Reading  and Teaching 1984: What if Some of Them Don’t “Get It”? by David Schaafsma

David Schaafsma, University of Illinois at Chicago

Recently I reread 1984 by George Orwell, which I had read the first time in high school in the sixties, have taught many times, and had not reread for decades. I saw that the book was perhaps the best selling book of 2017, which I was pleased and somewhat hopeful about; it signaled a kind of move to reading as resistance. Other darkly dystopian books were also popular, resonant for some with the current U.S. administration: It Can’t Happen Here—Sinclair Lewis; The Plot Against America—Phillip Roth; The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui—Bertolt Brecht; The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood, and so many others, many of which I pretty conventionally reviewed on Goodreads.

However, I looked around and found there were several thousand often angry and dismayingly insightful reviews of 1984, both when it came out in 1949 through today. I had taken copious notes in my recent reading of the book, and had copied out terrifyingly prescient quotes from 1984 on the abolition of science, of thought control via the media, and so on. I was ready to write my review.  But I thought about Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” a dark satire about how to solve the Irish famine:

I have been an English teacher for more than forty years. I thought of how students on the right might read 1984, and quickly and somewhat impulsively wrote this darkly satirical review:

1984 is a stoopid and borring and depresing book mz Jones made me read in school that is clearly an attck on the Pressident of the United States Donald Trump. They think they are so smart they can call him Big Borther (Big? He aint fat, his dokter just sed he was fisicaly fit, so there!) and say he lives in Oceania instead of Amerika! You cant foowel me! I know this is Trump!  We elected him, so get over it! God wants Him to be Pressident, my preachur even said so. You r living on the Greatest kuntry in the werld I don’t know what you got to wery about you must have been in the sixties with all those riots aginst the guverment you should all go back to your s***hole kuntries if you don’t love Amerika.

Big Brother is watching you, it sez? Oh, come on. Why worry about that? If you just watch tv and football and have a couple drinks, why do you care if they watchin u?

One part that is stupid, the anti-sex league! In this Great kuntry you can grab anything and anyone you want and have sex with porn stras and nuthin bad kin happen 2 u. Why would we be aginst sex, if you can have anything you want?! All these wimin in the streets, they should be hapy men will even like them! And didn’t the Pressident just give them a tacks brake! Aren’t more women bein hired now?! Fox Nooze even said so. You odn’t need the ERA or whateve my teacher sez, I don’t think wimn should make what I do as a guy! They are wimmin! Comon!! I no for a fact you can’t make them happy! They are clearly mad for no rezin.

What I like the book 1984 sed is that Newspeak or whatever they call it will make the words smaller and ezier. My teacher said to put in kwotes it will be bttter in my repert so here goes 

“The beauty of Newspeak is that each year the vocabulary is getting smaller and smaller! The range of thought gets smaller and smaller. When the language is appropriately small, the revolution will have become complete!”

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.” I agree with this cuz I hate werds I never speak I just want to wacth tv and toss a cupple back with my boys.

I don’t know what all those werds even mean, but I want smaller words, and less of them. I know they say Trump speaks on the 4th grade level, I dn’t even know what they mean, he is the Pressident, he can speak on any level he wants he needs to speak so we can understand him don’t he?

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery, Ignorance is strength?” Is this stupid or what? I am strong and can ded lift like 525 pownds! Does that make me ignorant?

But I did like the torture parts. I want to do that to people who are portestin our duly elected Pressident and old white libtards even a guy who sez he was a Repubican Jeff Flake who sez Trump talks like Stalin! Who is Stalin!? I don’t even think he exists! Buncha lies and fake nooze. I aktualy want to tortur this guy Orwell for writin this book and my techur for makin me read it its so stoopid.

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”

 I say good some people need to be stamped on like people from s***hold kuntries.

I like how they ban books in it because all I watch is tv my football and Fox news with my beer and I am good. Books are too hard they need to make things ezier so this kuntry will be Great again. I am so hunover aftir that game but I perfer that because thinking is hard and makes me sad sometimes.

This book was like anuther book the libtard Englsih techur Mz jones Forced us to read, Farunhite 451 where they burn books which was stupid 2 they call the guy a firman and he burns books haw so stoopid! How do they come up with this crap?!

But it made me think this is whut we shuld do is burn this book, it only makes some people mad and confoozed!!

Like these kwotes I hope will get me a btter grade tho I don’t understand them:

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Like huh?!

“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.” Like The Art of the Deal, maybe?!

“We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. . . Power is not a means; it is an end. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. . . Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” 

Huh? I say agin: Why kant they use ezier werds like in newspeak they said they were gonna use smaller wrds! Liars!

Here’s one I really don’t git: “The only way to preserve a hierarchical society is through poverty and ignorance.”

Another kwote I don’t understand: 

“To think is the only hope.” Winston said this. What could he possibly mean?! 

In retrospect, a couple days later, I have some second thoughts about the review. I think it is provocative, probably divisive. Occasionally nasty. I’ve never taught a student quite like the imagined author of this text, though I certainly have and have had students and family members who express these kinds of ideas, and who actually voted for Trump. I’m a teacher, and see myself as a good person who would never—okay, rarely—vent about a student in the staff room and would not typically make fun of one of my own students. I have been fearful and angry about the current administration on a daily basis, and something in the review reflects those emotions, of which I am not particularly proud. I would never post a piece of writing that an actual student had done such as this, nor would I publically castigate a student for embracing views different than mine. I was initially worried about how some of my Republican family might respond to the review, those few that still follow me on Facebook or Goodreads. I don’t intend to be mean-spirited, but maybe it reads that way, even to me at times.

Still, I posted it, and think it could be useful in the debate about these issues. I think we who teach English embrace a kind of romantic view that reading is knowledge that will change the world, by which we mean most people’s minds. Yet sometimes a text can confirm one’s views, and why would we hope that all people would respond identically to a piece of literature? Isn’t this one of the things we most fear about 1984, that any kind of media–including writing–might make us think alike? But some people read and see the opposite of what we intend:

I recall teaching Our America by LeAlan Jones in my Young Adult Literature class as an anti-racist text about living on the south side of Chicago, featuring honest portrayals of those living there, sometimes sympathetic depictions of loving families, sometimes painful portraits of violence and drug addiction.  Having taught that book to future teachers, I have heard stories of their teaching the book in their all- or mostly-white classrooms, with a few of their students seemingly having their racist views confirmed by the book! I thought of Our America and similar responses to other texts I have taught as I wrote my review. I thought about how young readers just don’t sometimes “get” the intentions of teachers and authors and what that means for us as teachers.

In my Facebook feed, my former student Sarah Donovan fairly quickly posted a thoughtful and insightful response to my satire, including a review of 1984 by one of her seventh grade students that seemed to “right the ship” for me in my fearful and angry and despondent reading of the book, a hopeful view for those that are anticipating teaching or have taught the book. In Sarah’s class, choice reading is a priority, so students develop to-read lists and have class time every day to read and confer with Sarah about their reading experiences.  They also respond to their reading however they wish, and Matthew, the student who read 1984 by choice, chose to write a letter to his teacher.  Here is Matthew’s take on 1984 (shared with his and his mother’s consent): 

January 19, 2018

Dear Dr. Donovan,

As you already know, I have been progressing through my book in a sluggish manner, as I have only read 48 pages since my last blog post. I am still reading 1984: A Novel by George Orwell.

While I have only read about 50 pages this week, that surely doesn’t mean that I am not interested in the book. Actually, far from it. When I start reading this book, I don’t want to put it down-the dystopian theme and engraved message to be afraid of big government honestly intrigues me. The only issue that I am having is that there are usually 300-350 words on each page, which can make it take longer than usual to finish a normal amount of pages in one reading. As the book is about 300 pages, I am predicting that this may take me longer to finish that I would’ve expected.

In this reading, I as the reader followed the main character, Winston, through his place of work in the Outer Party, which is similar to the middle class, except they all work for the government. In this case, Winston works in the Ministry of Truth (Minitru in Newspeak*) where he rewrites old sources of media that the Party declares “doubleplusungood”** and “not true”, which is also a brainwashing tactic. We also take a dive in to the lower class of Oceania. Oceania is the mega-nation where Winston lives. He enters a Prole community, and starts talking with a older man hoping to get some justification in his mind that the world was not always as the party says it is, where before the revolution, everyone was worse off, and the world was run by greedy, cruel capitalists, with their top hats. I stopped reading at this point.

Even though they have lower socioeconomic status, the Proles, or lower class of Oceania, are better off than the Outer Party members, or the middle class. One of the parts in this reading that really spoke this to me was here, “..but no attempt was made to indoctrinate them with the ideology of the Party. It was not desirable that the proles should have strong political feelings… The great majority of Proles did not even have telescreens*** in their homes. (71)”

What this quote shows me is that even though the Proles should be worse off, as they are overworked, robbed of a decent live, and live in overcrowded slums, they are more free than the middle class. They are not constantly spied on, as the Party does not expect them to form their own political opinions. The thought police aren’t constantly on the lookout for thought-criminals, and they can do as they please, without interference from the Party, or Big Brother****. As the Party itself says, “Proles and animals are free. (72)” Thus, I can fully claim that the Proles are better off than Outer Party members, if you view having first amendment freedoms as being more free than your fellow comrade****** whom does not.

Best of wishes,


P.S.: Please view below for an explanation of the astixed words.

Astrix explanation:

*= The Party’s made up language to help brainwash their people, and eliminate words such as “freedom”, “Peace”, or any word that could allow people to make a free thought.

**= A Newspeak word that substitutes words such as “Excellent”, “Splendid” or “Superb”.

***= A T.V. like item that has a screen that allows Big Brother, or anyone with access to view the other side; a spy camera with a T.V. attached.

****= The leader of the Party. Thought criminals debate whether or not he is a real person.

*****= A substitution for Mrs., Mr., or any surname that is enforced by the party to bring everyone down to the same level, as with the principles of Ingsoc, or English Socialism.

David Schaafsma is a Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he directs the Program in English Education. He teaches courses in English teaching methods, graphic novels and young adult literature. He’s the author of five books and is a former editor of the journal English Education. He’s published numerous articles on community-based literacy, but also increasingly increasingly writes fiction and poetry. He’s the father of five children and has five siblings living in three states. He lives in Oak Park just outside Chicago. He as rated 5744 books on Goodreads!@DavidSchaafsma1 

Introducing My Debut YA Novel, Alone Together

Today is Friday, which means Story Time in my junior high writing classes; students share their writing in an open-mic forum with student-hosts facilitating the stories and celebrations. Today, I stepped up to the mic in front of my biggest and most beloved critics: my seventh-grade students. I wanted them to be the first to hear from my debut young adult verse novel, Alone Together. Scott made the introduction, and Alex recorded my reading to commemorate the event. (It is a really big deal to share and really scary to read your art to a room full of people, and they’ve been doing this since August.) My critics were kind as they showered me with celebrations and support.

So, introducing the first few pages of my debut novel, Alone Together. Now available for pre-order on Amazon Books. Release date May 1, 2018. (My friend April Dippy Berbari is designing the cover, which will be revealed soon.)…

Ten Books Loved by 7th Graders (List 4)

This is the fourth and final list of “Ten Books Loved by 7th Grade Readers.” I asked 7th-grade readers to tell me about a book they read this school year that they “loved” and was worthy of recommending to other teen readers. They obliged, writing a short summary to entice others to give it a read. I compiled these recommendations in this four-part series: 1, 2, 3, and 4.

The book-I-most-loved-so-far-this-year list is as diverse as the readers. Our readers love these books for a range of reasons because books offer us a range of experiences. Some want to escape. Some want to ponder the world. Some want to lean into a future self. Some want to go back to a younger, “easier” time in life. Some want to travel to another time or place. Some just want to learn. Books can do all of that.

We share our favorites here in the hopes that we can offer you some ideas for your classroom library, Christmas gifts, or ever-growing to-read list. (But you can still text, tweet, or message me for recommendations!) Here is List 4!

  1. Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner: I believe you should read the book Goodbye days. I say this because it really pulls you into the book and makes you tense, sad, happy, and any other emotion you can think of. For example I started reading at 8:00 O clock and went all the way to 10:00 O clock at night! My parents were begging me to go to bed but I said please just a couple more pages probably 20 times I never really enjoyed books but I did enjoy this one. So for these reasons and so many more this Is why I defiantly recommend this book and say it is worthy of your time. (Recommended by Ryan W.  — and Ian, Shreya, Adi, and Matthew.)
  2. El Deafo by Cece Bell: El Deafo is about a Girl named Cece Bell who has challenges about being deaf. This book is actually a true story about the author; Cece Bell. Cece has many challenges having good friends, and having a “normal life”. This book is basically about her perceiving through those challenges. I would recommend this to readers because they get enlightened of how it is to be deaf. Not just how it is physically, but how it impacts you mentally too. I want readers to see the perspective of the author and the main character who is deaf and how it feels “to be in their shoes”. (Recommended by Ishan.)
  3. The Someday Birds by Sally J. Pla: This book is about a book who likes looking for birds, and his name is Charlie. His dad got hit by a bomb that happened in Afghanistan and got moved to a Hospital in Washington DC. Charlie and his siblings had to go all the way to Washington DC so they can see their dad. (Recommended by Ali.) 
  4. To Catch a Killer by Sheryl Scarborough:  In this book, “To Catch A Killer,” the main character is a girl named Erin. When she was a little girl her mother was murdered. She is experiencing a rough time in her life right now and is trying to find her mothers killer for a number of reasons. She doesn’t have anyone who she knows of as family except for her mothers friend who lives with her. The book is very interesting and mysterious. Little does she know someone else is out there waiting for her and could be her source of help. In elementary school I hated books and would never want anything to do with them. But this was the first book I read in junior high and now I’m reading a wide variety and really enjoy it. This is probably my favorite book I’ve read so far. (Recommended by Naya.) 
  5.  Auggie and Me by R. J. Palacio: Auggie and Me is a book about a kid name Auggie who is being judged based on how he looks and something different about this book is that you get to experience the same situation three times in a different person’s perspective. I think you should read this book because this is a unique story and I think you get to learn a lot about bullying and never to give up even if no one likes you as there will always be someone right beside you and will always be there for you when you need them. (Recommended by Gaurika.) 
  6. Kingdom Keepers: Disney After Dark by Ridley PearsonThis story takes place in a location we all know of. Disney World is among one of the most popular spots during the day, but have you ever wondered what happens after the park closes? This book may not be the most accurate description of the after hours, but the story certainly isn’t cliche. For the characters, what is real, isn’t and what isn’t real, is. (Recommended by Maya.)
  7. Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer: This story takes place in a location we all know of. Disney World is among one of the most popular spots during the day, but have you ever wondered what happens after the park closes? This book may not be the most accurate description of the after hours, but the story certainly isn’t cliche. For the characters, what is real, isn’t and what isn’t real, is. (Recommended by Nishika.) 
  8. A Dog’s Purpose, A Novel for Humans by W. Bruce Cameron: This hilarious comedy is about a funny cute lovable dog who lives a life and then dies and come out as a different species and name and meets the same people he did in his previous lives. This book will keep the pages turning fast! It is an adult book but I thought it was more of a kids/teen book. (Recommended by Lisa.)
  9. Divergent Series by Veronica Roth: I think all three of the main books and the 4th book, Four, is just a thrilling and a place to escape from life type of books to read. The books are about the life of Tris and Tobias in a futuristic and destroyed Chicago. I recommend these books to any reader who seeks action. (Recommended by Brian.)
  10. Posted by John David Anderson: It is about four friends that get broken up by a new student called Rose. One friend leaves and Rose joins their group. I feel like it was also a very realistic book. (Recommended by Ryan B.) 

Ten Books Loved by 7th Grade Readers (List 3)

This is the third of four book lists: “Ten Books Loved by 7th Grade Readers.” I asked my 7th-grade readers to tell me about a book they read this school year — a book they “loved” and worthy of recommending to other teen readers.

The book-I-most-loved-so-far-this-year lists are as diverse as the readers. Our readers love these books for a range of reasons because books offer us a range of experiences. Some want to escape. Some want to ponder the world. Some want to lean into a future self. Some want to go back to a younger, “easier” time in life. Some want to travel to another time or place. Some just want to learn. Books can do all of that.

Over the past two weeks, I have shared lists 1 and 2. (Next week, I will have the fourth and final list.) I share my seventh-grade students’ favorites along with their reviews in the hopes that we can offer you some ideas for your classroom library, Christmas gifts, or ever-growing to-read list. (But you can still text, tweet, or message me for recommendations!) Here is List 3:

  1. Michael Vey Series by Richard Paul Evan: Michael Vey is about an ordinary kid, but he has one secret. He’s electric. After you know Michael’s secret, you will want to read it. And if you start reading, you can’t put the book down. This book is filled with danger, excitement, and trust. It will teach you what a true friend is supposed to do. (Recommended by Naruto.)  A teenager named Micheal Vey knows about his special powers that involve electricity and his ability to ‘surge’ or to send electricity throughout his body, but when he finds out that someone near him has a similar power everything changes. (Recommended by Kurt.) Michael Vey is a 14 year old boy who lives in Meridian Idaho when his whole world gets turned upside down. Since he was 8, he knew he had special abilities, but only this year has he really unleashed what he has been able to do. (Recommended by David.)  This story was about a guy in high school named Michael Vey, and he along with 17 others have electric power. He and his friends try to save his mom and friend Taylor from a Company called Elgin. SO if you hate reading this is the book for you. There are 7 other books in this series and they will be hard to put down. Can Michael Save his mom and Taylor or will save them? Find out in Michael Vey: Prisoner of Cell 25. (Recommended by Ben.)
  2. All We Have Left by Wendy Mills: This book is related to the 9-11 attacks. It is told from two perspectives with a 15 year difference between them. One of the characters, Alia, is trapped in the Twin Towers when the attacks were happening. The other character, Jesse, is 15 years after the attacks while her brother died in the Towers. No one knows why her brother, Travis, was there in the first place. It goes back and forth between Alia and Jesse’s experiences, putting together bits and pieces of information about Travis and the 9-11 attacks. (Recommended by Selina.) 
  3. The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan: This book is about two brothers stuck in a cacao plantation, where they are forced to work at a decent quality in bad conditions, or they get beaten. Then, one day, a girl with a strong heart comes, and lifts the brothers’ spirits to run away again. This was my favorite book so far because the story flowed so well, so it was really hard to put down. Also, when I finished reading this book, I was very shocked to learn that some of the chocolate I have been eating came from places like this, so I decided to never waste chocolate again. (Recommended by Yejee.) 
  4. Weregirl by C.D. Bell: Nessa, a girl on her track team, is always trying to get better at running. But one day, while running through the woods, she stops and finds a wolf in pain. She tries to free it, but is bit instead by another wolf. Now, Nessa is transforming into a half-human half-wolf creature. While transforming, she notices that her running times have gotten a lot faster. Although her running times are benefited, she still has to deal with her transformation. With the help of her friend Bree and many others, she finds out more about why she was chosen by the wolves to transform into a half-human half-wolf creature. (Recommended by Albert.)
  5.  Warcross by Marie Lu: This story is perfect for everyone no matter which genre they like. For all those realistic fiction readers and for all those fantasy and action/adventure readers, this is the perfect pick. It is a mixed adventure based in the near future that will blow your mind and send you dreaming forever. So, here’s the short summary about it. First of all, you should know all the characters. The main character is Emika and she is a bounty hunter ever since her dad died and her mom moved away. She lives with her friend in a tiny house that she has to pay a huge debt for. She is always worried until one day, when she goes into Warcross, the VR game made by a English-Japanese man who made the game, she hacks it during a Warcross match happening and she becomes famous in a bad way because nobody was able to hack the game like Emika did. (Recommended by Krish.) Let me tell a little something about this book and why I am recommending it. This book called Warcross is about a girl living in New York in a near-futuristic world where a game called Warcross has taken the whole world by storm. This game is where people get points by doing regular things and dueling in VR or virtual reality. Emika is the main character who is a bounty hunter in the game and hunts down people who illegally gamble on the game. She is also a hacker and knows a lot about coding. One day the Warcross championship is live and she decides to hack into and steal a rare power up while the professional player and playing and the whole crowd sees her. The next day she gets a call from the creator of the game to offer her a job to track down a player who has been trying to destroy his game. This really captures your attention and you will never want to put the book down. The details described in it are especially amazing with good narrations and characters you feel like you know. Also, it really shows a good hint of realism because of how advanced our world is today and many people can see things like this happening in the future as well. (Recommended by Marcin.)
  6. The Perfect Score by Rob Buyea: The story is basically about a group of kids whose school is about to have a Statewide Assessment Test. To make sure that the kids are ready for the tests, the school takes away many of the things that kids like to do. This includes recess, birthday parties, read aloud, and to top it all off, the PTA is probably going to ban the boys who get bad scores from trying out for the football team. These changes are so bad that even most of the teachers don’t like them. Then, one of the kids gets an idea about how to make sure that he and everyone else in his class pass the test. I recommend reading this story because it is a unique story with an interesting plot and a good ending. Have fun reading. (Recommended by Veer.)
  7. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie: One day, a pretty rich dude named Roger Ackroyd is MURDERED during a calm house party. Luckily, Hurcule Poirot, a Belgian detective, is on the case! With the help of main character James Sheppard, he tries to uncover the secret murderer. This book is so good mainly because of the surprising ending. But it also features unique characters, and the writing of Mystery Queen Agatha Christie. 5/5 stars. (Recommended by Noah.)
  8. Cracked by K.M. Walton: This book is about two kids one who gets bullied and the other kid who is the bully.The kid who gets bullied, Victor, belongs to a rich family, but his parents only use him to get their rank up in society, so if he gets a ninety-nine out of one hundred on a test, his parents scold him. Eventually, he gets sick of his parents when they go to Europe without him because he didn’t get a full score on the SAT test, so he takes twenty-five of his mom’s sleeping pills and gets taken to a hospital. Victor has to go to a suicide prevention group where he is forced to share his feelings. Bull is the bully who belongs to not so wealthy family. His mom says that he was an accident, and she hates him because she ruined her chance of being a yoga teacher after his birth.Bull’s grandpa is an alcoholic who physically abuses him. Bull tried to kill his grandpa when he got a hold of a gun, but his grandpa takes the gun and shoots his leg.Bull is taken to the hospital where he lies and says he tried to do suicide.Victor comes in after he does, and they both are stuck in the suicide group together with a few other kids — the bully and the bullied.I recommend this book to teenagers because suicide rates have been going up in teens. (Recommended by Zuhayr.)
  9. The Body in the Woods by April Henry: The Body in the Woods is about a search and rescue team who go out to find an autistic man in the woods. The main characters, Alexis, Nick and Ruby, are around 15 years old. They ask a dog walker, a bird watcher and many other people if they had seen him, but none had. While looking, they find a young girl’s body hid in the bushes. They all get called back to look for clues until they can find the killer. Meanwhile, other girls are getting murdered. But little do they know that the killer is closer than they think… I love this book because it makes you want to keep reading and reading and reading. (Recommended by Grace.)
  10. Monster by Walter Dean Myers: This book is great if you are into Realistic Fiction / Mystery. The writing in this book is dialogue, like a screenplay or script. This book is from the point of view of what the main character is seeing and experiencing. One thing you need to know is the main character is in jail and he really hates it there and wants to get out. For example the text states, ” I cant write it enough times to make it look the way I feel. I HATE, HATE, HATE this place!! ” Is he guilty? Was he in the wrong place at the wrong time? Does anyone care or want justice for him?(Recommended by Colin.)

Ten Books Loved by 7th Grade Readers (List 2)

This is the second of four lists of “Ten Books Loved by 7th Grade Readers.” We began the school year in mid-August with a quest to uncover all the books can do for our lives with daily choice reading. In mid-November, I asked students to tell me about the book they most loved, one book worthy of recommending to others.

The book-I-most-loved list is as diverse as the readers. Our readers love these books for a range of reasons because books offer us a range of experiences. Some want to escape. Some want to ponder the world. Some want to lean into a future self. Some want to go back to a younger, “easier” time in life. Some want to travel to another time or place. Some just want to learn. Books can do all of that.

Over the next few weeks, I will share my seventh-grade students’ favorites along with their reviews in the hopes that we can offer you some ideas for your classroom library, Christmas gifts, or ever-growing to-read list. (But you can still text, tweet, or message me for recommendations!) Here is List 2:

1.All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely: Rashad Butler African American (16) Is at a store just buying chips, when he trips over a white lady. Moments later the store clerk thinks that he is stealing and the cops get called. Paul Galuzzo is a local cop who sees this and immediately rushes to the scene where he brutally beats him up and arrests him. Quinn is a white kid who is watching this all go down. While watching this he doesn’t have a clue of what to do. The reason for this is because the cop (Paul), is his best friends older brother. He knows that what Paul did was wrong but how could he report his best friends brother? Meanwhile Rashad is hospitalized and all of his family is depressed except Spoony who is just mad. This book explores racism and police brutality. Read on to learn more. (Recommended by Preeth.)  Rashad is a African Boy who lives an average life, but one day he goes to a store and trips over a white lady. It looks to be that he tried to steal something, but he’s not so a cop takes him and kicks him and throws him to the ground for a long amount of time.Topics in this book are racism and police brutality. This book is a good unique story. (Recommended by Phil.)2.Ghost: This story is about an African American kid, this boy lives only with his mom and they are poor. One thing that this boy loves to do is run, the track coach saw him running one day and asked him if he wanted to be on the team.This story keeps going through his life in sad and happy moments. I believe that this is an amazing story and I couldn’t put it down, some of the topics that it goes into is bullying, poverty, sports, and theft. It is at sometimes a very funny story and can be sad at times, all around this is an amazing book, and I think that everybody should read it. (Recommended by Alex.) 3.All in Pieces by Suzanne Young: All in Pieces is a great book to read because it doesn’t get boring. I don’t like having to go through multiple pages without anything happening, if this sounds like you this might be your book. This book explores Savannah a girl who is now in a special school after getting expelled for stabbing her old boyfriend with a pencil. But, she has a very good reason. Savvy is in high school, her Mom left her drunk Dad, and she has a little brother with disabilities she has to take care of. Then a boy named Cameron comes around and they end up falling in love. This book made me want to keep reading always, with many plot twists and cliffhangers. This is why I recommend All in Pieces. (Recommended by Brynn.)4.Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan: The Ship: You should read this book because it is a very funny book about Norse mythology but in the modern day. Magnus and his group of teen-aged einherjar have to try to stop Ragnarok, or the end of the world. Through the rough journey, Rick Riordan adds some great jokes along the way. It is a cleverly woven plot with some great variety between the different characters. Overall it is just a very funny, adventurous story that had me on my toes. Make sure to read the first two books in the series first: Magnus Chase: The Sword of Summer, Magnus Chase: The Hammer of Thor. (Recommended by Scott.)5. Life of Pi by Yann Martel is about a boy named Pi that has lived his whole life in a zoo, until he is told that they need to move to Canada along with their few remaining animals. After a storm sinks the ship that his family is on, Pi, the only survivor, is left on a raft, with an impatient Tiger, a ravenous Hyena, a helpless Zebra, and a confused Orangutan. This is the miraculous story of survival, trust, and instinct. (Recommended by Joey.)6. Refugee by Alan Gratz:

Josef, Isabel, and Mahmoud are all fleeing their home because of what was left of their home. For Josef, he is involved with the Holocaust and is trying to escape Hitler and the Nazis, so he and his family sail on a boat that SHOULD take them to freedom. For Isabel, she is from Cuba, and the Soviet Union has fallen down, which was her families, and most of Cuba’s main source of getting food, water, and money. So, she travels with her family on a custom-made boat to try and find America. Finally, for Mahmoud, he lives in Syria during the war, and his house got bombed. So, his family decides that they need to get out of Syria, and find safety, and a country that would actually let refugees in. But the question was… would they? I think you should read this book because it is always full of suspense because there are so many big events that happen throughout this book, and it just had a great plot and even better ending. (Recommended by Mark.)

This book, Refugee, is about three different main characters, in three different time periods. One during World War 2, one during the 1990’s, and one in present-day time. Even though these three characters are separated by time and location, they all have one thing in common: they are all refugee’s. Josef, a Jewish boy in late-1930’s Nazi Germany, is being pushed out of his country due to the Holocaust. Isabel, a girl living in Cuba in the 90’s, is leaving Cuba for the U.S. to avoid prosecution for basic rights. And, Mahmoud, a Syrian boy who leaves Syria to escape growing violence. I recommend this book to young readers because while it contains some historical fiction, which can help readers learn more about the past, it is still relevant, with a present-day timeline. I found it very innovative, and very interesting. While parts may be sad, it eventually ends up with a happy ending, one that is not cliche, but full of unexpected outcomes, and intertwined storylines. (Recommended by Matthew.)

Refugee by Alan Gratz is about three characters that have to leave their homes and pause their life to get away from the violence that is happening at the country they live in. Isabel, her family, and her neighbors go on a boat and sail off to find safety in America. Josef, (his sister) Ruthie, and Josefs mom go onto a train and they meet up with their father on the ship so that they can sail out of Germany to Cuba to get away from the Nazis. Mahmoud and his family try to travel in a car from Syria to Germany to get away from the violence and destruction that had ruined their home. (Recommended by Magda.)

7.Last Shot by John Feinstein: In this book, the main character Stevie Thomas wanted to peacefully watch the final 4 basketball games (since he won a contest to get tickets to the game), but something very fishy happens, so Stevie and his friend Susan have to figure out the mystery. One reason I really liked this book because you really get to know the main character as a friend. For example, the book talks about what Stevie is thinking, so you really know who he is as a character, and that’s why I REALLY liked this book. (Recommended by Nathan).

8.More Than We Can Tell by Brigid Kemmerer is a book about two teenagers Rev and Emma who are struggling with their life. Rev starts to get letters from his biological father who abused him and he hasn’t seen for 10 years since his foster parents took him in. Meanwhile, Emma’s parents are always arguing and can never seem to get along, much less tolerate each other. So when they both try to run from their problems, they meet and try to help each other and figure out their lives. (Recommended by Rachel.) 

9. Girl, Stolen: A Novel by April Henry:  Cheyenne, a 16 year old blind girl, gets kidnapped in her own car. She is driven far away and kept wherever her kidnapper drove her. Griffin, her kidnapper, isn’t too bad, she might actually like him. On the other hand, there’s his dad and his two employees…they are cruel. Cheyenne misses her family and knows she needs to escape, but it’s not as easy as you’d think. Even if she managed to get outside, there are miles of woods and a vicious, bloodthirsty bulldog. Will she ever get back home? You should read this book because its impossible to put down. It is an amazing story that will leave you shocked and curious. (Recommended by Maddy.)

10.The McDavid Effect: Connor McDavid and the New Hope for Hockey by Marty Klinkenberg: This story is about the path of debate-ably the best hockey player in the world. This book is so unique, for example, its has experiences never that have never been heard about. I personally was not able to put this book down, it was so intriguing and so educational. Me being a hockey player I try to do some similar things as Connor because I want to be as good as him one day. (Recommended by Lucas.)

Ten Books Loved by 7th Grade Readers (List 1)

In the last week, I’ve had texts, emails, and social media posts asking for book recommendations. My sister was looking for book ideas for a teen girl in a family she’s sponsoring for Christmas. A colleague was looking for ideas for her junior high daughter’s neighborhood book group.  A parent of one of my students was looking for ideas for her other son (not in my class).

It only takes me a few minutes to scroll through my Goodreads and “share” my recommendations. I am so glad that I am becoming a helpful resource for readers and those who love them.

Still, you may wonder if teens actually feel the same way I do about the books I recommend. Yes? Me, too. Just before fall break, I asked my seventh-grade students to look through their reading portfolio and select the “best” book they’d read since we began school in mid-August. Many of the books I’ve recommended are on this list, but there are a few surprises, too.

The “best” book list is as diverse as the readers. Our readers love these books for a range of reasons because books offer us a range of experiences. Some want to escape. Some want to ponder the world. Some want to lean into a future self. Some want to go back to a younger, “easier” time in life. Some want to travel to another time or place. Some just want to learn. Books can do all of that.

Over the next few weeks, I will share my seventh-grade students’ favorites along with their reviews in the hopes that we can offer you some ideas for your classroom library, Christmas gifts, or ever-growing to-read list. (But you can still text, tweet, or message me for recommendations!) Here is List 1:

  1. The Last Leopard by Lauren St. John: The plot twists were very good, and the characters try to save a leopard that has been the biggest leopard that lives, and his name is Khan. The characters are Martine, Ben, Thomas (Female and Grandmother), Sadie, Ngwenya, and Grace. Some of these characters only appear in few pages, but they are great characters. (Recommended by Byambatseren.)
  2. A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman is a good book, but also a wonderful lesson. A dancer, Veda, loved dancing and wanted to continue, but she got into a accident, which cost her leg. Many people said that they were sorry that she couldn’t dance any longer. Though, despite everyone’s discouragement toward her, Veda, strong and persistent didn’t let something like this get into the way of her dream. I’m recommending this book to people to tell them, never give up on your dream, no matter what it is, like being doctor or a singer. Always try your best, but f you can’t get it, try, try again. To me, after finishing the book, I felt a new hope inside me. Similar to Veda, I am a dancer. But every now and then, people will say I’m not that good, people are better that you and so on. But now after reading A Time to Dance, I feel like there is energy inside me and blocking all the negativity that were thrown at me. There are people that are rude and mean, but remember inside, you are the best at what you do and don’t let anyone try to take that confidence and talent out of you. (Recommended by Charlene.) 
  3. Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard is wonderful book perfect for fantasy lovers. Mare wanted equality between normal Red blooded people and powerful Silver blooded people. Those gifted with Silver blood have supernatural powers like telepathy, and Reds spend their life serving Silvers. Mare is special. She bleeds Red but has Silver powers. Usually, I can’t find a book good enough to finish. This one, I finished in one day. The plot twist itself kept me up all night waiting in anticipation for the next book. Just remember, Maven is his mother’s son. (Recommended by Anya.) 
  4. Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson: Curzon and Isabel, two important characters along with Ruth fight through war torn areas to find their freedom in the Revolutionary War trying to barely survive and stick together. I would recommend it for my classmates because a unique an great writing/story it gives descriptive details about their journey across the states trying to escape the British making it seem so real. However, it’s historical fiction which is mind-blowing. (Recommended by Kyle.) 
  5. The  Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli  is a historical fiction book set in 1959 and is written by Jerry Spinelli. The main character, Cammie O’Reilly, is a girl who lost her mother at a young age. She is a warden’s daughter meaning that her father is a prison master. Her best friend is found wearing lipstick, a child killer is brought to the prison and Cammie is constantly fighting with her trustee, Eloda. Since Cammie’s mother died in an accident long time ago, she is looking for a motherly figure. The only place she’s got is the prison. She’s determined to work with what she’s got and find the right mother. Read this 352 page book, to find out. (Recommended by Kate.) 
  6. This is Where it Ends by Marieke Nijkamp. This book is about 4 different point of views with one situation and that situation is a hostage situation in a school shooting. This book was absolutely amazing and a good way to never put that book down until it’s done. If you like serious stories this is the story for you! For example, a lot of people die while others must be brave to save others, so it’s truly very serious. (Recommended by Joe.) 
  7. Burning Up by Caroline B. Cooney: This book is about a barn in which it burned in 1959 but strangely no one wants to answer questions that Macey needs in order for her to finish her school project. Why isn’t anyone answering her questions? Why doesn’t Macey’s grandparents want to tell her anything about the fire? I think people should read this book because the genre is a mystery that gives the readers a sense of the past.Also, the book has an awesome plot twist because………… (Recommended by Jaden.) 
  8. You Know Me Well by David Levithan and Nina LaCour : The book You Know Me Well is about a gay teenage boy who is in love with his friend, but his friend likes a college boy, and a young teenage girl who is looking for love and meets a girl named Violet that after a few months finally gets to meet. Both the girl and the boy have a few friends towards the beginning but soon have a fight with them and maybe lose them; the way the book is written and how it describes the characters is just wonderful, and it just made me want to read more of the author’s stories, and you might also want to, too. This story sort of shares a lesson with it, but you must read to find out. (Recommended by Anthony.) 
  9. The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer is about a girl named Alexandra Bailey, Alex for short, who really had a lot going throughout her life. For example, their dad passed away when she and her twin brother, Connor, were only 10 years old. Connor started to do even worse in class, and Alex had no friends to talk to. One day, their grandmother came to their rented house to celebrate the twins 12th birthday, since their mom had to work double-shifts as a nurse. Their most amazing gift was their grandma’s old book called, The Land of Stories. That night Alex was reading the book for more than an hour, as silently fell asleep…but not for long. She woke up to the sudden sound of a hum. She looked at the book and was surprised to see the book was glowing. I recommend this book because this book has a lot of dialogue, it’s really funny, has a plot twist, and is a very unique story. For all you fantasy lovers out there, this is the perfect book for you! (Recommended by Shreya.)
  10. Solo by Kwame Alexander is about a teen named Blade who has a bad relationship with his father. Ever since his mother passed away, his dad has been acting up in numerous ways. He has to solve a lot of mental and physical problems with him and his family. It is a unique story with a lot of plot twists, and it is realistic fiction, which is nice because some people can relate to the main character. You should read this if you like books with lots of conflict, emotion, and adventure. (Recommended by Ronal.) 


Book Review: None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio 2015, Harper Collins Children ISBN: 9780062335319
None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio
2015, Harper Collins Children
ISBN: 9780062335319

I grew up in the 80s surrounded by images like Cindy Crawford and Pretty in Pinkwhich made figuring out what sort of girl I was “supposed” to be rather complicated. On top of that, I grew up with seven sisters ranging in size, shape, interest, and certainly attitude and three brothers who had their own ideas about what a girl “should” be.  And as a middle school teacher for over a decade, I see teenage girls and boys navigating a world of gender “shoulds” and trying on a spectrum of gender markers, which is beautiful and painful (at times) to witness. None of the Above by I. W. Gregorio is about an 18 year old girl with AIS (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome), when one’s chromosome make-up does not match the gender to which one identifies or intersex. She questions how she (and her whole school) understand what it means to be a girl.

In None of the Above,  Kristin Lattimer’s AIS was invisible to her father, her friends, and even her boyfriend. You can’t see AIS. Kristin, however, saw the signs as she matured; they were biological and personal. When a doctor confirms her diagnosis, whispers of self-doubt invade her private thoughts until sharing her diagnosis with a friend initiates public shaming and discrimination. Ignorance hurts.

The author I. W. Gregorio is a doctor, which adds quite a bit of credibility to this book’s subject.  Indeed, as I talked about in my review of  Tree Girl books can lift the veil of ignorance and teach readers by making accessible new concepts, anticipating questions and misconceptions, and by creating a bit of distance (and perspective) between the reader and the subject. Gregorio embeds in the narrative information to illuminate the ways people tend to conflate LGTB. Chromosomal sex  refers to our biological sex. Intersex means the biological sex does not align to the gender to which the person identifies. Gender identity is one’s internal sense (not chromosomes) of being male or female which may correspond to external sex but may not, which is transgender, and sexual orientation is a person’s sexual identity in relation  to the gender to which they are attracted. Gregorio also provides further reading recommendations in her appendix.

None of the Above is not a textbook; it is literature, and literature can cultivate empathy, recognizing that other people have feelings and that those feelings count. If readers approach None of the Above with an open mind, they will be more empathic about sex, gender and sexual orientation after reading it.  I think readers will feel for Kristen as she learns about and seeks support for AIS. I think readers will relate to Kristen being blindsided by her diagnosis and feeling rejected by her friends and even her gender.  At one point, after discussing Shakespeare in class, Kristen wonders, “…maybe Shakespeare was preaching that it shouldn’t matter if you were a man or a woman. But what if you were something in between.” Don’t we all feel “in between” at times in our lives? Don’t we all wonder if we are “normal”?

The brain does not know the difference between feeling compassion for a fictional figure and feeling it for flesh and blood. The emotion and the memory will be imprinted. I think  None of the Above  gets readers thinking about how we “other” people in our lives and how society teaches us to turn away from the unfamiliar, but I also hope readers will think about how they learned what it means to be a girl or to be a boy or to just be. For me, Cindy Crawford and Molly Ringwald were helpful, but my sisters — seeing them grow into amazing women — have taught me much, much more. And Kristen became my sister for a few hours.

So I like to rate books in two ways: finding the flow and classroom library. Did I get totally immersed when reading? Did hours go by without my noticing? And is this a book I would include in my middle school classroom library as a one copy, a book group selection, or a whole class novel?

  • Finding the Flow: I finished this book in two sittings — a few hours each. My need to understand kept me turning the pages. I learned about androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), and I feel like I have a better understanding of the diversity of biological sex and how it is something quite different from yet commonly muddled with gender identity and sexual orientation.  My favorite part was when Kristen sought help from a support group, and after talking about her diagnosis feeling “amazing” and finding “sisterhood” because she no longer felt alone.  I think this book is an important contribution to young adult literature.
  • Cla$$room Library: I would buy one copy for middle school, maybe a few more for a book group depending on the interests of students. Because the protagonist is 18 and there are quite a few detailed sexual encounters, this book seems more appropriate for high school readers  and libraries although I would love to read this in a book club with students (though I feel like I’d need parental consent).


10 Months.10 Lessons.

Thank you for your readership of Ethical ELA this school year. Thank you for being my teacher-friend.

In a typical school day, the only time teachers may be alone is when we use the restroom (until someone knocks on the door).  Still, teaching can feel quite lonely. Who can understand the joy of a lesson gone well? Who can appreciate when clouds of doubt blow in to rain upon said good lesson? To whom can we confess our tears of joy when a student finishes her first book or tears of regret when we lose our temper? Ethical ELA has been a place for me to work through the most humbling moments of teaching, and I appreciate you being virtually alongside me as I grapple with how to be good enough for the students with whom I am entrusted. So thank you. Thank you.

This is my final post of the school year; it is a year in review essentially, and then I will take some time this summer to just be Sarah (whatever that may be or mean). See you in August.

1.August 2016: Tech is just a tool.

Weekend Reading ExperienceI tend to write about questions and discoveries from our classroom. This year was no different. I started with discussions of technology because our class piloting 1:1 Chromebooks (among other classes across the district) as we transition to a district-wide 1:1 tech initiative.  I spent August trying to blend hand-held books and pens with sharing out docs, slides, and forms on screens I had to bend down to see. I taught tech skills alongside reading skills and tried out new apps and extensions. I know some of the tech lessons were necessary, but others sucked up important reading time.  After August, the Chromebooks became nothing more than a tool for organizing thinking, gathering resources, and preventing the delays and aggravation of  forgot-it-in-my locker, lost-it, dog-ate-it of learning artifacts, and we didn’t need these tools every day. Fridays were tech-free days when we’d look into each other’s eyes and paper pages — not screens.

2.September 2016: Be mindful of how you and your students communicate needs.

5 love languagesI was teaching at DePaul that fall – a course about socio-cultural influences on perceptions and development of middle school students. The Cubs were going to the World Series, and Donald Trump was becoming president. It was an emotionally charged semester within and beyond the classroom. This month was all about getting to know one another, which is the only way I knew we had a chance at a safe space to take risks and grow in junior high or in college classrooms. The “Love Language” post helped me work through many challenging situations with students the first weeks of school; they were testing me, teaching me how to know and relate to them. The love language framework helped me be mindful of the ways we communicate our needs and learn — deliberately– how to treat students and how to teach them to treat me.

3.October 2016: Taking care of yourself is an ethical responsibility.

be the teacherIn a matter of weeks, I was both invigorated by choice reading and fatigued (already) by the hustle and bustle of the schedule. The “honeymoon” phase of the year ended quickly, and I was not only unsure about whether or not to capitalize my blog titles but whether or not I had any business being a teacher. Thirteen years in, and I still had not figured out how to eat and stay hydrated in a school day. My first talk at the Illinois Reading Council made me feel like other people in Illinois actually cared about what I was doing; I had people in my session who came because of Ethical ELA’s work. Still, I had to take personal days to speak at a state and national conference, and I wasn’t so sure I would make it through another seven months with my sanity in tact. Because of this site, I felt like I had to recover from my melancholy, so the “fatigue in teaching” post reminded me to search for (and even fake it till you make it) balance. I bought vitamins and a pretty water bottle, pledging to drink more water in the name of health and sanity. When I fill my water bottle around 8th period, I feel like I am doing something good for me and my students: a hydrated teacher is a happy, rationale, ethical, kind teacher who is more open to choice and conversation.

4. November 2016: Love has to be at the heart of what we do and how we do it.

Imagine Together with BooksThis was the month for the election and for NCTE. It felt so great to be leading a session with Lesley Roessing about how books are mirrors, windows, and maps for our students in a time when I (and my students) were feeling panicked about the future of our country. I met Lesley on Facebook, and we proposed a session about YA lit that enticed a number of teachers looking for new titles and inspiration.  I returned to the classroom inspired by the teachers I met at NCTE — determined to read into new places and experiences. My course at DePaul had read Sherman Alexie’s The True Diary of a Part-Time Indian  and so did our eighth graders. Still compelled to walk the talk and be the teacher I was asking these thirty pre-service teacher to become, I wrote more about how to transition from choice to whole-class novels. In my #bookaday quest, I read several books that included sex scenes; I recalled my own experiences reading romance lit and considered how and if these book have a place in a middle school classroom library. So many of our junior high students experience love (and, yes, sex), and literature could do what the adults in their lives could not — talk about it. And then, there was the issue of assessment. I struggled with how best to assess learning, so I wrote about the “loving test” and how I try my best to test and grade in ways that help support students in their learning.

5.December 2016: Discomfort can hurt, and apologies can heal.

Broken HeartBy December, we had experienced 9-weeks of choice reading and a core text; we were transitioning to book groups. Students were making a lot of choices: books, groups, reading pace, annotating methods, and, of course, snacks for their groups. Some students soared and others acted out, resisting the responsibility overtly or subversively, uncomfortable with choice and autonomy. I was uncomfortable, too. It is so much easier reading one book as a class and using a packet of pre-determined questions to guide everyone to the similar “answers.” Now that we knew one another better, we had to be open to the implications of diverse lives intersecting in a shared reading experience. I made mistakes amidst the discomfort, which I wrote about, and I learned the power of an apology, which I used a lot this year. Discomfort is part of learning, but our reaction to discomfort may hurt others, and when it does, an apology goes a long way.

6. January 2017: It’s essential that you ask yourself this: “What are you doing here?”

After two weeks in Europe including a tour of Auschwitz, I began January with a new student teacher and existential questions. It is natural for teachers, especially student teachers to ponder our purpose, and I was discerning my place in teaching broadly and my position at my school more specifically. The posts this month seem all over the place, but as I look for a common thread, I notice that I wrote about why I am a teacher now. I wrote about my place in the classroom library, my place in the hallways of our school, my place in evaluating students — and the implications of how I use my place. My student teacher(s) helped me grapple with and through this in January because of the many, many conversations we had before, during, and after school. We have to ask questions, do inquiry, and find answers regarding our purpose as teachers.

7. February 2017: Materials, deadlines, and declarations are provisional.

Career Speech, WrittenOne of the greatest frustrations of teaching is time, especially when students are working in the realm of the provisional while the teacher (and school) is working with hard and fast deadlines. Learning, however, is so personal and even ethereal at times that one cannot count or plan or grasp just how and when learning will happen. The elusive nature of teaching and learning hit me hard in February that I could only surrender to its provisionality. Ownership (of books) is relative. Deadlines undermine learning. Lies reveal truth. Inasmuch as schools force neat, measurable ways of quantifying learning and categorizing students, students, as human beings, will remind us that learning is beautifully messy and will (almost never) fit into a school’s schedule.

8. March 2017: Remember and honor your roots.

I have had the privilege of working with several special education teachers over the years in a “push-in” almost “co-teaching” model. These women were gifts to me — having a partner — and to the students — having another adult to attend to (and even love) them. So when I had the opportunity to have a student teacher (another adult to teach and love students) both terms this school year, I said “yes” as long as we could use a co-teaching model. By March, their presence had me thinking deeply about how I became a teacher and who had most influenced who I became (and was still becoming) as a teacher, so I drew my teaching tree and invited teachers to share theirs. I noticed the other posts I wrote this month had nuances of comparison. By reflecting on my roots, I recognized and celebrated the traditions that shaped my becoming, which actually made it difficult for me to take ownership or celebrate a perceived accomplishment. “The Pride and Shame of Sharing” post was about me second guessing this webiste and any sharing I do about my teaching. I am who I am because of my roots and branches, so I feel self-indulgent in sharing any accomplishment or pride in my work. So, I guess I have to make clear that anything I say or do in my work is never wholly mine nor new. Ethical ELA exists because of my beautiful teaching tree.

9. April 2017: Students should create, should be the curriculum.

This was my third year hosting a site for students to write thirty poems in thirty days in honor of National Poetry Month. For this month, we moved away from daily reading of books toward daily reading of poetry — poetry written by students. As I noticed the quality of the poetry, I knew that their work had to “be” our curriculum: reading response to student poetry, text evidence from student poetry, figurative language analysis from student poetry. In thirty days, Ethical ELA hosted close to five thousand poems and comments written by students: a plethora of powerful content. Students wrote blog posts and created comparison projects (Comparison Blog) for their portfolios using student-written poetry. This was the highlight of my year because I finally got out of the way.

10. May 2017: Transition from your teacher-self to just being your self.

As much as I tried to not be oppressive in my practices this year — more choice, more student-created curriculum, less grading, less teacher-talk — I found myself pulling tight the reigns of instruction in our final month together.  In writing “The Countdown,” I realized that I while I help students find closure in our time together with portfolios and letters to their future selves, I do not do enough to help my teacher-self find closure each year. The aesthetic experience of teaching gives me such joy and purpose, that I don’t want it to end and feel lost without it, so this May has been about me trying new hobbies (e.g., swimming, hiking) and seriously pondering how I will spend my two-months off to take care of my heart, mind, and body. As my husband said, “I can’t wait to see who you become this summer.”


Thank you for reading Ethical ELA this year. What are some lessons you’ve learned this school year? What from Ethical ELA has been most helpful to you this school year? What will you do this summer to rejuvenate your heart, mind, and body?

“Give me your tired, your poor”: 11 Immigration Books Reviewed by Teens

11 immigration stories

Emma Lazarus crafted the words engraved on the pedestal tablet upon which the Statue of Liberty stands to, at one point in America’s past, light the way for immigrants. With “silent lips,” she utters, “Give me your tired, your poor,/ your huddled masses/ yearning to breathe free/…send these, the homeless,/ tempest-lost to me.”

The “me” is America, right? My grandfather thought so as he made his way through the inspection station at Ellis Island, the gateway for over 12 million immigrants to America from 1892 to 1954. And the “tempest”? The violent windy storm of civil war, famine, dictatorships, discrimination, poverty, and catastrophe. In the Lazarus poem, the implied “we” seems to be not only asking for but essentially declaring that we/America will take those “yearning to breathe free,” that we will give them that for which they yearn. It is a poem, however, not a legal document.

Of course, other “poems” in the form of  “acts” gradually began to restrict the implied all. If you were sick after escaping the famine or too tired after surviving a bomb and crossing the ocean, you were rejected or detained in the island hospital. If the quota for your national origin was met, then even though you survived life-threatening discrimination of freedom, you were sent back to oppression. Still, many people came to America with nothing but hope in their pockets.

Since 1886, there has been a tall lady with a torch lighting the way to our shores and since 1890 an immigration station on Ellis Island to process the “tired,” “poor,” “homeless,” and “tempest-lost.” While many were turned away, some of us — here today — can trace our ancestry to the immigrants who came through that gateway. We are here because our people made the journey in spite of the risks, passed the inspection (or cheated it), and fit the profile of whatever quota was in place.

The immigration process was never easy, never perfect. The poem was an imagined ideal. Lazarus was imagining how our world ought to be while the laws that followed tempered hope with discrimination and eugenics. And before and during the poems and acts and processes, many human beings were brought here against their will–enslaved, exploited, dehumanized. There is no liberty there. And there was no liberty for the Native peoples who were killed for their land as cities extended into the plains to accommodate population shifts and development dreams.

It is worth reminding ourselves and our students of the dark side of immigration,  of the work to be done as we imagine an America.

A new version of America is emerging with executive orders that have, in the past, caused waves of immigration; our students (under 18) did not have a say in imagining this America. Travel bans have started. More “acts” restricting and rejecting human beings hoping for a reprieve from their trauma are coming. This story is all over the news — with real and alternate facts — but “the story” is about one man rather than the essentially dehumanized friends, family, and future America. The news is imagining an America that I don’t want us to be.

Facts can inform. Facts can show us a version of what’s happening in the world,  but they fall short of helping us understand the social forces that shape the lives of people across the globe — lives that are increasingly interdependent. We cannot afford to think “America first” or “America only.”  What happens “there,” impacts “here.” What happens “here,” impacts “there.” Our students are growing into this America, and they need help understanding the ethical implications of this increasing interdependence.

Enter books.

Immigration stories can help our students understand the social forces that push people from all they know. Reading immigration stories helps our students understand that getting here is nothing short of a miracle for so many and being here does not necessarily mean a life of rest, riches, shelter, equality, and freedom.

A written, published story asks us to bear witness to an account of life that both resembles our own and pulls us into imagining lives beyond our existence and imagination. At minimum, readers’ feelings will be tugged toward compassion; at best, they will recognize injustices, imagine how the world ought to be, and one day use their lives to move closer to that “ought.”

11 immigration stories

For several years, my junior high students have been reading stories of immigration. I have assembled here a collection of eleven immigration books and included students’ readings of those books. Typically, the blogger offers the summary or synopsis. I read a book a day (#bookaday) in search of that just-right book for specific students. Sometimes I make a good match, but sometimes I can’t because I am just not a teenager. What I imagine a book to be doing is not always what a teenager experiences. Thus, for this blog, I offer student voices to make visible the sort of thinking teens are doing about immigration and the social forces that impact lives around the globe.

These discussions, written by seventh and eighth graders, give you a glimpse of what your students will experience when they read these stories imagining an America. (To preserve their voices, I have not altered the students’ writing.)

Stories of Immigration as Discussed by 7th and 8th Graders

28763485The Sun is Also a Star  by Nicola Yoon

Daniel and Natasha just met today, and they are falling in love, but Natasha tries to hide her feelings because she’s getting deported back to Jamaica tonight, but she doesn’t tell Daniel. They went to a coffee place and then Natasha walked Daniel to where his Yale interview is.  Natasha has to tell Daniel that she’s getting deported, and then Daniel could help her be able to stay in America. Here is my reasoning for making that claim: Natasha is catching feelings for Daniel, and she can’t just walk away from him forever. Here is my text evidence to prove my reasoning is sound: “I close my open palm, which wants to hold his hand, and I walk on” (103). This book is making me feel like I can’t put the book down once I start reading because its so interesting and you never know whats going to happen next, but you need to know right away.

8537327 Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai  (book group discussions below)

7362158Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

The story explores one immigration experience; it talks about language and culture because the character in my book struggles with the language barrier in America, it also explains a little bit about her culture. For example in the text where Kim goes to an American school for the first time she struggles to communicate with her teacher. In the text it says, (Teacher) “Can’t you speak English? They said you did.” This came out as a grumbled whine. Who was he talking about? He took a breath. “Why are you late?” This I understood. “I sorry, sir, we not find school.” (25)  This  shows the language barrier because she is having a hard time communicating with her teacher. I will now give a brief summary of the book. This book is about a girl named Kim Chang and her mother. They are coming to America for the first time from Hong Kong. They are doing this for a better life for their family. They are very poor and don’t own much, this makes things very hard for them.

659871Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story by Pegi Deitz Shea

The genre is realistic fiction because the story is something that can happen in real life. I’ve read page 142-220 (the end) this week, and here is a little bit about what happened. Mai has mixed feelings about her grandma. She wants  to ask her grandma why she didn’t want to come to America at the same time as her cousins and why did she keep it away from her so long. Mai doesn’t ask this question to her grandma even though she really wants to. For the first time though, Mai’s grandma raised a hand at Mai. Mai was surprised of this and i think it supported not liking her grandma more than liking her. Mai is tired of helping her grandma with every little thing like translating, going to all the appointments with her, and just helping her in general. Even though she knows that her grandma does need her help. Later on, Mai gets a letter from her best friend from the refugee camp, Pa Nhia. The letter states that Pa Nhia is married and that she is pregnant and works a lot. Mai’s grandma says that what Pa Nhia’s going through is better than America and this also ticks Mai off.

5981 Journey of the Sparrows  by Fran Leeper Buss

The genre is realistic fiction. I’ve read read pages 52 to 104 this week, and here is a little bit about what’s going on the white haired man tried to physically hurt Maria, but from the help of the other women in the factory maria ran away. Tomas found a church where they gave food so maria , Oscar & Tomas went to the church frequently. They met a women in the church, they called her ” the quetzal lady”. After what had happened with the white haired man , maria had to stop working in the factory. The quetzal lady gave Maria and Oscar something, which they enjoyed. After awhile maria went back to work with Alicia, Julia gave bad news to maria , which made her even more worried. one day while Alicia and maria worked the immigration came & took many women including Alicia , but luckily maria got saved. Maria was caught stealing at a church by father Jonathan. father Jonathan helped maria by giving her food and aspirin. mama send Teresa to the north with maria, Oscar and Julia hoping she would get there safe and sound. Tomas and maria kept telling each other about themselves. Julia’s water broke so they went dona Elena’s house to deliver the baby , but were scared that things wouldn’t come out right. This is a story of escaping the danger in El Salvador through Mexico and then crossing the border into the United States. Not everyone in Maria’s family made it.

5970496 Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea

The title of the book I am reading is Into the Beautiful North. The author is Luis Alberto Urrea. The genre is fiction because its not on real events. I’ve read pages 1-50 this week, and here is a little bit about what’s going on.  So what’s going on is that there’s this 19 year old woman named Nayeli and she has there main friends named Tacho, Yolo, and Vampi and she has an aunt named Irma and a woman named La Osa . What the conflict is is that they live in a town names Los Tres Camarones and it’s in Mexico, Sinalo. And what’s happening is that in the beginning that town was being ruined by drug dealers and men. And now that many people have discovered a place called “America” and there all going there so many men are leaving the town and many of them are leaving to find work in American. Nayeli wants to go to America, too, but not to stay — to bring the men back home.153281

Of Beetles and Angels by Selamawi Asgedom

The genre is a memoir. I’ve read pages 17 to 44 this week, and here is a little bit about what is going on Selamawi’s family is about to leave Sudan and a few days before they are about to leave Selamawi’s half sister Mulu comes but she doesn’t have the papers to leave with Selamawi and his parents. They try to get her pass the security guard but the guard says  that she can’t come because she doesn’t have the papers. Selamawi’s father Haileab tells the guard ” WOULD YOU LEAVE YOUR DAUGHTER HERE IF YOU WERE  GOING TO A DIFFERENT STATE?!”. The guards says “There’s nothing I can do”. This is really the story of resettling in Wheaton, Illinois as a family. Every family member has a story of figuring out how to live.

463780 A Step From Heaven by An Na

The main character of this book is a girl named Young Ju that lives in Korea with her family. Young Ju finds they are moving to Mi Gook (America) through her friend Ju Mi. She then goes and asks her Mom if that’s true, and her Mom tells her that it is. Young Ju thinks that Mi Gook is Heaven, and she is excited because she thinks she is going to see Harabugi, but Harabugi is in a Heaven not America. She then realizes that she is not in Heaven. Later in the book there is conflict between the Mom and Dad. The most interesting part that stood out to me was when Young Ju’s Dad told her that she couldn’t be president because she was a girl. It stood out to me because it broke her heart and she started to think that her Dad likes her little brother and not her. At one point, the author writes, ” I reach down and pull a bow off my shoe. I am not a baby anymore” (40). What I think about all this is that, that made Young Ju feel like she needs to change and act differently. I think that what her Dad told her wasn’t right because then Young Ju will think something else, that she needs to change. But if she does then she’s not herself, she’s not the real Young Ju.

444414Uprising by Margret Peterson Haddix

The genre is historical fiction. I’ve read pages 0-103 this week, and here is a little bit about what is going on: The story is being told through the point of view of three girls. Bella, the first point of view, has immigrated from Italy to the United States, and is being guided by his cousin Pietro. She lives with the Luciano’s who make flowers, but she is warned by Pietro that they are dishonest. At the factory Bella works at the workers are going on strike because they feel they are not being payed or treated fairly, but Bella does not going on. Yetta, the second point of view, also works at the factory and she has had it with the working conditions, so she is a leader of  the union, along with her sister. Jane, who is the third point of view the story is being told from, is a wealthy girl who wants to attend college, but her father is against women’s rights. She drives by the factory and sees the women on strike and standing up for themselves, and she is intrigued.

13262761 Outcasts United by Warren St. John

The genre is biography. I’ve read pages 69 to 127 this week , and here is a little bit about what is going on . The Fugees have gotten more and more intense . Luma has made practices more harder . They have to run for 35 minutes straight. The rules that she made are really straightforward and strict . The Fugees already lost to Phoenix from 7-2 . The players started coming to practice late and disobeying the rules . Luma decided to cut off the next season . She kept her focus on the Under Thirteens but the Under Fifteens fought for what they loved , their team and soccer .

31118Behind the Mountains by Edwidge Danticat

The genre is fiction because it’s first persons point of view of coming to America. I’ve read pages 1-50 this week, and here is a little bit about what is going on, Cealine, lives in Haiti, with her mom named “Manman”. Cealine also has a brother called “Moy”. Cealine goes to school with her friends and likes her classroom. Cealine’s teachers name is Madame Auguste.  The thinking question I want to talk about is what are some new pieces of information that you learned from your reading. My response to this is that I didn’t know that there was a bombing going on and that Cealines mother were nearly killed. At one point, the narrator says “bombs are going off in the capital city of Port-au-Prince (38), and this shows that people were getting killed and some survived. What I think about all this is that people could have lost a leg because a “pipe bomb” was set off and killed lots of people.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon (Jamaica)

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (verse, Saigon)

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urea (Mexico)

La Linea by Ann Jaramillo (Mexico)






Shadow of the Dragon by Sharon Garland (Vietnam) 320
Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story by Pegi Deitz Shea 240
Song of the Buffalo Boy by Sherry Garland- Vietnam 288
A Step from Heaven  by An Na Korea 160
Nothing but the Truth and a Few White Lies  by Justina Chen 256
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok (China) 290
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai   (Vietnam) 272
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (Ireland) 432
Uprising by Margaret Peterson Haddix (Italy) 346
Of Beetles and Angels by Mawi Asgedom (east Africa) 176
Outcasts United  by Warren St. John  (many) 240
Journey of the Sparrows by Fran Leeper Buss (El Salvador) 160
Behind the Mountains by Edwidge Danticat (Haiti) 192
Lupita Manana by Patricia Beatty (Mexico)


Warning, Triggering, Censoring, Advising: Recommending Books to Teens

A seventh grade boy came up to me during reading class the other day, stepping away from his browsing on Goodreads for his next book.

He said after reading a review about one book, “This one reviewer said he fell into a deep depression after reading a book. Should I take that to be a warning that I should not read it?”

Now this boy typically does not talk to me privately; he prefers his group of guys in class for jokes. I started to answer, and then noticed I was towering over him by over a foot, so I pulled over a couple chairs so we could be eye to eye and said, “Well, it does sound like a warning, doesn’t it? I just finished this book, Girl in Pieces, and thought for most of the book about students I know who have self-harmed and grappled with depression and trauma. I wondered how this book might trigger their trauma again or give them unhealthy ideas of coping with stress. Triggering means to set off old memories or even bring to the surface emotions that we push down. Books can be powerful in that way.”

The boy was listening so carefully and nodding, so I continued, “This book made me sad and uncomfortable, but at no point did this book make me want to hurt myself. It wasn’t a trigger for me. It helped me understand another way of being in the world. But a friend sort of warned me about it, so I was on alert. I was very aware of my reactions as I read.”

I realized I was lecturing now, but I had just finished the book and hadn’t talked about the experience yet. I needed this conversation perhaps more than my student did, but I try to make visible my life as a reader for students and he was a good (willing? captive?) listener, so I continued.

“Readers do have to be quite honest with themselves when they dive into an unfamiliar genre or subject–about what they can handle and how they might work through discomfort or confusing parts. Thanks for listening to me talk about the book. Does this help answer your question at all?”


“Are you considering doing a book study about depression?”


This quarter students are reading three books within a subject or genre to do a study of how different authors represent that genre or subject. This boy was searching teen novels about depression on Goodreads.

After talking about his book study plan, I continued my mini-lecture: “Books can be too close to home;they can help us make sense of our own lives, and they can help us be more compassionate toward others. Think about what this book study might be for you. Let’s talk about that tomorrow, okay?”


“You may try reading with extra attention toward how you are responding. You can abandon the book at any time if you’re uncomfortable , but you may find that, like me, you’ll want to talk about the book as a way of making sense of what’s going on in the story and with you.”

The bell rang, and the boy left the classroom.

Girl in Pieces: A Mini Review

A lot was going on with me when I read Girl in Pieces. I struggled with the beginning, not wanting to be in Charlie’s world, in the treatment center.  I was relieved when the setting shifted. I appreciated the story-line extending beyond the treatment center because recovery is anything but linear. As a former social worker, I witnessed clients struggle to find shelter, jobs, and hobbies after treatment. I witnessed relapse after relapse when old friends would come around or when whispers of shame would turn to screams. I witnessed how families with the best intentions enabled and how lives with “friends” or “loves” became so enmeshed that the self was indistinguishable from the other. This book captured all of that without giving up hope.

Girl in Pieces read almost like a verse novel, which makes sense given the title and the narrator’s process of assembling her pieces to recognize her always wholeness. So it reads fractured and abrupt and even distorted at times, which seems purposeful and even helpful in representing the partiality of any one story of trauma.

There is profanity. Living among teens and considering the worlds of the characters, that also seems appropriate. The more YA I read, the more I am desensitized to the language. This is not to say that I don’t notice it, but I recognize the word choice as the author’s deliberate attempt–successful or not–to represent the character in her time and place. Desensitized or not, I still have to keep profanity in mind when I am book talking or recommending books  to teens. I typically say, “I don’t know your family values or what you are comfortable with, but there is some profanity in this story.” I may follow up with whether or not it is mature in context or intended as humorous or if it’s rather excessive or intermittent.

The School Library Journal shared the results of a study conducted in 2008 of the profanity in 40 YA books on The New York Times Best Seller Lists:

While there’s no denying that profanity exists in YA novels, many authors says it’s an integral part today’s teen culture and to exclude it would offer young readers a sanitized version of the real world that many couldn’t relate to.

Profanity in YA literature exists and is, perhaps, an integral part of teen culture, but that does not alleviate the pressure teachers feel to respect students’ and parents’ preferences and wishes in books.

Teaching or Censoring

Thinking back to my conversation with my student, clearly I recognize that our “conversation” was very one-sided. Did I warn or inform? Did I censor the subject in some way? Did I trigger a memory or emotion for the student?

I think what I did might be teaching in some informing-lecturing-advising form. I think I talked like a reader–a more experienced reader–who was in a position to advise another reader. I also think that I somehow distorted, shaped, colored, altered the student’s thinking about reading, books, reviews, depression–just not sure how.

I checked in with my good listener the next day to see if he was worried about anything in particular or wanted to talk to a social worker. He said he was just curious about that review and never thought about a book as a trigger or making people emotional. Still, I’m going to probe a bit more as his subject/novel study gets underway.

I am in a position of power, so I have to think about the implications of my words. Reflecting on this short exchange, what is illuminated for me is the very real ethical implications of recommending books that unveil the present and past of trauma. I think teachers and friends should 1) read the book before recommending it, 2) know the potential reader before recommending it, and 3) if possible, support the reader during the experience by checking in and being available to talk about the book and emotional responses.

Considering Girl in Pieces as a book to recommend to teens, I definitely want to be sure I know as much as I can about the reader’s emotional stability and history. I might start by asking the student to read this author’s note to start a conversation about both the author’s purpose of making visible the often hidden scars of trauma and the student’s interest in the subject matter. I already have a group of students who want to read this, so we will read the author’s note together and meet regularly. One student sees our school social worker, so I plan to talk to the social worker before putting this book in her hands. It might be just what she needs to reflect on her experience, but it might be a trigger, and I don’t want to make that call.

I have a lot of books in my classroom library and encourage students to make choices that stretch their experience of the world, so I can’t always make a personal introduction to a book for a student, nor do I think I should. Some might suggest, then, that I put warning labels on the books.

There has been some debate at the university level about trigger warning labels, statements, and even excluding certain texts because of traumatic content. The American Association of University Professors published a statement on trigger warnings. Here is an excerpt:

Some discomfort is inevitable in classrooms if the goal is to expose students to new ideas, have them question beliefs they have taken for granted, grapple with ethical problems they have never considered, and, more generally, expand their horizons so as to become informed and responsible democratic citizens.   Trigger warnings suggest that classrooms should offer protection and comfort rather than an intellectually challenging education.  They reduce students to vulnerable victims rather than full participants in the intellectual process of education.  The effect is to stifle thought on the part of both teachers and students who fear to raise questions that might make others “uncomfortable.”

Labels or statements do conflate and do interfere with literary experiences, which are unique to each reader. Still, when facing a traumatic event or image whole class, it makes sense to prepare students by contextualizing the content and making space to avert one’s gaze, to process, to react, to reflect. For personal reading and study, however, I am not a fan of such labels and statements for the reasons stated in excerpt and because as such they are insufficient. In my view, nothing replaces conversation with students, and even those are insufficient and have implications.

“Warning” students about triggers and profanity may be one way of talking about student-book matching with regard to more sensitive topics in young adult literature. Warning may lead to censoring. An informing or advising stance is better–just be careful not to talk too much.