books, Reading

A Few Suggestions for Newer Inclusive Short Story Collections

One of the questions I am posed a lot is where others can find amazing short stories to use with their students and while I have a file folder that I keep myself, I am also thrilled that there are so many amazing newer collections that we can use to start conversations, as mentor texts, and just for overall inspiration.

We continue to want to emphasize the work of those whose voices have historically been minimized and so many of the short stories I use with kids are pulled from these collections. There are funny, sad, thought-provoking stories so my best advice is to dig in and start to read some of these great pieces, and then, of course, share them high and wide.

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As many as I could fit in the picture – this post has a few extra titles that we also use.

While some of these are great for many ages, some of these only have certain stories suited for younger ages or are solely for older ages. So read the stories first before placing it in your library , which I would encourage you to do either way because many are amazing and not to be missed.

Which books are your go-to for great short stories? To see other favorite books, go here.

being a student, books, new year, Reading, Reading Identity

Before We Hand Them a Book

I’ve been thinking about the hurry. The rush to get into habits. To get kids reading. To get kids writing. To not waste a moment of instructional time so that we can get to the real work. I see it surround us, this pressure to get moving, to get going as quickly as we can so we don’t lose time. So we don’t miss our chance for cramming as much as we can into a year. After all, we only get them for so long and the tests will tell us whether we did enough.

It plays out a lot when we meet kids who don’t like reading. Who either proclaim it loudly, or whose behaviors clue us in. The aimless browsing, the grab-and-go when it comes to book selection. The kids who go with the motions at times but you can tell that the book they are currently reading is not one that is going to make it home. Who look at us wide-eyed or with a grin when we tell they we hope they will read over the weekend.

We rush them with book recommendations. Have you tried this one or this one? We tell them they just haven’t found the right book yet and then we hand them a stack hoping that in that stack will be that right book. You won’t know until you start reading, so read.

And I get it, I do it too, after all, the year looms and we have so much work to do. Yet, to quote Taylor Swift, I feel we need to calm down. To take these moments, these aimless wanderings, these negative reading relationships, and ask more questions. Sit in silence and let kids think. If a child can’t answer why they hate reading beyond that they just do, then they haven’t been given an opportunity to fully think about their relationship with reading. They haven’t been given a moment to recognize that their path with reading has been filled with choices, both their own and others, that have now brought them to this point in time where they feel that they are not readers. That reading has no value. That reading is not something they need. Nor something they feel they can do.

So when we hand them another book without conversation beyond “What types of books do you like?” Without seeing the child and giving them a chance to reflect, we are not changing habits long-term. We are not changing lives long-term. Sure, they may love that book – hooray – but what happens when the book is done? Have they really changed their relationship with reading or was it just a fluke?

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So before we rush to our piles of recommended books, we slow down. Yes, we surround them with incredible books, people who love to read, we give them time to read, we give them the space to read, the air to read, and then we talk. (This should be a right not a privilege of all kids). We reflect. We give kids the opportunity, the expectations, to know themselves as readers so that we, the adults that surround them, can invest in long-term change.

I am not teaching kids to just like reading this year. I am trying to teach kids to find value, inherent value, in the act of reading itself. While books and texts are the tools, the real work starts with the recongition of one’s own journey and subsequent relationship to reading and how it impacts the child that stands before us.

It takes time. It takes patience. It takes careful planning. And it takes us realizing that being a reader is not just something we want kids to experience in the brief time they are with us, but instead be a part of their being that exists without us after the year is over. That doesn’t just start with a book. That book needs to be wrapped up in reflection, in time, and in conversation. Then changes may happen.

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

books, picture books, writing, Writing Identity

A Few Picture Books to Teach Memoir

We are starting the year, and the creation of our writing portfolio, with a unit focused on memoir and personal essay. I am hoping that in this unit, the students will start to share parts of their writing identity through discussion of what makes them a writer or not, the erules of writing and which we need to break, as well as experimentation with writing based in their own lives.

I have been gathering memoirs and personal essays for a while now, trying to focus on stories that may enrich their understanding of how others see the world so that they in turn can focus on their own lives.

As always, our trusted picture books are part of the mentor text collection that will surround students as we embark into this work, so here are the ones I have pulled so far that focus on small moments and written in 1st person. While some of these are true memoirs, others are texts I can use as models despite them not being true stories.

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou, paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat and edited by Sara Jane Boyers
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E.B. Lewis

I will add more as I pull them, especially newer books to use. If you would like to see other lists of favorite books, go here.

books, picture books, writing, Writing Identity

A Few Picture Books for Discussing the Writing Process

As I get ready to embark on another year of teaching English, I have been learning more about the writing process and the specific skills that I need to teach in order to help my students change or strengthen their experience with writing. Within the pages of professional development books I have found so much inspiration for how to create a better experience, hopefully, for kids. And so when I went to my classroom today, I pulled a few great picture books that I plan on sharing and showcasing to students to help them discuss the supposed rules of writing and how we can break them to create our a unique written piece. Here are some of the ones I pulled.

The Panda Problem by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Hannah Marks is a newer picture book that breaks the fourth wall. While it tries to set up the problem of the story, panda quickly realizes that he is supposed to be the problem but he does not want to be.

Ideas are All Around by Philip C. Stead is a great book to share when someone tells you they have no ideas. Perhaps they need to take some time to look around and then see what they can come up with.

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett is a great picture book to use with kids that feel they have no ideas because it shows the legitimacy of starting from something known and making it your own. Plus, this book is just a fun read!

Also an Octopus by Maggie Tokuda-Hall and illustrated by Benji Davis is perfect for thinking of how we craft stories and the elements we need.  The illustrations are playful and the story itself is informational and whimsical.

I wonder how many Mac Barnett books I have featured on this blog, his How This Book Was Made illustrated by Adam Rex is perfect for discussing writer’s and illustrator’s process.   I am so thankful for their genius.

I love how I Am A Story by Dan Yaccarino urges us to think of how far stories have traveled and how they shape our society.  I love the illustrations paired with the unfolding of story, fantastic for setting up writer’s workshop at any age.

This Is My Book! by Mark Pett (and no one else) is laugh out loud funny.  I especially enjoyed the interplay between the author and the panda.  Kids are sure to appreciate the message but also how well it is portrayed; who really creates the story and how can we co-create?

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The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski is beautiful both in text and in the illustrations.  Using a book whose words fall out as a way to discuss imagination is a marvelous way to get students thinking more creatively.

In Little Red Writing by Joan Holub and illustrated by Melissa Sweet, we see how our pencil heroine has to navigate the perils of writing. relatable and wise, this is a great picture book.

Three PD books that are furthering my work at the moment are

Comprehension & Collaboration – Revised Edition by Stephanie Harvey and Harvey “Smokey” Daniels is helping me frame our year of writing as inquiry explorations.

Rozlyn Linder left us much too soon but her genius lives on in her book The Big Book of Details. If you have ever told a child to add more details but wasn’t quite sure how to have them do this, this is the book for you.

The importance of Why They Can’t Write by John Warner to my upcoming year of instruction is undisputed. I am re-working everything I am doing with writing because of this book.

being a teacher, being me, books

On Trigger Warnings and Potential Censorship

Warning: This post contains me changing my mind as well as unfinished thoughts. Read on to see what happens when you open your discussion to the expertise of others.

You may have come across them if you read adult books. A list at the beginning of the book telling you what types of sensitive content you are about to be exposed to. A gentle reminder to take care of oneself, to breathe and step away if needed. To pay attention to the reading experience in more ways than understanding the text, but also understanding one’s own reaction to something in order to make an educated choice about the type of risk one is willing to take.

I usually skim over them but appreciate the gesture, but as I came across another one, it made me think; should our classroom and library books have trigger warnings? Should we as educators, librarians, add in potential trigger warnings in order for students to be more informed about the book they are about to pick up or not. It couldn’t hurt surely…

And yet, I wanted to think this out loud. What was I not seeing this discussed more because it seemed like such a simple idea. If it was so helpful, why wasn’t everyone doing it?

So I tweeted my thinking…

…and was not disappointed.

A few different discussion ensued; one about the language “trigger warning,” one about the placement of a potential sticker, and then also one about the problems with this practice.

On the language of using “trigger warning”

On the placement of the label on the front of the book

And most importantly on the whole concept

So, as you can see, my thinking changed as others added their thoughts. It went like this…

  1. Great idea, Pernille, get labels and make them colorful and bright so all kids can see them on the front of the books that discuss sexual abuse and violence, have racist language like the “N” word, feature violence against children and maybe other topics as well.
  2. Don’t call them trigger warnings – call them care and concern notes instead. Keep them on the front.
  3. Hmm, don’t put them on the front, put them on the inside instead.
  4. Wait, perhaps, it should just say “Come speak to me…”
  5. Hang on, what do I know about what will trigger a child?
  6. Will I end up needing to put a label on every single YA book in my room?
  7. Whoa, I may be encouraging censorship through this process.
  8. Whoa, I may be encouraging wider censorship of books through my original tweet sharing my idea.
  9. Where will the boundary be for what is considered a trigger? How will this look mixed in with hate/animosity towards marginalized populations?
  10. Someone may take my original idea and think to do this and end up demonizing marginalized people further.
  11. I need to write about this

And so, where does this take me?

Well, I still have a lot of thinking to do, but I know I won’t do trigger warnings. What I will do instead is many folded because the identities of our readers are complicated and nuanced.

I started by reading this article shared by my friend Sara Ralph and others

I will send home our classroom library letter at the beginning of the year in order for those at home to have an idea of what types of books their learners may encounter in our classroom.

When students are introduced to our classroom collection, I will specifically discuss how Young Adult books differ from middle grade and explain how I use the PG-13 rating on books.

I will book talk many of our tougher topic books so that students can hear me discuss some of the potential emotional parts in them so they can make the decisions that will work for them.

I will encourage, as always, that each child knows themselves well enough to know when to abandon a book.

I will confer as much as possible with my students about their book choices and whether they feel the book is great for them or not.

Books that have to do with suicide or sexual assault, I will place a label on the inside with help-line numbers.

And then I will continue to mull over the fine balance between helping kids find great books and hurting their choices instead.

The bottom line is; censorship lives and breathes in our collections of books. We already know that most of the challenged books as reported by ALA in the past few years have had to do with sexual and gender identity. We know that there are many active book challenges happening at this time. We know that sometimes through our well-meaning intentsion (like my original tweet) we may be furthering censorship. But the good news is that we don’t have to.

As a child growing up in Denmark, there was no censorship on the books I was encouraged to read. If I wanted to read about mature topics, I could, my mother trusted me to navigate these books when I was ready and then also let me know that at any point, we could discuss them. It fundamentally shaped my worldview today; that children know more than we assume, that we cannot shield them from tough things in the hopes of keeping them innocent, and that they are eager to learn about others.

By bringing this discussion online and now here, I encourage others to look at labeling systems that are already present in their schools, such as “mature” sections which only some kids can access, or books that need to be checked out with parent permission. Are these really helping kids or are we stopping them from reading books that will speak to them? That may be about them? That may give them hope? Do our “helpful” systems to shield children actually end up hurting them instead?

The kids show up in a month and one day, the books will be waiting. I cannot wait to see the stories they will gravitate toward, I will be there to help them.

Follow up: After posting this post, this incredibly thoughtful comment was left on it in a Facebook group it and brought to my attention. This once again shows me how much I still have to learn, despite being acutely aware of PTSD and how it can affect you.

Pernille Ripp you’ll be in our area at the end of this month, so I shared this post with our librarians, and one of them had this response. “I appreciated Pernille’s showcasing of dialogue and evolution of ideas on the topic. However, the origin of the trigger warning I feel is completely lost in the article. Trigger warnings are for people who have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As someone who has PTSD and actually has to seek out signs for potential triggers when I engage in materials, trigger warnings are literally supposed to help prevent me, who has experienced trauma, from going into panic and/or fight or flight mode. Trigger warnings are not supposed to filter distressing topics. Those of us with PTSD are not distressed. We have a diagnosable condition where our brains are like broken records that when triggered can easily be stuck on repeat, reliving trauma over and over. When triggered we can forget where we are and who we are with, we can have a complete nervous break down, suffer insomnia, physical pain, lose consciousness, need medical intervention. This article did not seem at all to be dealing with actual triggers. Many of us experience trauma in a myriad of ways – and that can include reading material that covers topics discussed in the blog you shared because, let’s be honest here, reading is an empathetic experience. However, not all of us who experience trauma develop PTSD. My point here is: If a person needs trigger warnings, they need professional help.

I think the goal behind the conversation is valid and worthy of our time. However, the focus is misplaced. In order to properly label materials with warnings or care and concerns or whatever you want to call them, we would have to be well-equipped to understand what constitutes a trigger and then engage all our collection’s materials on a deep enough level to be able to properly label each and every one. That’s not a realistic goal. So instead of zeroing in on the materials themselves let’s focus efforts instead on making sure every library has a consistently updated and very visible and accessible: poster of hotlines and local resources, book collection, and series of programs designed to equip patrons with the tools they need to handle their pain/medical conditions. Let’s train every library staff member to recognize suicidal ideation in our patrons (a lot of times that stuff just leaks right out without them even knowing), how to talk to someone in crisis, and how to stay up to date on who to contact in an emergency. “

PS: THANK YOU so much to all who discussed this with me. To see the original tweet and thread go here

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

Be the change, books, Literacy

On Blind Spots and Doing Better When We Know Better

Three years ago, I wrote a blog post detailing my journey with the book When We Was Fierce and in particular the journey with realizing that a book I had marveled at and called a must read was being critically reviewed by others. While at first I was embarrassed by my enthusiasm and not knowing better, in the blog post I wrote about the growth I had when I put away my own embarrassment and instead approached the moment as a learning opportunity, simply put; when I knew better, I could do better. It is a journey I have tried to continue on ever since.

Since that post, I have tried to be more in tune with critical reviews. I have tried to read new or old books that come my way with a broader lens trying to step out of my own lived experience to discover how others may view a book. How others may be potentially harmed by a book. How others may have world view shaped in a an inaccurate manner because of a book. While the voice in my head has gotten better at alerting me to potentially problematic texts, it is far from perfect and it is a journey I continue to be on.

I share this because this week I published my best books of the year so far list, a list I try to carefully put together in order to help others find books that may heighten their reading experiences. It is also a list for myself to look back upon as I celebrate the incredible works put out in the world that have deepened my own children’s’ reading lives as well as my teaching experience. This morning, I woke to a tweet sent to me by a colleague highlighting a potentially problematic book on the list.

My response: Thank you, I will definitely look into it. Which I did.

Dr. Laura M. Jimenez (@BookToss) had written a great post detailing problematic aspects of the book Stonewall: A Building, An Uprising, A Revolution by Rob Sanders and Jamey Christoph. This book was on my best of the year so far list and a book I had really enjoyed, even contemplating how I could use it as part of our upcoming historical research unit where we will write from the perspective of an object. While I had read the book and the voice inside my head had noticed how there didn’t seem to be a broad acknowledgement of the trans community, I had put aside my concern rather than followed up on it, despite having also read the book The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets by Gayle E. Pitman that had explicitly discussed the broad community anger and how this went past the mostly gay men present in the inn on the first night of the riots. Dr. Jimenez discussed those concerns and then some in her blog post, and also received a reply from the author, Rob Sanders, which I really think you should read.

After reading the blog post, the concerns with the book were crystal clear so I pondered why I had I put aside my concerns? The answer? Because I really liked the book AND also because of my lack of knowledge. While I had a minor concern, I didn’t follow up on it and instead chose to highlight the book because I thought that it would be great for others to read. End of story.

And this is what I want to write a little bit about, because those two things, dismissing our concerns and not knowing better, are exactly why I think many, especially white, educators keep problematic books in classrooms and home collections year after year. I know the emotional attachment is what makes me sometimes try to mentally finagle a way to be okay with a book in our collection that may do potential harm. Even though I know better. Even though I end up not placing it in our library because I know better. But how often do we, and especially us white educators who live within the dominant lens, simply not know better? Or how often do we dismiss the criticisms because we somehow think that having the book will surely alert students to their own concerns and then be able to navigate potential problems within it?

But here’s the thing, if I, as a 39 -year old educator who has taught for nearly 12 years and reads hundreds of books, as well as reviews of books, and critical discussions of books every year cannot figure out on my own that a book is problematic, then how can I expect my students to do so?

Because they won’t, not unless we teach it, not unless we discuss our own mistakes when it comes to reading and highlighting problematic texts. This is why I use the book The Secret Project by Jonah and Jeanette Winters in my classroom. While I had the book at first because I loved it and had already read it aloud to my classroom, after I read Dr. Deb Reese’s post on the problems with it, I re-visited the book with students and we discussed why we had not ourselves caught these problems with the text and instead taken it at face-value. It led to a larger discussion on what else we miss when we don’t know more, or the blind spots we all walk around with and how to shrink them.

This is why we must do better when it comes to vetting our own collections and also being okay with admitting it out loud. I know that there are a lot of emotions attached to books and their creators. I know I don’t want to hurt other people when I distance myself from their work. I know that many educators, me included, like to think that I know enough to carefully select books that will not present problematic, inaccurate, or full on harmful stories to my students, but that is simply not right. Even though I have grown and gotten better, I have so much to learn still. I will, probably despite my best intentions, continue to embrace books that because of my own lens, my limited perspective, I cannot see the problems in until others point it out.

So what can we do when we realize either through our own investigation that a book is problematic or when someone else points out harmful representation or stories?

Say thank you when someone points it out. We cannot grow if we don’t know what we need to do better on. That is why recognizing when someone offers you an opportunity to grow and acknowledging it as an opportunity to grow rather than getting defensive is always the best way.

Get over our own feelings. Is it embarrassing to screw up? Absolutely. Would I rather do well? Sure. Do I learn from these interactions? Every time. However, when our response is one of incredulity or dismissal we are not really growing, we are certainly not focusing our energy on what we should be focusing on, which is the conversation surrounding the text or illustrations rather than our own feelings. (I am listening to White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and this is part of what she discusses).

Read the criticism, seek to understand it, and ask questions. I always read or listen to what is being said and then try to find other voices who are discussing it as well. If I am not sure why something is being discussed the way it is, then I ask questions. That is why I love being connected to others because social media gives me a quick way to reach out.

Take action outwardly. Whether it is publicly acknowledging your screw up if you have recommended it, or spreading the word by amplifying the discussion happening, do your part. It is often isolating to be someone pointing out critical aspects so knowing that there are others who will back up your words and calls to action is powerful.

Transfer the knowledge. Teach this critical skill to students by also connecting them with book reviews blogs so that they can be adults who have access to information, so that they can notice their blind spots, and also try to see whether a book may be harmful or not. Make it a part of your already embedded curriculum units so that it is not a stand-alone lesson but instead one that is addressed in many different ways. After all, isn’t teaching critical analysis one of our main teaching goals?

Take actions personally. Remove the book altogether or use it to discuss blind spots like I have done with a few books, but do something, rather than just push it aside because “no one will know that you still have the book.” While that may be true, this is also an incredibly twisted way of looking at the process. While it feels very strange to throw books in the garbage, almost sacrilegious, yet sometimes, that is where certain books belong. Don’t just say you will do something, actually do it.

Try to do better in the future. While I definitely catch more problematic books before I recommend them than I have in the past; as evidenced by this post I still have a lot to learn. All of us do. But the good news is that through social media we can easily learn from others as long as we are willing.

Finally; say thank you and support those doing the work. Thank you to those who tirelessly advocate for better representation within the book industry. Who repeatedly point out when texts or illustrations are problematic. Who take the heat that comes their way over and over again when others accuse them of being in a “mob” or even sends them death threats. Because of people like Dr. Reese, Dr. Jimenez, Edi Campbell, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Valeria Brown, Chad Everett and the fearless educators, authors, and activists involved in #WeNeedDiverseBooks #OwnVoices, #DisruptTexts, Reading While White, LatinX in Kid Lit, and #DiversityJedi I have grown as a reader of books and that matters because the books I share are used within my own classroom, as well as recommended to others on a global scale.

So what did I end up doing with Stonewall the book that started this whole blog post? I removed it from my best books of the year so far list and with the encouragement of Dr. Jimenez wrote this blog post to make my thinking visible. While I love the missing parts of history that the book represents, I cannot use it as an actual representation of what happened that night, there is too much missing.

And that is where I start my summer vacation. Knowing that I have so much to still learn about others and from others. Not a bad way to start my summer as I try to grow as a person and as an educator. I now know better, so hopefully I can do better. Can’t we all?