Category Archives: teaching

Fates and Furies and being known.

9781594634475_custom-a1c60d0db7c4d3d9fce99ec338b463c8ea95ca03-s400-c85“Mathilde’s heart was a bitter one, vengeful and quick. [True.]  Mathilde’s heart was a kindly one. [True.]” (page 380)

0ne of the lessons I’ve been working on teaching my students is that readers look for and explore nuance. It’s easy for them (and the rest of us!) to make quick judgements of characters (and people!) with generalized language: she’s a good person, he’s a bad person, etc. I’m trying to get them to hold multiple ideas about a character in their mind at once, to consider multiple causes of behaviors, to consider other perspectives.

I got to put this concept to work while reading Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which was marketed as a book about marriage and tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde who met and married during the final weeks of college. Divided into two parts, Fates focuses on Lotto’s story and Furies on Mathilde’s; crossing over from one to the next reveals new details and backstories to what happened in the first half. After discussing with my book club, we thought that a better description would be it’s a story of a marriage, but it is more a story about the degree to which we allow ourselves to be known, and to which we pursue truly knowing those closest to us.

The women in my book club all came from the perspective that marriage (and best friendship) is a place where we wanted to be truly known and truly loved, though we concluded that it’s impossible to know a person completely. What made this book so interesting was that Lotto and Mathilde were looking for very different things in their marriage: Lotto needed a muse and someone to take care of him; Mathilde needed security. Neither of them seemed to want to be fully known, or somehow didn’t consider it as an option.

One of the more interesting lines in the book for me was “He knew her; the things he didn’t know about her would sink an ocean liner; he knew her,” (page 331). This line was narrated not by Lotto, but by an unnamed narrator who occasionally commented on the events in the story, which is significant because it shows that Lotto himself wasn’t cognizant of how much he didn’t know about her. Mathilde, however, was keenly aware.

The other fascinating part of the story is the thread Groff spins through that most other people were constantly looking at Lotto and Mathilde from the outside and thinking it was the epitome of the best kind of marriage. And perhaps for the intents and purposes of Lotto and Mathilde, it was, but there was another moment I thought really compelling that adds a layer to consider:

During a Christmas that was emotionally wrought for the characters, Groff spent a significant number of pages writing an account that a stranger passing by on the street saw through the window “a circle of singing people bathed in the clean white light from a tree, and his heart did a somersault, and the image stayed with him; it merged with him even as he came home to his own children…All those years, the singers in the soft light in the basement apartment crystallized in his mind, because the very idea of what happiness should look like,” (page 75). Mathilde and Lotto didn’t truly know one another, their friends didn’t truly know them, and this scene extends the idea that we so easily misinterpret the world around us. It’s a lonely idea. (And it got metacognitive when we, as readers, realized the misinterpretations we made about Mathilde before we knew her story that came in the second half of the book.)

What I walked away from book club thinking the most about was how one of my friends called their relationship the opposite of what Brene Brown writes about in her books–that opening ourselves to vulnerability is what allows us to live wholeheartedly. A lot of our conversation circled around the compassion for the characters we felt as we learned more about them, and the frustration and sadness we had for them as we watched them keep an arm’s length–which may feel safer and more secure, but in the long run ends in loneliness.

So–is this book worth the hype? I think so. The more I think about it the more I want to discuss it and what it says about relationships and about gender. I didn’t get into it here and don’t want to spoil some plot lines, but learned that both Lotto and Mathilde were crafted to combat some gender stereotyping in literature, which is always interesting food for thought.

Beautiful Ruins.

9780061928123_custom-70e2b335f923fa2b9e2d96fcc5dbe44c914184d6-s6-c30I love my job for a lot of reasons.  I was reminded of the best one while at class a few weeks ago: that reading and writing are tools for meaning-making.  My professor handed us a copy of some of the new Common Core Standards for reading and writing, documents I’ve been looking at professionally for a number of years now.  She wanted to experiment to see if we could train our eyes to look at the standards in a new way: to find the “echoing chord” of the work it is asking us to do.  For instance, she looked at Reading Standard 1, which is about referring to details and creating inferences and said that for her, the small details of life have always mattered: small objects, a look, the things of small beauty that make her feel grounded again.  She said to create meaning from the standards, we have to leave reading and writing aside, go into our lives, and then return to reading and writing.  In that space we will find the moments and the lessons that will make our teaching come alive.

I proceeded to look through the standards in a way I’ve never done as a teacher.  All of a sudden, describing a setting in depth became deeply worthwhile.  I thought about what my home means to me: the chalk mural of Ohio and New York my husband made, our wall of old family photos, the urban basil we are attempting to nurture in the window.  These details began to tell a story of the place–and I realized that to teach setting, we can think about the settings that have been significant to us.  We can grow that into understanding characters and themes and moods.  It’s beautiful life work.  I went on to do this thinking with sequence of events, point of view, literary patterns…and I’ve never felt more passionate about the work I get to do each day.

And of course, I was finishing the book Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters on the train that day and everything came together beautifully.

The book’s cover is a picture of Manarola, part of the Cinque Terre in Italy, where I visited on my honeymoon last summer.  This plus an endorsement from a friend was enough to get me interested.  It is set in Italy in the 60s, California in the present day, and a handful of other places as we follow the various archs of the characters. It mostly tells the story of a young actress who finds she is pregnant with a famous actor’s child, and then finds companionship in the young owner of a hotel in Italy where she is sent by a producer to hide the pregnancy.  The reader follows these characters into the future, where their lives intersect 50 years later.

This was an entertaining read for the first half and then became a deeply poignant read for me.  Walters is writing, essentially, about story and meaning-making: how people are changed, shaped, and propelled forward.   By the end I was utterly floored by the ways he interwove these characters and their regrets, justifications, creative pursuits, and their journeys to make meaning in their lives.

There are a lot of gorgeous, thought provoking lines I could quote and write about, but without context, they lose part of their depth.  So, I will leave it at this: there is a moment toward the end of the story where the entire mismatched cast of characters are watching local theater in Idaho and find themselves stunned and moved by what they see and they all draw inward.  And this, I think, is what they were looking for all along: something that would propel them to stop, think, and make meaning.

The title provides some insight into the discoveries–beauty has emerged from the struggles.  Walters is insightful enough that not every character has revelations that bring rich insight and inner peace.  Through those characters readers can see the shells of existence that remain when life merely becomes a place to craft and project an image.

So, this book helped propel my current planning for my summer reading and adventuring…more to come soon, but it is all operating under the theme of looking at art and the details, draw inward, and live.

Reflections on my first month of E-Reading

If you were to walk into my apartment, you would find three industrial sized shelves filled with books that we were certain would be ample space for a growing library, but were filled to the brim by the time we were done unpacking.  My piles of books have grown to the coffee table, living room floor, and of course my nightstand.  I’m old fashioned in that not only do I love the smell of paper books, old and new, I also think that stacks of beloved books are one of the best ways to decorate a home.  My old studio apartment didn’t have room for shelves, so they were stacked into piles all around the periphery and somehow that worked, too.

So you’d understand how strange it was as I got more involved in education conversations about technology in the classroom and the tug I began to feel that I needed to (gah!) give the whole e-reading thing a shot.  I knew I’d be traveling for most of August, ten days of which internationally.  The last time I traveled for more than a week my books took up more space in my carry-on than my clothes, so I decided that summer travel would be the best time to start AND be excited about e-books.  (My chiropractor is also excited because he would shake his head every time he saw me reading a crazy heavy book that I’d lugged all over the city.)  I bought a kindle.  I downloaded the kindle app on my iphone.  I also got an ipad mini somewhere in the mix. Off I went.  Here’s what I learned:

  • It was difficult to get used to the buttons on the kindle.  I kept thinking the one on the right should be forward and on the left should be backward.  That is not the case, which took me the length of my entire first book to master.  I’m getting old.
  • The kind of book I’m reading seems to matter.  While in a more “literary” book, I am much more apt to want to go back and reread certain parts or backtrack a bit to draw connections, etc.  While reading Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, I repeatedly wanted to go back to earlier parts due to the structure and nature of the story, but it was really cumbersome so I mostly gave up.  (Maybe this will help my memory? Rewire some parts of my brain as I try to hold onto more details?)  However, this wasn’t an issue at all while reading Camilla Lackburg’s thriller The Stonecutter.
  • Taking notes is now both easier and harder.  By nature I don’t like clutter, so I’ve been happy to embrace the “notebook” app on my iphone for shopping lists and using pinterest instead of pulling out sheets from magazines.  It was hard for me to not be able to actually underline.  I’m working on digital underlining and note taking.  I think I’ll get there.  My kindle isn’t a touch screen, so that was another interesting aspect of the kind of technology I’ve grown accustomed to using.
  • While traveling, my carry on bag and suitcase were so much lighter.  I kind of didn’t know what to do with myself at the airport.   However, I needed a backup to occupy my mind until all electronic devices were cleared! My husband made fun of me that I couldn’t just sit–but I’m sure there are other crazies who don’t want to lose a half an hour of solid reading time! Luckily I had my most recent New York Magazine in my purse as well.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to just sit and think on a plane. Or the subway. Or in line.
  • I love the ipad app for one of my favorite cookbooks:  Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything.  LOVE.  Also, I am into the magazine apps for ones I subscribe to like Bon Appetit and New York Magazine.  That was a surprise.
  • E-reading gave me a lot of insight into my job: I was aware of my own “moves” as a reader and I began to see how some traditional teaching methods–like annotating and using post its–might not be applicable to all of my students anymore.  Trying out note taking strategies on my devices was definitely helpful as my students become increasingly more digital and less analog.  I’m dreaming about loading up kindles with series books for students and having them available for checkout.  I found out that the Brooklyn Public library has a huge selection of ebooks of all kinds using the Overdrive app for devices.  These are game changing developments for classrooms like mine where I’m dying to get more books in front of my students.  (Next up: getting out of the dark ages in NYC schools and starting a “Bring Your Own Device” policy!) The implications of knowing your “stats” automatically without an annoying (thought educationally helpful) reading log seems genius!
  • It’s really easy to get a book, which is good and bad.  One of my friends said that she reads so much more because it’s so easy to get books to read from home–and studies back up that notion: convenience makes more avid readers.  One of my favorite things to do is to browse in a bookstore and that is generally how my (digital-ha) list of books to read grows.  As convenient as e-readers are, I passionately support independent booksellers and this is a palpable tension because I try to go out of my way to purchase books from them and only go to the megastores if I’m in a pink or can’t find what I’m looking for. But, to close this post, I’ll share my recent find on my e-reading journey:

This posting from Galleycat helped me find ways I can still support independent stores and enjoy the convenience of not having a 15 pound purse.  I’ll let you peruse at your leisure, but the bottom line is that there are a lot of independent stores now selling ebooks on their websites.  Not all, but I can still support some of my local favorites like Greenlight Bookstore.

I’ll be sure to share more on my e-reading experience, but I’m most enjoying it due to my lightened load and the way it’s making me think about my students’ experiences and engagements.  I still love curling up with an actual book and I still have science fiction nightmares a la the paperless world Super Sad True Love Story, and percentages will never be as satisfying as holding 3/4 of a book in my left hand, but I’m going to keep at it for now.

A Monster Calls: a book about healing from grief, the power of story & some ruminations on the teaching of reading

My cousin recommended a middle grades book, A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, which is stunningly illustrated by Jim Kay.  I hadn’t yet heard of it, but apparently it is causing quite a stir, having already won the Carnegie Medal for literature and the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration.  It is beautifully written, smart, and the pictures are breathtaking–but it is not for the faint of heart; I cried for over an hour when I finished it, which I do not admit lightly.  There is such beautiful, difficult truth in this book, though, that I find it impossible not to recommend.

The main character Conor has been having a terrible nightmare, which he cannot talk about and does not reveal until the end of the story, that began when his mother started getting treatments for cancer.  In the mean time, a monster begins showing up at 12:07 every night, claiming that he only comes walking in matters of life and death. Conor has no fear of this monster because in comparison to his true nightmare, he isn’t scary at all.  The monster tells him he is going to tell him three stories, which are “the wildest things of all…Stories chase and bite and hunt,” (37) and then, he says, Conor will tell the monster a story–his story, his truth, what happens at the end of his nightmare, that he cannot tell anyone.

What is brilliant about the book is the way the monster interacts with Conor and the way that the stories he tells symbolize the complexity of what it means to be human–Ness has crafted a story that gets at the heart of pain and healing in a way that is significant and weighty and truthful for both 12 year olds and adults.  Through the narrative voice of the monster and his stories, he approaches life’s biggest fear–loss–in a heart wrenching, beautiful, and most important, truthful, way.

After the first story, they have this exchange:  “So the good prince was a murderer and the evil queen wasn’t a witch after all.  Is that supposed to be the lesson of all this? That I should be nice to her?” He heard a strange rumbling, different from before, and it took him a minute to realize the monster was laughing.  “You think I tell you stories to teach you lessons?” the monster said.  “You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?” (63).

This reminded me of some of the work I recently did at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s summer institute for the teaching of reading.  One of the best ongoing conversations at multiple sessions was about how students often don’t do the reading work that will move and change and transform them as people–they look at a complex text and often want to reduce it to the first lesson they can come up with–but this is empty work when in a rich text.  Life–and the best kinds of stories–are far more complex than to reduce to a single lesson.  And it is a sad day when amazing books get reduced to looking for a lesson (which seems to be what standardized testing is trying to do to reading–reducing it to a task, rather than an opportunity to understand what it means to be human, what it means to belong, to escape from reality for a moment, I could go on).

Conor goes on to say: “I don’t understand.  Who’s the good guy here?” The moster replies: “There is not always a good guy.  Nor is there always a bad one.  Most people are somewhere in between.” Conor shook his head.  “That’s a terrible story.  And a cheat,” (64).  This is where so many middle grade students find themselves–and because they have been trained to look for the “lesson” on a standardized test, or because for whatever reason they want to look for the easiest way out of a story rather than linger in what it is really offering.  The rest of the story follows Conor navigate and make meaning through the darkness in a way that stunned me as a person.

Like the monster says, stories are wild creatures.  They help us see.  They help us heal. And I love that it is my job to get books in the hands of kids and to teach them how to make their thinking messy, because that is how life goes.

Streets with names from the Middle Ages and other thoughts on roots.

Tana French is a phenomenal, literary mystery writer and my mom, brother and I have enjoyed all of her books.  I read her third, Faithful Place, earlier this year and for some reason never wrote about it, but still find myself thinking about these words from the final page:

“All that night…I went looking for the parts of my city that have lasted.  I walked down streets that got their names in the middle ages…I looked for cobblestones worn smooth and iron railings gone thin with rust.  I paid no attention to the shoddy new apartment blocks and the neon signs, the sick illusions ready to fall …In a hundred years they’ll be gone, replaced, forgotten.”

I’m in the middle of our last unit of the year, Reading and Writing Through the Literary Genre of Coming of Age.  We are obviously focusing on the adolescent coming of age, but I have found that life continues to spiral me through many comings-of-age. We read 8 short texts of a variety of genres together and they are all reading a coming of age novel of their choosing.  We are having two class-wide discussions, dividing the books in half.  This means that this week discussion revolved around struggle and we have watched all of our characters wrestle with the fact that growing up is equated with pain and finding ways to cope and survive when the safety and blissful ignorance of childhood is pulled away.

This is what brought me back to these words from the protagonist of Faithful Place, because I think to survive well means to have a life rooted in things that last.  The imagery that French employs is so poignant to me–especially the “sick illusions” that  call me to temporary, shallow wellness, which is what we are seeing in class from our adolescent protagonists on their way to finding something deeper and real.   I cannot wait to talk about hope next week and the kinds of things that bring resolution from life’s messes. It never ceases to amaze me the way that talking about literature with 13 year olds on a regular basis always brings me back to truth.