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I Know What I Know

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June 2016

Sophomore English Reading Journey Chapter 6

The Boy in the Striped PajamasThe Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Okay, I hated most of this book. I just couldn’t set aside my disbelief that a nine year old wouldn’t know what was going on with the Nazi party and who the Fury was. Especially because the word he’s mixing it up with is in German, his native language, and Fury is English, so it doesn’t really make sense. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief that he would be so incredibly naive. I’m sure there are plenty of nine year olds in Syria right now who have a pretty good idea of what’s going on and can understand who is fighting whom and why, and the human cost of war. I could buy that Bruno wouldn’t know what was actually going on at the concentration camp, but the rest of it was hard to swallow. The characters were pretty one dimensional, and the only one I actually liked was the Grandmother.

However, if you read this like a cautionary fairy tale or a fable, along the lines of Animal Farm, it functions quite well. I’m not sure how to hook high schoolers into this book, however, since it’s told from the totally blind perspective of a child. Though that blind perspective is what allowed Bruno to see Schmuel as a human being when the adults couldn’t.

So… as I’m writing this review, I’m able to see that there was a lot of intentional stuff going on from the author that’s actually pretty smart. I just didn’t realize it until now. Most of the book was annoying to read until the ending.

I applaud any book that will kill the main character, and that reveal was the perfect gut-punch and saved the whole thing from being bothersome and soft. Having read the whole thing now, I see the craft behind it and I applaud this work.

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Sophomore English Reading Journey Chapter 5

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best books I have ever read. It has been a long, long time since I’ve been this hooked into a book. I can’t recommend it enough.

I adore that Death is the narrator. Such voice! SUCH VOICE! If you want to learn how to write with voice, how to really develop a narrator that stands out, read this book. It’s a fantastic example.

The characters were so complex and human. Zusak makes you fall in love with them only to snatch them away from you. It makes the grief so real. I love that the mother, Rosa, who you’re supposed to kind of dislike, has these wonderful moments where she is glorified and we are reminded how many facets a person’s soul can have. Even minor characters are given complexity.

This was a beautiful story, beautifully written, and so unbelievably powerful. There are no words. War is hell. Evil exists.

I cried for the last 20 pages so hard I could barely read the words, and I’m tearing up now just thinking about it. It’s so terribly sad! I don’t want to read a sad book for a long time now, but I have a whole Holocaust reading list to work through so… yeah. I don’t cry easily and rarely that hard. I was up half the night thinking about the book. READ THIS BOOK!

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Sophomore English Reading Journey Chapter 4

Twelve Angry MenTwelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think it’s weird that the play starts out by listing the jurors and their personalities. I guess I’ve never seen that in a play where the actors don’t get to decide how to play a character while staying within the confines of the story, the character’s lines, etc. That’s what makes Shakespeare so versatile. The characters are judged by the lines they say, but how they are delivered can vary so much from performance to performance.

*spoilers below*

Just reading this, I wasn’t impressed. Yeah, I get that in the end, we learn that you shouldn’t convict someone of murder just based on them coming from a bad neighborhood or looking a certain way, which is very relevant in this day and age. I understood that it was a powerful story and I was supposed to be affected, that it was a big deal when they were able to punch holes in the story and it really developed the idea of reasonable doubt. They shouldn’t have convicted him based on the evidence presented, but I was still left with the feeling that actually, the kid was guilty!

I then watched the movie, which does a FANTASTIC job of fleshing out the characters a lot more (especially the guy with the picture of his son). I would highly recommend the movie over the text, because it rounds out the characters and makes them more three-dimensional. I wonder, though, why they chose to show the defendant in the movie when in the play it states clearly that the defendant is not to be seen by the audience?

Watch the movie.

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Sophomore English Reading Journey, Chapter 3

Animal FarmAnimal Farm by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I think I read this in high school. Parts of it seemed familiar, but I’m not %100 sure. I can tell you, though, that I got a lot more out of reading it considering that I had recently read “Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovitch and the Siege of Leningrad” by MT Anderson. If you are considering reading “Animal Farm” read “Symphony” as a companion book. First of all, because it’s amazing, and secondly, because it will put so much of Orwell’s fable into context. You’ll be able to easily see which animals resemble which historical figures or represent groups of people, etc.

It almost makes everything more awful because they’re animals. It should dehumanize it, but I’m one of those people that cries when the dog dies in the movie but not necessarily the human (sick, I know). I cried in the Java House when a certain character was taken away near the end, mostly because there is a 13-year-old girl who still loves horses trapped inside of me, even though I haven’t gone near one in years (I am Tina Blecher inside of my soul).

I’m so excited to teach this next year because I want to incorporate short readings from “Symphony” and I want to empower my students against propaganda. Now I want to read 1984!

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Sophomore English Reading Journey Chapter 2

Antigone (The Theban Plays, #3)Antigone by Sophocles

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this in high school as a student. I remember really identifying with Antigone, and placing myself in her sandals throughout the play. I saw her as morally powerful, a feminist, and truly devoted to her brother. As a feminist with a beloved brother, I just really got into her character and was 100% on her side. Besides, teenagers tend to be drawn to the romantic side of taking one’s own life, which would explain their/my obsession at 16 with Romeo and Juliet.

(Come to think of it, should we be teaching so many stories with romanticized suicide to teenagers who may be at risk for self-harm?)

Now, re-reading it as an adult who will be teaching the text to sophomores next year, I’m a little more balanced in my reading. Obviously the king is a misogynist and a big ol’ moldy turd, but the reason the tragedy happens is because of hubris on both sides. The king won’t budge on his decree, and Antigone won’t budge on what she believes is the will of the Gods. When two immobile forces clash, there’s going to be a body count. And in killing herself, Antigone’s ultimate middle finger to the king, she misses the chance to be rescued and redeemed because she wouldn’t budge for anything.

Obviously the big theme here is divine law vs. the law of man, which opens up a big lovely can of worms for discussion because it’s still an issue in today’s world. When I read it as a teenager I was like, “Well, duh, it’s so obvious that Antigone is on the side of right, it’s divine law and it’s morally correct” but jihadists may find their actions on the side of God and morally correct, too. So the lesson I want my students to get out of reading this is that there are multiple sides to every conflict, and if nobody is willing to compromise even an inch, disaster can occur. What seems to be the obvious “right” isn’t always so, and when you set a precedent, things can get dangerous.

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Sophomore English Reading Journey Chapter 1

To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I think this was my third time through reading this book. I guess I don’t have much more to say than has already been said – it’s a classic, a slice of American history, and very well-written, steeped in setting and character, blending seriousness and humor. But I wanted to share my thoughts in the context of re-reading this book in order to teach it in the fall to sophomores.

1. I have mixed feelings about this book being in the canon. First of all, this is the only book I’ll be teaching next year written by a woman. That in and of itself helps it fight for its place in the curriculum. But is this book still relevant? I remember reading it in high school and feeling pretty “woke” after — this is a kid growing up in a small, predominantly white Iowa town, much like the one where I’ll be teaching next year. Maybe it’s good for talking about the history of racism and discrimination in the larger context of history, especially when pulling in modern ties to the Black Lives Matter movement, but if one is teaching this with students of color, what will they really get out of it? They know the legacy of racism in this country.

2. I never realized the uncertainty and fluctuation in the voice of the narrator before. Sometimes, like in the opening paragraphs, it is clearly adult Scout remembering these events. But then later the narrator denies the reader certain understandings because young Scout would not have understood (though we can make assumptions as adults). But the inconsistent zooming in and out of time and experience was a lot more obvious this time around. Not sure if I like it, if it was effective overall, etc.

3. I don’t like the part where Calpurnia explains why she speaks “proper English” with white people and her dialect with her black church congregation. It makes sense I guess, in terms of the story, but it seems like an argument for “Code Switching” theory in education (we teach kids to talk one way at school and one way at home, instead of welcoming and celebrating dialect and realizing that we hold speakers and writers to different standards — obviously the latter is more progressive).

4. So, nobody was going to do anything about the rape victim in in this story? When I first read this story, I hated Mayella, and I condemned her for lying and putting Tom’s life at risk. I vowed that if I was in a similar situation I would have told the truth no matter how much I’d be punished at home by my father. Maybe I missed it the first time, but it’s clear in the story that Mayella is a victim of her father’s incestuous rape, an ongoing traumatic abuse. Even when it’s clear she’s lying, this time around I hated Atticus for cross-examining and not believing a rape victim’s story, even though she was not raped by Tom but by her father. And at the end, she just goes back into that house to continue to be violated and we as readers are supposed to accept that as “Ewells will be Ewells” and assume she kind of deserves it because she was racist and lied, and was, maybe, overly sexual by trying to seduce a married man. So, slut gets what she deserves. Did anyone ever consider walking a mile in Mayella’s shoes? Atticus is willing to put it all on the line to defend Tom, but who is going to save Mayella?

Overall, I very much enjoyed this re-read, and I’m excited to teach it. However, looking at this text with the fresh eyes of 10 years teaching experience and an MA in English Education, I have a lot more questions now than answers.

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My Ten Commandments Post-Orlando

I have come down from the mountain of my silence to give this to you. I dare to command you even with these imperfections: in a straight marriage, gun owner, white, privileged. I fling this out into a sky filthy with similar birds, though stalked by hawks.

  1. Never forget that everyone, including the monster himself, was once someone’s baby. My favorite part of my daughter is the back of her head, where her curls come down over her tiny little neck. This is where I want to kiss her the most, where I watch her as she plays without knowing I’m watching over her. It’s likely that everyone who died in that club had someone who loved them as a little baby, watched them grow and play. The media, and our imaginations, can never fully absorb the soul-shattering ripples that have radiated out from the epicenter of this violent act.
  2. Vote. I command you to vote. Encourage and enable others to vote with all the powers that you possess. Share articles, change your profile pic to something with a rainbow, go hold a candle at a vigil all you want, but if you don’t vote for people that want to change our gun laws and protect the rights of LGBT people, your sympathetic actions are meaningless.
  3. Religion, you need to just knock it off. I don’t know what other way to put it. Maybe hell and damnation and sin and all that stuff was totally functional for society during the middle ages where nobody could read and we needed it to keep morality and societal order. We don’t need it any more. IT IS POSSIBLE TO HAVE MORALITY WITHOUT RELIGION. Good people know how to do the right thing without being threatened by punishment in the afterlife. I know writing this and publishing it might cost me a couple of acquaintances or friends. But religion is a tool, and we all know that almost any tool can be a weapon in the right hands. A hammer can build a house, or split a skull. Religion can and has adapted to our more enlightened modern consciousness. How can we get rational, compassionate, accepting religious folks of all faiths to drown out all the voices of hate? I don’t have an answer for that. Just… sick of religion right now.
  4. We need to ban guns that are meant simply to kill human beings. If you own a gun like that, you are comfortable ending human life, simple as that. There is a difference between an assault rifle and a double-barreled shotgun that you have to reload after 2 shots. That shotgun is meant to kill birds, and you have to break open the breech after two rounds to re-load. We call that sport, and a good-hearted sport hunter always gives the animal a chance to escape by not giving herself too many advantages. That shotgun is not a weapon for a mass shooting, it’s for outdoor recreation. People don’t get that, and I think a lot of gun owners who just like to hunt or target shoot get defensive about gun control because they feel like folks are judging them based on their interests. Hunting runs deep in some families as part of their identity, and for some people it really does put food on the table. There are plenty of gun owners out there who are devastated about what happened in Orlando. Look, I know the government can be scary. I just read Animal Farm and studied Soviet Russia. But is having access to weapons to overthrow an unjust government (like, just in case this regime ever becomes totalitarian) really worth these mass shootings, and all the accidental shootings? Is the Second Amendment really relevant anymore?
  5. The legalization of gay marriage does not guarantee that everything is stable and safe for the LGBT community now, like someone waved a magic wand and the discrimination ended. After the slaves were legally freed, African Americans were terrorized and lynched for decades. After the Civil Rights Movement, they are still not safe from hate crimes and discrimination that can happen at an institutional level. Yes, the strides we have made are fantastic, but the fight is far from over. Don’t put LGBT rights on the back burner, and can we agree that compared to this, the bathroom debate is just nonsense that needs to stop immediately?
  6. Use education to eradicate violence from our society. Pour money into SCHOOLS. Schools full of functional buildings, technology, fabulous art and music programs, up to date books and materials, nutritious lunches and hunger outreach programs, and qualified, passionate teachers who feel supported by their administration. Schools teach people not to bully, how to work cooperatively with others, how to read an argument and decide whether or not you actually agree, how to look at things from someone else’s point of view, how to research and investigate, how to think logically, how to have empathy. And, schools SHOULD be supporting and protecting their LGBT students. I can’t speak for every school, but every place I’ve worked, we’ve always done our best for our students, to give them a sense or order in a chaotic world, a safe place to go. I really believe that if we can improve all of our schools and produce students who are true enlightened critical thinkers, we would have less violence overall. Debasing and devaluing education and educators makes society more violent. There, I said it.
  7. We need to find a way to change the narrative about power and masculinity and violence. I love so many men in my life: my husband, brother, father, close friends, family members. I am not anti-man. But men seem to do an awful lot of shooting people. What the hell is happening? I am not blaming “all men.” But I charge society to autopsy itself and figure out what brainwashes men into seeing violence as their only option.
  8. VOTE. DO STUFF. I put it on here twice because it’s so important. Don’t just retweet stuff, go write a letter to your lawmakers.
  9. Don’t let fear cripple you. Go to Pride. Go to the clubs. Go to political meetings. Go to big landmarks like the Eiffel tower even if you’re worried about terrorism. Obviously be smart, if you see something, say something. But the idea is that monsters want to disrupt your life and scare you out of being who you are, or doing what you want to do. If you get scared, bring someone along whose hand you can hold.
  10. Turn off the TV, and put down the phone for awhile. We need you strong, and you’re going to run yourself ragged. You’re going to traumatize yourself. Take a break and do some soul-searching about this incident and what it means in the history of terrorism, mass shootings, and the long, long ancestry of violence against the LGBT community. Really access your feelings, and let it out in some way, through writing or crying or whatever. Hug your family, take a break, and then decide where to go from there. I’m going to take my own advice and get off the computer right now.

Find Your Voice

I’m so excited and happy to be participating in an amazing writing workshop through the Iowa Writer’s House. You can read the description here. Day one was totally stimulating, and it’s so nice to be in an academic environment again. I like it when I get 4/5ths of what the instructor is talking about, and the other 1/5th is over my head. Gives me something to struggle with.

Today we talked a lot of Thoreau, which is perfect, since I’ll be teaching it next year. My big takeaway was a discussion of lenses through which we write and live. We can experience things as immersion, where we are no longer aware of things outside of the experience itself, and this can be instinctive or mindful (being afraid for your life vs. deliberately trying to mindfully experience an event).

On the other side is the analytical, where we are aloof from the experience and examining it from multiple angles of time, space, connection, etc. This stage is highly reflective instead of in the moment.

For the first session, we were asked to come with a bit of writing. Here is the prompt:  Bring a two paragraph (500 word) sample of prose that you feel is a written representation of your own voice, describing a moment that helped to shape you or a moment that epitomizes the person that you are. 

Yeah, not easy… here is what I wrote, because it happened recently, and it was the only thing I could think of. I wrote about going to Washington DC, and randomly getting an email from a former student thanking me for helping her through the grieving process when she lost a close friend in a car crash. She chose to write about the trauma for an assignment, and through the process of revision and conferencing with me I think she was able to access a lot of her feelings and own her grief.

It was April. I was in Washington DC, and my heart was full. Monuments, monoliths, flags and obelisks, all saturated with symbolism. I saw my reflection in the obsidian wall inscribed with the war dead, felt the fountain spray of the World War II memorial, sensed the presence of the Unknown Soldier, and warmed my patriotism over the Eternal Flame the way our ancestors held their hands over the cook fire to bring them back to life. Everywhere I walked the shadow of my grandfathers followed me, and my uncles and childhood friends were never far behind.

I could have sworn there was no more room in me for anything else when I innocently checked my email at a cafe. A message from a former student. “Dear Mrs. Kibbie, I wanted to let you know that letting me write about my friend Trevor’s death last year was the only thing that helped me. I will never forget what you said. Sometimes it takes a tragedy for you to see what you’re really made of.” Half a country away a girl hit “send” and I thought I would burst. Looking at monuments gives me a sweet, far-away, nostalgic kind of prideful melancholy. This letter, on the other hand, was sharp and sudden and too real. The boy, Trevor, had died a year ago today along with five others.

So, the homework tonight was to re-write that sample from an immersion point of view an a reflective point of view. Here’s what I came up with:

IMMERSION:

I’m on a charter bus and I’m thinking about bathrooms. I’m glad I just went in the convention center because who knows how long this duck boat thing is going to be. Kinda wishing my husband hadn’t booked it. He’s not even going. He’s at the convention and I’m with a bunch of people from the convention I’m not even really attending going on a duck boat tour of DC and my ticket has my husband’s name but that’s okay, because the guide said it was okay, and because Lee could be a woman’s name, so how are they supposed to know that I’m not Lee?

Waiting for the last person to show up. I pull out my phone, give it my fingerprint, and do what I’m not supposed to do — check work email. A message from ____. A long one. I read it. “Dear Mrs. Kibbie, I wanted to let you know that letting me write about my friend Trevor’s death last year was the only thing that helped me. I will never forget what you said. Sometimes it takes a tragedy for you to see what you’re really made of.” I read it. I read it again. The bus starts moving and the guide is talking, chipper, cracking jokes, and I read it one more time. I’m bloated with pride. At the same time traitor thoughts foray their way in; someone put her up to this, it was an assignment to write a thank you letter to a teacher, some of this was plagiarized.

I let it be for awhile before I respond. I look out the window at some more things that remember dead people.

 

REFLECTIVE
I could probably count on two hands the number of times a student has let me know, without a parent or another staff member’s bidding, that I made a difference in their life. I don’t count exact numbers, because I don’t want to be depressed. See, there’s a difference between teaching middle school and teaching high school. High school kids come to my husband all the time and say how much he helped them. They send him notes and invite him to graduation parties. High schoolers on the verge of graduation are nostalgic. They come by it naturally or are forced into it by being force-fed a steady diet of picture slideshows and last proms and class songs. They’re on the cusp of something, and they often look back and really reflect on how they got to this point. The thoughtful ones thank those who lent a hand along the way.

Yeah, middle school kids don’t do that. They’re lucky if they make it through the day remembering to put on deodorant. Several years might go by before they realize that I had their best interest at heart, that I gave them something special, and most never realize it at all. By the time they figure it out, I’ve left that school to work somewhere else, foolishly thinking that some other public school might be better than the last one. I never see them again.

So, ____’s email, so painstakingly, beautifully written, so brutal and Hallmark-y at the same time, her gratitude and growth and pain and healing so evident, bleeding through my phone screen, was, as you can imagine, unexpected.

I’m very excited for day two. I want to say thank you so much to the IWH for granting me the scholarship that made this possible. I hope to find a way to attend more of these workshops!

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