Let’s try again

reflection

I started a post twice earlier today.  I took part in one of my favorite Twitter chats, #sunchat, always inspiring and uplifting. Today’s topic was reinventing yourself as a teacher.

I began my earlier attempt at a post reflecting on that chat like this:

My introductory tweet included that I reinvent myself all the time, but by the time we finished the chat, I realized that’s not really true. It’s my nature to reflect and go back to the drawing board over and over, so the fact that I continue to do so is not so much reinvention as continuing to do my best for students and myself. My best isn’t always best, though.

But both of my earlier attempts melted into a simmering pot of feeling sorry for myself and listing attempts throughout the year to try new things that often (but not always) failed. I thought I was leading up to something good, but I got so mired in the failures and the apathy and why things might not be working that I just struck through all of it (I never delete anything) and decided to try again later.

Well, it’s later.

I accomplished a few things on my to do list today.

Those included gathering info for taxes (I know, it’s after April 15), completing #3 son’s FAFSA, gathering ideas for the rehearsal dinner my husband and I will be hosting for #2 son who graduates from college the beginning of May and gets married at the end of May, laundry, lesson plans (OK, I did some of that), grading (oops) and, believe it or not, I ended that list, which I wrote in a DM to my #jerdchat buddy Starr Sackstein, “ridicule myself.” She congratulated me on the good stuff, but was sure to make it clear that didn’t include the ridiculing.

I share that so that I can share this.

Within the #sunchat this morning, I favorited several things to go back and read later. One of those was Jon Harper’s blog post entitled “You’re Not as Good as You Think You Should Be.”

It was as if he’d been with me all morning watching me struggle to find something positive to blog about, wondering why all these #sunchat teachers have so many positive things to say about teaching, about engaging students, when I keep seeing a number of students pop up in my mind that I have not been able to engage, that I have not been able to make a connection with. I replay the days that make me feel like a terrible teacher because students won’t turn in work or tell me they hate reading or don’t care. Those moments weigh me down.

But Jon’s post made me see, though I already knew it in some part of my mind, that we have awesome moments, too, but those awesome moments do not make up 80 percent of anyone’s day. The awesome moments are just that. They are moments, and they do mean something. But just because much of the other time feels like I’m not making headway doesn’t mean that I’m not. I have to stop – we have to stop – comparing ourselves the ideal of what we’d like to be, what we are in our grandest moments, what our PLN is when they blog about their grandest moments.

And with that, I believe that I can face another week. After all, I just watched “Shakespeare in Love,” and that has me pumped to tackle Act 5 of “Romeo & Juliet” with my freshmen.

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Shopping for a different perspective

clothing rack_Richard Masoner

CC some rights reserved Photo by Richard Masoner

You know when you need to go shopping. When you’re rotating three pairs of slacks and two pairs of jeans and deciding between two pairs of shoes each morning, you know there isn’t enough variation in your wardrobe. It’s a wonder I haven’t heard freshmen snickering about “didn’t she just wear that a few days ago?”

I hate shopping.

For one thing, I hate to spend money when there are so many places it seems to need to be put. For another, I don’t find things that fit me easily.

But I recently set aside some clothes shopping money. It’s spring, I had some time, I need clothes for work and I need clothes for my son’s wedding in a couple months. So, living in a rural city with little in the way of clothing stores, my husband and I set out for “the City” this afternoon, an hour and a half away.

We arrived at the mall and I entered store after store looking for their petites. The ones that had them had items I either didn’t like or that still didn’t fit me. The smaller stores offered to order for me. Hell, I can do that. My frustration grew. I’ve never been a “shopper”. Probably because I’ve almost always been hard to fit. I’m not quite five feet tall (and have probably begun to shrink already), and with three grown sons, I’ve given myself permission to not self-loathe about the 20 or so pounds I’ve put on in 10 years. I’m a 51-year-old teacher and I look kind of like one. It’s OK until I try to go clothes shopping. And shoes! I’ve always had narrow, small feet, but go ahead – add some arthritis to one of my feet that makes many styles quite uncomfortable. That’ll make it even harder to find anything to fit. And pretty? Fugeddaboutit.

The spouse kept trying to be optimistic. He’d point out yet another shop with bright colors and small looking clothes. Lots of folks get small and petite mixed up. I’m short, not small (though I used to be). He was so patient.

I don’t know how many stores I entered, got frustrated and left, but my temper was getting hot. When I finally saw a basic JC Penney down the way, I felt some relief. They always have stuff for short people, and here in the north part of the city, the selection is bound to be pretty good.

Nope. Nothing I was looking for. I’m telling you, nothing was right for me. Nothing fit. Nothing was in a style that was remotely me. I actually felt like crying, but I’m a big girl and that would be ridiculous. My little 27-inch inseams and I stormed out of that store and into the mall. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. My husband had to rush to catch up with me and didn’t quite know how to handle my mood. Can’t blame him. I felt mad and silly.

And that was just about clothes. How do students feel when they sit in our classrooms and everything that is happening seems to be made for the “average student”? And there we are, we teachers, coaxing, “just try it, you can do it.” Do they feel as frustrated as I did? Do they want to storm out of the room sometimes? Do they have to hold back tears sometimes? Or have they gotten used to it, having to deal with such difficulties day after day instead of maybe once in the fall and once in the spring?

I need specialty stores with good pricing. They need differentiation that doesn’t cost them their self esteem.

Room for improvement shouldn’t equal a bad grade

I’ve spent the last month or two making myself acquainted with standards-based grading. It seemed complicated at first, but once I wrapped my mind around the idea that students should be assessed on the standards (can Johnny draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research?) instead of points granted on a variety of “assignments,” I began to be less and less comfortable with the way I’d done things before.

Teaching and modeling what we expect of students at certain levels based on written standards and then allowing them to practice, receive feedback and work to improve is a process, something of value in itself. This learning, practicing and responding to feedback should not be assessed, at least formally. Why do we grade students – think worksheets here – as they learn and practice something new (or even something not new, but something we’re trying to teach on a deeper level). We’re training them to stay on safe ground, in a place where they know they will do well and receive a good grade.

A perfect is example is one I’ve seen many times in my freshman English classes. I give choice on a writing assignment. The choices usually range from easy for those who are struggling with content, but we’re trying to get the structure of formal writing down, to more challenging for those who have structure under control and want to expand to come up with an original point of view. Once in a while, I have a high achieving student take that easy route. Why? It ensures a good grade. If they step outside their comfort zone and try something more difficult, they might not make a perfect grade – and that will mess with their GPA, a notion to crazy to contemplate.

It makes me sad.

We need to give students the room they need to grow and experiment, without fear of being penalized if they struggle a little and produce a product that has room for improvement, i.e. receives a lower-than-they-are-used-to grade.

I wish all of those high-achieving students could read the blog post I just read that inspired my thinking here. Atlanta junior Katie Atkinson, contributor to HuffPost Teen, blogged about the teacher comment that finally made her realize she was not defined by her grade.

Reading her thought-provoking re-prioritization was inspiring. However, it’s not only the high achievers that need to stop being defined by their grades.

I know there are valid reasons for documenting how students are doing in our classes. But that documentation translates into grades, which define those students for better or for worse.

My concern here is for students who define themselves by bad grades. Just a couple weeks into the new semester, I’ve seen students get involved in projects we’re working on and take an actual interest in what they are doing. But then comes the time I have to label that assignment with a grade, whether I feel it’s ready to be graded or not, because we have to report grades with some regularity. Some of the students needed more time to get to where other students got to more quickly. I fear slapping a grade on too early will squelch the enthusiasm they had for the project. Once the grades are there, it’s easy to see where they stand in relation to others in the class. For some this is motivation; for some it’s defeat. They are now comparing themselves to others instead of learning for the sake of learning.

It makes me sad.

If we, as a majority, are opposed to all of the standardization that is taking place in education today, then we should ease up on the standardization of requiring a quota of grades. One size does not fit all. I want to let my students work on a skill until they have had a chance to master before I assess them for a grade.

What do you think, work to master a skill or work to accumulate points? And how do we help folks see the difference?

Choosing “One Little Word”

I ran across the idea of one little word a week or so ago when a teacher in my PLN tweeted about having her class do the exercise. She included a link to another person’s blog that touched more on the concept that has apparently been around for a couple years – a linguist’s New Year’s Resolution of sorts.

I needed something easy (and inspiring didn’t hurt) for the first couple days of the new year while I finished one-on-one conferences I’d started before the break. This fit the bill.

I explained the concept to my freshmen, and as I often do, I provided my own sample. I did confess that unlike them, I’d had the chance to think about my choice for a few days. I also shared that while I had intended to write my journal entry (later to become a blog post for me and for them as well), I’d not gotten around to it until the night before. As I lay in bed going over my plans for the next day, I realized I hadn’t written the entry. I began planning it in my mind. Finally, I couldn’t sleep until I got up and wrote what I had been writing in my head. I wanted to demonstrate for them that getting your ideas down is the first step, that the act of writing generates thoughts. Once you start, a stream of new thoughts can come along, if you allow it.

I also had to remind them that I am wordy (you can tell, right?), a fault I (sometimes) work to correct. They are baffled that I first have to write a piece long and then go back and edit it down. I promised that they did not have to write as much as I did, but that the writing should show a process of thought along the same lines. Below is what I shared with them:

One little word. But so many choices. I went through many options before I decided.

Decide.

Act.

Do.

Make up your mind.

Well, “do” is too short, and not pretty at all. “Make up your mind” is immediately disqualified because it isn’t  one little word. “Decide” just sounds demanding, and I need something gentler.

I know what my problem is, if it isn’t clear by now. I have a hard time making decisions. I once had someone make an observation about me saying, “you like to keep your options open.” That’s true.

If I get an invitation, I usually respond with “I’ll think about it and get back to you.” That means I don’t know if I’ll want to do the thing when it’s time or something better might come along, I just plain don’t know. So I put off making a decision.

Same thing goes for a Saturday morning. I wake up and the day is full of possibilities. I think of a long list of things I could accomplish with the hours stretching before me. I make that pot of coffee before anyone is awake and I sit down at my computer.

I check Facebook.

I check Twitter, which takes longer, because I click on all kinds of blogs and articles to read. I might even read something that inspires me to write a blog post of my own – which isn’t nothing, I might add.

But before I know it my stomach is growling and the clock tells me it’s almost noon. I’m still in my pajamas. I fix a late breakfast or an early lunch, depending on what’s in the refrigerator and who is home that weekend. Then I take a shower. Then I put in a load of laundry. Suddenly I’m sleepy because the morning’s caffeine has caused me to crash and whatever carb overload I just had for lunch didn’t help.

So I nap.

When I wake, I’m lucky to make a grocery store dash or run another load of laundry.

But did I grade a pile of papers? No.

Did I clean out any closets? No.

Did I bake any cookies? No.

Did I get my mess of a checkbook unmessed? No.

Did I start writing my great American novel? Heck, no.

The reason? I didn’t choose to do any of those things. I left my options open.

So my word is “Choose.”

I need to choose what I’m going to accomplish each day. That probably means I need to write it down. Wouldn’t hurt to have the word “Choose” in a few strategic places as a reminder.

How else can I apply “Choose?”

I can choose to be satisfied with how I’ve done on a particular day. I can choose to avoid a negative situation when I come upon it rather than try to enter in and regret it. I can choose to do something especially nice for someone and make his or her day. I can choose all kinds of things if I just make it a point to consciously “Choose.”

Now that the rush of getting first semester grades posted is over, I hope to get a chance to peek at their notebooks tomorrow to see what they have come up with. I know at least a couple of them rushed to get their ideas up on blogs, so even if all were not enthused, I believe a few appreciated the idea.

This semester’s resolution: Focus on the writing process

New Year’s Day isn’t the only time for resolutions – that’s why I don’t make them on January 1. I also start a new year every August as I get ready for new classes and to try new things.

I maintain that a new year starts every day – not just the middle of August or the first of the calendar year, but even next Friday after a good #jerdchat the previous Thursday evening. After a good weekend of planning, my new year starts on the following Monday.

So I’ve resolved to change attitudes about writing in my freshmen English students, starting Monday, Jan. 6.

The need: writing improvement and appreciating the process

During one-on-one conferences with each of them before the break, I learned that many wanted to improve their writing skills. That, or they wanted to tell me something I wanted to hear when I asked them about goals. Plausible.

Grading their formal, structured paragraphs over short story topics the other day, I learned something else. I graded the first ones turned in, first. Those that were turned in late were on the bottom of the stack. Then, of course, there were about seven that were never turned in. With a few exceptions, those turned in early were from confident writers. The late papers were from students who, every time I came by their desk to check progress or offer feedback, hadn’t even begun. We spent the better part of three days ON A PARAGRAPH.

What took so long? I gave them choices. We’d read four short stories and I wanted them to focus on elements of fiction. They could choose any one of the stories and write about irony, symbolism or figurative language as it applied to that story. When you do the math for the possible combinations, that’s quite a few choices.

The students who turned in their papers late did not do their work in class where they could get feedback and make improvements as they worked on it. They hesitated starting because they lacked confidence, didn’t know where to begin or even really how to tackle it. Yes, I’d taught the structure more than once. Those paying attention – those confident students – were likely bored and wondering why their peers didn’t just pay attention and “get it.”

I marked their papers, wrote dozens of notes in margins, praising where I could, offering advice where an improvement could be made though it wasn’t inherently “wrong,” and then I sadly put a grade in the system, knowing that would be the end of that assignment. But it shouldn’t have been. And I still might resurrect them.

Now my task for the new semester is to put the focus on the process. I want them to understand that editing and revision is a part of writing.

Possible solutions: write more, edit more, participate more

First of all, they simply must write more. I’ll admit that having five preps, two of those being publications with extra responsibilities, has me stretching myself beyond what I’m capable of doing well. I didn’t do the first semester of English well. We didn’t get as far as I’d hoped, and haven’t focused enough on writing. So there will be more writing. I got a great deal on spiral notebooks over the break, so everyone is getting a journal. I’ll have them journal at the beginning of class two-three times per week. In addition, we’ll do reading journals during the two novels and “Romeo & Juliet.”

In focusing on the editing and revision process, I’m borrowing an idea from a yearbook staff that was published in one of the many magazines I get. They call it clocking. I’ll call it clockwork. The idea is an editing process that moves among several editors in a group in a clockwise rotation.

Each “editor” in a group edits for one purpose. The list I’ve come up with so far includes:

Sentence structure: This editor will watch for fragments, run-ons, awkward sentences, varied sentence structure and punctuation that goes with that sentence structure.

Content: This editor will check to see that flow makes sense, examples are accurate. Did writer use best example for that point? Is there anything contradictory or repetitive?

Don’ts/style: This editor will use a checklist of avoiding: 1st or 2nd person pronouns (unless form calls for it), contractions, informal language, misspellings, abbreviations, symbols. He will check to make sure piece is double-spaced, written on one side, correct paragraph structure and has a snappy title.

Vocabulary: This editor gives kudos on good vocabulary, edits for wrong word, spelling (again) and word choice (can make suggestions or not).

Paragraph structure: This editor examines the topic sentence, transitions, and conclusion sentence.

Once each paper has been through all these edits, the writer should have plenty of feedback to revise it, making it much stronger. In addition, each editor just got better at his or her area of expertise and got to see peer writing that is both better and not as good as her own.

The other demon I have to tackle is participation. My oldest son, who is working on his alternative teaching certification  suggested peer pressure and a party.

If I plan X number of these sessions (so long to write, then move directly into clockwork), and get close to 100 percent participation, we can have a class party at the end to celebrate what would surely be improvement in all our writing.

Allowing for absences, I’d shoot for 90 percent, but hopefully, the involved students would push the less involved students to get their work done so they can all bask in the reward. I’m up against a lot here, considering one third of my class did not turn in that last paragraph. I’d really hate to turn down the party, so I’m still considering how to make that happen.

What suggestions do you have to help tackle the participation demon?

Note: 

I’ve had a few tell me they like the clocking idea, so I found the video, which was accessible through a QR code in the Balfour yearbook magazine, fall 2012 edition. If you’d like to see a yearbook class demo the technique, take a peek at this link to the website.

He Apologized to Every Teacher He Ever Had: a review

Danza SM

I spent the last three days hanging out with Tony Danza.

Well, not really. But we have been swapping ideas about teaching English to high schoolers and how tough teaching is, in general.

Well, not exactly. It’s been more of a one-way deal. Danza’s been sharing the ups and downs of his year of teaching with me.

OK, it was all in his book. I read his 2012 book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. It was a Christmas gift from my youngest son, one that I had requested.

Interestingly, my 20-year-old college sophomore has come full circle from being proud of me getting a college degree during a time he was old enough to remember it, getting a job as a high school teacher, seeing that job eat me alive, seeing that job take away his and his brothers’ time with me, to understanding why I do what I do and how hard I try to make a difference.

Danza echos this very thing throughout the book, the way teaching is all consuming and how little time and energy teachers have leftover for family. I believe him when he says that in his one year of teaching, he felt the same feelings. There is an awful lot of validation in knowing that it’s not just me. I’m not the reason this job takes so much from me. It’s not that I don’t plan well enough; it’s not that I don’t know when to go home or where to draw the boundaries with students. It’s not that I try too hard to make students feel heard, to give them helpful feedback on their work. It’s a universal thing that teachers wear many hats, and the good ones want what’s best for each of their students.

About the book

Early on, Danza had planned to be a teacher, but boxing and then acting pulled him away from that plan. Finding himself between jobs and at an age when many of us begin reflecting and wondering what if, he began toying again with the idea of teaching. Once spoken aloud, his two careers connected and a reality show was born of the union. Danza made sure though, that his first-born plan was not neglected; in fact, his stipulation was that the teaching, the students, were the priority.

Written from lesson plans, footage from the filming, and his notes – Danza is a very reflective teacher – readers are seated in the classroom before, during and after class, experiencing the jitters about whether the next creative idea to engage students will work, as well as the unbalance that results when students pull those unexpected stunts that endear them to us. Best of all, readers are there with Danza after class to debrief – what when wrong? What went right? How could things have been handled better?

And Danza’s classroom experiences mirror my own. The ambitious, smart kids are in the same class with the less-so, and are frustrated at the non-speed with which the lessons proceed. There are kids who WILL NOT TURN IN WORK. There are the regular tardies with whom you decide to choose your battles, but you know it burns the ones who are there on time. Kids get into big trouble when you think things are going well. Some have fairly sudden changes in demeanor and you wonder what’s going on at home. One day you hear the word guardian and other things fall into place.

He was in Philly; I’m in a mostly rural city in southwest Oklahoma. Northeast has a population of around 3,000, if I remember correctly; my school has around 1,000. Danza mentioned an on-campus police station, but we have our resource officer, who stays moderately busy. They seem like vastly different situations, but so much of the experience he shares is the same, the same.

Some parts too good to be real?

Playing the role of critic, I want to point out where I feel slighted by the book. Danza pointed out early in the chronology that he was against the idea of a reality show, and for good reason. I’ve never understood the popularity of reality shows; to me it’s obvious that much of it is set up. It may not be word-for-word scripted, but real life just isn’t like that, and drama doesn’t neatly fit a plot line convenient for a one-hour production, no matter the editing. Danza refused to let the network set anything up as far as interaction between the students and others on camera. He was adamant, and for that I respect him. For that, executives were disappointed in the product of their footage and the six-week run didn’t have the buzz or the impact they thought it deserved. But while I’m busy respecting that, another part of my mind has begun to wonder about the book.

I was so very impressed with the ideas Danza used to teach certain units (my copy has sticky notes marking pages), engage readers and review for tests; I was almost too impressed. For a first-year teacher, one who hasn’t just come out of an educational program, or networked with lots of other teachers, those were some pretty snazzy ideas. I don’t think the ideas came from teachers he worked with, because he seemed to be the only one setting up scavenger hunts with stations on baseball fields. Where did those ideas come from? Maybe I’m just jealous, but thinking it a bit unbelievable that he did come up with so many creative, successful ideas on his own, it makes me wonder about the credibility of other parts of the book. I’m stealing, regardless. Hollywood Squares for review? You bet.

One of us

So Danza had a little help with lesson plans – I’m assuming – and he had an assistant, and he had a mentor teacher who was usually in the class with him, and he taught only one section. He still went though what we all go through, and he recognized that the other teachers had to teach five sections and didn’t have the backup he had. He did plenty of extra duties and got some new things started. He got to do some things many of us wish we had the time to do. At the end of the year, he saw that he had made a difference in the lives of a classroom full of kids. Isn’t that what we all want?

The prologue of the book was poignant. As if he hadn’t already been forthcoming enough, Danza seemed to lean in a bit closer across the space between us to update me on events since he finished the year at Northeast. He’s kept in contact with several of the educators and many of the students he friended that year. It’s clear as he updates the reader on who’s retired and which kids have done what since he left that he really cares about them. It’s clear as he talks about the real issues in education that he really cares about what is happening and how we can make a difference. For all the chapters in which he said that he cried, the prologue is where I teared up, just knowing someone with a foot outside the education field and with some influence gets it and feels it all as strongly as I do.

One thing particularly true of the book is that Danza connects to the reader. When he talks about his fails and his wins, you feel his disappointment, his exhilaration, just as you yourself have felt it on similar occasions. You want to pat him on the arm or bump fists, because it’s like you’re there in the room with him. It’s like you’ve been hanging out with Tony Danza for the past three days.

My most influential reads, sorta

reading

A Facebook friend and former classmate mentioned on his timeline that there’s “thing” going around around wherein folks list their 10 most influential books. He developed an interesting list, among them are Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird and Rabbit Run, the only three I’ve read, though I’ve heard of most of his others. I agree with his individual assessments of those.

As I began to think of my own, however, the ones that popped into my mind were not classics; they weren’t likely books anyone had even ever heard of. I began to comment on his thread this truth, when I realized I was doing that thing again – writing what should be a blog post on someone else’s thread.

So, here are some just as they come to me, likely kind of chronologically, and I don’t know how many I’ll end up with either. Here goes:

1. Shadow Castle, by Marian Cockrell. This one enraptured me around third grade. I read it over and over. I only know the author because I found a copy in a used bookstore one day a few years ago and snapped it up. Can’t wait to share it with a granddaughter some day. But not too soon, geez, the first kid is getting married in 6 months.

2. From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg. I was a little older and fascinated by kids living on their own in a public place such as a museum! Oh, the survival skills of such a young, but smart girl. I connected. And she solved a mystery while she was there anyway.

3. The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton. Good heavens, I almost left this one out. This book influenced me and my group at the time. Our 7th grade teacher read it to us and we decided to assume the roles of the characters for all of our note-passing and calling out to each other. We really got into the characters and thought our lives almost as dramatic as Ponyboy’s, Soda Pop’s, Derry’s, Johnny’s, Dally’s, well, you probably know them as well as I do … surely. Hey, my moniker? Ponygirl. That’s what’s up. Well, at the time.

4. Lisa Bright and Dark, by John Neufield. This felt like a grownup book about teens dealing with grownup issues. It was scary and educational and real. Nothing like living the scary stuff through literature instead of, you know, real life.

5. I have no idea the title or author of this next one that comes back to me often. In this YA novel, the protagonist is a young teen who is supposed to drive across the country to meet a relative during the holidays – I think maybe an aunt. Near the rendezvous point, she is supposed to tie a red scarf on her antenna to help the relative spot her car and lead her to wherever they are supposed to go. A glitch in the plan happens when she is carjacked. Eventually she decides to outwit her kidnapper and claiming he can’t ruin her Christmas, she ties a red bow on the antenna. If anyone can help me identify that book, I’d be really happy. I was a young teen reading that thing waaaay back in 197??, so it’s not exactly current. Again, I lived a scary adventure with a sharp heroine without the actual fear. I have a better idea of what to do if I’m ever carjacked during Christmas, though.

6. The Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon. OK, this is a guilty pleasure, but I’m going to defend it. Gabaldon is a great storyteller. Yeah, there’s a little gratuitous, er, um, activity among the chapters, but that’s not the strength of the series. In this time travel piece, the protagonist, a WWII nurse in Scotland accidentally finds herself transported back in time 200 years, where she meets the ancestor of her 1943 husband – and he’s not a nice fella – as well as the man who will be her 1741 husband (I may be a couple years off here). Time travel is always fun to play with and I admire any writer who can pull it off. But one important thing I got from this series is a better understanding of history (and castles). Gabaldon weaves real history into her stories, from the Scottish Rising of 1745 to the 1776 Revolution in America, as well as lesser-known, but twice as interesting tidbits.

7. On Writing, by Stephen King. I have discovered that I truly love reading writers’ accounts of how they came to be who they are. And good writers are able to make you the fly on the proverbial wall during their formative years. King combines his history with writing instruction, not the dry stuff, but the practical stuff and in his unique voice. This one I’ve read three times and will revisit anytime I need that boost.

8. Possession, by A. S. Byatt. One of my favorite on the numerous required reading lists for an English major. Though it wasn’t time travel, the novel moved back and forth in time to help the reader make connections that the modern day researchers were trying to discover.

9. Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver. When I read the jacket flap, I kind of dreaded what seemed like an over abundance of nature description, but I fell in love with the book. It was another education (books do that – even fiction). While intertwining three stories in a rural community, it all tied to the cycle of nature. The reader comes away with a greater appreciation for how nature works, that great circle of life. When man steps in and messes with some aspect of nature’s great order – like killing coyote – things get out of balance. Kingsolver is a great writer. Besides an accurate view of nature (she has a biology degree), she’s good with human nature as well. So here, I’ll take advantage and mention another favorite, The Bean Trees and its follow-up, Pigs in Heaven. Goofy sounding titles, but good books.

10. Every Last One, by Anna Quindlen. A wonderful essayist as well as novelist, this book went where I haven’t had a book take me before. A couple chapters in, she had set the hook, and just like a panicked fish trying to get off the line, it was no use. I wanted to throw the book across the room – and maybe I did. But I had to pick it up again. It made me angry, it scared me. I went through so much emotion, but just like her protagonist, I had no choice but to move forward. I loaned it to a friend, but before I handed it off, I gave her a warning: It will make you mad and you may not want to finish, but you’ll have to.

11. My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult. Hey, this is my post, and I make the rules. I don’t have to stop at 10. This one is especially important to me because I wanted to see how Picoult portrayed events that me and my family had gone through. No, I didn’t have a daughter try to sue me for rights to make her own medical decisions. But my youngest son did have a medical condition that required a bone marrow transplant. I wanted to read about how the medical issues affected the family, how she wrote the sick daughter’s symptoms and reactions to treatments, the scenes in the hospital. Though our situations were not the same, there were enough similarities to intrigue me. But the book did more than that, as many do. It pulled me in, and I connected with yet another family, with each member of it. Picoult is talented that way. She’s also a die-hard researcher.

I know there are more. I’m always being affected by a book. I’m currently admiring the works of Richard Russo. Both Straight Man and Empire Falls have impressed me with the insight of human character and his writing, well, his writing. That’s what I want to be when I grow up, a mixture of Russo, Picoult, and Quinlen with the seasoning of many more. Is that too much to ask?