Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Review of 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' by New Scamander and J.K. Rowling

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Newt Scamander's classic compendium of magical creatures, has delighted generations of wizarding readers.  With this beautiful, large-scale new edition illustrated in full color, Muggles too will have the chance to discover where the Runespoor lives, what the Puffskein eats, and why shiny objects should always be kept away from the Niffler.

Proceeds from the sale of this book will go to Comic Relief and J.K. Rowling's international charity, Lumos, which will do magic beyond the powers of any wizard.  If you feel that this is insufficient reason to part with your money, one can only hope that passing wizards feel more charitable if they see you being attacked by a Manticore."

I'll admit, I saw the film before having a chance to read this book.  Not that they're 100% the same, because they're not, but it was really interesting to read the humor that I heard echoing around the movie theater.  I loved this little book.  I loved reading about these magical creatures that captured my attention as I was reading Harry Potter for the first time.  It was wonderful to have them be the focus for once in this small encyclopedia of magical creatures.  Take this book and learn a little bit more about these magical creatures and how they fit in and impact the wizarding world.  You'll appreciate the humor it's written in and if you've seen the film already, it'll be cool to put an image with the description, since that's what this book is largely lacking.  I would love to get an illustrated edition of this book.  I think that would be just beautiful.

Pick up this book if you want to expand your knowledge of Harry's world.  As a long time HP fan, it was wonderful to feel immersed in this world again by reading this book for the first time.

I give 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them':

Thanks for Reading!


Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Review of 'Children Growing Up with War' by Jenny Matthews

"Through personal narrative and candid photographs, a photojournalist chronicles young lives upended by violence and strife.

'The right to adequate nutrition and medical care.
The right to free education.
The right to a name and nationality.
The right to affection, love, and understanding.'

In conflict zones around the world, children are denied these and other basic rights.  Follow photographer Jenny Matthews into refugee camps, overcrowded cities, damaged villages, clinics, and support centers where children and their families live, work, play, learn, heal, and try to survive the devastating impact of war.  This moving book depicts the resilience and resourcefulness of young people who, though heavily impacted by the ravages of war, search for a better future for themselves, their families, and their cultures."

This past semester I have been part of a book club through the University of Minnesota which focuses on Middle Eastern literature and how educators can incorporate them into the classroom.  This is one of the books that we read and discussed.  This book is different from any other book I've reviewed on this blog because it's a picture book targeted at younger readers (though it can be used in courses taught to older students, as we discussed).

This was a really eye-opening book, even for an adult reading this book.  I think one of the biggest troubles with stories involving war is that we are so desensitized to stories of war and we feel so distanced when we see something on the news or read a story involving war.  This is a useful resource for students in particular because it attempts to return some of the humanity to those who have been affected by war.  It shows how and where they live, talks a little bit about what some people affected by war have been through, and talks about how they get by day to day.

One reason why I liked this book is that it didn't feel like the photographer was trying to evoke sympathy (although that might be a byproduct of reading this book) or to make you feel bad.  Instead, it sheds light on what the photographer saw and learned while doing her job in war zones and in refugee camps and it's more of a call to action.  Just because people have gone through these tough and horrible experiences and maybe have been going through these things for years doesn't mean that they're less worthy of compassion.

As a teacher, I might use this as a resource in my classroom in conjunction with a longer novel.  It's a good introduction and gateway to dig into stories that center on war and the people affected by it.

I give 'Children Growing Up With War':
Thanks for Reading!


Monday, May 29, 2017

A Review of 'New American Best Friend' by Olivia Gatwood

"One of the most recognizable young poets in America, Olivia Gatwood dazzles with her tribute to contemporary American womanhood in her debut book, New American Best Friend.  Gatwood's poems deftly deconstruct traditional stereotypes.  The focus shifts from childhood to adulthood, gender to sexuality, violence to joy.  And always and inexorably, the book moves toward celebration, culminating in a series of odes: odes to the body, to tough women, to embracing your own journey in all its failures and triumphs."

I was first introduced to this collection of poetry through a video shared on Facebook.  Olivia Gatwood was performing her piece 'Manic Pixie Dream Girl.'  I was enthralled right away.  I got the Kindle book right away.  I didn't expect to read such an all-consuming book of poems about what it means to be a woman at different points in life and in different contexts too.

These are poems about growing up, about how women see themselves as they go through life.  This is a book of poems that were empowering for me to read and eye-opening for me.  I'm surrounded by amazing women in my life.  Some of these women have gone through hard things in life that they should not have gone through, but they emerge strong.  There are times when these poems helped me better understand them.  They helped me think about my own life.

I can't wait to read these poems again.

I give 'New American Best Friend':
Thanks for Reading!


Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Review of 'Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear' by Elizabeth Gilbert

"Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert's books for years.  Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity.  With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration.  She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering.  She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear.  She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives.  Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the 'strange jewels' that are hidden within each of us.  Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work, embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion.  Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy."

For a really long time, I've been in a creative slump.  Maybe I just don't have any ideas or maybe I've been so busy with life things that creating just felt like a chore... whatever the case, it's been a struggle to create much of anything, especially the written work that kind of informed my identity when I was younger (and to a certain degree that informs my identity now).  When you feel like you're meant to create in some capacity and you can't for some reason... it doesn't feel good.  Not one bit.

I love Elizabeth Gilbert's writing, though my only experience with her is 'Eat Pray Love' prior to this book) and I loved this book.  It was a book I could read in chunks, but each time I picked it up and read some more of it, I felt instantly inspired.  It was a fresh way to look at creativity and how it works (at the very least, how Gilbert perceives it works).  Reading this book was like getting permission to create, even if what I create is terrible.  Because hey, at least I'm still creating.

I've realized that when I was younger, I wrote because I had this goal to be published.  I wanted to write this amazing book that I would be proud to share with all the world, but nothing I wrote I was proud enough of.  The one story I was proud of was rejected in a contest and that was it.  While I think it would be awesome to publish a book someday, I can't give my stories an agenda before it's even come to fruition.  I don't want to be so attached to the idea of this future my story will have and then when it's not or can't be realized I'm left with nothing but disappointment.

This book has inspired me to create because I want to create and because I love it, not because I have a reputation to live up to or because I have this dream that I want to be fulfilled by a certain time.  Creativity doesn't work on my terms.  It's certainly paired with hard work (I can't just sit there and suddenly get a story to come to fruition... I still have to practice my craft), but it has a mind of its own.

If you're in a creative slump, this is a great book to turn to if you need a jolt of confidence, inspiration, or rough guidance for your own writing practice.

I give 'Big Magic':
Thanks for Reading!


Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Review of 'Snow White: A Graphic Novel' by Matt Phelan

"Award-winning graphic novelist Matt Phelan delivers a darkly stylize noir Snow White set against the backdrop of Depression-era Manhattan.

The scene: New York City, 1928: the dazzling lights cast shadows that grow ever darker as the glitz prosperity of the Roaring Twenties screeches to a halt.  Enter a cast of familiar characters: a young girl, Samantha White, returning after being sent away by her cruel stepmother, the Queen of the Follies, years earlier; her father, the King of Wall Street, who survives the stock market crash only to suffer a strange and sudden death; seven street urchins, brave protectors for a girl as pure as snow; and a mysterious stock ticker that holds the stepmother in its thrall, churning out ticker tape imprinted with the wicked words, 'Another... More Beautiful... KILL.'  In a moody, cinematic new telling of a beloved fairy tale, extraordinary graphic novelist Matt Phelan captures the essence of classic film noir on the page-- and draws a striking distinction between good and evil."

This is a quick read, but what a beautiful graphic novel.  I'm a fan of the Roaring 20s aesthetic, so this whole book was just wonderful for me to look through.  The illustrations are graceful, and yet I just want to do the Charleston all day long.

One thing that I liked about this graphic novel (besides the art) is that it seemed to provide more of a backstory to this girl we call Snow White.  My only other experience with Snow White is the Disney version of it.  From what I can remember, we're just kind of dropped in on this girl's life.  She's beautiful and she's the servant of this awful witch lady... I can't remember if it's clear that this wicked lady is her stepmother or not... But in this book, we at least get to meet her father and understand where she's coming from and what led up to the classic aspects of this story.

This book would be good for young readers and for readers who are interested in a different time period (although it would be more of an introduction to the '20s than a comprehensive history).

I give 'Snow White: A Graphic Novel':
Thanks for Reading!


Friday, May 26, 2017

A Review of 'Want to Go Private?' by Sarah Darer Littman

"Abby and Luke chat online.  They've never met.  But they are going to.  Soon.

Abby is starting high school-- it should be exciting, so why doesn't she care?  Everyone tells her to 'make an effort,' but why can't she just be herself?  Abby quickly feels like she's losing a grip on her once-happy life.  The only thing she cares about anymore is talking to Luke, a guy she met online, who understands.  It feels dangerous and yet good to chat with Luke-- he is her secret, and she's his.  Then Luke asks her to meet him, and she does.  But Luke isn't who he says he is.  When Abby goes missing, everyone is left to put together the pieces.  If they don't, they'll never see Abby again."

My library network has a treasure trove of a digital library.  This is a book that I have checked out a few times on my Kindle, but for whatever reason, now was the time that this book really clicked and drew me in.  Once I was in, I was hooked; I couldn't put it down and would read it late into the night.

I don't think this book was particularly well-written-- the characters were rather flat and spoke in a way that was very canned.  It's not how normal people talk.  So that bothered me a bit.  The characters acted the same throughout the book... even Abby to a certain degree.  That was disappointing for me.  I was hoping they'd get less annoying and less self-absorbed.  One thing that really bothered me is that Abby seemed to create her own drama.  She was determined not to make new friends and to make her first year of high school as similar to her eighth grade year as possible it seems.  It wasn't for lack of her friend trying to involve her either.  I wish that Abby was a more likable character.  I think that would have made this book a bit stronger.

I think the magic in this book lay in the plot.  That's where the suspense and terror was.  I'm reading this from the perspective of a teacher.  I did my student teaching with 9th graders, who are exactly Abby's age.  That's what really hit home for me.  Something like this could happen to anyone.  I hated reading what this Luke guy was saying to Abby online even more so because I imagined him or someone like him saying something like that to my students.  It felt like an invasion to me, even as someone who is very much an onlooker in this instance.  It was difficult to read for this reason.

Something that confused me was why Abby did what Luke asked even when she very obviously felt uncomfortable with what she was being pressured to do.  I wonder what takes away from her ability to feel like she can say no.  Isolation probably has a lot to with it, but what else?  That doesn't take away from her feeling of discomfort.  Why deny how she's feeling about what she's being asked to do?

I hate the last part of the book where perspective kept shifting between Faith, Lily, and Abby's maybe-sort-possibly boyfriend.  I thought it was a way to waste time.  They weren't giving us any new information, just sharing their same worries (and in Lily's case, being really freaking selfish).  I wish that they had jumped ahead in time or just kept their worrying to one longer chapter.

Overall, this book has a wonderful concept-- it's so important to talk about this and show that no one is immune to treatment like this-- but it was a poorly executed book that was just too preachy at times.  I give 'Want to Go Private?':
Thanks for Reading!


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

My Experience as a Substitute Teacher

I graduated with my undergraduate degree in English and English Secondary Education this past December and since then, I've been quite busy.  In January, I started substitute teaching through an agency that allows me to sub for paraprofessionals and full-time teachers all over my home state.  In February, I added another school district that I can sub for and what's nice is it's the same district that I grew up in and that I student taught in.  I'm in my fourth month of substitute teaching and... it's been quite the experience.  I mean this in a positive, negative, and curious way.  It's weird to come home and try and tell my friends and family who are not teachers themselves about what my job is like.  I guess I just want to try and talk about it here.

The Good

Some of my favorite moments are when I've subbed for my mentor teachers.  There are a few teachers that I call my mentors-- the 5th grade teacher I've volunteered for going on five years now is a very important person to me because she has put so much trust in me as far as partially teaching her students.  My student teaching co-teacher is a mentor of mine because she never hesitated to be honest with me and she pushed me (in a positive way) to be the teacher that I am today.  I've been able to sub for both of these amazing women and be with "my" kids.  That's been so wonderful because I'm with kids that trust me and we have this understanding between each other.  That's such a privilege in this line of work.

I have had the privilege to sub at a number of really great schools.  Ultimately my goal is to find a full-time teaching position, so this is really great.  It's like getting a preview of the place where I might work but without the school knowing that I'm scrutinizing them so that I get an unedited version of what the school I'm visiting is like.  I can see what the staff are like and how they act towards someone temporarily in their domain, what the principal is like, and even what the kids are like.  I can assess and see what I can handle and which schools are a good fit for me.  After having a number of really terrible work environments (one of which I'm not legally allowed to talk about which frustrated me at the time and to a lesser degree continues to frustrate me), this is incredibly important to me.  If this were any other line of work, I wouldn't have this opportunity.

I've gained a lot of classroom management experience.  This means managing behavior and generally making a class run smoothly, for those who aren't aware.  During student teaching, I started out the year at the same time as my students.  This presents a lot of advantages because they learn to trust me at the same time they learn to trust their regular classroom teacher.  Handling behavior tends to work best if you have a positive relationship with your students.  So now, with subbing, I'm challenged to handle behavior with hundreds of students I don't know and don't have a personal relationship with.  It only makes me a better teacher.

One of my favorite parts of substitute teaching is that I get to hear all sorts of hilarious things that students say and the very sweet things I see them do.  On the best of days, students are incredibly helpful and they help me rally together a number of the students so that we can get through the day.  I so appreciate those students.  And then I get to be part of really fun moments too.  I recently subbed in a Spanish classroom.  They had one worksheet to do in an hour of class (not enough work), but then we made up the rest of the time by putting on Mexican songs for everyone to hear.  There were so many happy students in that period.  They were working on their worksheet (for the most part) and singing along with the music piping through the room.  It was a blast.

The Bad

I have had some truly horrific days of substitute teaching.  Sometimes it's all day and other times it's certain class periods that I just can't wait to end.  A lot of my family has heard me talk about these instances but I still feel the need to talk about them more because I find them just appalling.

I have dealt with really loud and disrespectful students.  So disrespectful that almost no learning could happen.  I tried to do some restorative practices to get the class to show everyone that they need to work as a team.  If we're not doing that, nothing can get done.  But they didn't seem to give a damn.  This was also the day I was called sexist because a student was convinced that I favored girls over boys which just isn't true.  But he convinced himself he was right.  I will never go back to this school.

I have broken up fights before.  I thought that I would be doing this a lot in middle and high school age groups, but that really hasn't been the case.  It's been the elementary kids that have literally been demons in the classroom.  I had a second grade class that dealt with problems by throwing verbal abuse at each other and choking each other.  Yes, you read that right.  Choking each other.  At this school, I only had a half-day job, but in the first hour I was there, I broke up at least four instances of choking.  During the day, I can't tell you how many times I called up to the office demanding that a student be removed from the classroom.  I will never go back to this school.

I have vowed to never lead teach an elementary-level classroom and I have made very few exceptions.  I lead-taught a kindergarten classroom once, but there was also a paraprofessional in the room to help me.  That was a really good situation.  I have also been a paraprofessional in elementary classes and that is okay too since I'm not taking on an entire class, just a small group of students at the very most.

Technology has also proven to be a problem, particularly at the high school level and sometimes the middle school level.  When the kids are older, one of the school districts I sub in has one-to-one iPads, meaning that every student gets their own iPad to take home and use in school.  They're neat, but they're also a pain in the ass when a student is trying to convince you that they can totally do their work and watch full episodes of Criminal Minds at the same time.  Then you try and point out to them that they're really only watching Criminal Minds well because you haven't seen them write a single thing in their Google Doc.  I have learned to pick fights.  The technology use in one of my districts especially resembles a number of qualities of addiction, which scares me.

To put a positive spin on this, I have learned more about what I want as a teacher and I have learned to handle difficult situations the more I've been able to practice.  It hasn't been the easiest almost four months, but I do feel that I'm becoming a better teacher for it.

The Curious

Substitute Teaching has brought up more questions than I ever thought it would.  It has called into question my own practices and what I do well (and what I don't do well).  It has made me question what my values are when it comes to running a classroom.  These things will only help me improve as a teacher as I learn to stick to my metaphorical guns and make quicker decisions.

Subbing also makes me question humanity though.  It's a really weird thing to think that you're going into a classroom of semi-innocent first and second graders but they're actually monsters.  You're going into a classroom full of scary high schoolers, but they turn out to be the kindest souls that just want to be independent.  It really teaches you that you can't judge someone's character based on what you know about their age group or what you can see on their exterior.  Subbing has challenged me to value everyone's humanity, where people come from, and the tools they carry with them wherever they go.  I have learned to give people a chance, but also to show them that resets are necessary in order to become the people we want to be.  And that's a process-- it takes time.

I certainly didn't think that I would learn such profound lessons from being a substitute teacher, but I suppose that's the benefit of spending time, however brief, with several hundred kids every week.

So that's where I am now with my new job.  I wanted to make sure that I document this time in my life because I think it'll really help shape me into the teacher I ultimately want to become.  I want to remember where I was and how I grew during this period in my life.

Thanks for reading!