Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Individualism: Wonder

by R.J. Palacio
Read for "Individualism" theme

Hands down, Wonder is one of the best 5 novels for teachers. Whether it is used as an in-class reading assignment or merely a resource tool for teachers, Wonder provides so many different things for educators and readers alike. To preface my discussion of this book,  here is an excellent book talk from YouTube to summarize the plot:
So now that we know the premise of the novel, lets dig into it! Now, a big thing about this book is the genetic disorder Auggie is born with, as it serves as the vehicle for the morals and lessons learned in the story. From discussions with people who recommended that I read the book, they were able to verbally explain to me what Auggie's disorder was. But upon reading the book, I soon realized that I needed to do some more research. Auggie was born with a cranio-facial disorder called Treacher Collins syndrome, which is a facial disorder characterized by underdeveloped facial features like cheekbones. (More specific information about Treacher Collins can be found here). This disorder is what physically separates Auggie from the rest of the kids, as his parents want to shelter him from possible bullying at school. So in a way, this also serves as a social separation too.
Upon Auggie's arrival at public school, he feels welcomed by a few students who showed him around the school on his first day. However, he quickly becomes the victim of a terrible bully named Julian, who uses Auggie's deformity as an excuse to torment and social isolate Auggie. Bullying has become one of the biggest problems in schools, particularly with middle school age students like Auggie. So I believe that it is extremely important for educators to be proactive about preventing bullying. In an article called "Teaching Wonder," Tracy Ludwig discusses how to incorporate lessons about bullying with the teaching of Wonder in an elementary or middle school classroom. If given the opportunity, I would love to be able to include lessons like these into my classroom so as to provide students with a literary piece to understand as well as a "real world" issue they can learn from. The author of Wonder, R.J. Palacio has become an advocate on the matter of bullying in schools and has initiated the Choose Kind campaign. In this video, Palacio discusses the campaign and her intent for initiating this social call-to-arms for young people.
The Choose Kindness campaign has prompted teachers, students, and readers all around the country to act against bullying in order to eradicate it from schools. The effect of this movement and its ever-potent message has even reached large-scale voice like the Disney Channel. The Disney Channel has used casts from some of its most popular shows, like Austin & Ally, to promote the choose kindness campaign and to air anti-bullying PSAs so that young viewers may learn both in school and out of school about the importance of kindness.

In a recent interview with the Telegraph, R.J. Palacio supports her campaign and the effect it is having on the nation and the world by saying that "any act of kindness is an act of almost unadulterated courage." I agree with Palacio and hope to encourage and instill this very principle with my future classroom. One extraordinary way to get students thinking about the impact of kindness is to incorporate the Random Acts of Kindness initiative. This initiative is not solely for students, but rathe is aimed at people of all ages, genders, races, etc. The RAK initiative is a way for people to take a few moments out of their day and use that time in service of others. These simple acts can change a person's day or possibly their life. By adapting this for the classroom, students will actively pursue kindness in their everyday lives, and hopefully, bullying will be eradicated from their lives in turn.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Choice: Life After Tupac and D Foster

Life After Tupac and D Foster
by Jacqueline Woods
Read for "Choice" theme

Photo by Rupert Ganzer (Creative Commons)

Plain and simple, this was a great book about self-discovery.

The novel centers on three girls living in Queens, New York at the time of Tupac Shakur's sexual assault trial in the mid-1990s. At the time the novel begins, Neeka and the unnamed narrator have only known their block, the kids in their school, and Tupac's music. Yet after befriending D Foster, the girls soon begin to understand a whole new way of life outside of their block.

For the most part, Neeka and the narrator have lived pretty safe and comfortable lives. They both have their parents, who care about their safety and well-being, and haven't had to fear much street violence. D Foster on the other hand does not live with her biological family and has known what it's like to be hungry and unloved. As the friendship between these three girls develops, they share more and more about each others lives and ultimately find what true friendship means.

I really enjoyed reading this story and think it has provided me with an invaluable trait in reading that I don't often come by: hope. This book, in an interesting way, emotes hope and I think it would be a great addition for any classroom library.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Discovery: I'll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the Sun
by Jandy Nelson
Read for "Discovery"

"The Meaning of Auras"

I'll Give You the Sun is a beautiful story of twins Noah and Jude who are exploring first loves and greatest loss in their teenage years. Noah and Jude are both extremely artistic and share this talent with their mother. But when the twins are fourteen years old, their mother tragically dies in a car accident. They are left alone with their emotionally distant father and start to grow apart.

One of the most compelling aspects of this story is the narrative frame in which it is told. The chapters are split up between Noah's and Jude's perspectives on the time of their life at that moment. Most of Jude's narration takes place when the twins are 16 (after the death of their mother) and most of Noah's narration takes place when the twins are 13-14 (before the death of their mother). This was so interesting for me as a reader because I got to switch back and forth between the perspectives and the personalities of these two characters before and after this crucial life event. 

Additionally, the narration of the two characters distinctly forms their respective personalities. Noah is a painter and thinks in colors. He is always seeing prospective paintings in his mind as he goes about life and interactions with people. This aspect of his narration was extremely pertinent when it came to the descriptions of his relationship with Brian. When the two were happy and falling in love, the colors Noah used were bright. And when the two had their rift and Noah's mother dies, the colors are glum and somber. Jude, on the other hand, is a sculptor. Her descriptions were more, funnily enough, concrete. She panned out every thought and emotion and tried to find reason. And although her "reason" was a series of Bible verses she wrote herself, she tried to stick by a strict code and follow it, so as to keep herself in line.

This is a true coming-of-age novel about self-discovery. As Jude and Noah both encounter love and broken hearts, they also encounter death and grieving. Additionally, they learn about one another and become more loving of one another as they find their competitiveness over art has been dividing them when it should have been bringing them together. 

I would definitely recommend this book to students, especially those with complex family dynamics. I can understand what it is like to have a tumultuous relationship with a sibling at that age, so I can only imagine all the other students out there who think their siblings don't understand them. This book helped me to open my eyes to my perspective at the time and see how far my sister and I have grown since then. I don't see how this novel wouldn't be able to help other readers in similar situations.

Nonfiction: Enrique's Journey

Enrique's Journey
by Sonia Nazario
Read for "Nonfiction" theme

"Blown Over"
ABC News

Enrique's Journey is the miraculous tale of one determined boy from Honduras and his multiple journeys to find his mother in the United States. When Enrique was 17, he made the courageous decision to leave his family, girlfriend, and home behind in Tegucigalpa and embark on an illegal journey to the United States by riding the tops of cargo trains. Along the way, Enrique was robbed, beaten, starving, and caught by immigration enforcement multiple times. Although, Enrique suffered greatly on these treks and nearly lost his life several times, he persevered and continued with his quest to ultimately make it into the US and find his mother.

One of the greatest aspects of this non-fiction account is the resiliency Enrique explains and exhibits. So many times, he faced great danger and legal obstacles that sent him back to Honduras. But the love he had for his mother and determination to be with her again kept him going through it all. Knowing this to be the premise of the story, I was very interested when I first began. I often wonder to what extent would I go for someone I love. I would like to think that extent is limitless, that I would do anything for the people I love. But if I were faced with the amount of obstacles that Enrique encountered, then I'm not so sure that I would have that perseverance.

This dilemma kept my mind reeling as I read. It was so inspiring to hear of Enrique's rationale behind his decisions and perspective on his journey, yet I know that it takes more than pure will and determination to overcome something like that. Enrique mentions the idea of God and his relationship with religion as recounts his stories. As a no-religious person, I found this incredibly interesting to see how someone else who struggles with faith dealt with that sort of adversity. He contemplated whether God was with him or not on his journey, as I'm sure I would have myself. Even though I've finished the book, I still find myself thinking about this topic and assessing how I feel about it.

Overall, Enrique's Journey opened my eyes to a lot of big, saturated issues in our society today. Yes, human determination and perseverance is a great topic. But the issue of immigration presented in the book are arguably more pertinent and fore-front. This issue is not just a political issue for candidates to debate, but it is also a social issue and a livelihood issue for thousands, perhaps millions, of people who wish to seek a better future in the United States. 

For whatever reasons they may have, migrants come to the United States illegally and through extremely dangerous ways. They ride on tops of trains that could decapitate them when going through tunnels or crush migrants if the train derails. Migrants are robbed, beaten, raped, and even killed by thugs who prowls for prey on the trains. Migrants are exposed to the harsh elements for days and weeks and are so dehydrated they may not make it across the treacherous wading of the Rio Grande. Migrants are facing incomprehensible perils all for a shot at a better life that they are not guaranteed. 

I think this book is an excellent vehicle for constructive conversation on a heavy political and social issue. I would consider using this book as a whole-class text in a classroom, so long as I had a mature set of students (perhaps Advanced or AP) and I had the support of the school administration. I think it is incredibly important for students to discuss such heavy topics in a controlled environment so that they may be able to see the world around them for what it really is and possibly be called to action and start change.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Love: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
by Jonathan Safran Foer
Read for "Love" theme

"New York: A Treasure Map of Light"

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a sweet, somber, and inspirational story of a young boy who goes on a journey through New York City to find out details about a key he has found in his late-father's closet. Oskar Schell's father worked in the World Trade Center and unfortunately perished in the attacks on 9-11. As a young boy, Oskar has so many different emotions about the situation. He experiences rage, depression, trauma, and loneliness. Upon discovery of this mysterious key, he takes it upon himself to find out what its purpose is and what it unlocks.

Oskar goes on a search all over the city to find people who know information about this key. He keeps the journey a secret from his mother because he wants to protect her, but I also think Oskar veils his intentions for slightly selfish reasons. One of the main themes in the book is the idea of self-destruction v. self-preservation, and in an attempt to preserve himself in spite of all this trauma, Oskar keeps the secret for himself so as to process the death of his father and find understanding in the tragedy.

The eclectic people Oskar meets along the way and the stories they share with him ultimately help him with his grieving and acceptance of the tragedy. And when Oskar finally learns that his mother new about his adventures all along and even helped him in discovering information without his knowledge, Oskar finds appreciation for the love his family gives to him and how interconnected he is with her and the others he met along the way. They have experienced different stories, processed different tragedies differently, but they are all connected in the sense that they have seen the beauty and ugliness of the world. The electricity of the world has singed them, but it has also made them alive.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Good/Evil: Unwind

by Neil Shusterman
Read for "Good/Evil" theme

Vlog for "Unwind"

Deception: Othello

by William Shakespeare
Read for "Deception" theme

Engraving by Thomas Ryder, 1799. 
"Othello. Act II, Scene I. A platform"
The Boydell Shakespeare Prints.

In Othello, deep themes emerge through the character exploration of Iago. On a superficial level, Othello seems like an easy play to understand: Iago is jealous of his cohorts' success in their stations and in their marriages. But upon closer look at the specific moves Iago makes and the rationales he presents to the audience through his soliloquies, we find there is a much darker mind at bay.

Iago's fixation with the take-down of his cohorts is unsettling. While he convinces everyone of his undying love and devotion to their faces, he turns right around to the audience and states that he actually feel s the exact opposite. In our conversations with the NING classroom and the students in the Iago forum, I started to think about Iago's motivations and true rationales for his actions. In re-reading the play with the students and discussing possible motivations for Iago, I have realized that the point may not be entirely in the specific reasonings for Iago's actions, but rather the ambiguous nature of the unknown. By that I mean perhaps the point is that part of Iago's character is his questionability. We find ourselves questioning this move with this rationale or that motive with no rationale, but perhaps the biggest point of all is that Shakespeare has us questioning human actions, decisions, and abilities. Iago is a grey matter: he has dark elements in his desire to instigate downfalls, but he also has an empathetic side when he sees his plans utterly derailing other characters. So perhaps we are not supposed to pin-point one specific motivation for Iago; perhaps the exercise of discerning human character and capability is our real mission when assessing motive and actions in Othello

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sense of Self: Room

by Emma Donoghue
Read for "Sense of Self" theme

Room is an incredible book. While it pushes the boundaries for young adult and borders fiction for adults, I still stand by the fact that this is an excellent novel and possibly a good recommendation for a (mature) high school student. Room is told from the perspective of a five-year-old named Jack. He and Ma live in a room, and to Jack, Room is the entire world. He was born into a captivity of sorts, as his mother was abducted and then impregnated by her captor. Now the frame description of this novel would make it seem extremely inappropriate for young adult, but I still stand that this could work for (mature) high schoolers.

Jack's perspective offers an innocent look on evil matters. This lesson alone is a great aspect to the novel which makes it, in my opinion, brilliant and great for learning opportunities. Perspective is a difficult trait of writing that is difficult to teach students at times, and understanding the complexity of a foreign perspective or finding meaning in the author's choices with perspectives is no easy feat either. Room is a great tool to help teach these big ideas and make it more understandable for students.

I really could talk for days about this book. I found it ground-breaking in terms of narrative form and intriguing in terms of originality. But what struck me most about this book and my experience reading it was the reaction I saw in myself to what was happening or what Jack was saying. I got angry at Jack for not understanding how Room was a bad place and for not embracing the outside world. Rationally, I should have known to expect this in his behavior. Yet, I was still compelled to judge him and get angry at him. This is not the first book to make me feel like this, nor should I expect it to be the last, so I vie for its place in the young adult world so readers may learn this very lesson. Characters in book could just as easily be people in the flesh, and one should learn to understand perspective before jumping to conclusions or rushing to judgments.

Hero: Going Bovine

Going Bovine
by Libba Bray
Read for "Hero" Theme

For this week, I read Going Bovine by Libba Bray. Initially, I connected with the main character and narrator Cameron. Like Cameron, I was a little angsty with the world and the perceived hypocrisy surrounding me. I'll admit though that Cameron takes it a little farther than I did. I did have a lot of friends who shared his sentiments to a tee, though, so that brought me in right away just based on the fact that I understood Cameron so well. Once I understood who I was dealing with, I simply couldn't put the book down.

While it took a little while to get to the meat of the story and the main conflict with Cameron's Mad Cow disease, I appreciated Bray's patience in developing Cameron's character and the dynamics within his family. This seemed like a key aspect for me as a future teacher, as I know it provides students with the opportunity to connect with Cameron; even if students don't connect with Cameron's personality, they may relate to his personal/family life. My outlook on teaching literature is to always find a way for the student to connect to the material, whether it's personal connection to a character or understanding or previous knowledge of a subject. I really liked how there were so many opportunities for students to connect or find something engaging in this novel.

Another great aspect for drawing in readers are all the crazy different elements this story provides. At its core, it's an adventure story. But it is not limited to just that. It's also fantastical, comical, enlightening to others' struggles, and, at times, heart-breaking. This novel is an emotional and categorical roller coaster, and this novel is one of those that pulls off the roller coaster well; there were so many things happening so quickly, but I didn't get whiplash or need to take a break. It compelled me to finish.

Overall, two thumbs up and a commemorative toast to Balder from me!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Coming of Age: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian 
by Sherman Alexie

Read for the "Coming of Age" Theme

In reading this novel, I have re-discovered what young adult means. Originally, I was expecting something like Twilight. Not like vampires and gushy love stories and terrible writing. But a story that had issues and was more tame in certain areas. I just I should say I was not expecting to be reading about the main character’s sexual awakening in the first few pages of the book.  I didn’t realize that YA books talked about masturbation. And that there would be swearing. And bulimia. And a lot of death. But I think that’s ok. I have nothing against that whatsoever. Just wasn’t expecting it is all.

In fact, I think I really liked how those topics and issues were brought up in this book. They are all issues that I have faced, and I’m only 21. And the book handles these issues so delicately too. It’s honest and blunt, which makes it refreshing to me. I have read books in the past with these or similar issues but they coddle the topic or ignore it or over-dramatize it. To me, this book did a really good job to confront those issues in a realistic way. And as someone who has very personal connection to these saturated topics, I didn't feel offended or slighted by the depiction of these issues and themes. Rather, I found myself nodding my head and agreeing with Junior's actions and portrayals. 

Overall, this is a book I would love to recommend to future students. It might be a stretch to get a school-board to allow me to teach it, but if given the opportunity I would love to!