Becoming with books

If you have never done the homework you assign your students, you really should. While we don’t have the time to do all of the work we assign our students, there are times where we really should. This seems the best way to make sure that the work we give them is really good for them, or if it is assigned because that is what we are supposed to do.

Recently, I had my AP English Language and Composition class read Sherman Alexie’s “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me.” For a pre-reading activity, I asked them to complete the following writing:

Describe your early experiences with reading. Spend some time examining your history with reading. Do you still enjoy reading for fun? Are you a victim of letting school get in the way of your reading for pleasure (my many apologies for allowing this class to get in the way of your enjoyment of our readings from time to time (a very sad irony))? What are some of the earliest books you read? What do books mean to your family (feel free to include pictures if you have a family library)? If you have never enjoyed reading, why is that? How do you acquire stories? And whatever else might pop into your mind.

I figured I would do this one with my students. A bit long, but it is below. Happy reading, and feel free to share your own experiences and thoughts in the comments. Again, my thanks for reading.


If you were a member of my family, you read books. From the moment my brother or I could hold a book, our parents put one in our hands. Once we could sound out words, we were reading to our parents. The moment we could read larger books, we were given access to our parent’s library. The library was a room so sacred, food was not allowed, this in a house where ash trays were primary decor, a house where stacks of books lay in piles to be read, piles to be returned, and piles to be put away. The library was the only place my parents came close to consider putting out a cigarette or cigar. Close.

In 1974, we moved to Albuquerque from Alexandria, to a neighborhood where my parents were the lone east coast liberals in a place full of defense contractors. Hailing from New York City, my parents had grown accustomed to having dwelling with only living space, the idea of a garage was foreign to them. When they bought a house with a two car garage, they immediately set to remodeling. They got rid of the garage and turned it into a library. The walls were lined with built in book shelves, In the middle  of the space was a reading couch and a desk. They set aside space for my dad’s stereo system and his dark room for a photography business that never quite turned out. 

My parents read with abandon. Anytime they were still, which was frequent, they had a book. If they were watching TV, they had books. If they were sitting outside, they had books. After my father cast his fishing line into a lake, he placed his pole in a nook in his chair, and with his bobber floating many yards away, he sat back in that chair and read. My father hated going into the stores, so while mom did the shopping, he sat in the car and read a book. Sometimes I would stay and read with him. Those quiet moments with my father, sitting in the car with the windows rolled down, a cross breeze running through the car carrying the scent of his cigar, and the only sound was that of pages turning, those are some of my fondest memories of books. And my father.

• • •

My first real book was Watership Down. It was all the rage in 1977. My brother read it. My best friend read it. His older brothers read it. My parents read it (likely because we were all reading it, though they drew the line with sharing our books when we all started reading Tolkein’s books). Watership Down is the story of a warren (I distinctly remember looking “warren” up. If you’re in a house of readers, there will likely be an honest love and respect of words – which means there are several heated arguments over the meaning of words, which ends when someone consults the large family dictionary – which I did to learn the meaning of the word “warren.”) of rabbits. The warren is destroyed and the rabbits are forced to leave and reestablish their lives elsewhere. As they do, they are confronted with a variety of struggles from within their warren and outside of it. It is a delightful story about foundations and redemption told thought a bunch of anthropomorphized rabbits. Everything an eight year old boy could want.

LibraryOne of our family jokes was that if either my brother or I walked in and our parents were not reading, then we likely would have walked out of the house in horror, fearing we had entered the wrong house. So present were books and reading in my family, thus, when I stopped reading in middle and high school, there were quiet threats of disowning me. I would like to blame this stoppage on the death of Greg, my best friend, but that seems too convenient (though likely the real cause). Reading  provides a delightful escape from reality, so why wouldn’t I use it after Greg died? Perhaps because Greg and I read books together. There is an innocence there. An innocence of two young boys sitting on the couch reading books and talking about them. If he and I were not outside, we were reading in one of our perspective houses. When he died that summer between fifth and sixth grade, coincidentally, so did my love of reading.

After both of my parents died, my brother and I had to decide what to do with those books. My parents had outgrown their library as the weekly trips to The Menaul Book Exchange, the used bookstore of choice, had gotten the best of them. The house burst at the seams from thrillers, rose books, garden books, history books, mysteries, philosophy, essay collections, comedies, and whatever may have grabbed their attention on their weekly pilgrimage to that book store. I say their pilgrimage, but when my brother and I were younger, our weekends involved at least one trip to the library and often The Menaul Book Exchange. My parents did not hoard, unless it came to books. A trait which I have inherited. When it came time to clean their house, 24 years since I had moved out, books had moved in to occupy the spaces my brother and I had once occupied. When we cleaned the house, we divided the books into three rooms: books we wanted to keep, books to give to the New Mexico Rose Society, and books to donate to charity. I didn’t take that many. I have since become a different reader. I wanted the love and memories reading those books carry with them to be shared with another who needs to share in their scent and their words and their love.

My reading moratorium lasted until college. Sure, I read books for classes, but not for love. Not to learn for myself. Not to grow as a person. Not to inquire as a thinker. I read because I had to. I didn’t absorb my reading to my own knowledge base, I didn’t take that shared knowledge and make it personal. I almost hate to admit this, but I started reading for pleasure again because of girls. I realized that the girls I liked, liked guys who could read a book. So I began the process of rediscovering my love of books and the power of the written word. And I have not left it since.

So here I am, 30 years since resuming reading, four years since my mother died, more than 45 years since I started reading on my own and aloud to my parents, and I now have a library of my own. When I remodeled my house a few years ago, I made sure I had a space dedicated to mine and Felicia’s books. Included is plenty of space for Zoey, Felicia’s daughter, to have her own books alongside our books. The room is a space to sit, listen to music, read, and talk. It is a space to grow. It is a space to learn. It is a space to become. For that is the power of books and the power of words: we can become.

Collaboration and the frame of mind

I am a fan of adjusting student groups in my classes. Of course, this drives my students up the wall, but the work I get out of them when they are in groups I set up can be wonderful. When I told my AP English Language and Composition class that I was putting them into groups, they balked and groaned. But, they moved to their assigned spot for the day.

With the students newly organized, I turned on my doc cam and projected a page from my notebook. At the top of the page I had written “What collaboration looks like.” In the middle, written in large letters, “A group of people gathered for a common purpose.” The rest of the page was empty.

I asked them what they feel like collaboration looks like. I poised my pen over the page ready to scribble. And I waited.

For 15 or 20 seconds the silence was deafening. I did not want to start this conversation. I wanted this list to be on them. Finally a kid chimed in: discussion. Good, I say. Tell me more about that, in a collaborative environment, what does discussion look like? A few students suggested some details about the idea of collaborative discussion in small groups. From there, the list took shape and the map filled up. We talked about the role that compromise, performing at the best of one’s abilities, leadership, and ego play in effective collaboration. Most importantly, we pulled this away from school and talked about what it looks like in sports, on a stage, at work, at home.

We talked about what usually happens in classes when they are asked to collaborate. They divide the work up between them, do their own part individually with little communication, and compile their work into one document. They agreed that this is not collaboration. They will readily agree that all they want to do is get their work done so they can move on to better things like Snapchat.

With the mindset established and roles assigned (scribe, researcher, and speaker), students collaborated in small groups with the purpose of using our unit question (What role do social institutions play in determining the level of power derived from authority?) in order to develop a stronger understanding of the arguments presented by Machiavelli, Thomas Jefferson, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The conversations were insightful and productive. I wandered about my room and heard students seeking more depth from their peers as they pushed for deeper understanding in their responses.

From here, we switched to using their collaborative mindset to developing skills and approaches for the AP exam in May. Again, they collaborated and pushed for deeper and richer understandings in order to present a more compelling analysis.

I sometimes forget the importance of getting them in the right frame of mind for working in class. I teach in 90 minute blocks and to spend the first 10-15 minutes helping them to get into the right frame of mind is well worth it. As noted in my post on skills over content, if I want them to utilize these skills in class, then it is upon me to spend the necessary time in order to help put them in the right mindset for using those skills in class. So, rather than a bell ringer activity or whatever they might be called, I wonder if we would all be better suited by letting students know of the skill they will utilize that day and what it looks like.