ALAN: The Best Professional Development

After two days at the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the NCTE (ALAN) Conference in DC, I thought I’d write about the highlights from this year’s panels. This is my second year to attend, and after last year’s experience I decided it’s the best professional development for secondary English teachers around. And this year didn’t disappoint, and certainly supported my thoughts on these powerful two days.

Let me first talk about why it’s the best. It’s two days of panel after panel of authors speaking candidly about their work. They talk about their craft and their experiences that influence their works and share their perspective on the power of books. As a college professor of future teachers, these perspectives are the best thing I can bring back to my graduate students so that I can help them with the teaching of YA literature.

Knowing the author’s thoughts can give teachers something to discuss with students in reading conferences and frame how they implement their reading workshops. In my opinion, this holds much more value than a lesson that I may or may not use when I get back to my classroom that so many professional development workshops intend to do. So with that said, here are quotes and ideas that will stay with me as a teacher, and I hope they can bring something new to your teaching. However, I hope they also get you excited for ALAN 2015!

Libba Bray:

  • “Stop assigning gender to books. There are no girl books and boy books; there are only books.”
  • “By telling boys ‘that’s a girl’s book’; you are saying that half of the population is not worth knowing. And the same could be said for girls.”
  • 70-80% of the suggested CCSS works are written by men.
  • Addressing an article that closes with, “You can’t give a boy a book with a female protagonist and expect him to identify.” Libba Bray’s response: “WHY NOT?…And yet we do this with girls!” (Personal note: One of my favorite memoirs is The Glass Castle.)
  • All homophobia has its roots in misogyny. (Not sure if Bray said this, but it makes sense.)

Transgender Panel:

  • “People want to bring sex and religion into it and that is so far from what we’re dealing with. It’s about dealing with who we are.”
  • “It doesn’t matter what the gender is, it matters who the human being is.” (I think the use of “what” versus “who” is noteworthy.)

Common Core: Bridge or Barrier? Nonfiction books in the classroom:

  • How do we get their eyes to light up about researching a topic that interests them? Encourage students to see research as “active”–interviews and observations. What I loved about this panel was that it was nonfiction writers talking about why they love to research, and it has nothing to do with how we generally teach it in schools.
  • Primary documents versus “Textbook veneer.”
  • Experts want to talk about what they do, so encourage kids to talk with them. Internet can make this happen!

Brandon Sanderson – Fantasy Panel:

  • When asked by a parent, “My kids loves these [YA] books, but how do I get him to read Milton?” His answer, “Getting kids to read without forcing them to read will get them there.”




Not to sound like the old guy that I am (I turn 40 in a month–jeez), but the times are a changin’. Today, you can access celebrities, authors, pundits, old friends, people you never liked–you can even troll webpages just to see if that old boyfriend or girlfriend of yours got what he or she deserved in life. Yep, social media has certainly changed how we communicate, for better or worse.

As I’ve shared (extensively, some have pointed out), I’m a big fan of all this. I think the ability to reach out through social media has created a voice for those who otherwise wouldn’t have one. If you don’t like want Sean Hannity or Chris Matthews has to say, then blog about it and tag him in a tweet that links your piece. Or simply keep within the 140 characters and send them a concisely written opinion. And if you don’t like twitter, you’ve got Redditt, Facebook, Tumblr, and many more that I’m not familiar with, I’m sure.

I no longer have to sit and stew in my own bitterness because someone is out there preaching things with which I don’t agree. When Roland Martin said something I didn’t like, I made sure he heard about it. When I felt Kate Gerson didn’t represent the research well in her presentation, I made sure she heard about it. And when I wanted Chris Crutcher to read the first few chapters of my novel, I made sure he had a copy. The best part: They all responded.

This is not something that we could have done 10 years ago, and I think it really changes how we approach reading and writing in the classroom. Having kids read books by authors who are accessible shows kids that not all books were written by dead people.  More important, it can instill a sense of purpose. Knowing that the author is available (or the pundit spewing views with which you disagree) means that the student has the chance to share his or her thoughts in writing.

This is where the magic happens. When I wrote to the pundit, the administrator, and the author, I wrote carefully and thoughtfully. I reread, revised, edited, and then put it away for some time and came back and did it again. I went through the entire writing process, sincerely and authentically–in my own, crazy way that includes reading it aloud, getting frustrated, and sometimes pacing was involved. (Writing is painstakingly slow for me.) The point is that I didn’t just heedlessly write them a letter. What I sent them was an extension of me, and I wanted it to represent me well. Given the same sense of purpose, kids will do the same thing.

So I encourage you to give it a try. Reach out to an author about a book you’ve read. It can be a quick tweet, or you can write a blog post and send it their way. It doesn’t matter to me; I just want to hear your story about how and why you reached out to an author, so come back to this blog and share your experience.


For our final class, we’ll discuss individualized reading programs and your favorite reading from the semester. To prepare for class, please read the article titled “Collected Wisdom: The Best Articles Ever Written on Young Adult Literature and Teen Reading.” (This link takes you to JSTOR, so you’ll either need to be on the university wireless, or you’ll need to sign in.) Then choose one of the 25 articles that are listed to read and be prepare to discuss it in class. You’ll see that we’ve read a few of the pieces listed in this article, so please don’t select one of those. Be sure you read one that you haven’t read, or at least one I know you haven’t read (keep in mind that we read some in the methods class, and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m also the teacher of record for that class).

We’re also going to talk about individualized reading programs and how to best implement them in a secondary classroom. This will include starting with interest surveys and ending with ideas for assessments (ones that don’t include a book report). What I would like for you to think about is how you would like to be assessed for reading your independent reading book if you were in high school. Don’t tell me that you want to write a literary analysis. Think like a 15-year old who just read a book that he or she couldn’t put down. How would you want to let your teacher know that you read it? Then, come to the class with ideas for implementing an assessment that would achieve this.

Finally, I’d like to end the final class (before the big exam, so don’t think I’m canceling the final) discussing the highs and lows of what we read throughout the summer. I want to hear from you (yes, on this blog first) about which books I should keep on the list and why. Or tell me which ones have turned you on to a specific author or genre. Or maybe you have suggestions of novels and/or authors that might better represent the genres we covered (Lisa, I’m thinking of you).

So, you have 3 action items to complete before our next class:

1. Read one of the 25 articles listed in the above piece and be prepared to discuss what the article is about and share your general thoughts.

2. Bring an assessment idea for independent reading that you think captures how you’d like your teacher to know that you read a book of your choosing.

3. Respond to this blog post with what your favorite novel is from this semester and why. If you’re feeling up to it, let me know which one you disliked the most (other than Period 8–I don’t want to have this conversation any more) and why.

I look forward to our last class.


My Summer Reading List

I found a list that is now my summer reading. I’ve read about half of them, heard about most of them, and some I’ve never heard of. However, considering the ones I have read on this list, I feel confident that this list will not disappoint.

Essential Graphic Novels

I’d like to hear about the books you’ve read–what do you like? don’t like? Why? Why not?


Divergent and being a Park Ranger

When I was on my way out of the first college I attended, my parents asked me to take a career aptitude test, something to try and motivate me since I certainly wasn’t motivated to do well in school. They were very disappointed that I had failed out of college, especially when my excuse was, “I don’t want to read what they’re telling me to read.” To please them, I took the lengthy exam. It said I should be a park ranger. Thankfully we’re not living in the world that Roth created in Divergent, or I’d probably be out half-assing it somewhere without a phone signal.

When I think of dystopian literature, I think of an argument. What is the author arguing about in the world today by giving us a glimpse of the possible outcome? In 1984, Orwell warns us of a totalitarian government, while Atwood does the same of a religious theocracy in Handmaid’s Tale. But what about Divergent? What do you think Roth is telling us about society?

Maybe it’s on my mind (I’m reading Reign of Error by Ravitch right now), but I think it says something about our love of testing and compartmentalizing people with sets of skills. With the current obsession in the US to ensure that students are “college ready” through objective measures like standardized tests, it’s only a matter of time before those same testing advocates believe that we can track children into a career by a test score.

While Divergent is certainly the extreme end of this, I do think that Roth makes her point clear about where objective standards go wrong when applied to human beings. I find the argument to be most evident in Beatrice’s last conversation with her mother. Discussing what makes them Divergent, her mother says:

“Every faction conditions its members to think and act a certain way. And most people do it. For most people, it’s hard not to learn, to find a pattern of thought that works and stay that way…But our minds move in a dozen different directions. We can’t be confined to one way of thinking, and that terrifies our leaders. It means we can’t be controlled. And it means that no matter what they do, we will always cause trouble for them.” (p. 441-442)

Not everybody wants the same things in life, and not everybody stays on the same course once they’ve discovered what it is they think they want to do for the rest of their lives. However, here in the US, we seem to be convinced that a one-size-fits-all education and testing system is the best way to ensure that children grow up satisfied with what they learn. I feel that Roth is warning us of how this system can take a turn for the worst.

I’ve never had a past student contact me and tell me how relevant and necessary the state exams were for them, and how lucky they were to have passed them or how terrible it was that they failed them. My students email me and ask if I still have papers they wrote that I praised, or talk about how events in their lives are similar to the issues we discussed in novels. And sometimes they say their English comp class is easy because of what they learned in my class.

I’m certainly an outdoors person, so being a park ranger would be pretty cool. But I wouldn’t be nearly as happy as I am as a teacher. I love what I do, and I loved the 11 years I worked as a high school English teacher. I speak with many good teachers who tell me that they hate their jobs (and they have many good reasons), but I never once felt this way. As a Texas teacher, there were a lot of good reasons to change careers and lament the education policies, but my love for teaching teenagers literature was always greater, no matter what the state education department or my district was demanding. Thankfully I didn’t let a test steer me toward another direction.

This week, I don’t need you to respond to the post. Instead, come prepared to class with the argument you think Roth is making about today’s society along with evidence from the novel to support your claims. I think this book says so much more about society than just our over-testing, so don’t be so quick to agree with my perspective. Remember, I’m supposed to be a park ranger.


The craft of writing, Copper Sun, and losing an argument

Our class had a great conversation this week about judging quality writing. I made a snarky remark about Bomb receiving a Newbery Honor in response to a couple of students criticizing the writing. One student keenly asked, “Why does it matter if it has this aluminum sticker on it?” Even though I had to bite my tongue, I responded kindly–or at least I remember it as such, but I could be wrong. Looking back, though, I do think her argument is solid: What are we telling kids when they want to challenge the quality of a book? You’re wrong because there is a sticker.

I’m reminded of this because next week’s reading is my favorite book on the list for this semester: Copper Sun, by Sharon Draper. This novel earned Draper the Correta Scott King Award, which annually recognizes outstanding African-American writers and illustrators in the field of young adult books about the African-American experience. Copper Sun was also a National Book Award finalist. So needless to say, it would be easy for me to point to the stickers on the book if anyone wants to disagree with me that it’s beautifully written.

But that is not what I’m going to do, especially after feeling as if I lost the last argument. Instead, I’d like to discuss why I think this book is so great.

When done well, historical fiction takes you back in time not only in the details but in how it felt to be alive back then, and I think that is what Copper Sun does so well. I felt at home with Amari in the opening pages when Draper describes a typical day with her family:

Amari and her mother scurried around their small dwelling, rolling up the sleeping mats and sweeping the dirt floor with a broom made of branches. Throughout the village, the pungent smells of goat stew and peanut soup, along with waves of papaya and honeysuckle that wafted through the air, made Amari feel hungry and excited. The air was fragrant with hope and possibility. (p. 6)

Draper creates this type of imagery throughout the start of the novel, and sets up a wonderful life that Amari has before being taken.  The brief description of the village matches the final sentence of “hope and possibility.” We experience Amari’s daily routine through active verbs and the strongest tie to memory, our sense of smell, which places the reader into the details of her life. Much like our grandparents house or of dinner throughout your home after a long day of work, our sense of smell can trigger memories and create a sense of comfort better than any of our other senses.

What makes this scene so important, though, is that it sets us up for the awful scene when Amari is taken, and parallels what precedes the opening chapter that foreshadows the terrible sequence of events:

Amari shuffled in the dirt as she was led into the yard and up onto a raised wooden table, which she realized gave the people in the yard a perfect view of the women who were to be sold. She looked at the faces in the sea of pink-skinned people who stood around pointing at the captives and jabbering in their language as each of the slaves was described. She looked for pity or even understanding but found nothing except cool stares. They looked at her as if she were a cow for sale.

This is a stark contrast from “hope and possibility.” Her feelings of excitement and the comfort knowing that her needs are cared for are replaced with a search for “pity,” only to be left with a feeling that she is no longer human.

From there, Draper takes us on a long ride through the slave trade and what it’s like to be a slave in America during the 1730s through the eyes of a 15 year-old girl. She shows us how wonderful the details of our life can be by giving us the horrors of what the human race is capable of doing.

I think this book is heart-wrenching and brilliantly exciting and inspiring. I think this book deserves a sticker or two. What about you? I’d like you to tell me what you thought of Draper’s craft. Do you like her style? Why or why not? Be sure to use evidence to support your claims.

Nonfiction: The Great Equalizer

My mentor at University of Houston used to always tell me that “no other genre can speak to the reader’s interest like nonfiction.” He’s right, and the research agrees with him. We are a nation of nonfiction readers, since no other genre can offer such a specific slice of we want to read. If you like bugs, there’s a book for it, and if you like a specific bug, like the Asian long-horned beetle, then you can read plenty about it. We all have specific interests that only nonfiction can satisfy. Whether we need to read it–my wife is reading a book about two-year olds–or if we just want to read it, nonfiction plays a big role in our development as readers.

This week’s book, Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weaponis certainly for history buffs, but can also interest even those who prefer to read their romance novels in a hot bath with candles everywhere (note: I’ve only seen this on TV). Sheinkin does a great job of weaving narrative with description, detailing how the atomic bomb works without intimidating his readers, and puts a good story together about an important part of our history in way that would make anyone enjoy learning about history.

I think what Bomb does for adolescents is something that history textbooks need to pay more attention to. If I had access in high school to books that told me about history as this one does, I might have had a different career path. But instead, I was forced to read a textbook that maybe spent a paragraph or two on the atomic bomb, which was structured just like every other paragraph in the textbook: topic sentence, example, detail, detail, detail, restatement of topic. No stories, just drab exposition attempting to give me our past, our culture–and others–in a structure that is so disconnected from how it happened that it is no wonder only a small portion of the population enjoys reading about history.

While I didn’t fall in love with history sooner, I was lucky enough to register for Dr. Irsfleld’s Vietnam War Literature class in college. We read novels about the Vietnam War that were written from soldiers from each section of the military, and even some that were written by Viet Cong soldiers. I read everything I could get my hands on that pertained to the Vietnam War during that semester, and today I still can’t pass up a documentary, article, or book that covers this particular time in our history. And it didn’t stop there. I read novels about other wars, too, such as WWI and WWII. Dr. Abrahamson used to say that the only true history book is a biography, so I started reading biographies of famous Americans from the Revolutionary War. What they all have in common, other than the history part, is that they all tell a story. They don’t present the facts in a cold, I-have-to-read-this-because-it’s-important way; instead, they tell an intriguing story.

And isn’t that really what history is? One long intriguing story? The power of narrative is well documented with regard to learning and memory. It would be nice if our curriculum would reflect this.

So what’s your story with nonfiction? If you don’t really have one, then talk about what you liked about this week’s reading.