My front row seat

I’m a big fan of school (especially ZLO!).  It’s no secret.  I love the heft of a textbook and all the backpacks, papers and pencils.  Better than that are the kids who are interesting, friendly and funny.   And even better — is watching them learn.  Usually, this happens in subtle increments but on precious days, I get to be witness to some huge leaps and then it’s awesome!!  Some, well most, people don’t get it but if you could see what I see, you might get just as jazzed about it as I do.

Most recently, I had the pleasure of listening to my freshman class give informational speeches.  Simply put, they were phenomenal.  My role is to listen, critique, give encouragement and feedback, but I found myself just being a comfortable audience member, taking in their knowledge and able to relax as they had the time well under control.  What a pleasure to not only hear their speeches but also to be assured that we have some fabulous adults on the way to our community.  They’re articulate, caring people who have a keen eye on the world.  Sharp and smart, these kids give me enormous confidence and I trust them completely – not only in my classroom but in their future roles.

In other classes we’re reading novels and I see their wheels actively turning.  My 8th graders thought they had a pretty good idea of what went on during WWII in Europe, but as we read, layers upon layers of stories are just waiting to be discovered.  They often begin with, “You mean they…?” when hearing about mistreatment of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust and learning about the lengths Hitler and his ilk went to dominate the world.  I can see their mental appetites whet and they eagerly go home to research other heroes who took a stand against evil.  In Sophomore English we just finished The Grapes of Wrath.  At the beginning of our reading I told them, “You might love this book; you might hate it, but you certainly won’t forget it.”  We found ourselves experiencing both emotions while reading it but oh, have we learned!  Beyond the story is always something more (and more and more) and with a little poking, I heard their insights just yesterday.  One student put his finger right on the pulse of the novel when he made connections that many adults wouldn’t have.  With delight, I praised him.  Yes!  For years I’ve been reading with these kids and slowly showing them how to read fiction with their Christian eyeballs and to hear their insights as we sifted through a truly sad story, was heart-warming.  (See what you’re missing?!?)

Then there are those moments when I get to learn from them. I had the pleasure to see kindness in action when a student was feeling overwhelmed with a new concept.  Before I could reach her, the girl sitting next to her gently said, “It’s okay, you’ll get it.  Here, let me show you.”  Some days, an astute student will ask me a question that makes me re-think how I’m presenting something and I’m so thankful.   I must teach for how they learn, not necessarily in the way that I think will be more effective, but in a way that will actually help them grasp the concept.  Thankfully, they’re patient with me.

Beyond that are invitations to games, goodbye waves before they leave for the day, a hearty laugh at one of my puns…life is good. So I gladly sit in the front row, facing them, but also taking in all the goodness that sits in front of me.  Kids who are capable learners in so many ways…but more than that, they’re really cool people!


Are devices keeping our teens from reading?

A year ago I was happily plodding along on the treadmill at the gym.  I was doing what I always do – reading – while trudging along at level 4.  That’s grandma pace – don’t judge.  I switched the book back and forth while holding onto the rail but then had to lean it against the touch screen so it was straight ahead of me.  Before I knew it, I was running!!  I jumped off and saw that the touch screen had crept up to 14.  That’s full-sweat, sprinting-up-a-mountain fast.  If you know me, you know I don’t run, but I was — because the book was so good!! I was so completely engrossed that I didn’t even notice  how my legs became independent of my awareness.*

Is that kind of absorption an anomaly?  Would I have done that if I were a teenager?  Actually, I’d be more likely to be on my phone.  Anywhere you see a teen with time to kill, you’ll see them staring intently at their handheld devices.  If they’re not sending or receiving a text, they’re looking at apps, playing games or checking a status.  And it’s not just teens; adults are guilty here, too. Here’s a concern: teens have much to learn yet, like how to read body language and voice inflections, how to think and respond to a conversation, how to engage a real live human.  These are important skills, people!

A whopping 78% of teens have cellphones.  The Washington Post reports that teens spend an incredible 7 1/2 hours a day consuming media.  That’s mind-boggling!!!  After school and sleep and family time, when do kids read?  Additionally, articles have been written about the lost art of patience or how few of us allow ourselves to be still and have nothing to do for a moment without panicking (I’m at a stoplight….I can’t just sit here!! Where’s my phone?)  Following that lead, some adults bemoan that teens will know nothing of being quiet, reflective or patient.  Maybe….but does that define all teens?

While teaching at ZLO (Zacchaeus Learning Opportunities in Whatcom County) this year, I had reason to not worry too much about the demise of our kids at the hands of devices.  What you have to know is that I’m very passionate about books.  When I read a book I love,  I must tell someone about it!  Who better than my eager students?  So, knowing I had some real readers in one class in particular, I gushed about a novel I devoured in two nights.  I handed the book over to a girl who grabbed it before the jealous others and went on with class.  Two days later – two. days. – the book was returned.  She loved it as much as I had and read it just as fast.  This was great news to the other girls who had it on hold at the library and couldn’t get it fast enough.  Sure enough, two others read it in two nights as well.

This didn’t strike me as unusual because I knew the quality of these girls.  (For the record, the boys in this group are just as zealous about books) However, I sometimes forget that more and more kids choose a game or app over a book.  I understand the allure, but personally, I get bored with those.  I want to go away.  I want to meet new people.  I want to see how others react to situations I know little about.  Basically, I want to learn in the most pleasing way I know – through reading.

Thankfully,  I’m not alone.  Reading isn’t just for older people!  Teen fiction has been exploding and if you push aside the vampire and teen lust titles, you’re going to find some fine reading….books so good you’ll be completely engrossed.  Sure, there are books that leave me with a ‘meh’ but I ditch it and grab another.  There’s always another good one waiting to be discovered.  And if you find a great book – tell a teen!  They might be willing to put down their phone and tear through it in a night or two.

* the book was The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

Teen titles every parent should read

It was so much fun to be the guest speaker recently for a school celebrating the joy of reading.  What better person to talk about it than a local lady who has been known to hug a few books and generally get quite excited about them?   I alternate my reading between adult and teen books, always on the prowl for a good one.  The teen authors have much to offer, if you can weed through the dark themes that seem to dominate the industry.  Thankfully, there are authors out there who write good stories that are well-told.  I shared these titles with the group and so many moms wanted the list that here it is.

Kathryn Erskine has written an important book here that helps us all understand those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Hearing Katelyn filter her experiences through her eyes is funny and heartbreaking at the same time.  She’s incredibly honest about life yet her honesty isn’t always appreciated or understood by her peers.  Meanwhile, her dad is grieving the loss of his son at a random school shooting.  In Mockingbird, Katelyn needs to navigate school and dad’s confusing (to her) grief but her school counselor and others come alongside her to teach her the nuances that other children know naturally.  A great book that makes kids sensitive to those kids who might seem ‘different’ but they don’t know why.

Bluefish is another winner because it’s simple to read but you just love the characters!  Travis lost his parents and his dog.  Velveeta has a dysfunctional mother but a sensational personality.  When she notices that quiet Travis can’t read, she sets out to help him, but both of these kids need help in other ways, too, and they find true friendship and healing in each other.  It’s sweet but not trite.  My 7th graders love this book as much as I do.

I’ve read The Outsiders more than twenty times and I never tire of it.  Sometimes parents have questioned my choice, but after they read it and their teen raves about it, their mind is changed.  This novel simply changes how we look at people. Do we judge by appearances?  We don’t like to think we do, but…we do!  I encourage my students to read it with their Christian eyeballs. Life is harder for the Greasers, but they have solid friendships and a thoughtful boy who narrates the story.  He longs for people to get along and to understand why others can treat those who are so different from them as poorly as the Socs do.  Readers ‘get’ how they also judge others and they’re inspired to see them as people, not as a stereotype.

I read Wonder in two days.  Three teens I recommended the book to read it in two days and my hubbie read it in an afternoon.  It’s not because it’s simple or brief, it’s because it’s so good!  Once you have it in your hands, you want to just keep going!  Auggie enters fifth grade as a first time public schooler because he’s had so many facial surgeries.  A number of voices tell the story of his school year and how his face might be different but his rockin’ personality totally wins people over.

The Wednesday Wars is part of my reading curriculum and I recommend it to everyone.  Holling begins 7th grade thinking his teacher hates his guts, but as the year goes on, he and she bond through a variety of experiences and she becomes just who needs to grow into a wise and thoughtful young man.  Along the way, Holling has hilarious adventures and learns not just about himself but also about his friends and family, all with their unique quirks.  This has a beautiful message but kids are so busy laughing and commiserating with Holling that they’re more than happy to read it.

Happy Reading!!  If you have a recommendation for me, please let me know!  I love to find great fiction.


My 10 life-changing books

These books changed my world, making me see people more keenly, think about issues differently & hold dear some of my previously unclear beliefs. For these I am very grateful.  (See my last post for how to find a good book.)

Roots, Alex Haley  A good book is to be enjoyed; a great book to be felt… and this one delivers.  Some might remember seeing the moving 1977 mini-series but this book taps into so many more emotions.  I remember where and when I read it, feeling outrage at what one man could do to another and ‘watching’ the fall-out that entails.  But the human spirit is strong and can endure so much…I also felt inspired and privileged to have ‘known’ these people even though it was remotely.

The Book Thief, Markus Zusak  I literally hug this book.  It’s true!  I’ve read so many WWII books but this one is so incredibly different that it’s unforgettable.  The writing leaves me in awe as Zusak is a master with words.  I adore the imperfect, interesting characters and appreciate being inside Nazi Germany simply as someone who has no interest in the war but must endure it.  Tragedy changes people and in this book, it’s for the better.

The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton  The only book on the list that I’ve read at least 15 times, I never tire of it.  Each time I teach it there are new nuggets to share.  Hinton makes us compassionate to the outsider and makes us question our own evaluation measures when judging someone such as their appearance and financial status.  Maybe the scruffiest person in the bunch is the most mild-hearted and kind, maybe even more so than the socially acceptable one.

The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls  This is the first book I recommend no matter who asks.  This non-bitter memoir of siblings growing up with mentally ill parents was absolutely fascinating.  Multiple scenes will stay with you long after you put it down. You’ll read with disbelief that these tenacious kids not only survived but thrived.

Peace Like a River, Leif Enger   Enger’s tone is so comfortable, his style so engaging, his characters so real.  This story’s father is hands-down the best representative of a Christian man in fiction.  It’s a prodigal son story in reverse where the father (w/ narrator brother and precocious sister) seeks out the lost son.  God is the invisible travel companion through Minnesota and the Badlands in which faith is just as critical as family. My children still remember me reading winsome passages aloud to them while they ate breakfast.  I simply adore this book.

The Damnation of Theron Ware, Harold Frederic  The provocative title alone had me hooked and this classic from 1896 begs to be read today.  Not only is the writing superb, but the story line is fascinating.  A small-town preacher gets himself entangled in a mess from which he cannot extricate himself and I found myself thinking, how will this be done?  Frederic is a master of leading the reader while paying attention to his characters.  Two of his favorite themes are self-awareness & close-mindedness and this story addresses them expertly.

Hind’s Feet on High Places, Hannah Hurnard  Best spiritual book ever.  This seemingly simple allegory holds truths for anyone.  In her journey, Much Afraid travels where she doesn’t want to go but her Shepherd tells her it’s “safe to follow [my] voice” and she does to the High Places of Love but it’s not easy and each trial brings a new lesson.  When she questions him, he says, “I don’t know anything more exhilarating than turning weakness into strength, and fear into faith and that which has been marred into perfection.”  The author’s personal story of coming to faith and her nearness to Christ is just as good.

A Stranger in the Kingdom, Howard Frank Mosher  I’ll never forget laughing during some chapters and thinking deeply during others, especially when the residents of a small town have to face their “untested tolerance.”  It’s easy to proclaim you’re a tolerant bunch until someone comes along to test it.  Then what?  Only a few in town pass the test and love the stranger.

A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg  & Like Garlic for Sapphires, Ruth Reichl  These two books about food and food writing not only left me with serious travel-envy but a re-affirmation that food isn’t something that simply nourishes your body, but it’s what brings people together in myriad ways, evokes sweet memories and connects us to each other.

How to find a book you’ll love

“How do you find so many good books”? Asked many times,  I’ve always naturally found great books and took it for granted.  I do my thing and poof, a stack of great books are at my bedside tempting me to new worlds.  Happily, I share these tips with you.  Follow these steps and you’re sure to find a page-turner:

First, be a reader of magazines and newspapers.  They love to recommend books and want you to read!  I regularly glean great titles from these.  However, other people see these titles too and they’ll be ahead of you at the library.  Instead, have a notebook where you write down titles and as my son says, “Tease it.”  A year or so later, when I write down something else, there it is.  It’s available at the library and all’s right with the world.

Second, go to an independent bookseller.  These gems in your towns are worth your while.  The good folks here are true bibliophiles.  Typically they’ll reserve their endcaps to display staff favorites.  If a shelf contains 10 books and I recognize two authors I already like, then I’m bound to like what else is sitting beside the familiar ones.  I’ve discovered fantastic writers this way.

Third, these booksellers (Barnes & Noble does this too) have pamphlets of recommendations complete with a paragraph of endorsement from another bookseller in the country.  Again, these folks are good readers so scan for a topic that is of interest to you, note it, and go find it.  These pamphlets come out quarterly and include books for younger readers as well as placing titles in genres so you can go right to the topics that interest you most.

Fourth, haunt blogs and your library site.  I recently learned that there exist myriad blogs for avid readers.  In almost any category you can think of, there is a blog.  These have done the heavy-lifting for you: they’ve read, sorted, and recommended scores of books.  One gal just told me that she’d read one I recommended and it opened up a whole new world for her son who thought finding a book was like finding a needle in a haystack.  Google book blogs and let your journey begin.   Library sites also have lots of recommendations.  Search the site and you’ll find it.

Fifth, head to a used book store with your list.  I’m fortunate to live so near three richly-stocked used book stores.  With my lengthy list, I’m sure to find a $3 book in great condition.  Once done, I can either keep it on my shelf or return it for store credit.  If I want to buy it online, I always use Better World Books.  The shipping is free and for each book I buy (usually @ $4), they donate a book to a third-world country.  Win win.

Give this a try and let me know if you’ve found something wonderful.  After all, I’m always looking for a good book!!