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It’s About More Than Just the Skills

91w70Ax2LhL.jpgThe reading arc of a school year is a lovely thing to witness, but an even more enjoyable journey to participate in. We begin the year falling in love with reading: a first quarter of high-interest, riveting works that match each reader where he or she is. The first days of school are filled with YA, novels in verse, pithy nonfiction, and short-but-powerful texts.

Second quarter, we begin the stretch toward more challenging texts, whether because of their difficult vocabularies, unfamiliar genres, or tough emotional or intellectual subject matters. My booktalks nudge students toward books that will push them to become stronger, more widely-read thinkers. Our reading ladders begin to incorporate themes of choice as well as challenge.

So, as September wound down, I picked up Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. This outside-my-comfort-zone book sent me to Wikipedia many times during each reading as I attempted to make sense of some term I’d newly discovered (dark matter, the Fermi paradox, the multiverse). I found myself down the rabbit hole of Wiki-links many a time, landing on pages like this a little too frequently for my furrowed eyebrows’ liking:

There is no question that anyone who encountered this book might have done the same, and as such, I have ample Internet history evidence to support my claim that reading this book made me a stronger reader. I doubtless practiced reading skills like summarizing, re-reading, decoding complex vocabulary, integrating new ideas into existing schema, looking for outside information to aid my understanding, paraphrasing, learning about new text features and signposts, noting quotes, and more.

But reading isn’t done solely for the purpose of practicing skills. In fact, the purpose of reading is as far from skills-focused as we are from the edge of the universe (pretty freakin’ far, in case you haven’t recently read about astrophysics). Consider, for instance, this passage from the final pages of Astrophysics for People in a Hurry:

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Beautifully written, no doubt, and I’d use it with my students as a mentor text in a heartbeat. Look at that parallel structure, that use of one-sentence paragraphs, that thoughtful choice of diverse verbs! Lo, the effect of repetition, the deft uses of the dash, the pristine placement of commas! All of these are worth studying alongside our students, but they are mere stepping stones on the path to the true purposes of reading and writing:

Joy, engagement, transcendence, learning, growth.

The expansion of our minds, of our perspectives, marching onward as relentlessly as the universe itself (yep, it’s forever expanding, knowledge I have thanks to Neil deGrasse Tyson). This passage–this argument, for looking at life from the cosmic perspective–is valuable for so much more than the way it is written. The meaning is in what is written, and how the reader makes meaning of it.

Looking at our teaching, our students, our lessons from the cosmic perspective, we must consider our small effect on these students’ lives in the grand scheme of things. Why would we insist students read a certain book, or a certain number of books, or write a certain number of pages, when we consider our real goal for students: to help them access the vast wealth of reading and writing they can do in the world to achieve their true callings.

books-to-read-before-you-hit-30980-1459253850_980x457As we plan instruction for the second quarter, we must center our students’ reading and writing experiences on the highest purposes of those endeavors, and not remain too focused on the skills, structures, and rubrics we often get caught up in. We must not fall into the trap of sharing a passage such as this one with students solely to practice craft study, asking our students to replicate Tyson’s structure without appreciating what he’s trying to say to us by crafting it.

Let’s confer with our readers about not just how a text is doing what it’s doing, but also what their feelings are about that text, what they’re learning from a text on a holistic level, how they’ll insert this reading into their larger life philosophy.

Let’s coach our writers not just to become proficient in certain genres, but also toward authentic, purposeful, meaning-filled writing that they proudly craft and publish.

Let’s remember to harness the cosmic perspective in our work with students, as we consider not just what we know of them as readers and writers, but what we know of them as young adults who will go forth and change the world in some small way with their lives.

Let’s embrace the cosmic perspective when we consider reading and writing: those hallmarks of our intellect that make us uniquely human.

Shana Karnes is a lifelong reader and writer who daily tries to embrace the cosmic perspective in her work as a teacher, wife, and mother. She lives in West Virginia with her husband, two daughters, two cats, and five bookshelves. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader. 

Please share your higher purposes for teaching, for reading, for writing! Let us know in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

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Better Feedback Better Me

When I first attended Penny Kittle’s class at the University of New Hampshire Literacy Institute, and really learned what authentic writing instruction looked like, I thought I had to do everything like she did. I remember even saying to her at one point, “I want to be you when I grow up.” She quickly said, “No, you want to be you.” What I heard was –“You want to be the best you.” I know that’s what she meant.

My biggest failure in trying to be Penny instead of myself was reading and giving feedback on students’ writing in their writer’s notebooks. I just could not keep up with the volume of it all. And the volume of writing was important. I knew that.

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Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

I also knew that volume serves its own purpose, and coaching writers to improve required a different focus that just getting students to write more. (When I first started workshop, I was really good at getting students to write more. I was lousy at helping them improve as writers.)  When I made the conscious effort to provide better and more continual feedback, I started to see a change in myself as writing coach — and a change in my students’ writing ability and confidence.

I started a better rotation system of collecting student notebooks, and I worked on planning student activities that allowed for me to read and comment on at least part of a class stack during a class period while students worked on something independently or in small groups, so I wasn’t doing it during planning time or after school. And I limited my comments to this simple method:

  • Two things that struck me about the writing (validating ideas, language, images…)
  • One suggestion for taking the thinking further or some aspect of improvement.

This feedback method has worked for me for a long while now, and I use it on pretty much every draft of writing I read. Lately, I’ve been working on giving more feedforward than feedback, which I think will make an even better impact. For more on that, read this. (And maybe buy this book.)

I’d love to know how you manage giving feedback on your students’ writing. Please share in the comments.

 

Amy Rasmussen lives in North Texas where she’s been enjoying lots of rain. Lately, she’s spent a lot of time reading about becoming a better writer (See this and this) and trying to break through the wall of her writer’s block. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass

 

Good books — and a teacher’s expertise in using them — can do it all

On Sunday, my friend and extraordinary literacy-leader, Billy Eastman, and I got to giveBookTweet away books. We presented at the Coalition of Reading and English Supervisors of Texas (CREST) fall conference, and Follett Learning gave us 30 books, six signed by the authors, to raffle off to our audience. It was kind of an Oprah moment: “You get a book, and you get a book.” Oh, the thrill of book giving.

But giving books is just part of the thrill. We know this. We ‘give’ books to readers and students we hope will become readers often. We model our reading lives. We read aloud. We line whiteboard rails with new titles. We do book tastings and speed dating with books. We celebrate our readers and exhaust our arsenal of book-loving ideas.

And some would-be readers still don’t read. What’s a teacher to do?

Here’s three ideas that have worked for me:

1. Never give up. When we set high expectations, when our students know we are serious about Book Love, when we practice keep-on-keeping-on with all the things I listed above– and we relentlessly share our joy, passion, and commitment to their reading lives– even if we never get a student, or a handful of them, to read a book, we have succeeded.

2. Believe in #1. Often we focus on the one student who just won’t budge. She chooses books, flips a few pages, fakes reading a chapter, bluffs her way through a conference, and we get discouraged. Keep trying — but do not let her be a black hole. So often we find ourselves gravitating to the one over and over again when we need the energy to keep encouraging, moving, and celebrating the many.

3. Make it okay to not read novels (yet). Anthologies are awesome. Sometimes

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“… this anthology empowers the nation’s youth to listen, learn, and build a better tomorrow.”

students who don’t like reading just need to enjoy a good piece of writing. Many will then want to read more by a particular author. One title many of my students dabbled in, and often read in its entirety, is Flying Lessons & Other Stories with authors Kwame Alexander, Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Pena, and more. I’ve recently purchased Fresh Ink, which is similar and looks equally engaging. It’s got authors Nicola Yoon, Jason Reynolds, and more! And I just read about this one this morning:  We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices. It’s now in my shopping cart.


In our session at CREST, Billy and I discussed implementing the new ELAR standards for Texas (We both served on the teacher committee that wrote them), and we shared the transformative role investing in teacher expertise and authentic resources has made in his district (We wrote about some of it in this English Journal article.). Access to engaging books like the ones we gave away in our session is just part of it. Knowing how to use them to teach thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills is the other.

Good books — and a teacher’s expertise in using them — can do it all.

Billy Eastman at CREST

We know the real thrill isn’t in getting a new book but in the knowledge, the empathy, or the know-how that books gives to us. This is the thrill we want for our readers. It’s the reason we do what we do.

 

Amy Rasmussen is a mother, grandmother, reader, writer, and wannabe sleeper. She spends a lot of nights thinking about growing readers, encouraging writers, and talking to her writer’s block. She’s back to working on that book she started five years ago, so if you’ve got any extra luck hanging around, please send it her way. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass 

Quickwrite Mentor Texts for Writer’s Notebooks

img_6062I love going back to school for so many reasons, but one of the frontrunners is definitely that “second chance new year” feeling it provides. Teachers and students have the unique opportunity to have not just one fresh start at the beginning of a calendar year, but a second shot at goal-setting, changes, and achievements that the fall offers.

We all have our back-to-school rituals, and they are sacred: fresh notebooks, pens in all the colors of the rainbow (because we haven’t lost any yet), a well-organized classroom library that will be pilfered and picked through soon enough. One of the most important parts of establishing a workshop community is the routine that comes with setting up a writer’s notebook each fall: personalizing notebooks to make them our own, modeling a notebook’s possibilities, the establishment of quickwrite practices.

But now that the year has begun, and your notebooks are ready to go…what should you begin to fill them with? The writing in the beginning of my notebook always guides and inspires me as I continue to fill it, so I never want it to be uninspired, dull, or colorless. I crave fresh, exciting, dynamic things to fill up the first several pages of my notebook every time I start a new one, which is usually in the fall.

Here are my five favorite mentor texts that give me ideas and inspiration galore for those important start-of-the-year quickwrites–the first in a routine of creativity, agency, freedom, vulnerability, and engagement as a writer.

The Artist’s Way Workbook by Julia Cameron

This workbook is full of writing prompts for real writers: short exercises that encourage reflection, fluency, and the habit of writing vulnerably often.

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I love this workbook and its series of prompts, and use them often when I start my day with the #5amwritersclub each morning. They would be wonderful prompts for students to ease into vulnerable, personal writing in September.

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I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

I first discovered Anne Bogel thanks to her “What Should I Read Next?” podcast, but she is also a writer and blogger, and just released a beautiful book yesterday. It’s a book about our reading lives, and provides a wonderful mentor text for writing about our reading without writing about a specific text.

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In addition to the lovely writing, I am obsessed with the illustrations: they would be wonderful to recreate in students’ notebooks with scraps of old magazines or dusty dictionaries.

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I visualize this mentor text as a wonderful one for helping students find a voice for writing about their reading lives during quarterly reflections, reading ladders, and self-assessments.

The Book of Qualities by J. Ruth Gendler

Writing about our own emotions is hard for all of us, but it’s especially hard for teens. I’ve found that writing about emotions in general, rather than our own, is a wonderful gateway for personal writing.

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In addition to being an amazing lesson in personification, this book provides gorgeous mentors for doodling, metaphors, and multigenre possibilities.

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Write the Poem

Poetry can be intimidating, but a little guidance goes a long way, and this book provides just that.

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The combination of a prompt and keywords to incorporate takes some of the guesswork out of choosing a structure, a rhyme scheme, a title, and the myriad other decisions that go into crafting poetry.

Am I There Yet? by Mari Andrew

Sometimes words are hard. They just are. Those days call for doodles, and this book is full of plenty of them–in addition to pages of plain old writing. I love this text because it tells stories beyond what we see on Mari’s Instagram and Twitter feeds, giving students a mentor text not just for writing but for the thinking and living behind it.

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Mari Andrew has long been a favorite of mine, but this book shows me how to play with writing and thinking in genres I wouldn’t have considered, and is super teen-friendly.

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I hope you’ll utilize one or more of these beautiful texts–many excerpts of which you can view on the Amazon preview pages linked above–with your students this fall. Their possibilities as entry points for writing topics and genres are powerful, and will lead to composition possibilities for the duration of your school year.

Happy writing! We’d love to know how you and your students utilize these ideas, or what others help you kick off your writer’s notebooks. Please share other quickwrite possibilities and ideas in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook!

Shana Karnes is a mom to two daughters, a daily reader and writer, and a forever educator. Her work with teachers in West Virginia is through the National Writing Project, West Virginia University, and the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader. 

Five Ideas that Beat the Dread

A few years ago I stopped reviewing class rules and smacking down my syllabus on the first day of school. I had been doing some research on chronic stress (mostly my own) and read extensively about the fight, flight, freeze response. One description glared at me and gave me pause:  “You have a sense of dread.”

I remembered what I had been taught as a first year teacher:  Set yourself up as the authority figure. Be kind but firm. Establish norms quickly so students know what you will and will not tolerate in your classroom.

Then, almost in the same breathe, I was told:  Develop relationships. Learn students’ names. Let them help develop class rules.

And I muddled through doing a combination of both the best I knew how. Those first few days of my first few years were rocky to say the least. And in hindsight, it’s clear:  there was dread. Lots of dread.

So when I read up on the fight, flight, and freeze response, I realized a big part of my problem:  With my seemingly simple attempt at outlining classroom expectations and detailing how ‘my class would run, chemicals danced a jig in students’ brains: fight, flight, or freeze. Now, I know my syllabus is not on the scale of major life trauma most often associated with this fff response theory, but many of my juniors and seniors didn’t want to be in school anyway. Why was I compounding it?

I learned a better way.

Wait.

Let every other teacher lay down the law. Lay out their plans. Run through the rules.

On the first day of school — maybe even the first five days of school — just write. And talk. Let students drive the discussion. Let them ask questions. Give them a chance to be seen and heard and welcomed.

“Community before curriculum” Angela wrote in her last post, and I love her thinking there. I also think we can merge the two on the first day of school and lay a firm foundation for thinking and talking every day thereafter. We can jump start community and begin our curriculum as we put pen to the page and write.

Here’s my top five sources that beg a response and invite students to write on the first day of school (or at least the first week or so):

  1. To This Day by Shane Koyczan.

Give every student a notecard and ask them to watch and listen and then respond to the poem as a whole or to a line they particularly like or relate to. (I’ve learned some pretty heavy stuff from students over the years. So many of them can relate to the themes in this poem.)

  1. How poetry can help kids turn a fear of literature into love by Jason Reynolds on PBS.

Give every student a sticky note and ask them to think about their reading lives. Then after they listen to Mr. Reynolds talk about reading, ask students to rate themselves. Are they readers eager for the pit bulls or for the puppies? Why? (I quickly find who my readers are and with whom I need to take on the challenge of helping them want to read.) Then for a little more of a challenge, on the flip side of the sticky, ask them to describe in poetic form their feelings about poetry. (You’ll learn even more.)

  1. Possibilities by Wislawa Szymborska. Or the version here where Amanda Palmer reads the poem.

Give every student a copy of the poem. Then read the poem aloud and ask students to write their own list of possibilities. Their list can be straightforward, funny, or interesting things they want the class to know. (I wrote about how I used this poem to practice imitation a couple of years ago. It’s a great lesson and a great poem to revisit.)

  1. Three poems:

“My Name Is,” an excerpt from Jason Reynolds’ book Long Way Down. (If you haven’t read this book, oh, my goodness. It’s amazing!)

My Name Is by Jason Reynolds

“Instructions” by Rudy Francisco.

Instructions by Rudy Francisco

“Like You” by Roque Dalton, translated by Jack Hirschman

Give students copies of all three poems and a notecard or piece of paper. Read them aloud. Ask students to read them again and then to write a response. They can respond to just one of the poems, a line from a poem, or anything the poems make them think or feel. There is no right or wrong. Just write your thinking. (This is always an interesting response, and it tells me a lot about how to help my students. Many of them will begin to write an analysis of one of the poems — or all three. Others understand that I am asking for a different kind of thinking, one that leads them into ideas for their own poems, stories, or essays.)

  1. Author Bios!

Give students access to books that have clever, witty, or interesting author bios. YA authors like Julie Murphy, Jeff Zentner, Chris Crutcher, Libba Bray, and Gina Damico are great ones, but there are many with a bit of quirk that will draw students in and spark their interest in reading these author’s books. Ask students to explore the author bios and then make a list of the books they think they’d like to explore this semester. Have them write the author’s names on sticky notes for you to put in your conferring notes.

If you want to take this author bio idea further — (this is my favorite):

Read several professional author bios aloud. Ask students what information is shared and make a T-chart that lists the what on the left, e.g., name, personal hobbies, awards won, where the author lives, who the author lives with, etc. Then, ask students to describe how this information is shared and add these craft moves to the right. This is the how. For example, short and sometimes incomplete sentences, lists, 3rd person, the author’s name is first, witty word choice, etc. Finally, ask students to write their own author bio while you write yours as a model. Encourage them to try to craft their bio to include ideas from both the what and the how side of the T-chart. Below are two of my students’ bios from this past year.

Stephany author bio

Tomias author bio

(The author bio idea is Lisa’s baby, and she wrote about it here after I wrote about it here. It’s still the best idea I have ever heard to begin students on their journey into developing their identities as readers and as writers. I’ve used this idea in a model lesson for every workshop I’ve facilitated this summer, so if you were there, feel free to share the author bio you wrote this summer in the comments. My newest one is below.)

I wish you happy reading and writing with your students this year. Please share your go to ideas for inviting students to write and build your community.

 

Amy Rasmussen loves books, pretending to garden, adolescents, and coconut cream pie — not necessarily in that order. She lives in North Texas with her dashing husband of 33 years, their twin-terror Shelties Mac and Des, and a not so loving love bird named Colonel Brandon. Amy spent the summer leading professional development in several districts across Texas and has grown especially fond of the Houston area. If only she could move… Follow her on Twitter @amyrass — and if you are not already, please follow this blog.

Guest Post by @cJezasaurusRex — An Open Letter from a Book Thief

Dear Ms. Gerdes,

You were the first teacher who taught me how/ when to properly use “Ms.” You taught me the power of a Phenomenal Woman. You taught me to value my mother. Big Time. And you taught me that reading is magic.

Ironically, you were my math teacher.

I wish I could say that you “gave” me books. The fact of the matter is that — I actually stole them. Actually. Literally. (Non?)Legitimately. STOLE A BOOK FROM YOU. Maybe even more than one. Probably, Likely so.

And all I can do right now is to apologize. Also–what is your address? Do you prefer USPS, FedEx, UPS, Armed Guard?

Just, please forgive me.

If you remember me at all, then you know (at 36) I would eventually be safely breaking every conventional rule in regards to punctuation and grammar. I hope you knew me well enough to know there is purpose behind my rebellion.

This all started more than 25 years ago. You were a Pioneer for Choice Reading time. And I know that I talked through most of those minutes, but I swear to you that I WAS SOAKING IT IN. Conduct marks set aside, I watched as you made time to focus on your own book during MATH!? I was, assuredly, a total A-Hole about it. Again, Sooooooo Soorrryyyy About that. But— I need to tell you that you are the ONE who (unknowingly) gave me a gift that I hope I am worthy enough to pass on to hundreds of other fellow humans.

I teach English to High School Students, and I flipping swear that 15-year-olds are and will remain the ultimate worst EVER. I love them. Every day. Not every second of every day… but mostly just every day. I look at them and am reminded of when I got sent to ISS or locked in a book closet by my English Teacher, and so it’s just effing fine by me that I threw my Pre-Law Degree out the window (wish the student loan attached would disappear too).

Since I’m always broke, and I’m the baby sibling, my Big siSTAR gave me her OLD Kindle about 12 years ago. Before I reset the account, I had to read ALL THE BOOKS she left on the account. One was Readicide by Kelly Gallagher.

For roughly 12 years, I’ve (kinda) done what I’ve been told by The System while I operated another system behind that closed door. I’ve tossed the curriculum back to my students like a contagious, hot potato. What. Do. YOU. Love. To. Read. As teachers, we often forget that it was NEVER about us, and it NEVER will be about us. And it has been my mission since my first year of teaching to throw my neck out on the guillotine to fight for that freedom.

Ms. Gerdes, I hope you are proud of the part you played in creating this monster.

But I stole your book. Now that I have built a classroom library of close to one thousand books, I know how pissed I get when my curation starts to disappear. Year after year, the carefully selected and bargained-for dwindles as quickly as cotton candy in a humid, Houston Heater. Some moments, I look at my shelves and wonder why my students can’t just return that damn book!

Today, while my Punky Brewster of a daughter was helping me pull all the donations we have for our town’s Little Free Library, she brought me Miracle at Clement’s Pond by Patricia Pendergraft. Your name written in permanent marker across the back.

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I’m. Melting. I am so sorry. I won’t even say that, “I can’t believe it.” I won’t even say that, “I’m so ashamed.” I can believe it. And I’m a little glad that I’m not ashamed.

You must have told me about the miracles found in books. Maybe, even this one in particular. Maybe I wasn’t ready, at 11 years old, to read what my teacher suggested–but I was ready to STEAL it so HARD! (I am sorry about that.) Mostly, at 36, I know what it feels like to bury my nose in words that make magic. The spell that is crafted by each stroke of the pen. To finish a novel and then hold it close to your heart with your eyes closed. Brimming with tears of empathy and connection. The feeling that next day of “Great Book Hangover” causing all other brain functions to fail.

This is the most life-altering lesson any teacher can leave behind.

I’m real sorry that I stole your book. (Plus, also I am sorry I was kind of a pain). The most sincere apology I can offer is that I am about to read this book, and I will NEVER forget Miracle at Clement’s Pond by Patricia Pendergraft–even if it sucks so hard. Plus, each time one of my books turns up missing, I promise to think of this apology. I promise to think of how pseudo- crappy kids can turn out to be alright humans. Or that ultra-rad kids can sometimes make terribly impulsive decisions. I promise. I promise. I promise. I stole something from you that is much bigger than a 242 page paperback from Scholastic.

I stole promise.

I hope you will forgive me. I hope you know that you truly changed my life. I hope to do the same for others.

Incredibly Sincerely Best of all Regards,

Crystal Jez

Crystal Jez has been teaching high school English in Texas for twelve years.  As curator of a chaotically color-coded classroom library, she is typically knee-deep in stacks of books.  When she isn’t reading or teaching, you can find her chasing chickens or saltwater kayak fishing.  Crystal is the wife of a super-hot guy and mom of three ultra-rad kids.

A Book for Women, Young and Old and In-between

I am always on the look out for books that will hook my readers and mentor texts that will inspire my writers.

But when I saw the title The Radical Element, 12 Stories of Daredevils, Debutantes & Other

My Radical Granddaughters

It’s never too early to give girls hope.

Dauntless Girls, I thought of my own three daughters, my daughter-in-law, and my two granddaughters. (Well, not so much the debutantes, but definitely the daredevils and the dauntless.)

We need books where our girls see themselves –where they feel empowered to take on the world. In a brochure I got from @Candlewick, it states:

To respect yourself, to love yourself, should not have to be a radical decision. And yet it remains as challenging for an American girl to make today today as it was in 1927 on the steps of the Supreme Court. It’s a decision that must be faced when you’re balancing on the tightrope of neurodivergence, finding your way as a second-generation immigrant, or facing down American racism even while loving America. And it’s the only decision when you’ve weighed society’s expectations and found them wanting.

So today, I write to celebrate the book birthday of The Radical Element edited by Jessica Spotswood.

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Jessica writes:

. . . Merriam-Webster’s definitions of radical include “very different from the usual or traditional” and “excellent, cool.” I like to think our heroines in these twelve short stories are both. Our radical girls are first- and second- generation immigrants. They are Mormon and Jewish, queer and questioning, wheelchair users and neurodivergent, Iranian- American and Latina and Black and biracial. They are funny and awkward and jealous and brave. They are spies and scholars and sitcom writers, printers’ apprentices and poker players, rockers and high-wire walkers. They are mundane and they are magical.

. . .

It has been my privilege to work with these eleven tremendously talented authors, some of whom are exploring pieces of their identities in fiction for the first time. I hope that in some small way The Radical Element can help forge greater empathy and a spirit of curiosity and inclusiveness. That, in reading about our radical girls, readers might begin to question why voices like these are so often missing from traditional history. They have always existed. Why have they been erased? How can we help boost these voices today?

I have only read a few of these stories so far, but they are a wonderful blend of adventure and courage.

Here’s what three of the 12 authors have to say about their stories:

From Dhonielle Clayton, “When the Moonlight Isn’t Enough”:

1943: Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

 I wanted to write the untold stories of hidden black communities like the one in Martha’s Vineyard. I’m very fascinated with black communities that, against all odds and in the face of white terrorism, succeeded and built their own prosperous havens. Also, World War II America is glamorized in popular white American culture, however, we learn little about what non-white people were doing during this time period. 

 In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

I didn’t find as much as I wanted because historians focused on white communities and the war effort, leaving communities of color nearly erased. I had to rely on living family members that experienced this time period and a few primary sources detailing what life was like for black nurses in the 1940s. 

 How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

The one thing I trust is that black communities have been and will always be resourceful. Accustomed to being under siege, we have developed a system of support. I think I would’ve fared just fine. 

From Sara Farizan, “Take Me with U”:

1984: Boston, Massachusetts

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

I’ve always been fascinated with the 1980’s. Even with all its faults, it is the period in time that stands out for me most in the 20th century. The music, the entertainment, the politics, the fear and suffering from the AIDS virus, the clothes, and the international events that people forget about like the Iran/Iraq war.

In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

It was hard to look back on footage from news broadcasts about the Iran/Iraq war. I felt embarrassed that it seemed this abstract thing for me when really my grandparents came to live with my family in the States during the year of 1987 to be on the safe side. I was very young, and didn’t think about why they had a year-long visit, but looking back, I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for them. Fun not so heavy fact: Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Purple Rain came out in the summer of ’84. And so did I!

How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

I think I would know all the pop culture references and my hair is already big and beautiful so that would work out great. My Pac-Man and Tetris game is strong, so I’d impress everyone at the arcade. However, I’m not down with shoulder pads and I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to come out of the closet back then.

From Mackenzi Lee, “You’re a Stranger Here”

1844: Nauvoo, Illinois

What encouraged you to write about this moment in history?

My story is set in the 1840s in Illinois and is about the Mormon exodus to Utah. I was raised Mormon, and these stories of the early days of the Church and the persecution they suffered were very common place. It took me a while to realize that, outside of my community, no one else knew these stories that were such a part of my cultural identity. I wanted to write about Mormons because its such a part of my history, and my identity, but also because, when I was a kid, there were no stories about Mormons. There are still no stories about Mormons–it’s a religious minority that has been largely left out in our current conversations about diversifying our narratives.

In researching this topic, did you uncover any unexpected facts or stories?

Ack I wish I had a good answer here! But honestly not really–I already knew so much of what I wrote about because I’d gone to a Mormon church throughout my youth.

How do you feel like you would fare during the same time period?

Badly! The Mormons went through so much for their faith, and as someone who has had a lot of grief as a result of the religion of her youth, I don’t know if I could have handled having a faith crisis AND being forced from my home multiple times because of that faith. Also cholera and heat stroke and all that handcart pulling nonsense is just. too. much. I didn’t survive the Oregon Trail computer game–no way I’d survive an actual trek.

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Amy Rasmussen teaches readers and writers at a large suburban high school in North TX. She loves to read and share all things books with her students. In regards to this post, Amy says, “It’s Spring Break for me, and I’ve been idle. Kinda. Three of my grandkids arrived at the spur of the moment, so I’ll use that as an excuse for posting late today.” Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk.

 

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