Making the 40 Book Challenge Work in 2016

We’re only 5 months in, and 2016 has already been a doozie. We lost Prince, despise our police force, and are considering the election of a misogynist tycoon turned reality-TV star. Americans have an undeniable xenophobia crisis, and the whole world is undergoing a digital information overload. Just a few years after Donalyn Miller proposed her 40 Book Challenge, America has undergone significant cultural shifts. Our campus has fully embraced the 40 Book Challenge, and, while I disagree with it being a curricular requirement, it is my job as our campus reading interventionist to figure out how to make it work for my students that are required to do it.

1. Make it relevant.
Ask any librarian, scholar, or teacher why reading is crucial. Vocabulary development, comprehension, and improving ability to pass standardized tests will inevitably come up a bit, but the core of their response will relate to learning about our world. We value reading because it takes us on journeys. It gives us a lens to sympathize with people and cultures and situations we’d never find ourselves in. Yet, when we ask students to read 40 books from different genres, this isn’t addressed. What social and emotional learning outcomes do we want students to gather from reading? What cross-curricular amplification can we give in our reading classes? For my 40 book challenge, I’ve adjusted my required reading categories. While some are genre-specific, many of them are thematic (Books About Another Culture; Books About Teen Leaders). Through this, they’re learning the content they need to support their other classes and support themselves in “the real world.” Additionally, I am a huge advocate for adjusting curriculum to promote reading in the digital age. My students are all required to maintain a blog, as well as read and comment on others’. Therefore, one of my challenge categories is Blog Subscriptions. They “follow,” respond to, and critique a minimum of two blogs. Sure, their standardized tests are on paper, but c’mon. Aren’t we past teaching to the test by now? Additionally, as more and more tests are administered online, students need to learn to effectively transfer offline reading strategies to an online environment. Highlighters and numbered paragraphs don’t exist in the binary realm.

2. Increase student ownership.
What baffles me about the way may schools use the 40 Book Challenge is its inflexibility. Of course there is value in reading across genres, but forcing a student to read a certain amount in every single genre seems to take the wonder out of reading. Additionally, it doesn’t address why reading different genres is important. For us in the educational hellhole of Texas, one reason is to make sure they can nail the following for the STAAR test: drama, poetry, short fiction, informational texts, and visuals. Unfortunately, because of the situation, it is very important they can read these with relative ease. what about the rest of the genre requirements, though? If my student is passionate about non-fiction texts, why make her sludge through a graphic novel? Sure, she might learn she enjoys them, but she has more than likely she already knows she doesn’t like them. We use the 40 Book Challenge like we’re in the Dead Poet’s Society; we use it like we’re going to magically reveal the majesty of hardcore sci-fi to our Bluford High loving teens (and vice-versa). Reality: we’re not. They like what they like, and educators should embrace this. Many of our learning objectives can be mastered within the same genre, and that’s okay! If we want our students to read and enjoy reading, we cannot subject them to strict form boundaries. Addressing my earlier point, keep your categories open and focused on theme and social/emotional student needs helps to accomplish this as well. If my student is learning how to be mindful, intelligent, compassionate, and worldy, I am a-okay with them doing so only reading verse novels.

3. Make it safe.
Teachers who give a page minimum requirement for students doing this challenge are total losers. If you’re differentiating instruction on a daily basis (uh, you should be), this should be differentiated as well. Many of my struggling readers are proud to finish a 23 page book. I am too! The point of this challenge is exposure. It doesn’t need to be long to be effective, especially if they’re enduring a category they really don’t care for. The challenge shouldn’t be about shame. Return to what makes reading important and magical, and base your challenge requirements on this.

4.  Who the hell reads 40 books in 9-months?
Hey teacher friend, tell me a point in your life when you have ever accomplished this. I can tell you I never have, even in my most avid reading years. I love that the bar is set high. Many students are able to accomplish this. However, so many look at the list and automatically accept defeat. Do not assume your student can or will read at home. Do not assume their parents know about the challenge. Do not assume that outside of your classroom, they have a positive and calm enough learning environment to do this. Throughout the entire post, I’ve been referring to this as the 40-book challenge. However, not all of my categories are books and guess what? I don’t even have 40 books required on their log! I have blogs, newspapers, and (gasp!) magazines thrown in there too. My total number adds up to 32, not 40. Set a bar that works for your class. Don’t give in to trend. What works best for you and your school?? If you’re in a supportive position like mine, then do that: support. You don’t have to require 40 books a year. Please, please, please use your close reading skills and consume Miller’s follow up post about this. Advocate for your students. If your department is still clinging on to the 40 books, speak up. Show them the revisited post and do what you can to adjust the challenge to fit your needs.


In short, do what you do with the rest of your lessons: be inspired and unafraid to adjust. Piggy back, don’t copy. The 40 Book Challenge is loosely defined and will never fit every classroom. And, much like the Dewey Decimal System, it just isn’t fit for 2016. Move on, improve, inspire, and have your students do the same.

Why I Stopped Being Angry at Mainstream Feminism

If you’re a semi-fresh graduate from a liberal arts university like me, you’ve probably scoffed at Taylor Swift’s “feminism” more than once. After all, she was one of the first to loudly proclaim opposition to the term, and is still an unpalatable paragon of white-cisgender female Americana.

Were you on board with that TSwift shade? Then we’re birds of a feather: bitter, pre-mainstream feminists who just want our counterculture back.

Let’s be honest: it sucks to feel mainstream. Remember when your favorite band got big, you strictly talked about how they’ve “changed,” how “fame got in the way,” and how a slicker, more produced sound for wider audiences just doesn’t emit the sames vibes it used to? And remember how embarrassing it was to know deep down that all of your friends know your criticism is bullshit? That’s what you’re doing to feminism right now. Should we really be that mad that feminism has undergone the same transformation? Sure, when people argue about feminism, it’s straight up painful to watch people who have never even heard of Judith Butler to declare the necessity of women’s equality. It makes you mad because you know feminism isn’t just about women’s equality. It’s about so much more than legal and economic equality for cisgender women in The United States of America. Feminism is for all and encompasses myriad ideas other than marriage equality, the gender pay gap, and how Black the Oscars weren’t this year. If you are mad like me, you already know this, and I 100% sympathize with your misanthropy.

Despite my past loud, disgusted anger toward Beyoncé’s pseudo-feminism, when I heard “Formation” I gave it a rest. I still think she’s a huge mess of problematic and misguided statements and symbolism (after all, why the hell should someone who named her world tour after her fucking husband monetize feminism?*), but I am now 100% okay with that. What celebrities have done for our academe may have been invasive, but us not embracing it only makes the plight for the marginalized worse.

Remember our context: Knowles brought a stylized, all-female Black Panther mob to a Super Bowl where a young, flamboyant, aggressive black man was facing off with one of America’s most stereotypical (white) football heroes. It is a miracle in the first place that so many people approved this (so-called extreme) imagery for a sporting event whose audience doesn’t have the best track record for racial sensitivity. The more we complain about celebrities or anyone else who is trying their best to speak out about their concept of feminism, the more we are divided. Much like Congress, we’re never going to make progress until we figure out how to solve society’s problems together. It’s hypocritical to relentlessly and unfairly shut down those who are trying to bring our issues to light, the way I once unfairly hated Swift and Knowles (confession: Taylor Swift was my first concert at the Houston Rodeo and it was awesome). As much as I wish Hillary’s campaign slogan was “fuck the patriarchy” and she called her bi-partisan flexibility “as fluid as [her] gender,” we just aren’t there yet. People are still uncomfortable with transgender and asexual humans. Conversations about race are still largely Black vs. White. There are still people all around the world suffering from discrimination, suffering from the system, suffering from society. Can we, the snobby young pissed off “inclusive feminists” of the first world, please get our shit together already and truly be inclusive? Do not condescend because someone’s argument has an oopsie. Converse. Ask questions. Explain the holes; spread your knowledge.

Let’s ride this wave, y’all. Let’s fight and bitch and embrace solidarity. After all, it’s the “feminist” thing to do.



*The reason is because she does what she wants, she’s proud of her husband, and isn’t afraid to show it despite how antithetical that may seem to her “feminist” shtick. 


No Time for the Old South in 2016

With so much controversy surrounding the Old South Ball, I, a former employee of The Williamson Museum, feel the need to voice my perspective. The Williamson Museum has a years-long history of providing high-quality, inclusive educational programming to thousands of students. However, the branding and organization of the Old South Ball has fallen short of their generally high standards.

We do not live in a post-racial society. We live in a world where only one month per year is dedicated to recognizing Black and Hispanic heritage. It is inappropriate to have an “Old South” themed event on land marked by a Confederate veteran statue, despite the benign intent of both the event and the statue. When the event was first publicized, it didn’t have a name, just a purpose: to educate people about 1860s Williamson County. Unfortunately, the combination of a poorly selected title and location casts an unwelcoming tone on the dance, clarifying that, at least for a  moment, someone fantasized about bringing to life the Old South milieu. Gone with the Wind was released in the 1930s – can we “get over” romanticizing the rich, white, plantation narrative, already? This is Williamson County, not the Old South, and we have enthralling history of our own. What good reason is there to hold an event whose theme doesn’t align with our story? Given a different theme and location, this well-intended ball could have been a fantastic, casual, and educational living history dance. However, the museum’s unwillingness to compromise or recognize their failure shows their inability to act as thoughtful global citizens – a cornerstone of museum standards and best practices. Lou Snead, Georgetown citizen, was right when he said, “It feels like it’s a party for white folks, although they probably didn’t intend it to be that.” But here, does intention matter when the final product

While it’s easy to focus on what’s wrong with the ball, let’s also take a moment to remember some of the progress our community has made in 2015:

  • Southwestern University gained a chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest Greek organization founded by African American collegiate women.
  • The City of Round Rock had its inaugural Round Rock Culture Fest in April, and Southwestern University held its first Race and Ethnicity Symposium.
  • PFLAG Austin introduced its Deirdre Furr Essay Prize Award, commemorating the accomplishments of the late Georgetown teacher, Deirdre Furr, who founded Georgetown High School’s first gay-straight alliance. Williamson County also saw its first same-sex marriages in June.

We live in one of the fastest growing areas in the nation, and  with that comes increased diversity. Let’s all do what we can to be as inclusive as possible, instead of throwing inherently exclusive parties. This isn’t about being politically correct: it’s about being compassionate. It’s about being thoughtful. It’s about making history and education welcoming to all, not just those who feel comfortable attending an Old South Ball.

Otari MX-5050 vs Tascam 388 Shootout w/ Parquet Courts

An older but interesting blog post about one of my favorite bands using one of my most beloved pieces of audio equipment!

Jonathan Schenke

Otari MX-5050 vs Tascam 388

A couple months ago, I was at Seaside Lounge with Parquet Courts recording a bunch of new material.  We finished an EP, which will be coming out this September – you can hear live versions of some of the songs (and a thoughtful interview with the band) on a recent edition of NPR’s World Cafe, recorded a couple weeks before we hit the studio.

Part of the setup process was figuring out what tape machine to use for the sessions.  We recorded Light Up Gold on Austin’s Tascam 388, so we knew we could get something good on it.  There’s an almost cult-like following surrounding the 388, from the San Francisco psych-garage scene to the Black Keys and a host of other analog enthusiasts.   I’ve worked on it a number of times (with Austin’s other band The Keepsies and the folk-rock revivalists Wild Leaves) and really love the sound, but wanted to…

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