Category Archives: why 8th graders aren’t jaded

"I put it down on paper and then the ghost doesn’t ache so much."

About a million years ago, a good friend of mine mailed me a copy of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and said it would probably change my life. He was right.  This book holds everything I love about literature inside of it–and really, a blog post isn’t enough–you should read it and then we should meet for coffee to talk about it.

 It is a collection of snapshots that chronicles the coming of age of Esperanza (in English, hope), a girl growing up in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago.  Cisneros’ use of vignettes instead of a standard narrative structure captures stolen moments and insights that together create a portrait not just of Esperanza, but of longing and small beauties, anger and angst.  Though short and incredibly readable, this story is complex.  Her poetic style brings the beautifully tragic peripheral characters of Mango Street to life, each desperately seeking freedom, each desperately breaking and inspiring my heart:

Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life. 

Alicia, whose Mama died, is sorry there is no one older to rise and make the lunchbox tortillas. Alicia, who inherited her mama’s rolling pin and sleepiness, is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university.  Two trains and a bus, because she doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin.

Cisneros gives Esperanza an eye for tiny details and a writer’s heart that carries the weight of her neighborhood.  She writes a poem:

I want to be
like waves on the sea
like clouds in the wind
but I’m me.
One day I’ll jump
out of my skin. 
I’ll shake the sky
like a hundred violins. 

Esperanza, who is not beautiful, but is smart.  Esperanza who is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, a tiny thing against so many bricks, who looks at trees.” I love picturing this girl gathering her strength and her pen and shaking the sky with all of her might.

Toward the end of the novel, her aunt almost prophesies over her:

You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free.

As a person who writes often, and especially as an English teacher, I have spent a lot of time wondering what exactly this means.  For Esperanza, it helps her to channel her emotions and her anger:

I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.  

This is why I love writing–and introducing students to writing.  I have found that the times in my life that I feel most at peace–even if life is swirling in a thousand directions–is when I am writing.  Most of the time it is nothing important, and often words I may never reread.  But just like Esperanza, once I’ve thought through my life with pen and paper, whatever ghost was haunting me doesn’t ache so much.

Esperanza reminds me of so many of my students–trying to figure out what it means to be a young adult, what it means to love, where to put anger, how to be themselves.  They all come from different places, and yet I think that there are vignettes of beauty inside each of them–and that somehow life would make more sense if they understood that.  I’m trying to remember if coming of age novels meant anything to me when I was their age or if I love them now in hindsight after surviving adolescence.

I realize it is naive to think that the world could be saved by writer’s notebooks. But perhaps we’d all be a little more emotionally healthy? Free from the demons that eat at us, free from the insecurities that plague us, because we’ve written them away rather than having them wake us in the morning and whisper to us as we try to fall asleep.

On Harry Potter and Another Reason Why My 8th Graders Are the Best. Seriously.

Cover Art by Mary GrandPre

Rereading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with my students pre-movie was one of my favorite experiences as a teacher.  Epic conversations came out of our meetings, which were a safe haven to bring out each members’ inner nerd (I say that in the best of ways, children.  I think the inner nerd is the best part of anyone.) as we discussed character arcs, endings, losses, loves.  I have challenged each of the members of the book club to post an epic book response in the coming week about what moves their hearts the most in the series.  Obviously, I cannot wait to read them and I’ll write my own epic post as well. But to help them remember all the glory we discussed–and for it to get all the other Harry Potter fans I know thinking as they reread/watch the movie, I thought I’d post some of their brilliance/some windows into our discussions here. Do not read ahead if you have not finished the series, as our discussions looked at the entire series story arc. 

One of my favorite comments presented in all of the book clubs was when a student said: “I love the passion of Ron, Harry and Hermione–and how they have a quest and something to believe in.” I responded with the idea that I think that we can have that in our lives, though sadly without broomsticks and spells and apparating.  But, I teared up a little with the conversation that followed. What do you think?

On Dumbledore.
How even as readers, we (and the characters) didn’t feel safe after the end of Book 6. What does this say about the character of Dumbledore? Are there equivalents in our world?

Is it ok to be young and stupid? How do we carry the layers of our pasts with us into adulthood? How do we deal with the flaws of those we look up to? What does all of this teach us about what it means to be human?

Should adults trust children with difficult truths or wait until they have “come of age”?

Do you learn by someone telling you what to do or experiencing it for yourself? Do you agree with the way Dumbledore let Harry learn many truths for himself?

Dumbledore and Grindelwald went in completely different directions after their young adulthood: Grindelwald sought more political power, while Dumbledore went into education.  Which do you think is more valuable?

On Snape.
Is Snape the true hero of the series?

Consider his presence at the Deatheater meetings in early Book 7.  What do you think is going through his mind? What kind of complexities exist for him? If he hadn’t known Lily, would he have truly wanted to be there?

What do you think Rowling is suggesting by the fact that Snape was changed through love? What kind of foil does James Potter play–for Snape, for Lily, for Harry?

In what ways are Harry, Snape and Voldemort similar and different?

What is the true value of sacrifice? How did it change Snape? What other characters sacrifice? Was it worth it? What about in our lives? What other literary characters do you know who sacrifice and what was the result?

What do you think Rowling is saying about government? Racism? What connections is she making to history?

What is the definition of evil? Is there anything human left in Voldemort? What do you make of the changes of heart that we see in book 7 (Dudley, Narcissa, esp.) ? What is the difference between Bellatrix and Narcissa?

What do you think about Draco?  What do you think about Dumbledore’s final act of grace towards him?

Consider Hermione’s loneliness in Book 7. How has she changed since we first met her?

There were some fierce debates about Ron in class 813 and Harry in class 804. What do you think of these two characters and how they have changed?

Why do you think JKR created Ron, Harry and Hermione to be on the fringe of the social life at Hogwarts?

There is a lot of loss across the series.  Why do you think Rowling wrote the story that way? Do you have specific opinions about particular losses?

What inspires Neville’s character change?

My students are brilliant. 

Harry Potter is just too big for a blog.

I was mortified when I realized that I haven’t written on this blog since September 30th.

It’s definitely not that I haven’t been reading, but I think it’s because I’ve been reading so much for school: my students have all created their own reading blogs and since it’s so early in the process I feel compelled to read them all 93 every week, which has been happening over my Saturday morning tea rather than writing about my own reading experiences, per usual (which must change). I’ve also been preparing for the book clubs that are starting up in my classroom. This is the first time I have attempted to be in book clubs with students all year long.  A little crazy.  My brain has been consumed lately with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  While my reading focus has been on what my students’ book club experiences will be like, I also realized that there are depths to be mined in old Harry Potter.  I’ve been overwhelmed by all of my thoughts that I have no idea where to begin, and this has snowballed as I’ve been reading multiple essays in Harry Potter and Philosophy and Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays.

That being said, I’m currently looking to reinvent some healthier rhythms that don’t involve quite so much work *and* I promise I’m on a mission to draw some serious conclusions about Harry Potter (though, I can say that I’ll be rereading this series for the rest of my life, so I suppose I don’t have to discover them all now).  For now, here are some of the biggest Harry Potter threads going in my brain (please do not continue reading if you have not read the entire series, and on that note, if you haven’t read this series, I’m not sure what you’re waiting for):

  • The fact that since we are able to be inside Harry’s brain, Rowling brilliantly creates a narrative in which most readers begin to trust all of Harry’s thoughts and the conclusions he draws, especially about Snape, and especially in retrospect in light of the ending of book 7. 
  • “In book II, Dumbledore tells Harry that the essence of one’s character is defined by what one chooses to do rather than by any inherent ability…by Dumbledore’s standards, is [Snape] not an even greater hero than Harry?” (from Cruel Heroes and Treacherous Texts, Schanoes)
  • “Both Snape and Black complicate a black and white moral schema. Where Snape forces the reader to accept a bad person who chooses the side of good, Black forces us to acknowledge the potential for violence and ruthlessness that can exist in a good person.” (from Cruel Heroes and Treacherous Texts, Schanoes)
  • The character arc of Neville Longbottom, and the development of Harry, Ron and Hermione, obviously. 
Tomorrow the Harry Potter 7 Reread book club begins their “pre-club” thinking work…developing the narrative arcs of the first six books in order to provide a foundation for our approach to book 7. My guess is that my conclusions won’t be totally drawn until I’ve talked all this through with my brilliant students.  My hope is that I will be posting on the other aspects of my reading life before then, though. 

It’s spring in Brooklyn and why 8th graders are amusing to me.

First, a note on the weather. There is something truly great about walking down the street in Brooklyn on one of the first 65 degree days. I swear, light feels more real and the buildings look different as the old timers pull out plastic chairs to sit on the sidewalk. Spring officially starts on Friday. Ok. Just had to get that out.

Second, I have to share one of my favorite, most laugh out loud moments as a teacher:

Background: We are currently in the depths of Romeo and Juliet. The namesakes have fallen in love/lust. Mercutio is dead. Tybalt is dead. Our class conversation yesterday revolved around violence: how something light hearted and entertaining can turn disastrous when a weapon is pulled, or how easy it is to cross the line when “the mad blood is stirring.” I always share the idea that in Romeo and Juliet “it’s all fun and games until Mercutio dies.” And yes, my 14 year olds had some excellent insight into the issue.

Today, since it was so nice out, kids were all over the place after school: sitting outside every local coffee shop and park, so obviously I ran into a few and they called me over: Ms. Robbins, you’ll never guess what he did! They proceeded to tell me how a boy in my homeroom was trying to get ready for gym and they were horsing around in the locker room around a door that didn’t have a handle. There was pushing from both sides, each boy on either side trying to alternately close or open the door to block the other. Then. The boy in my homeroom slammed the door not realizing that the other kid’s fingers were in it. Ouch. And no, I am not heartless, this is *not* the laugh out loud moment. I hope that poor boy is ok. The humor came when the boy in my homeroom said:

“It’s all fun and games until Mercutio dies, Ms. Robbins.”