Category Archives: why 8th graders aren’t jaded

Brown Girl Dreaming.

A note: I wrote this post as a mentor for my students.  It’s written in a more formal structure than what I usually use, and demonstrates structured writing that is just about ready to jump ship to more creative (thought still focused) nonfiction structures, which is where many of my 8th graders live as writers.  Also, this book was beautiful and I can’t wait to pass out the seven copies I just received through a Teachers College grant. 

ypl_woodson_Brown_Girl_DreamingSometimes middle schoolers can forget the power of the dream. Though still children, their school and family responsibilities and expectations often seem to fill their waking hours. They are often treated like adults, but the adults forget that the grown-up life is brand new to them. Jacqueline Woodson’s latest book, Brown Girl Dreaming, is not just a compelling escape for readers, it is a lifeline of hope and beauty. The realizations Woodson shares throughout her memoir set in verse can help guide adolescent readers through their own messy lives by giving them hope for the future.

Early in the story, Jacqueline Woodson realizes that drawing strength from her roots can help her store up strength to face the challenges she will face. The first stanza of the story sets the stage for the cultural atmosphere for her childhood: “I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA—a country caught between Black and White” (1). Woodson began right away with one of the most difficult realities that despite the decades past, our country still doesn’t know how to handle. Later, though, she writes, “From Columbus,’ my father said, ‘you could go just about anywhere” (16). Literally, her father is referencing the fact that highways run north, south, and diagonal through Columbus. Figuratively, her father is giving her permission to dream. Woodson is passing this ability off to her readers. Even when people are born into what might feel like an impossible situation, there are ways to move forward. Her voice in this story gives permission to the reader to dream about where they might be headed in the future.

In the middle of the story, Jacqueline Woodson acknowledges the difficulty in making sense of life, but realizes that it’s ok to struggle as she figures out who she is. When she and her siblings are shuffling between their grandparents’ home in South Carolina and her mother’s new home in Brooklyn she writes, “Our feet are beginning to belong in two different worlds—Greenville and New York. We don’t know how to come home and leave home behind us” (195). Beyond the difficulty of moving and feeling like an outsider, readers can relate to Woodson’s acknowledgement of the struggle to fit in. She also writes of how she is often compared to her siblings and feels lost in comparison. When she begins to listen to the voices of wisdom in her life, though, she has the courage to be comfortable being herself. She says of her grandfather: “And when I sing to him, I’m not just left of the key or right of the tune. He says I sing beautifully. He says I am perfect” (236). Woodson realizes that she doesn’t have to please everyone or be like anyone else and while this frees her. She is able to feel comfortable with the question “How can I explain to anyone that stories are like air to me?” (247).   This realization is also able to free the reader from some of the anxiety that accompanies adolescence and encourage them that it is normal to wrestle with their identity.

The biggest gift Woodson offers the reader by the end of the story is the message of hope in the future. As her older brother sings a solo beautifully in a school performance, she is stunned that she had no idea her brother had such a beautiful voice. She realizes, “Maybe…there is something hidden like this, in all of us. A small gift from the universe waiting to be discovered” (233). In the beginning, Woodson wasn’t sure where she was going to go, but was given permission to dream. And now she sees how a small passion, even if it is unknown to others, can blossom into something more. By the end of the story she is able to see how she was born to write: “I keep writing, knowing now that I was a long time coming” (298).   Woodson is able to grasp this enormous part of her identity and see that it has always been a part of her—it just took courage to keep at it. Her readers can see how her past and present work together to give her something that will carry her into the future, and can also believe that this could be true for them as well.

This story is one that was made for young teenagers who need to be reminded that there are many roads to choose from, the assurance that the journey might be bumpy, and most of all, that a future filled with hope is in their hands.

the "added value" of literature: an amazing op-ed in response to the state ELA test

This was a crazy week.  I watched my students spend 9 class periods in silence over the course of 3 days while taking the state ELA test (and they have 9 more this week for math).  Then I listened to them talk non stop about “The Pineapple and the Hare” (that’s a link to the google search if you haven’t read about it yet), the most controversial reading passage we’ve seen yet on the state test.  My colleagues and I mulled over two of the six questions for our 45 minute weekly meeting, which happened to be later that day.  Our thoughts at the end were that literature and multiple choice just don’t go together.

The New York Times published this op-ed today by Clare Needell Hollander, a New York City middle school English teacher that encapsulates everything I’ve been thinking about this week, rooted in her experiences running literary book clubs with her students.  It brought my thoughts back to the book club meetings that took place in my classroom this week on Monday and Friday that had been clouded in my mind amidst the state test nonsense.  We finally got to talk about Night by Elie Wiesel, and the ways in which my students read this book were incredible, and trying to summarize the conversations I had would rob them of their beauty and depth.

All I know is that if you put solid books in the hands of teenagers, lives and brains and hearts can change and that you should read this article right now.

Maus and Night: think through WWII and literature with my 8th graders.

The next student book club in my year long line up is Holocaust Literature with graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman and the memoir Night by Elie Wiesel.  I’ve spent the last month or so reading and trying to figure out how to approach these topics with 8th grade students, wondering if I should have picked an “easier” period of history, (but is there one that isn’t filled with darkness?).  While I was rereading Night for the first time since 2004, I kept stopping and wondering if 13-14 year old students were emotionally ready to visualize and process the Holocaust.  I ended up writing a letter to parents making sure that they were ok with the human depravity depicted in the book as well as Wiesel’s spiritual struggles.  Every parent agreed and I still fall confidently in that literature is one of the best ways to study history, and where better to learn how to process humanity than in a book club?

We started today with a general overview of World War Two.  Just reading a page brought up some incredible discussions questions:

What happens when a country is focused solely on itself? When is isolationism or distance a healthy choice? Unhealthy? Do the same principles relate to an individual’s life?

How do leaders like Hitler and Mussolini gain power? What kinds of situations cause people to look to leaders like them?

Winston Churchill said before the war: “Britain and France had to choose between war and dishonor.  They will have war.”  We asked questions like: What does this mean? What kind of dishonor is he talking about? Then my students started making connections with this and Terrible Things, the picture book by Eve Bunting that we read during our Social Action unit: that stopping wrong things only when they begin to affect you personally is ethically wrong and made the connection that Churchill believed that looking the other way was dishonorable.

I was so inspired by the energy emitted from my students today and I cannot believe that for a while I doubted whether they would be ready to face such ugliness.  Their insight was incredible and they have not yet even begun to read the books.

The article we read ended with a quote from Franklin Roosevelt, written for a speech that he never got to deliver: “Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships–the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace.” Our conversation wandered to my classroom value, posted on the wall, that everyone has a story–and once we get to know that story, we can begin to relate to, empathize with, and care for and understand that person.  All I can say is that studying history well makes us better people.

Miss your old English class?  Read (or reread) Night and/or Maus.  I really believe it is one of the most important works of literature I have ever encountered.  Think through the questions we will be thinking about in our book club:

What is the value of difference? Of human life?

Do the hard truths of human history still impact us? On a corporate level? On an individual level? How? Do you let them impact you?

Why create literature and art in response to history? Why study history through literature and art?

How do we emotionally [and spiritually] process through our history as a people?

defining love in an 8th grade english class.

I think it is a very small contingent of people who go into secondary english education and want to teach in a middle school.  Most of us dream of opening the literary eyes of high school students–the kinds who are past the stage of their hormones being new, the kinds who are starting to think critically about the world around them and their future in it.  Before I ended up at my school, I think I applied to every high school in Manhattan, none of which were looking to hire me.  Through a friend of a friend, I rode the train to Brooklyn for the first time a week into the school year for my interview and figured teaching middle school was much better than day-temping and evening-barista-ing I’d been doing for months.  That was almost 8 years ago and every year I get reminded why 8th grade students are amazing–and this year’s reminder is, not surprisingly, rooted in the epic-reread-bookclub of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (uber-nerds see this).

Every student chooses one of five books to read with me at some point during the school year.  Last year we had so much fun in the book club that I decided it was definitely worth it to do again, even if there wasn’t a movie release to celebrate along with it.   That brings me to this week.  (I’ll be talking across some of the best plot and character moves in the series, if you haven’t read the series yet and you don’t want to ruin your life, I wouldn’t read anymore.  Then I’d go out and start reading. Anyway.)
{usually I wouldn’t pick a movie picture
for a post about a book, but I do love the
movies and I think Alan Rickman is
brilliant.  Am I right, Nora?} 
Severus Snape is barely present in person in the last book of the series, though he is all most readers are thinking about after the close of book six when he committed an act of violence that broke the heart of every reader: either Dumbledore was wrong about him all along (and at the time, the very idea of Dumbledore being wrong about anything was unthinkable) or his trust in Snape had roots in something we did not yet know as readers.  I spent a significant amount of time between finishing The Half Blood Prince in July 2005 and starting The Deathly Hallows in July 2007 repeating to myself: I trust Dumbledore.  I trust Dumbledore.  I think that reading the backstory at the end of The Deathly Hallows is one of my favorite excerpts that I’ve ever read: Snape sacrificed himself, his pride and his ideas for love.  
In our book club we starting talking about how the character of Snape redefines for the reader that love, as demonstrated in entire series, is not about what someone else can do for me or how someone else can make me feel, but self sacrifice.  I watched as these 13 year old minds began to turn this around in their minds and all of a sudden they begin to discuss the other places in the book where this is present.  The first one that came to mind was, obviously, Lily Potter sacrificing her life for Harry, which is something that gives strength and power to Harry throughout the entire series.  We discussed that our empathy for Narcissa Malfoy begins when we see her begin to doubt Voldemort out of love for her son and ultimately chooses to risk her life in betrayal at the end of the series.  And then there is sweet Dobby who sacrifices everything. 
Love means sacrifice.  Love means self-forgetfulness.  And there is nothing better than hearing this from 8th graders, believed by many to be the most self centered age group in America.  

To my students. With respect. This started as a mentor text on coming of age, but changed along the way. I’m not really sorry for that.

Today I made a new bulletin board in my classroom.  I realize it is the end of May and that a month from yesterday the students I love will have cleaned out their lockers, left 8th grade behind, looking only toward the season of freedom and their new high schools, which, whether you hated or loved it, is generally smiled upon more than middle school.  So.  I want the last month in room 116 to matter.

Our unit is called “Reading and Writing Through Coming of Age” and everyone has to read a coming of age novel.  Instead of doing book clubs, students can read a book of their choice and we are trying to notice patterns across the genre: what parts of coming of age are universal? What are personal? In the midst of sharing, I hope that students find something that resonates with what life feels like to them right now.

Today everyone had to bring in 2 quotes that spoke into their characters’ coming of age experience in the first half of their book and I was blown away by what they found.  I’ve been reading young adult fiction incessantly for the past month (Girl in Translation, Sweet Dates in Basra, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, Weeping Underwater Looks a Lot Like Laughter, A Northern Light) and though they are all engaging books,  I have not been inspired to write off of any of them, or the coming of age experience, which is also the reason behind my severe lack of posts recently.  Until today.

I took about 25 of the quotes from 10-15 books that my students are reading and wrote them with permanent black marker on sheets of white paper.  I hung them all across the bulletin board that stretches across the entire back wall of my room.  All of a sudden it was reverse personification–I saw all of my students somewhere in the paper mess (well, let’s be honest, the quotes are hanging orderly, but still) of complicated emotion–and then it became post modern, because I could almost trace their jumps from one quote to another at different times throughout the year.  For instance:

“This was simply around the time my parents stopped understanding what I wanted and I stopped understanding what they wanted me to want.” (Born Confused)

“Standing there, I loved and hated myself. It made me feel my glory and my shame at the same time.” (The Secret Life of Bees)

“You still have a lot of time to make yourself into what you want.” (The Outsiders)

“I told the waitress I’d been out all night ‘looking for trouble.'” (Teen Angst…Nahh)

“I didn’t answer him. I didn’t feel like it.” (Catcher in the Rye)

And I guess the reason that I wasn’t connecting with any of the young adult books I was reading was because I wasn’t picturing my students in them, because after listening to them read all their quotations and hearing their voices, I was tapped into their lives–albeit the slivers they allow to come out in English class, but it was as though the beauty of becoming and possibility was present.  I’m not sure if they noticed it. But I did. And I’m absolutely sure that they will make fun of me for my waxing poetic about a day in class. But.

This week we talked about the first half–the pain, the confusion, the struggle.  Next week we talk about the second half–the resolution, the growth, the wholeness, the strength.  I. Love. Story. And I love to think about the people that these favorites are going to become and the stories they are going to be able to tell when they make it to the other side of growing up.  But here are a few pictures of who they are right now. They are kind of endearing, right? You can read their writing at

My “Sold” bookclub with supplies they bought for Restore NYC’s safehouse. 

Mustache Monday. Obviously. 

We take reading seriously. 

Like I said, seriously. 
My homeroom gets so excited to come back after lunch. Ha. 

Sometimes we play paper football. 

There aren’t words for just how great this one is. Or how amazed I was to capture the single second that they weren’t hysterically laughing after decorating my board so thoughtfully.