Friday, 21 August 2015

I Read... Orange is the New Black

So I realize that people are absolutely obsessed with the Netflix TV series Orange is the New Black.  I am not one of those people.  I watched the first episode with my husband and we both wondered what the heck had just happened.  Neither of us were drawn in.  I haven't given up, but there are several shows ahead of OITHB on my TV list.

The novel Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman's Prison by Piper Kerman, however, took absolutely no time for me to get into.  It drew me in right away and I read it in no time flat.  I think that it is a combination of two factors that made the story so interesting to me: 1- this is a world so far removed from my own life that I was interested in learning more.  Piper describes her life as a young woman and how she became involved in a drug smuggling ring.  Years later, she describes her time serving a one year sentence in a woman's prison in great detail.  The two worlds that she describes in these scenarios is so opposed to my day to day life as a mom and teacher that I couldn't help but get sucked in.  I found it fascinating to read about the life choices that the author made along her journey and how she reacted to the consequences of her actions. 2- The piece of Piper's life that is described in between her life of crime and her time in prison is so normal that it makes her easy to relate to.  You start to imagine that you could find yourself in Piper's shoes.  After putting a life of crime behind her, Piper starts to live a normal life.  She gets a normal job, finds a normal man to fall in love with and completely moves on from the days that she spent involved in the drug trade.  While other members of the drug ring are being put on trial years later, Piper's name comes up and she is surprised to find herself arrested for crimes that she had all but forgotten.  The process of telling her family and friends about her past and the combination of fear and stoicism that she displays as she prepares to enter the women's prison make it easy to put yourself in Piper's shoes.  While I have not committed any crimes in my past, I still found myself wondering what my life would be like if some piece of my past suddenly reared its ugly head and took over.

This juxtaposition between this could never happen to me and wait, maybe something like this could happen to me is what makes this memoir so easy to read.  It turns Orange is the New Black from a prison story to a coming of age story, one where the protagonist has to overcome hardships in order to better understand who she is.  The fact that the author was able to create this sense in a book about going to prison is pretty remarkable, and it makes me understand why Netflix would choose to develop a TV series based on the novel.

I do intend to watch the TV series at some point because I'm curious about several things- how closely does the show follow the book?  Do we get the sense that Piper is caught between her wild past and her "good girl" future?  How much of a role does her support system outside of prison (boyfriend, parents, etc.) play?  And, most pressing to me, how does the series continue on when Piper spent a year in prison and was then released?  Doesn't the show have to come to an end at some point?

Food for thought... have any of your favourite books been adapted successfully to the TV or movie screen?  What do you think made the transition work?  

Thursday, 13 August 2015

I Read... The Book With No Pictures

I have a 7 year old son, so we have a large library of picture books at home (you can imagine that having an English teacher as a mom means lots of reading from an early age).  The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak (of The Office and dating Mindy Kaling fame) doesn't exactly fall into that category... as the title suggests, there are no pictures... but it is an amazing story for kids that proves that, sometimes, words are worth a million pictures.

I read the book to my son without previewing it.  I wanted to experience it with him, and I expected it to be funny for both of us considering that the B.J. Novak's comedic work as an actor and writer.  While my expectations were fulfilled, I didn't expect Novak to speak so clearly and so well to his true audience- the children listening to the story being read.  My enjoyment of the book came from watching and hearing my son get so much enjoyment from our experience of reading together.

Note to the reader, this is a book to experience with a child.  Don't hand it to your child and let them read it alone.  You will be robbing both of you of a lot of joy.  If you are reading it to a group of kids, be aware that you will have a loud and hyper group to deal with by the time you are done!  Novak takes advantage of the fact that the reader must read whatever the author writes in the book.  He makes the adult say silly things about him or herself, much to the delight of any kids who get to listen to the ridiculousness.  I can't think of a better way to demonstrate the joy of reading and the power of language to kids.  Pictures are unnecessary- the words and the performance by the reader becomes the visual.

I also think that this book could be used as a tool with older kids.  Novak demonstrates the power of language and the art of words extremely well.  How does the use of italics, colour, and font help to tell the story?  Why is it that we all know how the phrase "Also, I am a robot monkey" should be read?  Try having your older students analyze the use of language in this children's story and apply it to their own work. 

Need another reason to check out The Book With No Pictures?  Check out this video of Novak reading his book to a group of kids.  Those giggles and screams say it all.

Food for thought... how do you use children's books in your classroom?  Any creative ideas?

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Modification vs. Accommodations

Luminous Learning has a great infographic and blog post on accommodations for students who require them.

(Image credit:

The blog post does a great job of clarifying the difference between modifications and accommodations.  The infographic gives some easy to implement ideas on how to assist students without changing the content or the standards.  This can be more complicated than modifications for many teachers.  If a student requires modifications for some reason, it can be easy to modify the number of questions that they are required to answer, assess them using a simpler rubric, etc.  With accommodations, however, it is easy to feel overwhelmed.  Teachers often feel that if they have 30 different students, they are expected to teach the same thing in 30 different ways.  This is where it is easy to become overwhelmed.

Looking at these ideas can give you some ideas that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge of the same content in a way that better supports his or her learning.  For example, help a visual learner by providing a graphic organizer to help them to organize their thoughts when writing a critical essay.  Give struggling readers vocabulary definitions ahead of time.  Ensure that your disorganized students have a system in place, such as an agenda, and help them to use their system every day.

While this infographic is very simple, I found that it helped me to think about the other ways that I can support students who struggle- and really, every student will struggle with some aspect of learning.  What strategies have been most successful for you? 

Monday, 10 August 2015

I Read... Go Set a Watchman

I'm finally ready to write down my thoughts on this controversial book.

When I first heard that Harper Lee's second novel was going to be released, I was shocked and excited.  Like most other English teachers, I love teaching To Kill a Mockingbird.  As the anticipation built, there was a lot of controversy about the release of Go Set a Watchman.  Regardless, I had to read it.  I went to my local bookstore the day the novel was released, and had finished the book two days later.  I found that I needed quite a few breaks from the book to digest what I was reading, and I had a hard time picking up a new book to read for several weeks- something that is very unusual for me.  Let me try to explain my feelings on the experience of reading this novel.

I went into Go Set a Watchman with low expectations.  I had accidentally read a few spoilers, and I didn't like what I had read.  I was also leery of the intentions behind the book's release.  Finally, I knew that it was very unlikely that anything could live up to To Kill a Mockingbird.  I thought of this as an experience- reading a piece of history that wasn't necessarily meant to be seen.  It felt like a special secret that I was being let in on.

While the logical part of my brain knew that I needed to keep my expectations low, the emotional part of me was so excited and was hoping to be surprised with a magical masterpiece.  I think that this is why I felt... empty upon finishing the novel.

I didn't love it.  I didn't hate it.  I just felt unsettled.  Empty.  Unsure of what to think.

I won't write any spoilers.  The only thing that I will say about the plot of the novel is that it follows 26 year old Scout, who now lives in New York, as she returns home to visit her aging father.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • It felt like some of the characters were just tacked on and didn't add to the story in any way ("The readers will want to know where Dill is."  "Oh, just mention him in passing.  That will keep them happy."  "Got it.").  Rather than giving me closure on these characters, it just opened the door to me wanting more.  If they hadn't been mentioned, they simply wouldn't have been a part of this particular story.  Boy, did this book make me want to know more about Jem.  
  • I forgot that Atticus was already an "old dad" in Mockingbird.  It was uncomfortable to see him in a situation where he needed to be taken care of.
  • Hank.  Did Scout really need a man?  Did it add anything to the story?  I'm not sure that it did.
  • Jem = his mother, Scout = her father
  • The conflict with Atticus.  It's difficult to say much without writing a spoiler, but I think that the point is to put the reader in Scout's shoes.  Just as Scout idolized Atticus, so did we.  We have put him on a pedestal as this ideal man, ideal lawyer, ideal father.  I think that the point of the conflict was to make Scout, and the reader, learn how to "set her own watchman."  You can't look to this ideal, infallible figure to act as your conscience because the reality is that this person doesn't exist.
I was mentally exhausted after finishing Watchman, so I haven't read any other reviews on the novel.  I would love to hear what other people thought of the book.