#BookTalk: Love That Dog

Getting through this book was a personal challenge for me, not because Love That Dog by Sharon Creech lacked quality, but because verse novels are really, really hard for me to finish. Like The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, I’ve been avoiding this book solely because of its form. However, finishing (and enjoying!) Love That Dog has encouraged me to try other verse novels, and recommend this to my students.

Creech’s other books vary so much from this one, that when I saw the austere cover and skimmed through the poems, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Now I know to expect very few details about characters; a loose, nearly absent plot; and tons of allusion from her other verse novel, Hate That Cat. The English major in me loved the references to Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and William Blake, and it was very smart for Creech to attach them to the back. I recommend reading them first, however, so you don’t miss out on any of the jokes.

Overall, I’m feeling positive vibes for Love That Dog. It’s easy and simple, yet I still felt connected to the narrator. Creech offers just enough details to make us want more, yet leaves a perfect amount of interpretation to be done. I think the quick pacing and “dog story” will be enticing to students, as well as the narrator’s love/hate relationship with poetry.

Easy-Going Craft Beers to Finish Up the Summer

Or, if you’re in Texas like me, revise the title to “Beers to Get You Through the Remainder of Hell.” By this point in the season, most everywhere in North America is reaching peak summer temperatures, school is about to begin, and we’re heading into the holiday-less desert of August. While most any beer will do at this point, I’ve narrowed down a handful of craft brews perfect for a toasty summer using the following criteria:

  1. Affordability – While they’ll probably cost more than a Lone Star, none of these brews will break the bank.
  2. Pool Ready – Whether your community pool doesn’t allow glass, or you need to coozie up to keep your habit hidden from the neighbors’ kids, all of the following beers come canned.
  3. Easy (enough) to Find – You won’t need to go to an obscure mini-mart to find ’em.
  4. Cooling Factor – These beers are light, crisp, and won’t weigh you down. They’re “porch pounders,” if you will.

 

Blanche de Bruxelles

Brasserie Lefebvre
Quenast, Belgium

blanche20de20brux
Image via Urban Honking

I don’t know if it ever actually gets hot in Belgium, but these guys have their summer beer situation on lockdown. Many Belgian-style beers are light, but not wimpy, and that certainly describes the Blanche de Bruxelles. The lively carbonation and lemon zest finish make this ideal for the summer, without any of the overwhelming body that some unfiltered beers offer. Be prepared for some light, balanced spice on the palate as well. There is nothing full-bodied or heavy about this beer, and with a 4.5% ABV, it pairs with those long days by the river quite nicely.

 

Redbud

Independence Brewing Company
Austin, Texas

redbudoudside
Image via Independence Brewing

Texans know heat and Central Texans know watering holes. Thus, it makes complete sense that Independence Brewing Co. out of Austin, TX has produced the Redbud: a tart, extremely well-balanced Berliner Weisse you can even give to your friends who don’t like sours. That doesn’t mean it’s weak or dumbed down: the Redbud packs a punch, but offers easy malt flavors to even out the initial acid. Under the brutal Texas sun, this is exactly the kind of beer I want to be drinking, and the stylish can is exactly what I’d like to be seen with.

 

Otra Vez

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Chico, California

sierranevade-otravez-girlswholikebeer
Image via Girls Who Like Beer

En Tejas, Shiner is ubiquitous. While I love their Prickly Pear seasonal, it’s still a little too heavy for a 100-degree day. Alternative? Sierra Nevada’s Otra Vez, a gose-style ale with prickly pear, grapefruit, and lime flavors. Like a cucumber, prickly pear cactus feels hydrating and refreshing, and the light grapefruit and lime citrus keeps the bready malt buoyant. I feel like this is the beer-quivalent of a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc: complex with a fresh, light “zing.” Like the Redbud, less adventurous drinkers need-not be wary of the “gose-style” label: it’s smooth, finishes easy, and has the body to back up the zest.

Watermelon Dorado

Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits
San Diego, California

ballast-point-watermelon-dorado-cans
Image via Beer Street Journal

Previously unavailable in cans, Ballast Point has smartly released the canned Watermelon Dorado, safe for pool and beach consumption. A summer beer that is 10% ABV but doesn’t feel that way, Ballast Point’s Watermelon Dorado is a post-5:00 get-hella-drunk summertime beer. Despite mixed reviews, I am a huge fan of the Watermelon Dorado. It doesn’t feel heavy or syrupy as many watermelon beers do, and isn’t the watered-down variety of flavoring either. BP hit the nail on the head with this one, somehow perfecting a douple IPA for the dry (so, so dry) warmth of a San Diego summer. While certainly bitter, it’s balanced out perfectly by the floral and melon aromas and flavors. IPA-heads tend to think this is a fault, but I think it’s an intelligent and refreshing take on the typical uber-bitter, uber-heavy imperial IPA.

 

Hemingway’s Guide to Wine; Or, the Problem with American Wine Drinkers

Despite working in the industry, I still garner a nervous sweat when approaching a well-crafted wine menu. I clam up at blind tastings. Shoot, I even sink during guided tastings! Anxieties ranging from etiquette woes (am I  jerk for dirtying up this glass by wearing lip gloss?) to pronunciation pains (Vacqueryas? Beerenauslese? Rías Baixas? WTF?) zap all the fun from drinking in public. I’m an old maid now, drinking alone with my cats, trapped in the awkward realm between confident expertise and impregnable ignorance. I should know more, yet I don’t. Why do I feel this way? Maybe it’s a self esteem issue; maybe it’s just my anxiety; or maybe I really do need to invest a couple thousand dollars more in my wine education. Or, maybe everyone drinking wine with me is just a snob.

To assuage my viticultural grief, I put my English degree to use and sought out Hemingway as my guide. I believe, for once, that Hemingway comforts me the most in this circumstance: “we thought of wine as something healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wine was not snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary, and I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking either wine or cider or beer.”

Huh. Drinking wine isn’t snobbism? Since when? Can this Moveable Feast passage please be posted as a disclaimer on every issue of Wine Spectator and printed on every banner welcoming every drinker into American vineyards? Surely readers will trust a Nobel Prize winner, right? Hemingway, an American oft in Europe, understands the fault we have as wine drinkers: we’re snobby. Maybe it’s because we had to fight for global wine recognition, or maybe it’s because we have Mommy issues and fetishize the Old World. Regardless of cause, there’s no other way to put it: American wine drinkers are complete, inexcusable snobs.

So many people fear wine, yet the whole point of wine is for sustenance, enjoyment, and to complement food. As members of a community of practice—from sample girls to sommeliers—it is absolutely our social and professional responsibility to foster a welcoming environment for newbies. Create easy-to-follow wine lists. Use simpler synonyms. Don’t fool yourself that anyone is impressed by your unique knowledge of wine, because you aren’t the first and you won’t be the last to have those ideas. I say this not to kill a spirit of exploration and sharing, but to deconstruct walls and help people (i.e.: me) be less sweaty in our establishments.

There’s this wacky human idea that more knowledge = more formalities, and that more formalities can’t = more fun. None of that makes any sense, unless your idea fun is to be a snob (for some that’s true, and I kindly request that you keep your thoughts and opinions to yourself forever and always until you find yourself in your special part of Hell alongside Jeffrey Steingarten). If you have $1300 to spare, dine at Alinea and experience relaxed expertise for yourself. They present some of the most intellectual food out there, yet the service is relaxed and instructional, and, perhaps most importantly, fun.

The wine industry can learn so much from Hemingway, Alinea, and even public schools. A teacher myself, I understand the need to differentiate instruction, scaffold lessons, and act as an encouraging, motivating coach to my students. Public middle schools are the last place where pride is appropriate, and I feel like that’s our best strength: humble teachers. No matter your industry role, you can use these skills to spread the joys of wine to others. Don’t compare a human’s worth to their knowledge of wine or which certification path they choose. That’s not what it’s about no more than teaching literacy is about “worth.”

For our industry to grow, American wine professionals need to grow too. That might mean visiting France, or it might mean cultivating a new friendship with someone who doesn’t have time for your shit. Either way, I challenge you to find your path and try to not impress a single person for a week. After that week, assess. See what mental mechanisms you used to block or change certain types of rhetoric. Be more forgiving of your patrons for ordering Kim Crawford, and don’t feel the need to emphatically confirm “Chianti” after they’ve said, “shi-NOT-ee.” It just isn’t necessary! Hop on board with the Heming-way, and we’ll be better in the long term because of it.

#BookTalk: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I. Love. This. Book.

Passionately.

There’s no questioning why and how Sherman Alexie’s 2007 novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Currently, I am absolutely questioning why and how it took me so long to read this! How old was I in 2007? 16? WHY WASN’T I READING THIS BOOK THEN?!

2007 was a pretty darn good year. Another favorite book of mine, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, won the same award for fiction that year, and my all-time favorite movie, No Country for Old Men (a perfect adaptation of the killer Cormac McCarthy book of the same title), was also released in ’07. There Will Be Blood, another film fave, contended with  No Country… for Best Picture alongside Juno (another fave) at the 80th Academy Awards (No Country for Old Men won). Kanye West, Feist, Iron & Wine, Spoon, Radiohead, M.I.A., and Bon Iver all released monumentally terrific albums. I got a license; I got a car. 2007 was literally the best year of my life as far as art & media go, so how the heck did I miss out on this one?! 

Anyway, I digress.

…Part-Time Indian has everything a “good” book should have: humor throughout; balanced darkness; pictures; a driving plot; lovable characters;  and lessons that don’t even feel like lessons. There’s no questioning what the “morals” of this story are, yet Junior’s story and humor are so enthralling that none of it sounds preachy. Junior (formally Arnold Spirit) lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation, where poverty, abuse, and alcoholism cause him to transfer to a nearby nearly-all-white school in Reardan. In addition to the school mascot, the Redskins, Junior is the only Native American in sight. We learn about his year at Reardan surrounded by whiteness, as well as what it’s like to come home to a reservation and town full of Native American friends who feel betrayed by his transfer. Race & prejudice, poverty, “othering,” alcoholism, death & sorrow, budding sexuality, and Native American issues are all themes discussed in length throughout the novel. However, as lofty as exploration of these themes can get, Alexie manages to construct a down-to-Earth narrative about them.

Every teacher should read this. Every young adult should read this. Every white person should especially read this. There might be no group more marginalized than Native Americans in our country, and I feel like I have learned so much about current issues related to that community. In addition, as a white teacher and a human, this book reminds me about the inherent prejudices & privilege I received by society at birth. There’s nothing I love or need more than a good slap in the face to remind me of my place in history or society. …Part-Time Indian gives me all of this, as well as beautiful writing that’s easy to read, yet not “dumbed down.” Every single human in America can gain from reading this novel.

In short, I highly recommend this book for all. It’s inspirational, well-written, humorous, and important. I’ve always loved Alexie’s short stories and author interviews. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is just another chunk of perfect literature he’s given to the world. Read it and you won’t regret it.

 

“The reservation is beautiful.
I mean it.
Take a look.
There are pines everywhere. Thousands of ponderosa pine trees. Millions. I guess maybe you can take pine trees for granted. They’re just pine trees. But they’re tall and thin and green and brown and big.
Some of the pines are ninety feet tall and more than three hundred years old.
Older than the United States.
Some of them were alive when Abraham Lincoln was president.
Some of them were alive when George Washington was president.
Some of them were alive when Benjamin Franklin was born.
I’m talking old.”

 

#BookTalk: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I finally caught up with the rest of the world and read The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Generally, I am not a fan of “coming-to-age” books because the voice never feels authentic to me, and I rarely make a connection to the protagonist. However, the way Chbosky formats the novel as letters written throughout the school year felt real. I loved the pacing of the book and the narrator/protagonist, Charlie, is a lovable and ignorantly mischievous character to follow. Most of all, I loved his older friend Patrick. Struggling with a clandestine gay relationship with the star football player, Patrick is accepting and paternal towards Charlie. These characters’ transformations were my favorite to follow in the book, despite other interesting characters such as Sam (Patrick’s sister and Charlie’s love interest) and Bill (Charlie’s not-too-realistic but still intriguing English teacher).

The syntax bothered me a bit–it was choppy at the sake of feeling authentic. At times the writing was unclear. For example, I completely missed the “big reveal” in the epilogue at the end. It wasn’t until I read a synopsis afterward that I understood what happened (pro-tip: closely read this part!). However, the plot overall was enough to keep me hooked until the end. The Perks of Being a Wallflower isn’t one of my favorite books, but was definitely enjoyable and I’m glad I read it. The variety of characters and (at times) racy content kept me engaged during the few “slow” points. This book can definitely appeal to a wide range of readers from middle school to adulthood. In no way does it promote the sexual, abusive, or drug-related content, but maturely discusses these multi-faceted issues that young adults often encounter. Another concern I have is that it feels dated. Published in 1999 and set in the 1991-1992 academic year, I worry today’s students won’t understand the climate of the early 90’s or many of the interesting pop culture references. Do students know who The Smiths are anymore? This rhetoric may be lost on some readers.

In short, I can see why The Perks of Being a Wallflower has been an influential book for many of my friends and students. Overall, I do recommend the book, especially for young adults. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but look forward to watching Emma Watson play Sam as soon as possible.

Happy reading!

So, I guess we are here for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them, but even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things, and we can try to feel okay about them.”

 

Up next: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Do Your Homework, Teachers. 

In a shifting literacy landscape where 40 Book Challenges are all the rage, I find myself constantly reminding colleagues that they need to do just as much homework as our students. We’re finally catching on that independent reading is arguably the most important activity students can do to become fluent. However, the way we implement independent reading isn’t refined yet, and can actually be detrimental to students love of reading and ability to read. I find this particularly relevant in English/Language Arts classrooms, where teachers assign whole-class novels and expect the entire thing to be read at home. Stop this, y’all! That is not what independent reading looks like, nor is it a militant approach to a trendy book challenge.

In addition, students are overwhelmed. Not only does our curriculum mandate that we teach skills developmentally advanced beyond their age, but we shove extracurriculars and homework clubs and after-school detentions down their throats. I have distinct and awful memories of being an overwhelmed 8th grader myself: cheer practice at 6:30 AM, school starts at 8:20, school ends at 4:10, athletic practice lasts until 6:00, dance practice (which I was always late for) goes until 9:00 PM. As a “gifted” student, my homework load was heavy; I’d crawl in bed at midnight guilty and distraught after half-assing 50 Algebra equations, a history textbook chapter, and some absurd amount of required pages read in A Separate Peace. Wake up at 5:00, and do it all again. I self-righteously and probably infamously hated my teachers for this. I hated literature. I hated the game I had to play to be a “well-rounded” student to stay in an advanced program of study. Nearly 15 years later, we still haven’t improved our practice. In fact,  it’s arguable that it’s gotten worse thanks to higher-stakes testing and the increasingly bizarre pressure that all students need to go to college. We’ll save that discussion for a different time. Additionally, I am well aware that my experience is not representative of the majority of kids out there right now. I am lucky I had the problem of being too involved and too academic. I am lucky my problem isn’t that my home doesn’t have air conditioning, or that I had to take care of 4 other siblings, or that I had to take care of a child of my own, or that I didn’t have access to the Internet, a phone, or books at home. My parents are native English speakers. My father was on the school board. My mother taught math at the community college. My aunt is a scientist. My older brother was a nerd (sorry, Jim). I was surrounded by privilege and positivity, yet I still struggled with homework. As teachers, how can we realistically expect any and all of our students to perform and practice academics so intensely at home?

We need to be doing more independent readin in class. We need more guided, structured independent practice.

Teachers, if you are going to assign any amount of homework, you need to make sure you are doing just as much yourself. Many of us have this outrageous notion that since we are adults with families, we have more responsibilities than our students. Wrong. I recognize and think about my students at home on a daily basis. Many of them carry a load of responsibility I will hopefully never have to experience, and they are hormonal 12 year olds with peer pressure and bullying and school to worry about on top of whatever potentially awful responsibilities they carry at home (if they do have a home). We, as adults, have the freedom to schedule our out-of-work time. Minors do not. Therefore, we absolutely can accomplish just as much homework, if not more, than our kids. Try it out for a week. Scope out your colleagues websites and lesson plans to find what homework is due that week. Go home every day and do homework for a week. It is hard. When we talk about how awful and senseless standardized testing is (whuddup STAAR test—I’m talkin’ ’bout you), someone always brings up the observation that if our legislators sat down and took the tests, they would understand how idiotic they are. Why aren’t we doing the same with homework?

I expect my reading intervention students to read, complete, and respond to at least two on-level books per six weeks grading period (12 per year). They are given at least 20 minutes a day to read and work toward this goal. That means for me, I read, complete, and respond to at least 15 books per year. I am not a struggling reader and therefore set my bar higher. You may counter that we spend so much time planning and grading their homework that is should count as doing it. However, the cognitive load required for a learner completing independent work on a new topic is exponentially higher than the cognitive load required for us to grade: a practice we have been doing for years. Equate your time grading with the amount of time a student would spend on the bus or in football practice or at church or sitting at the dinner table. Then, begin doing your homework.

We often wonder why students hate school: we give them iPads and food and friends and education and heartfelt love and attention. We also give them homework. We give them unrealistic expectations. We give them shame and depression and goals that will never be achieved. We give them zeros and in-school suspension. Is this really what we want to give them?

Teachers, do your homework. Keep your students’ livelihood in mind. Find balance and offer help. Don’t give in to trends, and don’t sway to tradition. There are more important things in life than homework.

Student Blogger Resources

computer-1299659_960_720

Incorporating student blogging into your classroom curriculum can be terrifying and overwhelming to say the least. Here are resources I have found extremely helpful in crafting, revising, and updating blogging assignments and activities:

Teen Ink
While this isn’t exactly a collection of student blogs, it is a 100% safe space for students to explore the writing of other people their age. I love finding good student writing on here to use as an exemplar when teaching new genres of writing.

ReadWriteThink Blogging Assignment
Struggling to format your assignment? I used this as a starter template.

Using Blogs in the Classroom: University of Michigan
I teach middle school, and this report certainly isn’t focused on that age group, but it has fantastic tidbits and research citations about student empowerment, links to WordPress tutorials, and privacy options.

Brilliant Kid Bloggers
Want to prove that blogging is possible? Show your students any of these 10 kid bloggers to offer encouragement. If you ever get into image-based blogging, check out this Instagram of young foodie role models!

Student Blogging Challenge
Blogging challenges are fun, regular ways for students to respond to open-ended “challenges.” Outside of the classroom, bloggers often participate in these themed challenges as well, so it prepares them for participating in the blogosphere post-course. Create your own blogging challenges for your class, find ones already out there, or encourage them to find/create their own!

 

Happy blogging!