This is the second book in a row with a poor choice of cover. The picture of the bride and groom striding purposefully on a beach towards a white city, with little bridesmaids in tow is misleading. It reinforced my suspicion that the book was probably “chick lit” or at least followed the familiar stereotyped patterns of books (and movies!) depicting friendship between women.
Whatever adjectives one may decide to use in regards to this book, stereotypical cannot possibly be one of them.
The writing style is unusual. It’s raw, uneven, different and (most of the time!) made the book hard to put down.
In addition, the book is not only about a powerful bond between two girls that begins in childhood and lasts as they mature into adulthood. It is also a bare-bones, often brutal look at the cruel cycle of poverty and lack of education. The book makes it very clear how difficult it is to break out of this cycle which seems bent on repeating itself. It may be about Naples in the 1950s but the social picture depicted could fit many other times and locations.
As a teacher, I was very interested in the detailed descriptions of the girls’ education or lack of education, as the case may be. However, when the same level of detail was devoted to the wedding of one of the two girls, I found it rather tedious.
This book is the first one of a series. At first, I thought I would move straight on to book two as I was so intrigued by the book. Yet by the time I got to the end I decided that a change would be welcome and moved on to reading other things.
I DO recommend reading this book but I don’t think I will watch the series if it comes our way. The descriptions in the book are vivid enough for me!
The following post was first posted in 2011, but the dilemma is still very relevant. In fact, the topic is particularly relevant at the beginning of every school year, when teachers and their new students are still “sizing each other up”.
It’s funny how things tie in with each other.
I hadn’t thought much about our staff room since the school finally purchased more chairs. Due to the fact that I’m not one of those teachers who manage to be in the staff room the moment the bell rings, I often could not find a free chair. But that issue has been taken care of.
Tyson Seburnt’s interesting post “What’s a Staff Room to You?” made me realize that there are other kinds of staff rooms, reflecting a whole different approach to a staff room, one used for collaborating on school issues, for instance. Our HUGE room staff room is mainly used for eating /drinking coffee and talking. Although the room is enormous, most teachers sit around specific tables, in sub groups. During the so-called lunch break (25 minutes at 10:40 in the morning!) the noise of conversation is loud. But what are teachers talking about?
If you had asked me that a week ago I would have said: Teachers’ offspring, fashion and television. Maybe some politics.
Right after reading the post, the head of our Deaf and hard of hearing staff department implored us not to talk about students during our breaks around the table.
Hmm, that’s right. I didn’t really pay much attention to it but we do talk about students, or rather “vent” our feelings about them.
She’s worried that sensitive information we know might be overheard by people who shouldn’t be privy to that information (not that you can hear much with the noise level during the break…)
The very same day I read an article in EL (ASCD) magazine called “Respect – Where Do We Start” by Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin. The author talks about the negative influence of teachers sitting and complaining about their problematic students during lunch breaks. She says that these kind of conversations do not lead to the creation of constructive suggestions on dealing with students. The reverse may be true – hearing other colleagues also complain about a pupil makes the teacher feel more entitled to her negative feelings about that pupil. In addition, the author also claims that when teachers spend their free time talking about what brings them down and not what they feel good about it encourages our brains to think in more negative ways.
In short, Beaudoin calls for a “no-talk-about-students” rule for lunch hour.
I see the author’s point but I’m not sure I agree. In fact, I’m not sure it is a rule we could live by. With all the support systems such as my AWESOME P.L.N and my patient husband who listens to me in the evenings, there is nothing like the support of your fellow teachers, who actually teach the same pupils, especially when you exit a lesson ready to tear your hair out.
I was concerned that the book would be lurid and make me feel like I was reading the tabloids. The picture on the front cover of a woman with a knife in her hand and the quote on the back cover (“Dishes the dirt on what it’s really like being one of many wives”) did not seem encouraging.
In fact, the only reason I began the book was that it sort of fell into my lap.
I’m so glad I read it! The beginning part kept me a bit “wobbly” at first but that didn’t last long and I happily read all 606 pages!
Ebershoff not only cleverly weaves two main storylines together, but he also moves the plot forward by presenting many points of view, expressed in a wide variety of formats – personal diaries, letters, newspaper articles, court documents, research materials and more. I felt I was getting a much richer picture of the unfolding events.
One narrative is from the present day, involving a secret polygamous Latter-Day Saints sect called “The Firsts”, and a murder mystery. The other narrative follows the life of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young’s multitude of wives who left the fold and waged a crusade against polygamy. Her life story is told along with the origin story of the Mormon religion.
This is a work of fiction though not quite a historical novel. It’s important to read the end notes to understand more about which information is based on research and which parts are total fiction. Ann Eliza was most certainly a real person!
Besides the issue of polygamy, the depiction of a leader demanding blind commitment to every word, defining every doubt or disagreement as treason, of demanding one thing from his followers while setting himself above the rules is, unfortunately, an issue that is very much alive today. There is a powerful scene in the book in which Brigham Young uses his clever rhetorical skills to turn the tables on those who voice concerns over his unethical behavior, making them feel guilty for even having such impure thoughts. Such behavior did not die with Brigham Young…
As they say, don’t judge a book by its cover (or it’s back cover)!
It’s a great thing to be able to greet students at the beginning of the year and then hand each one of them a simple “gift folder” with an official-looking cover page on it, and say:
“Here, this is for you. Write your name on it. It’s your personal “exam review” folder. See the table of contents? With the checkboxes? This tells you what material you will be adding to it, gradually, so that you can have all the material you need to review in one place, before your national exam in January /May.
Yes, you will be graded on it. A grade that really will be part of the grades that make up your final grade.
My Deaf and hard of hearing students high school students need very clear “road maps” showing where we are going and what is expected of them.
And everyone likes getting a personal gift!
Quite motivating, right?
This wonderful plan of having students build their own review folder can backfire completely.
I should know.
I stopped trying to do this years ago because
(let’s be polite here)
the results were unsatisfactory.
Then what am I doing here sharing the personal exam review folders that my strong twelfth grade students will be getting on the first day of class?
Isn’t Einstein supposed to have said that it’s insanity to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results?!!
Ah, but I’m NOT doing the same thing.
I think I figured out what went wrong before.
I didn’t include a grade for completing the folders in the semester’s grade. Some students, particularly the strongest ones who did well on their first exam of the year, saw no reason to work on their folder. They could succeed without bothering with it, as far as they were concerned.
I didn’t ensure the students made every single element of the folder personal. The folders included photocopied – ready-made pages that the students got. They didn’t create their own sample sentences or even copy out such lists as
“useful adjectives” or “connectors” in their own handwriting (or typed it up themselves). They didn’t really review material they hadn’t written themselves.
But all of the above is “peanuts” compared to the major mistake I made in the past:
The exam review folders were mainly or exclusively for reading comprehension skills. I included sample types of questions, warnings about common errors, useful vocabulary, and tips about which questions to do first or last.
However, reading comprehension is a very complex skill, particularly for my Deaf and hard of hearing students with their general language difficulties and lack of general knowledge.
You can’t break reading comprehension down completely into a discrete set of skills.
Thus some students ignored the review material and did well on the finals while other students reviewed the material thoroughly and still did badly. Those students usually score poorly on reading comprehension exams in their L1 as well.
My twelfth-grade students, at what is called here “the five-point” level, have a writing task. They are required to write a 120-140 word composition on a given topic. Part of the grade is given for using advanced language elements such as “the passive voice”, “connectors” and “gerunds” or varied “rich” adjectives.
The students do not need to use every possible element in every composition but they certainly need to study and review these elements before the exam.
I discuss these elements with the students all the time.
I can define the elements and they are clearly connected to the final grade on the writing task.
And now I’m requiring students to personalize every single sample sentence.
Personal exam review folders will be given only for the writing tasks on the final exams, not the reading comprehension sections.
Here is what my 12th-grade students at “level G” will be getting.
It seems that while I was waiting for the weekend to write about the Neil Gaiman book I finished reading another book…
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
I try to read at least one “young adult” book a year and Neil Gaiman is always a good choice. As a language teacher, I delight in his use of language!
I must admit that this one is a bit more predictable than “The Graveyard Book” , which I thought was better, but it is still a good book.
One of Gaiman’s specialties is weaving teen-angst themes into fantasy books. Despite the fact that the main characters in this book are not teenagers (in their 20s, it seems) teenagers can easily identify with them. I won’t give you any spoilers related to the fantasy part but basically this book is about the introvert kid who never “fit in”, felt embarrassed by his father, lacked self-confidence who learns to believe in himself.
It’s good for everyone to be reminded of these issues, particularly if you happen to teach teenagers, which I do!
“When You Are Engulfed in Flames” by David Sedaris
I’ve been reading short stories by Sedaris in the New Yorker Magazine for years and have heard Sedaris read stories of his on This American Life podcast many times. However, it is the first time I have read an entire book by Sedaris, which is actually a collection of short stories.
I was a bit worried because there is a big difference between enjoying a short story by an author from time to time and reading a bunch of them in a row. I thought it would become too repetitive and that I would lose interest.
That didn’t happen.
There’s something unique about his style, I don’t know if I can explain it. The “back cover reviews” includes one that is relevant “This is a man who could capture your heart and lift your spirits while reading out the ingredients of a rice cake”. I don’t about “lift your spirits” but the rest is true. He seems to start by telling the most mundane, simple things he notices about people and places, his unusual family and his life with his partner and you wonder what IS this about. Then suddenly he connects all with thought-provoking observations about life, society, racism, relationships (in general and sexual ) and more.
I wouldn’t say I would describe many of the stories as “funny” like they say on the cover, though the story that connected “Hitchcock-like birds” and music from the sixties was “laugh out loud” funny. Though I do chuckle more when I hear him read aloud the stories.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a big fan of puffins.
Puffins, as in the birds, though I certainly like a great many Puffin Books as well! Puffins are beautiful, cute, and versatile – they can fly AND swim!
I understand these birds are incredibly popular in Britain and in many other countries, but they aren’t that well-known in my part of the world. My students are not the only ones who comment in puzzlement about the “strange duck” I use as a profile picture!
While the puffin may seem like an unfamiliar creature to my students, I have recently learned that our shared life in the classroom has more in common with puffins (and pufflings!) than I ever imagined.
How did this newfound knowledge come my way?
“Planet Puffin” is a wonderful podcast composed of short episodes of varying length (ranging from 5 to 15 minutes) and varied modes of presentation: “A regular podcast from PM on Radio 4 on all things puffin. Both the silly and the serious; the scientific and the cultural”. Many thanks to Elizabeth Evans Cicconi for telling me about it!
The only thing they don’t discuss in the podcast are the similarities between “Planet Puffin” and “Planet Classroom”, so I take it upon myself to highlight the forgotten issue.
Puffins look very different in the winter. They lose the colorful beaks and the black mascara-like markings around the eyes. They lose their wing feathers and become flightless too.
Students and their teachers also exhibit marked changes in their looks between winter and summer, though the changes often progress in opposite directions.
In winter students often seem unable to fly – they simply don’t shine. Their teachers despair over their inability to grasp the material, to behave themselves and wonder if the students will ever be able to fly independently. Yet by the time the summer finals arrive, the students flex their wings and fly, in glorious colors!
The teachers, on the other hand, retain their bright, energetic colors well into winter, perhaps all through winter. However, by the time the summer finals come round, teachers’ feathers have faded and become dun-colored, their beaks sag and their movements seem sluggish.
2. So very needy
Pufflings are always hungry. They stay in their burrows while the parents fly off, again and again, day after day, to find fish for them. “Puffin parents can supply their young with fish more than 100 times a day”.
If we ignore the fact that students (particularly adolescents) seem always ready to actually eat, students are just as needy as the pufflings. In order to “feed” them properly, teachers find themselves spending far more time on their students’ nourishment than the allotted 4-5 teaching hours (per class) a week. Breaks between lessons dissolve into “meet the student” time, or yard duty, “free periods” are devoted to grading, preparing material, running after the computer technician, searching for printer paper, attending staff meetings and answering students questions on WhatsApp while attending in-service training courses.
The ratio is different, of course – pufflings are “only children” – one puffling a season…
3. Sometimes pufflings need to be rescued
When pufflings are ready, they must leave their burrows for the first time. Having never seen the sea or been in the fresh air, they must now find the edge of the cliff by moonlight and the sound of the sea and fly away.
Most pufflings do all of this as planned.
Some pufflings are led astray by human temptations, such as the sound of a generator or artificial lights. They need to be rescued from boiler rooms and kitchen cabinets and brought back to the clifftop.
Others set off in the right direction but get tangled in the nettles, their little feet becoming paralyzed. They are completely unable to move forward on their own.
Just like some of our students who lose their way. They need extra help, special attention or intervention, and second chances (or more!). They have the ability to “make it”, but they can’t fly off without extra help.
4. A strong sense of place
Puffins return to the same place, year after year, after spending the winter out at sea.
Many teachers, myself included, return to the same school, the same classroom, year after year (after year…) ready to get new pufflings set on their path to the open sea.
No, it’s not boring and it’s never exactly the same.
Pufflings all look adorable to us humans but in the classroom, we sometimes have to remind ourselves to see the students as pufflings and find that “lovableness” in them that simply hasn’t yet manifested clearly…
There are more comparisons to be made but I’ll let you listen to the podcast yourselves.
Yes, it IS the same author that wrote “All the light we cannot see” . I enjoyed that book.
Yes, the style of writing is unique, the descriptions are rich and full of attention to detail. I’m sure that if someone wanted to adapt the book into a film, the visuals would aspire would be crystal clear.
The first part is great.
The author is skilled at ensuring you don’t jump ship mid way, even though the thought of quitting seemed quite attractive throughout the long middle section of the book.
The plot that IS there REALLY requires you to suspend belief.
There’s very little plot and it moves slowly. SLOWLY. The author must have wanted readers to truly have the sensation of time moving slowly…
It felt like the book was more about style than substance.
In short, I enjoyed the first part of the book. I did not succumb to temptation and quit because of the magnetism of the style and a desire to find out what really happened to Grace.
If this book was ever adapted into a movie I wouldn’t go to see it.
I can’t recall ever being in this kind of “bookish crisis”.
I have been interested in the book “Hamilton” since the whole Hamilton hysteria began. While I haven’t had the pleasure of attending a theatre production I certainly am familiar with the songs, the storyline and know a lot about the musical.
When the book actually landed on my table, I eyed it worriedly for several weeks. It’s a HUGE paperback edition. There are 820 pages though the actual text is only 731 pages. Believe me, the length of the book isn’t the issue, I have read longer books. It is simply physically unwieldy. I assume this is the result of publishers wanting the print to be of a size that people over 50 would be able to read (I do appreciate that!) but try holding that in bed, or curled up on the sofa, or over lunch at a safe distance from your plate (in an upright position).
As someone who always says that a book is about the words, the story, the feeling and the message, irrelevant of t the physical form in which you enjoy it (printed, digital, audio) I felt very guilty about being dismayed at the shape of the book. I even considered buying a digital version but it did seem a waste of money considering that I actually have a printed copy on my table.
My bookish crises continued in the strangest manner after I began reading the book.
The book is really interesting and very well written. I loved it that the author chose to begin his book with the character of Hamilton’s wife, Eliza. In fact, the author pays a lot of attention and respect to women and their role in Hamilton’s life and in the American Revolution.
I found the part about Hamilton’s early life in the Caribbean (and his parents’ lives) fascinating as I really knew very little about those islands at that time, not to mention the slave trade related to the sugar commerce on those islands. It was mind-boggling to read how quickly the brilliant Hamilton reached the epicenter of things within a fairly short time after arriving in the US.
As someone who is interested in geneology, I was also very interested in how the author presented family information with incomplete data – relying on sources from the period but clearly stating what is known for sure and what is an “educated guess”.
The American revolution was a lot messier and precarious than what I remembered from my school days in Massachusetts and I have to admit (or confess?) that there is a great deal I didn’t know or didn’t remember – the initial goal of the revolution wasn’t complete independence as a new country, the assistance of the French was extremely significant or the story of the Benedict Arnold’s wife.
It was also a revolution that spanned 8 years.
At page 151 the end of the revolution is not in sight.
I found myself interested in the book while I was reading it, but reading it less and less.
And less and less.
And then not reading Hamilton but not reading anything else because I’m reading Hamilton.
Naomi not reading any books?
So, on August 1st I officially stopped reading Hamilton and am now close to completing another book.
I admitted it.
May you be more patient than me, it really is a good book.
One of the great things about teaching the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken” to my Deaf and hard of hearing students is that they have some very powerful examples of “standing at crossroads” in their young lives. These are times when they had to make a decision and knew they would not get the opportunity to come back and try the other option.
For example, some of my students faced a dramatic choice at the end of junior high school (9th grade) – whether to study at the high-school close to their home along with their old classmates and continue being the only hard of hearing /Deaf student in the whole school, or to commute an hour or more to a high school that offers strong academic support and a peer group. That’s a SIX day a week commute!
On the other hand, many of my students find it harder to take in the aspects of the traveler’s dilemma that are stated in the poem itself. Not only can the traveler not take both roads and won’t come back another day, but both roads are actually just as fair, have been worn about the same. Even worse, the traveler can’t see what lies ahead as the road bends in the undergrowth!
I want my students to pay attention to all that too.
The students should be engaging in a meaningful way with words from the Ministry’s word list while they are learning the poem. I firmly believe in integrating the practice of the vocabulary items on the list with the teaching of the literature program. ***
I then created The Dilemma Activity, which can be used in many ways. While it can be used as a worksheet, I preferred to use index cards (or sentence strips) as I find the activity suitable for acting a bit of dramatic flair!
The students are presented with the situation:
A traveler is happily walking along a road in a yellow wood when the roads diverge (“along” is a word on the word list).
He/She doesn’t know which road take and needs advice.
The traveler now needs to hear suggestions and respond accordingly. “Suggestion” is also a word on the list!
There are 7 suggestions to be given to the traveler, each one on a separate card. The suggestions are numbered and must be read in the correct order. The responses are not numbered, and the students must match the correct response to the suggestion.
For example, here are the first two suggestion cards.
Why don’t you take both roads?
So take one road today and the other road another time.
And the matching responses:
I can’t takeboth roads because I’m only one traveler.
One road leads to other roads. I doubt I will ever come back. I have to make a choice.
The imaginary advisor is losing patience with the traveler, and by the time we get to the last two suggestions, exasperation should be clearly expressed in intonation and body language!
6. Don’t be so nervous, just choose a road. What difference could it make?
7. I give up – I can’t help you. You will sigh when you think about this in the future but choose a road NOW.
The matching responses are:
6. It’s possible that my choice will make all the difference. That’s why I am nervous.
7. You are right, I will sigh. But will it be a sigh of regret or relief?
You can download all the sentences related to the activity here: