in the closing pages of  Pee Wee Reese’s bold move (for the time) in support of Robinson is direct and powerful.  Paul Bacon’s watercolor illustrations are combined with black & white photographs and headlines from this important time period in the history of baseball – and civil rights.

This book can be read by all ages and, despite its complexity (of subject matter) and simplicity (in words and pictures) be understood by all who read it.  We all want to be as brave and talented as Jackie Robinson and as brave and fair-minded (not to set aside the talented) as Pee Wee Reese.  These two baseball greats made history in more than one way – they helped change our world for the better.

Useful Resources:  Here are some additional resources to learn more about the Negro Leagues, the integration of major league baseball and James & Lisa Cline Ransome.

  1. Lisa Cline-Ransome’s website
  2. Negro League’s Baseball Museum
  3. Negro League’s Legacy
  4. Negro League’s Baseball Player’s Association
  5. “A Long Toss Back” (Smithsonian Magazine)
  6. Scholastic Lesson on Negro League’s (with a link to a “Breaking Barriers” essay contest for grades 4-9)  Essay deadline is March 14, 2014
  7. Negro League Baseball website
  8. National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum

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Book Club Option Book Review READING

Book Review: Possessing the Secret of Joy by Alice Walker

possessing

I read The Color Purple in junior high school, and it haunted me. But I discovered Alice Walker my sophomore year in college, buying Possessing the Secret of Joy at a used bookstore on the University of Pennsylvania campus, and returning over the course of the year to purchase every one of her books they had. Her writing has changed me.

Simply put,  Possessing the Secret of Joy is a hard book. The book centers about Tashi, a woman from a fictional African nation. She moves to the United States, but returns to her country as a teenager to go through a coming of age ritual that includes female genital mutilation. Following the surgery, she is changed. A woman torn between two cultures, she is devastated by the violence that has been done to her.

This book pulls no punches. Walker has done incredible research into the experiences of women who have gone through this trauma. When interviewed, she has said that she wrote about the book to express her belief that, “torture is not culture.”

Walker does not shy away from difficult topics. This book is heartbreaking, but so important. It gives dignity to Tashi, and to the women in the world whose story she tells. She is able to show the tension of living between two worlds, not belonging to either. And by the use of multiple narrators, she shows the pain to the community that surrounds women who have been victims of physical violence.

This book opened my eyes to how the stories we tell, the expectations we face, and the “way things are done” can shape our identities, even in subtle and unseen ways.

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Intended audience: adult

READING Teaching Tuesday Teaching Tip WRITING

A Place to Reflect: Using a “Think Book”

think book photo

It’s that time of year:  pedagogy has been tossed out the window for worksheets, practice tests and practicing “extended response” or “writing to a prompt.”  High-stakes testing is the culprit.  Administrators and teachers themselves have a hard time trusting that the “learning” in their classroom is enough to prepare students for the standardized tests that will determine whether a school has made adequate yearly progress, a teacher “adds value” to the school, or a student is meeting benchmarks and is ready to tackle curriculum in the next grade up in the fall.  High stakes, indeed.

All the practice testing before the testing wearies the soul, even if it reassures administrators and teachers that students are READY to fill in the bubbles and write an essay that fits “the prompt.”  And admittedly – it is important to teach “Tests” as a reading genre unit of study prior to the big day. Click on the links below for pdf resources concerning this unit of study:

Standardized Tests as Genre     Grade 5 “Test Taking” Unit of Study Sample

Another option that just might be as valuable is using  interactive notebook/dialectical journal approach to enhance student critical thinking skills. During my last two years in the classroom, I utilized a “Think Book.” I want my students to ask questions, not just answer them.  I wanted them to think about and reflect on and write about (or draw about) information.  So I designed Think Book Labels for marble composition notebooks (discourages students from ripping out pages) and these books became sacred spaces used for capturing student-generated critical thinking.  Students were required to have their “Think Books” with them in every class and routinely they were needed for homework assignments.

So, what makes a book of pages a “Think Book?” In these pages, you will find a student’s work geared toward developing all levels of  what is defined as “critical thinking”:

Critical Thinking Skills

We used them to practice taking notes, to organize and analyze information, to write reflections, to create charts or visual depictions of concepts.  I loved using them for independent reading work and used a lot of the ideas from this book:

Independent-Reading-Inside-the-Box-9781551382258

Here is an example from the book which shows how to use graphic organizers in an intentional way to organize, observe and assess reading strategies to improve reading comprehension:

Reading Boxes

Think Books are flexible tools.  Here is a wikispace describing math and science interactive notebooks as a tool for inquiry-based learning:  Interactive-Math-Science-Notebooks.

Think Books can be created for each subject or Post-it Tabs can be used to divide the pages into sections for each subject.  Teachers need to keep their own Think Book which can be used to track assignments and to model possible entries.

And, although it is February, it’s probably not too late to introduce students to using these notebooks as annual standardized testing dates loom – if you’re not using them already.  Think Books can be valuable tools for assessing student skills and levels of growth.  I’ve seen a multitude of versions of “Think Books”  on the web and I think more precise terms would include:  Interactive Notebooks, Interactive Student Notebooks (ISNs) or Dialectical Journals.

Whatever you decide to call them, Think Books should be structured around the idea of students creating a portfolio of work that is creative, meaningful and uses higher level skill sets (see chart above).  The web is loaded with resources with structured ideas of how to create a Think Book that can be tailored to work in any classroom or at home (Parents: For the kids who just don’t get science or math or social studies – create a Think Book at Home that helps them work with information using the skills listed above).  I’ve listed some links at the end of this post that should help you work with notebooks for your classroom.

I can hear some rumbling in the back of my own teacher brain:  are you crazy?  It’s one month until standardized testing in Illinois schools and teachers don’t have time for this!  But maybe they do.  The work students do in a Think Book could help them navigate different portions of the test:  Science (what should fourth graders know?  seventh graders? Diagrams, Charts), Language Arts (literary devices, plot diagrams), Math (data analysis, graphs).  Those of you who love graphic organizers…use them in the notebook!  Here is a link to a great presentation on “foldable” graphic organizers (developed by Dinah Zike) which are three-dimensional graphic organizers – engaging and a great change of pace for the pencil and paper work of test prep:

Basic Foldables

Here is an example of a foldable:

grammar foldable

Engaging, thoughtful assignments can be created and kept in this Think Book.  And after testing?  Keep using them – a valuable overview of student work that will inform your assessments and teaching will be contained in them.  At the end of the year, let students take them or recycle them or save the best ones for your teaching portfolio – and to help you use authentic student work to inform your teaching for next year.

Students need to invest – and see the point of the Notebooks.  So…teachers should grade them.  Rubrics work well and again, depending on your approach, there are a wide variety of options available through a simple internet search.  Here is one that I think would be helpful in terms of thoughtful assessment and to inform instruction (how should I group these kids?  Do I have any Stage 3 kids?):

Science notebook rubricAnd next Fall, you just might be anxious to make them part of your curriculum and routines.  Think Books help students engage with, reflect upon, organize and process information covered in class in ways that are meaningful TO THEM.  Used effectively, I believe they empower students to be responsible for their own learning and are powerful repositories of assessment – for both teacher and student.  I think the possibilities are endless!!!

Please share your own Think Book/Interactive Notebook experiences in our comments section below!

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RESOURCES:  USEFUL LINKS FOR LEARNING ABOUT THINK BOOKS/INTERACTIVE NOTEBOOKS 

THE SCIENCE INTERACTIVE NOTEBOOK (PPT)

EXAMPLE OF INTERACTIVE NOTEBOOK  (YouTube Video)

HOW TO SET UP AN INTERACTIVE NOTEBOOK (PPT)

THE ELA NOTEBOOK

IDEAS FOR NOTEBOOKS: CRITICAL THINKING ACTIVITIES

Book Review READING Teaching

Book Review: Wallace’s Lists by Barbara Bottner and Gerald Kruglik

wallaceslist

Every so often you stumble upon a book that so moves you, you can’t stop thinking about it, telling people about it, and reading it over and over again. Wallace’s Lists is that book.

Wallace is a lovable, extremely rule-bound character. Each day he makes lists, and only allows himself to do what is on his list. This is safe and comfortable for Wallace, until Albert moves in next door.

Albert is the curve to Wallace’s line. He is the artistic, free-spirited neighbor who confuses and intrigues Wallace. As quickly as Wallace can update his lists to accommodate Albert’s ideas, Albert develops new ideas. Albert loves changing his mind. “Changing my mind is an adventure,” he explains. But Wallace does not like adventure.

Wallace is faced with a dilemma. Stick with his familiar lists, or risk going “off-list” to continue his friendship with Albert.

This book speaks to me. I find myself cheering for Wallace, willing him to be brave, all the while deeply understanding the fear-scape of “what ifs” he imagines while falling asleep at night. When faced with my own fears, I too question adventure.

But ultimately, it is a story of friendship, and the ways that friends allow and even compel us to be brave, to do more and become more than we would on our own.

The book is an excellent way of teaching internal conflict, bravery, and friendship. Plus, there’s a lot of inferred humor.  Not surprisingly, this book is never available in our classroom library, but is passed like contraband under the desks from student to student.

The illustrations in this book are wonderful (done by Olof Landstrom). When I’ve read it aloud to my students, they often make me stop and let them get closer to the illustrations.

wl2

I would recommend this book for all ages, and believe that the older you are, the more you will appreciate it.

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READING Teaching

Are You Ready for Some Football?!?! Teacher Tips for Super Bowl Monday!

NFL 2014 Playoff Bracket

NFL 2014 Playoff Bracket

Many of our students will watch the Super Bowl on Sunday and all the hype that comes with it: pre-game interviews, post-game interviews and all the stuff in between including carefully crafted commercials, and, yes, there is a football game in there somewhere.

Here are a few fun, engaging, standards-based activities that will incorporate the television most of your students watched over the weekend. For those students who somehow missed the event, these activities still can be utilized and they won’t feel left out of the discussion.

One of my favorite all-time teaching resources in the New York Times “The Learning Network.”  It is chock-full of standards-based teaching ideas on a myriad of topics, including the Super Bowl: www.learning.blogs.nytimes.com.  Some of the ideas are listed below.

PLEASE ADD YOUR OWN SUPER BOWL TEACHING IDEAS FOR YOUR CLASSROOM (BOTH BEFORE AND AFTER THE BIG GAME) IN OUR COMMENTS SECTION BELOW!  

MATH:  Take a look at the activities posted at www.yummymath.com which embrace typical math lessons but focus on features that are part of the Super Bowl.  I like this set of problems for working with and analyzing  data sets of typical Super Bowl scores.  Pick a few problems to focus on in class to start the day – maybe use a problem or two as a math warmup:  Be a Super Bowl Data Whiz Kid

For a quick review of those pesky Roman Numerals which will flash across the screen as part of the Super Bowl logo, here are some ideas:  Pesky Roman Numerals

WRITING:  For writing,  I love the idea of looking at sports writing which “flexes those descriptive writing muscles!”  Bring in copies of a couple of articles from the internet or your favorite sports section to analyze.  Talk about how sports writers reinvent a simple sentence (The __________won the game against the __________) every day.  Then, using the articles, and with dictionaries and thesauruses handy, have your students create a “mad lib” with the following activity (they can work in pairs or better yet, small groups):  Play-by-Play Mad Lib

Reconvene once the mad libs are solved and discuss:  How did changing the words and phrases in the original article change its meaning and tone? What did this activity reveal about the choices that the sportswriters made? Which of the original descriptive words and phrases were particularly striking to you, and why?  Have students choose an event and then complete the following, to work on descriptive writing:  Vivid Writing Exercise

Check out the entire descriptive writing lesson plan here:  Getting in the Game

SOCIAL STUDIES:  So much to choose from…rumor has it that Cheerios, whose commercial about diversity caused such a stir a few months back, will air another ad about diversity (using the same family it did in the first commercial).  It might be interesting to compare the two advertisements and have the class discuss the responses to the first ad.  You should be able to pull these two commercials off of youtube and show them in class.  Topics to consider:  How has the definition of family changed in the last 50 years?  Why do some people view this ad as controversial?  What is the advertiser trying to accomplish with this particular ad?

SCIENCE:  The weather.  It has been a big story for most of us this year and its potential impact on this year’s Superbowl is a news item.  Here is an article from the NY Times on the subject:  “Super Bowl Putting Big Pressure on the Weatherman.”  Some ideas for discussion and research:  How is ever-increasing computing sophistication leading to more accurate forecasts? Why does it matter so much for the Super Bowl? In what other industries is it also important to precisely predict the weather? Have students learn about the field of meteorology and how it is changing, or invite them to think about other cold-weather science questions, like how playing in the bitter cold affects athletes. (And if those aren’t enough resources, here are many more ideas for teaching about the science of cold weather.)

Ok.  A few ideas to get you started!  Please share yours!

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Book Club Option Book Review READING

Book Review: Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo

shadow and bone
There are a lot, and I do mean A LOT of young adult fiction trilogies. It can be hard to pick up a book, invest in the characters, and find out at the end that it is but one of a much larger commitment of books, which may or may not pay off satisfactorily in the end.

The Grisha Trilogy is a book series worth reading. A fantasy, this book presents a world that has a very Russian landscape, which the author intentionally chose to contrast the typical European setting of many fantasies. The main character, Alina Starkov, has a rare talent that she has kept hidden, but which comes to light during battle, plunging her into a world of magic, mystery, and the Darkling: a dangerous and compelling magician who wants to use Alina as his own.

What I find so unique about this book is that the main problem is not a romance. From Twilight to Hunger Games, the underlying theme for the female protagonist is inevitably choosing between two men. In Shadow and Bone, Alina must choose between accepting her power, or hiding it. Will she embrace the fullness of her gift, knowing that it comes with power and all the temptations power brings, or will she hide her gift to try to get back the familiar life she left?

The third book of this series will come out in June, and it is the book I most look forward to reading this year. This book stands out as a refreshing change to the many dystopian and fantasy YA trilogies that have been released in the past five years. I think this book would be perfect for a book club to discuss, since Bardugo does great work in unpacking the battle with self, and the long journey toward self discovery, themes that would resonate with teens.

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(Intended audience: 7th grade and up)

Book Club Option Book Review READING

Book Review: Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart

As teachers, we often seek stories to help us explain or show concepts (i.e. compassion, kindness, patience) that are hard to define without concrete examples.  As readers, we sometimes reach for stories to help us understand or explore our spiritual side.  As mothers, we might search for stories to help us explain to our children what is meant by God’s unconditional love.  Tattoos on the Heart:  The Power of Boundless Compassion is an astounding collection of stories that can accomplish all of these tasks.

Tattoos on the Heart  demonstrates the power and possibilities of boundless compassion and kindness through the sometimes startling and always unique stories of the former gang members (a.k.a. “Homies”) Fr. Boyle  (a.k.a. “G-Dog”) has worked with at Homeboy Industries in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles for the past 24 years.

I love the title of this  book.  But after reading it, I was compelled to write on its cover (my husband hates when I do that, but I am saying I was compelled) an additional phrase:  “Kindness is the only strength there is.” Fr. Boyle’s own story illustrates the fundamental kindness that transforms not just those who receive it, but those who give it.

G-Dog knows how to tell a story with grace and humor (I would love to go to a mass where he gives the homily).  His detailed and riveting accounts  are tales of deep suffering, hope, grace and redemption.  So many of the stories show the intense power of unconditional love and acceptance as well as the importance of fighting despair.

Through these stories and Fr. Boyle’s thoughtful reflections, we learn about compassion, mercy, baptism, gladness, kinship and God’s presence in our lives. We discover more about meaningful success: standing in solidarity with those in need and persisting faithfully, despite numerous failures, and not abandoning our post, despite the lack of “evidence-based outcomes” (ring a bell, my teaching colleagues?).

I loved this book.  Many of these stories are now “tattooed” on my heart and remind me, as did so many of my former students,  that every life matters.   Meeting the world with a loving heart will truly determine what we find there ( not my words but Fr. Boyle’s).  G-Dog has a way with words  and an ability to articulate deep truths, such as the concept that true compassion for the poor: “stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgment of how they carry it.”

Whole chapters or even just a few of the stories in Tattoos on the Heart could be used in a late middle school (8th grade) or high school classroom as authentic, mentor text for writing narratives.  Or to explore the meaning and power of empathy and compassion (focus of chapter 3 of the book) with visual arts activities (yes, we all have tattoos on the heart and so many students pre-write more effectively if they’ve created  a visual representation first).

(Intended audience:  Ages 14 & up)

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Book Club Option Book Review READING

Book Review: Wonder by R.J. Palacio

Image

As teachers we are always looking for a powerful read aloud, one meaty enough that we can teach it for a month, a semester, year after year. This is one of those books.

The basic summary is that a boy named August, who has significant facial deformation, is entering school for the first time to attend 5th grade. Told from several perspectives, you are able to see the bravery of August entering this new world, juxtaposed with his sister’s desire to have a fresh start in High School, and his friends’ desire to be friends with August without being social outcasts.

August himself is so loveable that you root for him from the beginning, and the bumpy, challenging, painful first year made me cry and laugh, ever honest about what it is like to not fit in with all the other kids.

If you’re thinking about teaching this book, it also has some other interesting topics for discussion, such as death, bullying, entitlement, and theater.

This book should be read by all of us. Everyone who has every wondered what to say when they see someone with special needs, everyone who has every had special needs or been a friend to someone with special needs, and everyone who remembers what it was like to want so desperately to make friends in grade school. This book has a powerful message for us all.

(Intended audience: 4th grade and up)

Image Review by Rachel

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