Category Archives: Power of literature

Summer Reading Recommendations

P1230259Summer time, and the reading’s easy. Isn’t that how the song goes? To my Compelled Blogger Tribe members, I apologize for the tardiness of this post. My house has been more project than home over the last two months, but things are finally (FINALLY!) coming together, so I’ve been able to put the paint brush down for these 20 minutes and write this blog. Full disclosure: I’m probably writing under the influence of paint fumes.


Station 11 by Emily St. John Mandel. Yes, I admit, I’m partial to this one because it opens with actors performing a scene from King Lear, but people: buy this book. It is absolutely riveting and beautiful and terrifying and full of hope and humanity.

Seveneves by Neal StephensonI have no idea why I picked up this book at the library. Normally, I’m not drawn to sci-fi, and especially not sci-fi that is 800 pages long. But there was something about this book description that made me take a chance, and I’m so glad I did. First, Stephenson is a genius. I’m hoping he’s not a prophet, but he has definitely earned the job title “futurist.” (Which is really his job title.) Some sections got a liiiittle too technical for my attention span, so I freely admit to skipping a few chunks here and there, but most of it was fascinating. Best of all, I know read technology announcements and think, “Oh, I already know about that. It’s in Seveneves.” Not bad for an English dork!


Do people still use that word? Well, I do. Here’s my trifecta: The AtlanticThe New Yorker,The Washington Post. I just discovered a new, online publication called Guernica. The writing is to swoon for.

One article of the last few months stands out for my in hi-definition, and I would go so far as to use the cliche “must-read” for any teacher. You can find it here on The Atlantic’s web site, where Paul Tough has made it tough to ignore the importance of students feeling welcomed and valued in our classrooms and as agents of their own education.


I’ve been fascinated with early childhood education ever since my daughter entered preschool. (I know, you’re thinking, what a crazy coincidence!) These are two books on my to-read list:

The Importance of Being Little by Erika Christiakis

Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff PhD and and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek PhD .

Also on my to-read list is a book I’ve had sitting on my shelf for months: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I have a quotation from Maud Casey in my library that reads, “I was born with a reading list I will never finish.” It’s the damn truth, people. And I wouldn’t want it any other way!

Happy reading, and enjoy!

What do English teachers and Gollum have in common?

My Precious still

Here’s a little secret about English teachers: we are fiercely possessive of what we refer to as “My stories.” No, I don’t mean the physical books we keep in our classrooms – those are usually given out freely and with love. I mean we will get uuugly if someone in a different grade level starts teaching “my book” or “my story” or “my poem.” The conversation usually goes down like this:

Teacher A: One of my students told me Mrs. 8th Grade is teaching To Kill a Mockingbird.

Teacher B: (eyes bulging, full head swivel) Excuuuus me?!?!

Teacher A: She said they read the whole thing and she cried when they watched the movie.

Teacher B: (spluttering, now a deep shade of purple): They watched the movie too?!?! Great! Great! My plans are all ruined now. Who is this woman? Why can’t she just teach her own books?! I can’t believe she has the nerve. She should be spending more time on grammar anyway.

Sound familiar? Been there? Me too, I admit.

Why do we get so mad? There are several reasons, some more important to one teacher than another.

First, there are those instances when you want to be The One to Introduce the Most Important Story of All Time to our students. If The Tell-Tale Heart is your absolute favorite story, it is entirely understandable that you want to be the one to watch kids’ eyes grow big at the beating heart under the floorboards.

Second, we don’t want anyone to have an excuse to get out of the work. It’s hard enough to make sure kids read something the first time; how can we make sure they’ve read it twice?

Third, what if the kids are bored? It’s a challenge to keep them engaged with new material, so how will they be entertained by the same story?

Ideally, ELA teachers at all levels in a district are given the opportunity to meet and develop curriculum in vertical teams. (This should actually be a paid and valued series of meetings, to all wonderful administrators out there reading this blog.) But whether it’s due to intentional planning or lack thereof, the teaching of the same text at multiple grade levels actually offers its own unique benefits.

Many secondary ELA authors have written about the benefits of re-reading as a strategy, notably Kylene Beers and Dr. Robert Probst. There are also longer studies and articles that you can access through the National Council of Teachers of English or the International Reading Association. To make my points in this blog, I actually want you to think about ghosts.

Allow me, for a moment, to be the Ghost of Reading Experiences Past. Travel back to when you were a young child. Did you have a favorite book? Did you make your parents read it to you a dozen times? A hundred? A gajillion? I know I’ve read the Biscuit books to my kids more times than I would like to “woof, woof.” (Seriously Biscuit, can’t you yelp or bark or howl every once in a while?)

Young kids aren’t trying to torture their parents when they ask for the same book over and over again; there are actual, legitimate developmental reasons for their fascination (re: obsession) with Goodnight, Moon or Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site or the decidedly less popular, Goodnight, Goodnight – I Already Said Goodnight!

Now, let’s have a visit from the Ghost of Reading Experiences Future. Think about your favorite books, stories, or poems. Do you plan on rereading these texts? As your future adult self, can you see yourself suddenly realizing that you never truly considered the depth of Mrs. March’s emotions? That as a young girl, you didn’t grasp Marmee’s loneliness and inner strength because you were thinking about Jo and Laurie?

Maybe you have a book you like to read every year. In the five years prior to having my own kids, I used to read the entire Lord of the Rings series over winter break. Returning to that story was like meeting up with old friends and reliving our favorite memories. Recently, NPR’s Juan Vidal wrote a column on the joys of rereading. He articulates many of the reasons why adults enjoy rereading – reasons that apply to our students as well.

So let’s take a look back at our initial concerns and debunk them.

1) The One to Introduce the Most Important Story: Does a story become any less important to a person because they’ve read it multiple times? Of course not. Every time we read a text, we uncover new layers of meaning. From year to year, people of every age evolve and grow, which means the personal lenses through which we see a text change color and sharpen. Even if kids are familiar with a text, you still have the opportunity to watch them make meaning and form new understandings.

2) Making Sure They’ve Read It: Knowing that kids are familiar with all of the basic details like character, plot, and setting, means that you can ask deeper, more thought-provoking questions. Its way easier to pass a quiz that poses questions like “Which Greek God tried to help Odysseus?” than a quiz that asks students, “In what ways did Athena play a critical role in assisting Odysseus on his journey?”

3) Fears of Boredom: Yes, some students may greet the news of re-reading with exclamations of “Again?!” But you can realign their attitudes and meet the kids where they’re at. Assure them that you don’t want them to be bored, so ask them what kinds of things they learned about or what activities they did with the story. Now, move them forward. Plan the text in light of the standards you know you need to address and the weaknesses of your students that you’re trying to strengthen. Reassure them that this is a great opportunity for them to stress less about understanding the story and to really dig into the deeper layers they didn’t have time to uncover in their previous class.

Reading the same text two years in a row (or, gasp, every year!) is not a bad thing. In fact, in can be a really, really great experience for students. Sometimes our passion for the texts we teach can cause a knee-jerk, head-spinning reaction when we perceive that someone is messing with what is “ours.” We become Golums, sitting in our classrooms, stroking “our” book, murmuring “My precious. My precious.”

If you ever find yourself in that situation, please drink some coffee. I’ve found that solves most problems. Next, remember that re-reading offers educational benefits and rich teaching opportunities. And finally, keep this in mind: these texts don’t belong to you or me or any one person. They are gifts that were forged by writers and given to humankind to share.

Just call me Samwise. Throw your fear into Mount Doom. Trust that the writers gave us these stories because we are meant to read them over and over and over again.

Why Does Literature Matter?

This past Saturday, my family and I attended the 15th National Book Festival. We arrived  in downtown D.C. at 9:30 a.m., and on our short walk from the parking garage to the convention center we walked right by Al Roker and a cameraman. I told Al he looked sharp, and he said thanks. I knew I was in for a good day.

There were a lot of great, personal moments, but I want to highlight those that seemed of particular importance to share with educators. In this post, I’ll focus on the session entitled, “Why Literature Matters.” No surprise that this was one of the most popular sessions at the festival. They might as well have called it, “Choir, Hear Us Preach.” I say that lovingly, because I was one of the worshipers waiting in line to enter 20 minutes before they opened the doors. I was especially excited to see Azar Nafisi, whose book Reading Lolita in Tehran riveted me years ago. The other panelists, poet Jane Hirshfield and PBS NewsHour anchor Jeffrey Brown (also a poet), created a trifecta of perspectives all different and yet all adoring of literature.

Here are my favorite words of wisdom:

Mr. Brown:

“Literature is what bridges the private and the public.”

“When I travel, I read the poetry of the place.”

Ms. Nafisi:

“Every time before I write, I read poetry. It clears my eyes.”

“Can we have a democratic society without a democratic imagination?”

“Reality is fickle. You need a portable world you can take with you where ever you go.”

“The best safeguard of memory is literature and art and music. It makes us withstand the cruelty of man and the cruelty of time.”

“In the West, what is dangerous is our sleeping consciousness and atrophy of feeling.” [Referring to words of Saul Bellow]

“Science and literature are both based on curiosity.”

“James Baldwin said, ‘Writers are here to disturb the peace.’ American fiction went against complacency beginning with Huck Finn.”

“I’m not writing to console, I’m writing to investigate. Writing and reading are about investigation.”

Ms. Hirshfield:

“We need literature to serve as usher of the unfathomable into our lives.”

“Literature is an augmentation to the factual news because it allows us to respond in a subtler way.”

“Literature is an expansion of the possible.”

“Literature is the discovery of what’s never been thought, felt, said, seen before.”

“It is by our empathy and compassion that we understand our fates are shared.”

“Literature is like a perfume bottle that can be unstoppered over and over again.”


I swear these incredible words all occurred during the same hour-long session. While waiting for the next session to begin, I tweeted out a few of the quotes.  Fast forward about 10 hours, and I’m riding home on the Metro, utterly exhausted but entirely uplifted. My phone pings, and I look down. Ms. Nafisi has tweeted back, “boy did I have fun! A lovely time @nationalbook with Jeff Brown and Jane Hirshfield.”

I’m not above admitting I emitted a squeal of delight. There I was, reading Nafisi in D.C.

Why does literature matter? Because it connects us to ourselves and others, regardless of time or space, gender or race, class or place, in a thousand unknowable ways.

[button link="" style="info" color="silver" bg_color="#999499" window="yes"]PBS Interview with Azar Nafisi and Jane Hirshfield[/button]

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