15 minutes?

I’m not sure that I can put in to words how much I enjoy the 30 minutes that I get for lunch each day. Besides $5 Pizza Friday, I rarely even eat – it has much more to do with the people I am there with and the fun that we have in the middle of our days. It’s a respite from everything else and it is extremely rare that a week goes by that I haven’t laughed until I’ve cried at least once or twice. But when the phone rings in that room, it’s an immediate downer. When the phone rings and it’s for you, it’s even worse. And when you’re told by your Principal that he needs you to come up to the office and he’s arranging coverage for your class? Well, it took me right back to 1988 and being called up to see Mr. Albaugh…

So that’s how things started for me yesterday – and that’s a long walk up to the office when you have no clue what’s going on! Once I got there, however, I learned that Governor Wolf had eliminated the requirement that students pass the Keystone Exams in Biology, Algebra, and Literature in order to graduate and that Ashlie Hardway from WTAE was here to get student and teacher reaction to this announcement.

And then a different type of nervousness set in – what the heck am I going to say? How in the world am I going to get my feelings on this topic — which are strong, and by no means concise — into an acceptable soundbite? Am I going to make an absolute fool out of myself? Ugh…

WTAE report

I watched as a student I had the fortune of working with last year, Nicole, totally crushed her interview. Surely she had more than a couple of minutes to prepare, I thought. I am so proud of not only the way she handled herself in this situation, but also the way she represented our school and all of our students in this process. She spoke of how much pressure she felt when taking these tests — of how much she worried beforehand and the sleep she lost. Keep in mind that this is one of our best — a “high flier” as our Principal properly called her — and this is the effect that these High Stakes Tests had on her.

I thought about the end of unit project that she created for The Book Thief and how she had transformed a book into a piece that explained in no uncertain terms what she took from her reading of Zusak’s novel. And I thought about the fact that no standardized test would ever let her display this type of learning.


After the spot aired I received a bunch of calls and texts and tweets, and several people were a little confused on what I had to say concerning accountability. Make no mistake about it, I believe in accountability — for both teachers AND students. I just don’t believe in High Stakes Tests being the way that this occurs. There are so many outside factors that come in to play with a test like this — to think that these truly measure a student’s learning is just flat out naive.

Want to see if I’m doing my job? Come in and take a hard look at what I’m doing — and come in over a period of time. I don’t care who you are or what position you hold — you’re always welcome — that door is open. Want to see if my students are doing their job, improving their skills and (hopefully) being challenged in the process? The offer above stands.

Come in to see our students write about Scout coming of age in To Kill a Mockingbird while relating it to their own struggles with the same; come in to see our students try to come to grips with the stark realities presented in Night that Elie Wiesel faced as a prisoner in a concentration camp during World War II; come in and watch a student perform her original take on the events portrayed in Zusak’s magical piece about children coming to terms with the perils of life in Germany during the Holocaust — and if you’d like a glimpse of what you’d see, here you go:

There are plenty of issues with our educational system — nothing is perfect — but this is a step in the right direction, in my opinion. After all,


True words?


(ps – I can’t speak highly enough concerning how Ashlie Hardway and her photographer handled these interviews. I truly wish that all of my Mass Media and Yearbook students could have seen the entire process — they were on point the whole way through. Beyond that, she and I have had several interactions on Twitter and it was great to finally meet face to face).

Analyzing Characters Through Song…

We have been working on Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and just completed a section that really hit home with a lot of students – and me as well. Rudy has been down on his luck and needs nothing more than a win. No matter how many times I read this book, this part really gets me every time. I mean, we’ve all been there, right?

So Rudy has been in my train of thought and then last night as I was driving, a song came on that just seemed to fit my vision of him at this point of the story. I got to thinking that we could probably tie a lot of characters that we study into songs – that sometimes, by taking a look at both our understanding of the characters and our understanding or a feel for a song – we can really take both to a deeper level.

And that’s what spawned this project.

The Book Thief – Using Songs to Examine Character

When I listen to music, it tends to happen in one of two ways. Actually, that’s not really completely accurate — it starts with me having everything on shuffle, then a great song comes on that I haven’t heard in a while and I hit the repeat button. Then I listen to nothing but that song for a week straight. This takes me through a lot of different genres of music, which I also like to experience.

Just like my listening preferences, listening to a lot of different things, that’s how my project came out. There’s softer stuff for a character like Rudy and harder stuff for somebody like Max. Then again, I could read it again next year, and could possibly have a totally different feel for the characters.



I go back and forth with Liesel – I love her at times and just want to shake some sense into her at others. Having said that, I can completely associate with her sense of abandonment, her desire to please, and just her sense of bewilderment at times. I can’t help but think of her first appearing at the Hubermann’s house, refusing to get out of the car for Rosa – she’s just horribly frightened of this new arrangement and feels abandoned by her mother. It’s also at this point that we see the bonding between Liesel and Hans begin: “Outside, through the circle she’d made, Liesel could see the tall man’s fingers, still holding the cigarette. Ash stumbled from its edge and lunged and lifted several times until it hit the ground. It took nearly fifteen minutes to coax her from the car. It was the tall man who did it. Quietly” (Zusak 28). This happened after Rosa had just got done asking what was wrong with this child. At the same time, I just see her as being really, really innocent.  It’s for these reasons that I chose Scala & Kolacny’s cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” to represent Liesel and her confusion. There’s something haunting about this version, yet the lyrics still act as a punch to the gut. I feel as though they get to all of the issues I’ve spoken about above – as long as there have been children and teenagers, there have been children who are lost in the process of finding themselves.

“When you were here before

couldn’t look you in the eye.

You’re just like an angel,

your skin makes me cry.

You float like a feather

in a beautiful world.

I wish I was special

You’re so (very) special.”

One of the things that I like the most about this choice for Liesel is that, to me, both the music and the lyrics fit her so well. While the music seems to be operatic and beautiful, the words themselves that they are singing are biting. This is how I see Liesel – carefree and full of wonderment at times, yet harsh and bitter at others. It’s for these reasons that I’m really able to see Liesel as I hear this one.

(That’s a cleaned up version of the song, by the way…)



This was actually the first song that came to mind, and, well, the song that sparked this idea, I should say. Rudy loves Liesel – in the narrator’s words “He loved her so incredibly hard” (Zusak 303). And we see him go up and down with this love. At times he knows when to push things, while at others he realizes when he needs to back off. At times, he’s that sounding board, that listener whom Liesel so desperately needs in her life. But he can’t help but to develop feelings for Liesel, and this sets himself up for these ups and downs in general.

We see Rudy struggle with many things in general, which is why Ray LaMontagne’s “Let It Be Me” immediately made me think of him. We’ve all been there; we’ve all had moments when we feel that the weight of the world is on our shoulders, that nothing can possibly go the way we envision it going. All he wants is a win – and LaMontagne expresses that pretty well in not only his lyrics, but also in the music itself:


lieselanddeathI know how strange it can seem to someone who hasn’t read the book, but Death is just an awesome character, an awesome narrator. It’s actually a little weird to even type that sentence! In this book, though, Zusak is quick to remind us that  “Even death has a heart” (242). From the start, when we’re told that Death is searching for reasons to understand why humans are worth it, we’re taken on a journey of redemption.


We see things through the eyes of a sympathetic, yet complicated, character. Instead of Death being this negative presence, however, I come to see him as being just kind of there, overseeing everything – questioning everything, wondering, worrying, thinking. In a sense, I see him floating above everything in a very ethereal way. Because of this, I also see Death being tied into another LaMontagne song called “Empty.” The song has a lilting quality about it – the instruments just seem to hang in the background a little and his voice doesn’t overpower anything at the same time. There are particular lyrics within this song that hit me pretty hard, though. At 4:07, LaMontagne sings “Well I looked my demons in the eye, laid bare my chest, said do your best to destroy me. You see I’ve been to hell and back so many times, I must admit you kind of bore me.” Now, it might seem weird that I’m applying this to Death, when in reality, LaMontagne is calling death out. But in a roundabout way, this is what Zusak’s Death is going through. He tells us that “(He’s) seen more eclipses than he cares to remember” (Zusak 11). It makes perfect sense to me that Death needs to hear LaMontagne’s words — that he just might be comforted by them.


hansHans is just this awesome, Atticus Finch-like character. He has all of the right answers, he knows everything to say and when to say it, and he just gets Liesel to adore him in such a natural way. Like Atticus, I think he’s this heroic father-figure whom everyone wants as a father and every father wants to be.

At the same time, he’s very complex. Take a stand against the Nazis during World War II, putting your life and your family’s in imminent danger because you refuse to join the Nazi Party? Check. Take it one step further by hiding a Jew in your basement? Check. Take a stand against everything being shoved down your throat – by actually acting as a human should – by offering a hungry person (who just so happens to be a Jew) food? You’re darn right he’s going to do this.

Perhaps the line that hit me the hardest concerning Hans wasn’t even something that he, himself, said, but rather was thought by Liesel some time later. Earlier in the novel, he had excused Max for turning his back on his own father when he was a youngster, passing this behavior off because he was so young. Now it was Liesel’s turn to justify her father’s behavior; after Hans came to realize he had jeopardized his family even more, he was beating himself up, calling himself “‘an idiot.'”  While it took over a year for the words to come to her, Liesel realized that this wasn’t the case all along when she said “‘No, Papa. You’re just a man'” (Zusak 402).

I have to admit that the first song that came to mind as I was thinking about Hans was “Lean on Me,” by Bill Withers – he’s such a comforting person. And there’s not a doubt in my mind that this makes sense. But the more that I read this book, the more I respect Hans for not taking the easy way, for standing up to what he knew to be wrong, which is why I went with The Ramones’ “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg).” I feel like Hans is the kind of character who cares about what the greater good is – he can’t let his conscience get the best of him – he’s making decisions based upon what his dad would think of him (and whether or not his dad would slap him upside the head!) There’s just so much pent up anger in this song, yet it still makes perfect sense. I can see Hans jamming to this, as weird as it might sound, perhaps because of the first verse:

“You’ve got to pick up the pieces

C’mon, sort your trash

You better pull yourself back together,

Maybe you’ve got too much cash

Better call, call the law,

When you gonna turn yourself in? Yeah

You’re a politician

Don’t become one of Hitler’s children.”

I just see so much defiance in the decisions that Hans chooses to make. At the same time, I see him doing the right thing rather than the easy thing and I feel that this sums up this song by The Ramones pretty well:



I remember the first time that I read this book and talking to our Librarian, Mrs. Carrie Vottero, about how much I HATED Rosa. I’m not even sure that that word is strong enough for how I felt about her. My immediate thoughts about her actually take me to a song like “One” by Metallica – something that’s just dark and gloomy and miserable. But Mrs. Vottero told me about how much she LOVED Rosa. I was just shocked. How could anyone think this was even debatable? Rosa was just insanely horrendous and I would not change my feelings on her.

And then I read further. And I saw some slight changes happening. And I started to see a glimpse of an actual human being. And then I started to (gasp!) come around on her. Dang, I had to admit to Mrs. Vottero that she was right!

I watched as Rosa seemingly changed into a human being. I watched her show that she cared, and in turn, I started to care for her as well. Whereas at the beginning of the novel I felt it was all about her and that she was annoyed with Liesel, I now feel that she’s got a big heart and have to commend her for even taking on Liesel in a very difficult situation. By no means did the Hubermanns have to take in the daughter of a communist during this time period, let alone hiding a Jew in her basement. Rosa, truly, demonstrated that she was a wildcard, for sure, but also a “good woman for a crisis” (Zusak 211). I saw Rosa become vulnerable – and that’s something that I truly love about a person and a character.

I have to admit that I had some difficulty finding a song that fit Rosa. Nothing was coming to me immediately, and then I realized that maybe this paralleled my love/hate relationship with her as a character. Hmmm, makes sense to me. So I started to think about songs in my own iTunes library that I’ve turned to when I’ve needed comforting; songs that don’t necessarily bring me out of a funk, but make me realize that I’m not the only one in that funk. And then it hit me. Lone Justice’s “Shelter” is a song that I’ve leaned on many, many times. Again, here’s this woman who has taken on a child in an extremely difficult situation, comes on strong, yet becomes a mother to her in the process. I can almost hear Rosa singing this song to Liesel, especially after Hans has left. It’s almost like a lullaby; a reassurance that things are going to be fine. (Of course, the only way that Rosa could sing this song would be if it contained words like saukerl or saumensch or scheisse). For some reason, I can just see Rosa singing “Disillusion has an edge so sharp, it tears at your soul and leaves a stain upon your heart,” (1:35) – and I’m not so sure whether she would be singing it to Liesel or to herself.



I tend to go back and forth on Max, depending on what’s going on in my own life at the time. We joke about being on #teamrudy or #teammax, and there have certainly times, even during a particular reading alone, that I lean toward Max (for the record, I tend to lean more toward Rudy, however). For this most recent reading, I really liked the scenes with Rudy concerning his fighting. I liked the idea of him telling us that “‘When death captures me…he will feel my fist on his face'” (Zusak 189). Further hearing the stories we are told about Max and Walter intrigues me even more. I like that Max is a fighter – and he absolutely needed to be one as a Jew during this time period.

Because of these reasons, I see something fast, something in your face, musically, to represent Max. I really bought in to him as a fighter and entering that ring to face off with Hitler. So I see him needing an entrance song that sets things off, something like Drowning Pool’s “Bodies.” While this isn’t typically my preferred type of music, I do think it’s fitting. I like the repetition of “Nothing’s wrong with me,” and “Something’s got to give” – I think it parallels Max being in the basement. He’s a Jew being hidden by Germans. At some point, something is just going to have to happen. But I also like the lyrics in what might be the only actual verse of the song (2:07): “Skin against skin, blood and bone, You’re all by yourself but you’re not alone – You wanted in now you’re here, Driven by hate, consumed by fear.” I read those lyrics with Max in mind and feel as though they’re just so fitting.

I just see a lot of power in both Max and the song itself. Max needed it to keep him going, to keep the fight alive, and I believe this is a great song to set that all off.

Wrapping it all up:

I think that it can be seen, in a piece as visual as Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, that ties to specific songs can be made. In my opinion, each of these characters has a definitive feeling that goes along with Zusak’s portrayal and it is possible to provide a deeper analysis of each of the characters through different songs and their lyrics themselves. Making these ties provided me with a deeper understanding of not only the book, but they also enabled me to further examine the characters while listening to these songs.

Are our students missing out on some great reads?

Yes, yes they are. There’s been some chatter about school districts banning Young Adult pieces as well as graphic novels because they just don’t think they’re worthy of being taught or because they feel they’re inappropriate. Michael Cavna recently addressed this issue in this article in The Washington Post.

But I’ll come back to this, because I haven’t always felt this way — it took me some time to get here.

I’m 42 years old and I’ve been reading for a LONG time. I’ve always loved to read and it was fostered by those who influenced me in many, many ways. Thankfully, I’ve never had an issue with reading and I’ve taken to reading pieces across many genres. Having grandparents who were teachers and who pushed my learning, I tended to read pieces well beyond what the typical 3rd grader was reading to their delight. I got lost in The Hobbit and a Roberto Clemente biography I found at our local library.

At the same time, my opinion on teaching the “classics” in English class was solidified by having teachers who instilled their importance on me when I had them. So I was going to do the same, no matter what it took.

“But we don’t want to read The Scarlet Letter, Mr. Lenzi. Why would I ever want to read The Good Earth, Mr. Lenzi — this doesn’t apply to my life.”

Eat your vegetables, I thought, as I pushed more chapters on them and demanded that they read Hawthorne and Buck and Hemingway and Steinbeck. And some actually did end up liking what they read, but most resented them the way that I do when I have to go to the dentist.

About five years ago, as a department, we looked to revamp the novels we would teach. Part of me wanted to say that Hester Prynne was still relevant, but another part decided to listen to what others had to say and they felt we could hook our students to similar themes with more contemporary pieces. Admittedly, this wasn’t that easy for me.

When I took a hard look at my love of The Good Earth, though, I realized that it wasn’t until I was in my mid 20s that I grew to love it. Experiences and perspective helped in this, I’m sure. 

Okay, I’m sorry, I have to digress again. I had a student several years ago who I witnessed crying during a free reading time. She was reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and was just flat out bawling. I have to say that I got a kick out of this — bawling from a read? It had to be because of her being 16, plain and simple. At least that’s what I told myself. For Christmas that year, I received a copy of the book and a card in which she told me how important the book was to her and that I should give it a shot. But I didn’t; I let it sit on a shelf.

So back to our discussions of updating our reading list. I’ve said this many times — we have the greatest librarian on the face of this earth and she took part in our discussions. The Book Thief was brought up and I figured I had to see what the fuss was about. Literally, I couldn’t put the thing down. I didn’t want to like it. But I did.

Wait, I thought. This is a Young Adult piece. This can’t be worthwhile. This isn’t a classic

And yet I couldn’t put it down. And yet I found myself bawling — and I say that with no shame whatsoever. I could see this novel working on so many levels. And I’ve loved teaching it ever since.

Does it have the same themes as The Scarlet Letter? No. Does it utilize the incredible sentence structures that Buck employed in The Good Earth? No — well, in fairness, Zusak can certainly construct some great ones. Does that mean that it doesn’t hold the same value as these classics?

This is the part that I’ve really come around on. I truly believe that this book — and others as well in the revived Young Adult canon — is vital to our attempts to instill a love of reading in our students. Do I personally like the Harry Potter or Twilight books? No. Do I love that kids are reading again — check that — that kids are devouring these pieces? Yes, yes I do. 

So back to the start. Are our students missing out on some great reads? Yes they are. Because people like me stood in the way of these pieces. We said that we had to stick to the tried and true (partly because the tried and true is typically an easier road to take). But we can do better. If I can spark the interest of a student in reading John Green’s The Fault in our Stars and that propels her to try RJ Palacio’s Wonder and Chris Crutcher’s Deadline, then perhaps, down the line, when they have more perspective, they’ll come back to some Hawthorne or Hemingway or Steinbeck or Buck.


Or perhaps they won’t. Perhaps they’ll “stray” to a comic book or a graphic novel or a western or to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or The Bible — who knows? Perhaps they’ll see that, while they loved Natalie Portman in “V for Vendetta,” the movie just didn’t compare to the graphic novel, in which the images seemingly jump off the pages while invoking a sense of rebellion.

So back to  the graphic novels. I really see this as being the next big thing — and yes, I know, they’ve been around for quite some time. What I mean is that I really think this is a genre that is going to explode — and I look forward to this. I look forward, even, to the reinterpretations that have been coming out — whether that be of Fahrenheit 451 or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — to see these stories told in graphic novel form is just… exciting to me.



I’ve always been a big Roberto Clemente fan even thought I unfortunately never got to see him play. I’ve read just about anything I can get my hands on that has dealt with his life — yet nothing hit me quite as hard as the graphic novel treatment. It just clicked even more for me. Am I supposed to think this is a lesser form of literature just because there are pictures involved???

Recently, I’ve been on a Young Adult kick. I actually get a laugh out of the fact that these authors are not always taken seriously, as though they’re a lesser writer because they aren’t writing like Henry James. I can assure you that Crutcher and Green and Zusak and Palacio wax poetic on many occasions. You can read The Hunger Games at face value or you can truly get into the anti war and deeper themes Suzanne has layered throughout.


I’ve found it incredibly interesting to take a look at these Young Adult pieces while I’m in my 40s and waxing nostalgic. But that’s not what I’ve liked the most about them. What I’ve liked the most is that they’re just flat out good — and we shouldn’t rob our kids of the opportunity to study these pieces because we’re hung up on sticking to the classics. Shame on us.

“And I can’t change…even if I wanted to…”

There’s something so unbelievably exciting about discovering new music — or, as it happens mostly for me — having it discovered for me. Prior to my brother cluing me in on Kings of Leon, which wasn’t long after I first heard Ray LaMontagne, I hadn’t heard strong, new music for quite some time. My brother, Nick, and I have talked before about the importance of an “entry song.” In other words, first impressions make a monstrous difference. If I don’t like that first song, it’s going to be very tough to get me to change my opinion.

Which brings me to Macklemore. I had never even heard of Macklemore until about two weeks ago when a student of mine completed his Unit Project for The Book Thief by changing the lyrics of popular songs to those that made sense concerning the plot of Markus Zusak’s novel. He did this to Macklemore’s Thrift Shop, which I hadn’t heard before, so I checked it out. I truly wish I could get that two minutes of my life back — and it was only two minutes because that’s all I could take. Just another hip hopper, wanna be without a real message.

But I was wrong. Yesterday a colleague of mine who is so up on music — especially contemporary music — that it’s not even funny, introduced me to Same Love by Macklemore. Immediately, I dismissed it. There’s no way I was going to like something by this guy, it just wasn’t going to happen. Except it did. Mary Lambert‘s voice complements Macklemore’s  so well. Ryan Lewis’ beats work so well with this. I know that I have also obsessed over him at times, but I also have to admit that there are parts of the song that truly remind me of Shane Koyczan. And now I can’t get the dang song out of my head… aworldsohatefulIn case you are like me and knew nothing about the song, it’s about the need to push for equality, it’s about the need for homosexuals to enjoy the same right to marry as heterosexuals. It’s about taking a stand. Macklemore has taken a stand – and I love that about a person. macklemore If you know anything about hip hop or rap music, you probably know that a lot of discrimination can be easily found. I’m very interested to see if Macklemore, who created Same Love prior to Thrift Shop hitting it big, thrusting him into the limelight, will be able to hold on to this message. I really hope he doesn’t give in and change his message. I hope that he continues to create videos like the one that he did for this — it’s phenomenal.

Click on the image below in order to be taken to YouTube to see the video.


When you think the words are written just for you…

I just finished working on Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief  with my group in English. It’s always a great unit — very few students haven’t loved it — and I mean that sincerely, I can probably count them on one hand. We were wrapping things up last week in a very loose fashion — essentially the gist of the conversation went something like this: Tell me why this book matters to you…

I got a lot of the typical answers: Because it’s just so visual, and Because I could see the characters and relate to them, and Because I fell in love with Rudy (there’s at least one each semester who just swoons over him…), Because I’ve never heard anything from this perspective…

Each time I’ve read it, I’ve focused on something different throughout the reading. This semester’s reading was no different — for some reason, the image of the accordion, its bellows filled with air, Hans pumping life in to it, Rosa unable to play it, just really hit me hard — and it’s just so incredibly visual to me. I brought this up during the discussion and was refreshed to be challenged by a student who said that this only happens in fiction — that it’s only in fiction that our imaginations are allowed to freely flow.

It took me a second of reflection to realize that, for the most part, his comment made perfect sense. Truthfully, we don’t do a good enough job in our teaching of non-fiction. We choose pieces that are dry and factual and lack any real imagery within their stories. We’ve failed our students in this sense. It also got me to thinking about what pieces of non-fiction have truly left an impression on me. Honestly, I’m not a big non-fiction fan in my personal reading. Immediately, only Night (which I couldn’t really reference with the students yet as we are two units away from reading it) and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild were the pieces that came to mind.

In the same way that great fiction has left a lasting impression on me, so has some great non-fiction. Sometimes it’s right there in front of us and sometimes we luck upon it. I walked past Strayed’s Wild many times in the bookstore before finally giving in to that big old hiking boot on the front cover. And she got me right from the start. But it wasn’t until page 267 that I really got IT – that part where I felt as if she were writing only FOR and TO ME:

cheryl strayed - wild

 “But it was too late now, I knew, and there was only my dead, insular overly optimistic, non-college- preparing, occasionally-child-abandoning, mom to blame. She had failed. She had failed. She had so profoundly failed me.
   Fuck her, I thought, so mad that I stopped walking.
   And then I wailed. No tears came, just a series of loud brays that coursed through my body so hard I couldn’t stand up. I had to bend over, keening, while bracing my hands on my knees, my pack so heavy on top of me, my ski pole clanging out behind me in the dirt, the whole stupid life I’d had coming out my throat.
   It was wrong. It was so relentlessly awful that my mother had been taken from me. I couldn’t even hate her properly. I didn’t get to grow up and pull away from her and bitch about her with my friends and confront her about the things I wished she’d done differently and then get older and understand that she had done the best she could and realize that what she had done was pretty damn good and take her fully back into my arms again. Her death had obliterated that. It had obliterated me. It had cut me short at the very height of my youthful arrogance. It had forced me to instantly grow up and forgive her every motherly fault at the same time that it kept me forever a child, my life both ended and begun in that premature place where we’d left off. She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.
   Fuck her, I chanted as I marched on over the next few miles, my pace quickened by my rage, but soon I slowed and stopped to sit on a boulder. A gathering of low flowers grew at my feet, their barely pink petals edging the rocks. Crocus, I thought, the name coming into my mind because my mother had given it to me. These same flowers grew in the dirt where I’d spread her ashes. I reached out and touched the petals of one, feeling my anger drain out of my body.
   By the time I rose and started walking again, I didn’t begrudge my mother a thing. The truth was, in spite of that, she’d been a spectacular mom. I knew it as I was growing up. I knew it in the days that she was dying. I knew it now. And I knew that was something. That it was a lot. I had plenty of friends who had moms who — no matter how long they lived — would never give them the all-encompassing love that my mother had given me. My mother considered that love her greatest achievement. It was what she banked on when she understood that she really was going to die and die soon, the thing that made it just barely okay for her to leave me and Karen and Leif behind.”
Yes, Zusak nailed it with his fictional piece featuring a sarcastic death as his narrator — but so did Strayed when speaking of her own troubles and tribulations in her non-fiction piece.

More of the things that I want…

let’s keep this going…

  • I want to learn something new every day — Yeah, I know this gets overused, but I am so fortunate to get to listen to students provide their interpretations of some incredible books. I love when a student has a differing opinion and can support it — or when she is able to articulate how much a sentence means to her. I love collaborating with my peers and looking at something that seems to be pretty murky in a way that makes it crystal clear.  I want my values to be challenged.
  • I want to read things that are able to make me feel like this: “Make me laugh.  Make me cry.  Tell me my place in the world.  Lift me out of my skin and place me in another.  Show me places I have never visited and carry me to the ends of time and space.  Give my demons names and help me to comfort them.  Demonstrate for me possibilities I’ve never thought of and present me with heroes who will give me courage and hope.  Ease my sorrows and increase my joy.  Teach me compassion.  Entertain and enchant and enlighten me. Tell me a story.”  I mean, c’mon. That’s just absolutely, positively brilliant. This passage was written by Dennis O’Neill as an introduction to the DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. I’ve never read anything else of O’Neill’s, but he just absolutely nailed this. For me, one book I’ve read has absolutely encapsulated everything that O’Neill has in this mantra, if you will — Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. My students will start to read it tonight. I can’t wait to hear what they have to say tomorrow…
  • I want to find another visionary who’s willing to take a stand and make things that he believes in — Man, I truly hope that another Steve Jobs comes along in my lifetime. I’m 40 years old, and it amazes me when I think of all of the ways that Jobs has impacted my life. Plus, as the someecards suggested, I don’t have to own a Zune because of him. Whether you’re an Apple or PC kind of guy, you have to appreciate all that Jobs did for us.

This is what makes my day…

I couldn’t get to sleep last night to save my life. I tossed and turned. I read. I had the tv on and I turned it off. I turned it on again and listened as it sleep timed itself off (two different times). And I was miserable. I knew that I had a long day today and that just made it worse. I remember rolling over at one point, squinting like crazy (can’t see jack without my glasses) only to see that it was 2:32. Gotta love it. Coffee was mandatory this morning, but it hadn’t really helped.My buttisimo was dragging this morning, to say the least.

Until Regis came in before first block, that is. We were starting our discussion of Part One of The Book Thief today and I know that I’ve gone on and on about how much I love this book, but you’re just going to have to deal with it – it’s that good. And Regis came in early to reaffirm this. To hear a student tell you that he loves a book so far, well, that makes it all worth it. To hear a student rave about the writer’s style, the characters and just how visual this first part was for him is the ultimate reward for me. He’s hooked, and there’s no telling where it goes from here.

And it did more for me than any amount of caffeine. I’m just hoping that this “high” doesn’t come with a caffeine crash on the back end…

I went to a conference sponsored by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) about 10 years ago and I vividly remember a presenter opening with a piece written by Dennis O’Neil as an introduction to The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. I remember sitting there literally thinking “hey, this is a journalism conference – what the heck is this guy doing talking about comics?” No kidding, I thought he had to be joking. Boy, was I wrong.

And I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody discuss what a book should do better than O’Neill did with this:

Here’s what I’d like you to do for me:

Make me laugh.  Make me cry.  Tell me my place in the world.  Lift me out of my skin and place me in another.  Show me places I have never visited and carry me to the ends of time and space.  Give my demons names and help me to comfort them.  Demonstrate for me possibilities I’ve never thought of and present me with heroes who will give me courage and hope.  Ease my sorrows and increase my joy.  Teach me compassion.  Entertain and enchant and enlighten me.

Tell me a story.

— Dennis O’Neil

I mean, seriously, how great is that? I want everything I read to do these things for me in some form or another. More importantly, I want my students to encounter this in whatever form of book it takes – whether that be a comic book, a work of non-fiction, or some crazy tale of vampires and werewolves. I just want to see us reading – and devouring what we’re reading at the same time.

For me, The Book Thief did all of the things O’Neil spoke about. Quite honestly, I’m not sure that any other book I’ve read has done this to the extent that Zusak did, and maybe that’s why I feel such a strong tie to it. But I do know this: I’m going to keep searching for others that do it as well.

And I’m also going to hope that Regis comes back in tomorrow with as passionate a review of Part Two as he did for Part One.

Why we teach…

For the past six years, I have organized a trip to Washington, D.C. as an enrichment opportunity to accompany our study of the Holocaust (Night and now The Book Thief) in 10th grade literature as well as the study of World War II in 10th grade social studies. I’m not trying to toot my own horn at all here – it’s a pain in the butt to organize, but I get way more out of it than I put into it. Beyond my involvement, four other teachers went along yesterday as chaperones – paying their own way in the effort to keep the cost as minimal as possible for our students – and this is something that is truly appreciated.

Basically, the trip goes like this: we leave at 5am, stop once on the way to D.C., take a quick driving tour around the monuments (and if you’re in the Pittsburgh area and ever looking for a bus company and driver, George from McIlwain Charters is phenomenal), give the kids from about 10am -2pm on their own, tour the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for the rest of the afternoon, stop for dinner on the way home, then pull back in to school around 10:30pm. It’s a long day, for sure.

There’s no state testing mandating it. There’s no check for understanding overseeing it. There’s just learning going on throughout. And this is the thing we forget about when we think of our educational system. We forget that there are teachers willing to give up their Saturdays with their families and shell out $40 each in order to provide a group of 49 the opportunity. We forget that there are teachers willing to go the extra mile, so to speak, even when their discipline isn’t covered on the trip. We forget that there are teachers who feed off of the smiles they see on their students’ faces when they discover a piece of artwork in person that they’ve only seen in a book or online before. We forget that there are teachers who are proud of their students’ questions after obviously paying attention in a museum that evokes so many emotions about a topic that is gut wrenching to say the least. We never hear about these teachers.

We don’t give our students enough credit at times – myself included. We forget that they’re 15 years old and sometimes haven’t been given the opportunity to prove their responsibility – myself included. The students on this trip were granted a tremendous amount of freedom – from 10 – 2 they were on their own to see what they wanted to see on the Mall. They spoke of the National Archives, how awesome Arcimboldo’s exhibit at the National Gallery of Art was (no, I hadn’t heard of him, either, but check him out, the kids were right, his work is fascinating), their visit to the Air and Space Museum, their walk to the White House, the Newseum and the Lincoln Memorial and then they spoke at length about their walk through the Holocaust Museum. And they were on time for everything they were supposed to be on time for. They were where they were supposed to be when they were supposed to be there, demonstrating their ability to handle this responsibility when it was given to them. Did I worry about them as they were on their own in D.C.? You’re darn right I did. And they proved to me that I didn’t need to.

Some of the students realized how fortunate they were to follow along with a Holocaust survivor who was sharing his stories with those who wanted to walk with him through the museum. What an incredible opportunity that I hope these kids never forget. Mr. Sztajer explained to them very clearly that they were needed to keep his stories alive, that the survivors are dying and that their help was needed. I am confident that his words will live on as these students share what they saw and heard. Elie Wiesel and Markus Zusak had their words and images brought even more to life because students ate up the opportunity to visit a museum that is sometimes haunting, but unbelievably rewarding, to visit.

As teachers, we get knocked around in the press and in our communities. We’re money hungry and greedy to have the nerve to fight tooth and nail for our benefits. We get little respect for what we do. We’re insulted by people who have no idea what it is that we do on a daily basis – no idea of what kind of fires we put out daily – NONE. We’re not educated enough and we’re glorified babysitters. But if what I did yesterday was babysitting, then I’m fine with this – you can call me a babysitter all you want.