Waking the Dead

One element of Christianity, and by element I mean faction, is the mindset that fiction is “evil” and that somehow only “non-fiction” is pure.  I didn’t grow up in that faction nor were many of my friends and family.  As an English teacher in a Christian high school I have run into some resistance to literature.  Fortunately, it wasn’t anything a face-to-face conversation couldn’t settle. 

Waking.jpgSo it was with great surprise that when I started reading John Eldredge’s Waking the Dead, that fiction, especially of the fantasy kind, were used as examples to support Eldredge’s Christian point-of-view.  Interweaving examples from the Bible and modern fantasy/Sci Fi, John Eldredge walks the reader through the journey to finding God’s plan to help individuals understand why it seems like nothing can go right.  I have always maintained that literature, good literature, helps all of use deal with or understand some of the pot holes we encounter on life’s pathway.

The Fantasy genre, especially, has intrigued me because while it is not based on any “reality” there is a lot in those works that feels very “real”.  Rather than reading a philosophical book on why bad things happen to good people, I’ve always found fiction a much better way to make sense of the bad things that happen in life.  Even if I’ve never experienced the same instances in the books I read, it helps me compassionate and understanding for those that may be struggling with that conflict.

While some of the writing was a little too basic for my taste, I did appreciate the overall message.  Seeing so many references to works I was familiar with helped too. I was surprised how many references there were to LOTR or The Chronicles of Narnia. Even The Matrix and The Gladiator make an appearance. But all the core stories are woven deeply into God’s message of love and purpose. This is an encouraging and inspiring read.

When Breath Becomes Air

BreathTo stare death in the face and document each step you take as your life ebbs away is no small feat. Dr. Paul Kalanithi gives us a short memoir of his journey to finding his purpose in life, even when death cuts his life short. While the book doesn’t seem to have a distinct purpose, I almost feel that’s what made this so powerful.The book seems to be divided into three parts.  The first is his journey to deciding what he wants to do with his life and where he wants to go to college.  He learns during high school that he is interested in literature and a branch of literature that analyzes what makes us tick, particularly what makes us human, aka our mind.

The second part of the memoir then focuses on his collegiate years where he studies literature at Standford and ultimately receives his master’s in literature.  However, at this point, he’s learned that it’s not so much the mind that he wants to study, but the brain and the science that makes it run.  So he abandons the humanities and takes up medicine, particularly a neurosurgery.

The last part is him wrapping up his residency and suddenly being faced with cancer.  This last part stops the autobiography-style of the book and it switches to a memoir focused on his fight to survive.

While I found this abrupt switch hard to adjust to, I asked myself, If I were facing my imminent demise would I be able to maintain a clear, concise narrative?  Wouldn’t my purpose alter at each new step particularly as cancer ravages my body? And I answered yes.  That sometimes life doesn’t give us a nice linear journey to write about.  Life likes to throw us curve balls bending and twisting our life journey.  Based just on end-of-life memoir I think this is a must read. Not for its craft but the chutzpah it takes to take on death, a topic we shy from in our sanitary world.

Revered Wisdom: Judaism

This was, unfortunately, a very disappointing read.  The author’s in this tome, took an interesting topic and completely killed it.  What was supposed to be the historical background of the second half of the Old Testament and an overview of Jewish literature, turned into a biased/prejudiced slog through history and a superficial slice of Jewish authors.

JudaismJudaism by Charles Foster Kent & Gustav Karpeles, was given to me by my parents for Christmas.  They know I like to read about Biblical history as well as expanding the pool of authors I select from.  This book seemed to them to kill two birds with one stone.  What they didn’t know is that this book is a compilation of two different books.  Kent and Karpeles wrote separate books and the publisher of the edition that I have, decided to abridge both books and smack them together into single volume.

Kent’s work is from 1945 and some of his language is very dated.  He also writes with a somewhat arrogant tone.  He does a good job giving the background to books of the Old Testament such as Esther, Isaiah, and Nehemiah.  This interested me because sometimes I think we lose context by not knowing the history of what was happening when these books were written.  Knowing the context gives more meaning to what was written, in my opinion.  However, every now and then, Kent makes these remarks like, “Of course we know…” or “Obviously it couldn’t be…”.  It irks me when authors make those evaluations when there is some doubt that there is 100% certainty.

Karpeles’s section on Jewish literature was more modern, but was sparse when it came to actually discussion works of Jewish literature and authors who wrote them.  Instead, it was a long discussion of the Bible and the Talmud, which no one will argue is the foundation of Jewish literature, but there’s much more than that.  For example, Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman and Motl The Cantor’s Son is now famous for being the origin of The Fiddler on the Roof, yet it’s not mentioned in this section.  If I were Karpeles, I would’ve wanted to give readers a sampling of Jewish authors, rather than spending time on works that are already well known.

This book was a two star.  It was slow going and I think it could’ve been written better.  I’m pretty sure there’s much better books out there so I do not recommend this book.

Fahrenheit 451

It’s a shame I’ve waited so long to read this powerful novel.  Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, is one of those books that you see listed on the must read lists.  And for some reason I ignored it.  I finally decided that I needed to read it as several of my students had read it and recommended it to me.  Plus, I’ve been thinking about teaching it during my Post-WWII unit. Excuses aside, I’m glad I finally cracked the cover.

FahrenheitThe hard thing about Fahrenheit is that it starts in media res.  And there’s no resolution.  It’s quite the Postmodern experience.  Especially for someone who teaches students about the parts of a short story, it’s nice to see someone who is playing with genre because it’s something new and I have to work a little to get acclimated to the style.  But it’s also something that I didn’t like.  The plot starts and just picks up pace right to the end.  It feels like running a race.  Except you never reach the finish line.  You just stop.  And there’s only a vague vision of the finish.  But the race that we did run was pretty awesome.

It just happened that I was reading Fahrenheit while I was teaching Thoreau’s Walden (just the chapters, “Economy,” “Where I lived, What I lived for,” and “Reading.”  And Fahrenheit mentions Thoreau and his expostulations on reading.  Particularly, the point that it’s important to read for the sake of the questions that authors ask and that make we readers question our thoughts and beliefs on things.  And for that reason I’m certain I want to teach this work to my students.  To show them that there’s an echo in literature in which no author is an island.  But also because, as a teacher, it’s better to let the book do the teaching.


ReadicideI’ve been working my way through Kelly Gallagher’s cannon and this is my latest read, Readicide: How Schools are Killing reading and What You Can do about It.  It’s a great analysis of the reasons why reading scores have fallen even though a lot of legislation has gone into trying to make the U.S. more competitive on the global education scale.  In fact, much of Gallagher’s reasons harmonizes with two books I’ve already read and reviewed, so it wasn’t too much of a shock the reasons he gave for our dismal performance when compared with Asia and Europe.

What Gallagher focuses on is the lack of authenticity in our school systems and the tools that we continually use that are supposed to “help” those students who don’t achieve inauthentic goals.  Instead of letting students read self-selected texts we have them complete worksheets, inundate their books with sticky notes that distract the reader from the flow of reading.  Ultimately we are keeping students from reading and when they don’t perform as readers we take them further away from reading by giving them shorter works to read and more worksheets.  When you think about that, there’s no wonder that why we fall further and further behind other countries.  It’s like having students watch movies and read books about running, but only give them a chance to run on the day of the test.

What I appreciate about Gallagher is that he takes the conversation into the high school classroom.  The two other books that I’ve read were based in the middle school realm.  While there’s a lot that can be adapted from middle school, it’s nice to have a voice that represents my everyday situation.  Gallagher believes, like I do, that there’s something valuable in having the whole class read a novel.  He and I both agree that there is something to be said for cultural literacy meaning that I think it’s important that we as a culture can discuss works such as Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby no matter what high school you went to.  But I think too many times we’ve beaten students over the head with these great novels and by the time students leave high school they never want anything to do with literature again.

So while I’m sobered by the fact that as a nation we haven’t figured out how to actually educate students to love, I’m encouraged that there are some educators that are doing what they can to make a difference in students’ lives.  As English teachers, specifically, it’s our responsibility to foster a love of reading and to be there to guide students through the “classics” rather than to beat them over the head with them.

The Book Whisperer

A book hasn’t whipped me into a fervor of action like Book Whisperer in quite some time.  But I’m glad it did.  And the thing is, it’s not like the author, Donalyn Miller, has presented me with some unknown truth.  Instead, she’s asked some tough questions and challenged me to get down to the heart of the matter.  To teach reading, students have to read. Truth bomb.

Of course by now you’re thinking, Chancellor, that shouldn’t be a surprise.  You’re an English teacher after all.  And you’re right.  I should’ve known this.  But I’m going to let you in on an industry secret (we sometimes overcomplicate things because then we can prove to ourselves that we’ve “taught” something).  But the honest truth is that reading can’t be taught through worksheets and other “activities” that we’ve constructed to convince ourselves that this is what “teaching” reading is all about.

The Book WhispererMiller is a very approachable voice in this book because she started out like a lot of us.  We are passionate to instill a love reading with our students.  We want them to feel the thrill of the plot, to miss the characters like good friends, and to hunger after the next book in a series.  But the problem is, we forget that reading isn’t something that is taught.  She noticed, like I have, that what I’m “teaching” isn’t inspiring the students to read.  Instead, I’ve noticed that students come expect worksheets and packets and projects and they do the work because they want to make me happy.  But I’m a reader.  And successful at it if I may say so, but they aren’t.  So pleasing me isn’t going to make them better readers.  Miller argues that if we give responsibility to the students to find out how important reading is, they will demonstrate to us how they are reading.

Fundamentally, it’s like this.  In gym class, the teacher asks you to do twenty push ups in a certain about of time.   If you can’t do the twenty push ups, the teacher doesn’t give you worksheets to fill out.  She probably tells you that you need to practice.  And the more you do push ups, the better you’ll become.  It might take you all year, but by the end of the class, if you keep at it, you’ll be doing twenty more push ups than you could at the beginning.

I understand this isn’t a perfect metaphor, but at the same time I think that we’ve complicated reading for a lot of students.  Miller challenges how we teach reading by asking us in primary, secondary, and in college, how much reading in school did we actually do?  The sad truth is that I probably did more reading in college than in did in primary and secondary, and I probably did the least amount of reading in high school.  The irony should be hitting you right about now.  If we are “teaching” reading in primary and secondary, why are students doing so little of it?  And how can we fix it.

Miller offers an example of her own classroom and how she’s structured it.  I’ve taken to heart her philosophy, but I’m struggling to understand how I can make it work in my high school class.  I don’t have the time she does to let the students read.  And when you have a class called “American Literature” for juniors, you can’t just let students read just anything.  However, after reading the Book Whisperer on the heels of The Reading Zone, I think the best compromise I can make is to allow time in class to read the assigned novels, have one day dedicated to the students reading their own choice of novels, and have some writing workshops sprinkled in between.  Ultimately, I want my students to start learning the habits and traits of authentic readers.  When they are in their professions, they are going to have to be literate.  Some of them may have professional readings they have to complete.  And, while I’m not a betting man, I doubt any boss is going to have them fill out worksheets and complete diorama of what they’ve just read.  So here’s to a new school year with more reading and more authentic assignments!

The Reading Zone

Nancie Atwell was mentioned in several books on reading in the English classroom.  She has done a lot of writing on reading workshops and how to get our students reading and falling in love with reading.  My wife happened to have this book from her teacher preparation program days and a gladly lent it to me.  I’ve really wanted to get my students to fall in love with reading again.  It seems like there’s a sad break in reading in our national educational system.  In elementary, they get specific time dedicated to reading and reading instruction.  But once they get to high school most of that reading time disappears and is merged with langauge arts and curriculum instruction.  It’s really up to high school teachers to carve out time to read in class.  But one thing that is really lacking in high school is how to motivate students to read books that they choose and enjoy, not just the teachers’ choices.  Usually, once students get to college, they have free time to read for enjoyment.  But sadly, many who were good readers in Jr. high have lost their joy of reading after going through grueling high school programs.

This is what I’ve been trying to work on over the last several years.  I want to bridge the gap between preparing my students for college while still fostering a love for reading. Studies have shown over and over that good readers make good writers.  And good readers and writers do better on state and national tests.  Which makes me wonder, do any of the assignments we giThe Reading Zoneve students, like the book reports, projects, speeches, etc. actually do any good?

This is what Atwell addresses in The Reading Zone.  She sets out her program in her 7th and 8th grade classes for how she fosters reading.  There was a lot of good information, but as a high school teacher, I don’t have the same time or curriculum that she does.  But thankfully, she included a chapter for high school teachers.

It was tough hearing what she had to say.  Tough because I know that we fail our high school students by killing a joy of reading.  Instead of letting students read in class or outside of class we fill their lives with so much meaningless homework.  It’s sick but sometimes, high school teachers seem to pride themselves on how much homework they have to grade.  As if more homework was actually an indicator of a good teacher.

Having already begun my journey to make reading enjoyable, create authenticate homework and projects, and now with Atwell’s suggestions, I think that I can actually craft a quality English curriculum that can continue to foster a love of reading and writing while still preparing them for the rigors of college.  Let’s just hope my colleagues and administrators don’t think I’m a slacker because I can actually enjoy my weekends!

Deeper Reading

Finally, a book about teaching English by an actual English teacher!  OK, hyperbole aside, I do value the insights Kelly Gallagher put into his book, Deeper Reading.  He addresses many of the issues that I have had with teacher preparation programs.  The colleges and universities give you tons of theory and concepts, which are valuable and give teaching a credible background of research and knowledge,  but it doesn’t tell you what to do when you’re faced with teaching The Scarlet Letter to Juniors on Monday.

Gallagher, a hDeeper Readingigh school teacher in Anaheim, takes that challenge and breaks down what teachers need to do to make sure their students are scaffolded to understand the context of the work and move them from comprehension, to analysis, to interpretation.  And he does it with examples that I can use in my classroom.  He basically gives the theory and concepts in college a practical application.  Most importantly, he makes sense doing it.

One of the issues that I’ve struggled with as an English teacher is that many of the books about teaching English are for Elementary and/or Middle school.  Focusing on these levels usually means that they will address reading skills rather than reading, literary analysis, and real-world application.  That’s usually thrust on us secondary teachers like your older sibling’s old jacket.  The problem is many high school students don’t like reading, don’t know how to move beyond barely comprehending what they read, and don’t know what to do once they’ve read it.  Most high school teachers weren’t given the same training to teach reading comprehension like our elementary colleagues were.  So there ends up being this education gap between Elementary and Secondary and the students are falling through it.

It’s been my goal to address these needs even if it means adapting some of the lower grades’ resources.  But thankfully, I came across this book (I don’t even know where now) and I’m glad I did.  Gallagher sees the same problems and has taken the steps to outline how to take reluctant and struggling readers and make them literate in order to be successful in life.  I appreciate that he also doesn’t take literature too seriously. Like he says, what’s the importance of teaching Hamlet, if students can’t see false advertising and skewed statistics in order to identify the best cell phone plans for them?  It’s a tall order for teachers, but those that are truly passionate about teaching will appreciate the value of Gallagher’s insights and will finally be able to relax on Sunday evenings because now they’ve got a solid unit plan in store.