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Category Archives: Book Clubs

5 Ways to Avoid the Trap of Test Prep

The AP Language test is a month away. Only 14 school days (Spring Break, y’all. Woot!), which means 7 class periods with each of my AP classes between now and the big day.

This imparts in me equal parts excitement, dread, and crippling panic. I’m not sure what my problem is. I’m not the one taking the test, but my test anxiety runs high.

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Now, Amy has written beautifully in the past about the test scores and how little they really mean. How AP and workshop can be beautiful partners.  I applaud her conviction. I need to learn from her resolve. Because all year, I can workshop and weave in test prep (in other words, my priorities are straight – I’m building readers and writers, not test takers), but when the test draws near, I start thinking in numbers. Always dangerous.

When this happens, I feel my brows furrow. I’m suddenly focused on the wrong thing.

I can FEEL it.

Experimenting with workshop during semester two of the 2014-2015 school, I very purposefully placed reading and writing experience above test prep. My scores went up. Last year, I was all in. Lots of student choice. More focus on why and how, instead of what. My scores went up.

Do students need practice with the multiple choice format? Yes.

Should they write several AP practice essays over the course of the year with self scoring, student sample analysis, peer and teacher feedback? Certainly.

Will students be prepared for the test if test prep is secondary to building authentic readers and writers all year. Unequivocally, yes.

Just a few days ago, Donalyn Miller beautifully stated that the best way to improve test scores naturally is to “provide access to books, encourage free choice, give children time to read, and actively support their reading development at school and home.” Her piece for the Nerdy Book Club furthered my determination to remain focused on my students as readers, not as test takers. This is what workshop does. Focuses on readers, writers, and the humans who are so much more than test scores.

Here are a few suggestions to keep focused on what really matters (in my humble opinion), even as AP tests draw nigh, and frankly, in the face of any “big” test.

1. Focus on Experience

I tell my students every year, that living life and being aware of humanity in general is the best argument preparation there is. So, when I saw Elizabeth Matheny‘s spring break Twitter challenge, I immediately asked if I could adopt the idea. Matheny provides her students with a hashtag to document their adventures and several suggestions of ways to really live it up over break as a way to not only build community, but provide inspiration for narratives her students will write in the coming weeks.

I’ve got some ideas brewing to have my students write their own author bios (like the quippy book jacket variety) after break to celebrate themselves as writers. Documenting new experiences may be just the thing to provide focused attention to new passions  and open eyes to the wider world.

My students will start Friday using #langbreak. Follow our adventures and feel free to add your own if you’ve been waiting all this time for break like we have!

2. Write from the Heart First

I used to have students write endless practice essays. Knowing the format seemed important to scoring well, so I had students write in class, take prompts home over the weekend for homework, and churn out essay after essay of (no offense former students) formulaic crap that I dreaded grading.

These days, I’ve embraced a new philosophy. My students need to write more, but practice essays aren’t the thing. Quick writes in class are the thing. Weekly one pagers building their fluency and skills of expression about quotes that stick with them from readings are the thing. Poems about community are the thing. Book reviews on texts that make them feel smart are the thing.

The thing is, students build their writing skills in writing what they care about. They can then apply that to the essay at hand, regardless of the essay type. I spend a small amount of time going through the specifics of the argument and analysis essays, and then we look at countless mentors, we read as writers, and we learn how to effectively break the “rules.” The College Board suggests that effective essays are built from developing a “personal style.” No mention of five paragraph essays to be found.

3. Talk

  • Speed date prompts for the sake of brainstorming (not more and more writing – do that elsewhere)
  • Discuss current events
  • Share insights on readings (assigned and independent) through the lens of analysis (or argument, or synthesis)
  • Reflect on multiple choice passages without the questions
  • Solicit feedback on writing and make connections to specific skills to move that writing forward

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4. Review Your Reading Lives

At least one class period each year, right before the test, is reserved for a trip down memory lane. Students get into small groups and list common themes they have seen in argument prompts we’ve discussed over the course of the year (good vs. evil, power struggles, individuality, etc.). They then make lists of everything they’ve read, studied, reflected on that might be good evidence for arguments related to those ideas.

We fill posters upon posters of ideas to put around the room and remind ourselves how incredibly smart we all are. No one need fear “not knowing what to write.” Students have been preparing for this test since they learned to read, just by reading and living. Little review required.

5. Make Class Time Count

This is a “to each their own” example. Many classes do very little after the AP test. Students relate that they “worked really hard to get to the test” and the class periods up until the end of the year are free time as a reward.

I reward my students after the AP exam too. We have another book club (students are choosing this year from this extensive list of nonfiction titles, to which I just added the Pulitzer Prize winner Evicted) and they complete a multigenre project on an area of study we’ve not explicitly studied together (sports, politics, language, pop culture, etc.).

My class is about reading, writing, speaking, listening, and investigating life. That doesn’t stop because students took a three hour test.


Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her spring break will include finishing Sabaa Tahir’s A Torch Against the Night, spending time tiptoeing through the tulips with her daughter Ellie, and taking her own advice to live a little and try something new (curling, anyone?).  Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum and follow her students’ AP Spring Break adventures on Twitter #langbreak. 

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Join the #3TTBookClub

We’ve probably all seen a ton of posts about the “best” books of 2016, and our To Read Next lists and wish lists and carts in numerous online book shops have grown like crazy. Thankfully, I have some grant money just itching to be spent on new books for my classroom library. Here’s a list all in one place, if you want to take a look. Thanks @shawnacopola!

We’ve also probably set reading goals for ourselves. I played in my new planner, setting some goals that I will share with my students when I ask them to create their new challenges.

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If you are looking for a way to spice up your reading in 2017, consider this:

Join the #3TTBookClub on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page.

Why #3TTBookClub?

In the introduction to her book Reading in the Wild, Donalyn Miller writes: “I want my students to enjoy reading and find it meaningful when they are in my class, but I also want them to understand why reading matters to their lives. A reading workshop classroom provides a temporary scaffold, but eventually students must have self-efficacy and the tools they need to go it alone. The goal of all reading instruction is independence. If students remain depends on teachers to remove all obstacles that prevent them from reading, they won’t become independent readers.”

How do we help our students become independent readers if we are not independent readers ourselves?

I am often surprised at how many English teachers I meet who admit to not reading. I wrote a bit about that in a post last year, and I extend the same invitation:  Are you walking the talk in your content? (The invitation to guest post on this blog stands as well. Every teacher’s voice matters. Your voice matters.)

How will #3TTBookClub work?

We batted this one about a bit, but it didn’t take long to decide that even when it comes to book clubs, choice matters. Each month Shana, Lisa, and I will choose a book. We will introduce our books on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page and invite other readers to read along with us. Read one of the books, two of them, or all three (My personal goal, but, you know…time… and all that feedback to leave on all those papers.)

We will share ideas on how we might book talk certain books with our students, share insights from pedagogy books we read, share ways we might use excerpts to teach craft, and just overall share our deep and abiding book love.

What have you got to lose?

We hope you will join us in #3TTBookClub in 2017 — and please, use the #3TTBookClub hashtag and invite your friends. See you on the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page.

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Follow Three Teachers Talk on Twitter @3TeachersTalk, on Instagram at 3TT.us, Pinterest at Three Teachers Talk, and Facebook @ThreeTeachersTalk. Oh, and remember to subscribe to the TTT blog, so you never miss a post.

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 3 to the Fighting Farmers at Lewisville High School. She adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus Christ: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all love more than we think we can. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass.

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Writing My Wrongs: How I’m Learning From My Mistakes

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A student caught sneaking his independent reading book into his lit circle novel…this is a first.

Every year I arrive at the second quarter with a new approach, idea, or plan.  This will be the solution! I think.  This will sustain momentum.  This will help us make it through the slump.  This will be the difference between dreading quarter two and praying for quarter three, but year after year, I am wrong.  For the past three years I’ve convinced myself it is the book—Lord of the Flies is too boring; they can’t appreciate Bradbury’s language in Fahrenheit 451.

The problem isn’t with my students though—it’s with me.  I am doing it wrong, and while I am ashamed to admit the honest truth, I realize now the error of my ways.

I “gave up” traditional teaching three years ago, when I transitioned to a workshop model of education.  I carved out time for reading, instated notebooks, poured over workshop guides, and asked countless questions of my mentors and colleagues.  The bare bones were in place, and I was convinced that I had the structure necessary to shift from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered classroom built on choice.  In many cases I did; every start of the school year began smoothly with excited readers and passionate writers.  We told stories, read poetry, shared quick writes, and analyzed craft, but I dreaded quarter two, the quarter when together, we would read our first of three required whole class novels.

Quarter two was when I lost their voices, their attention, and their passion.  With whole class novels, our focus shifted from “who are you and what are you thinking?” to “who is your author and what is he thinking?” 

Under the weight of scaffolding, curriculum standards, core competencies, and competency based rubrics, my mini-lessons focused on literary terminology instead of literary exploration.  To me, reading mini-lessons meant teaching the same terms I’d grown up with: symbolism, Freytag’s pyramid, direct and indirect characterization, round and flat characters, etc.  This meant my lessons shifted from writing-centered lessons that started with the question, “What do you notice about the author’s craft?” to terminology-centered lessons, that started with, “Apply your understanding of (fill in the blank) to the book.”  The latter produced significantly less empowering results.

So, I asked and probed my students.  I peppered them with questions during study halls and extra help; I snuck in questions with the straggling Writer’s Club members after meetings, gave out surveys, and chatted at lunch with colleagues.  And while I was convinced that it was because I was “forcing” them to read unrelatable classics, I couldn’t shake the fact that I was missing something bigger.

By the time I sat down with my living mentor Linda Rief at a coffee shop in Exeter, I realized I was doing it wrong in quarter two.  The pieces gradually added up—I knew the three reading options I had given them for literature circles weren’t choices at all.  I was hoping they would read the books in their entirety, but I knew that this year would lend itself to additional groans, frustration, and abandonment.  At the end of the day, I was a workshop teacher defaulting to a traditional methodology or worse, was I a traditional teacher pretending to run a workshop?

The two greatest pieces of advice came first via my special educator mother, who asked, “Why not just teach them good writing?  Isn’t that what classics are?” And second through Linda Rief, who pointblank asked me why I needed to teach plot triangles anyways.

Were there successes in my literature circle unit? Most definitely.  Sure, the vast majority didn’t fall in love with Golding, and it breaks my heart that they couldn’t revel in the beauty of Bradbury’s language, but in final surveys, nearly every student appreciated the time they had to discuss the novels in small groups.  They enjoyed talking about the stories with peers, and while not all of them loved the books, many pointed out that this was the first time they engaged in authentic conversations about literature without a teacher moderating the discussions.  They learned; they just didn’t learn the way I had hoped.

Part of me feels like I lost four weeks that we could have spent more effectively growing together as readers and writers while looking at the beauty of craft in book clubs centered on young adult lit of their choosing.  The other part of me feels like I failed my students in providing this idealized version of what I hoped our class would be and then slamming them back to reality with the same sort of stock analysis I question.

I am impatient when it comes to growth, particularly when it comes to my teaching.  While I understand my students’ needs as developing readers and writers, I am quick to judge my own struggles.  Even as an intern, one of my personal goals was “to be at the level of a second year teacher.”  I repeated this mantra knowing full well that the only way to be at the level of a second year teacher was to be a second year teacher.

All I can promise my students is that I will continue to reflect, move forward, and become the teacher they deserve.  But alas, growth takes time, trial, and error.  It requires me to unravel years of traditional education, analyze what works, what doesn’t, what I should carry with me, and what I can discard.  It will take time for me to unwind my own brain just as I ask my students to unwind theirs.  I am still learning to be a writer, a reader, a student, a teacher, and that takes time, time that sometimes feels all too precious when I only have one year with my kids.  Fortunately, teaching is like writing.  Every day, I begin the process of drafting a new story, and every year, I get the chance to revise my work.

Book Clubs in AP English: Just let them talk

Some of it was great. Some of it not so much. I’m talking about the book clubs in my classroom this Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.03 PMyear. The great was actually my students reading and talking to one another about that reading. The not so much — the way I did assessment.

This is what I learned and what I will change for next year:

Book Clubs serve as a way to challenge my readers into the more complex books that many of my students would never choose for themselves. Book Clubs also allow my readers to talk about books in an authentic way without the strictures of guided reading questions or anything else that might lead to Readicide. (‘Read-i-cide: noun, the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools” –Kelly Gallagher) I wrote about the importance of balance literacy and how book clubs fit into that in this post.

I provide a short list of titles that I know contain fantastic stories of resilience, survival, hope, courage, and any other trait that prods readers to relate to the human experience. I introduce the books, usually with book trailers or video interviews of the author’s, and I include either on paper or a projected slide the synopsis and ratings from Goodreads or Amazon.

Students select their books, often talking with one another and making selections together. I ask students to purchase their own books, so they can annotate anything “interesting, intriguing, puzzling, contradictory, or you just plain do not understand.” Since most of my students come from less affluent families, we talk about the importance of libraries and surrounding ourselves with texts that can inform and influence our thinking. Often, students will purchase more than one of the books I introduce for book clubs. I also have a few copies of the texts in my room that students may check out if they cannot purchase their own. I always think my copies will be used more than they are, but I’ve learned that my readers like to buy books. Most feel the sense of ownership that I want them to feel.

Our first book club this year, I gave students a choice of the following titles, all centered around themes of family and parents and how they influence our upbringing and our choices:

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer

Swamplandia by Karen Russell

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls (literary non-fiction)

More students read The Glass Castle than any of the others, but every book was represented in at least one book club of three to six students. Students loved The Glass Castle, and they told me that they could relate to much of Walls’ upbringing.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.19 PMAssessment:  For this first book club, I asked students to read with an eye looking for theme. They would work with their book clubs to craft a mind map that included numerous quotes from the book that contributed to the theme, and they would analyze these quotes as part of the mind map. They could create the mind map as a paper poster or online. As they read the book, they were to mark the text like I had taught with the short passages of text we’d read together in class, and they were to also look for sentences and phrases and passage that pointed to theme.

My students did not have a clue how to do that. Most did not mark their books, so when the project time rolled around, they ended up scouring through the book or searching for quotes on Goodreads or elsewhere to find enough quotes that they could plop into their mind maps. I needed to provide more guidance in annotating, and in reading for beautiful sentences, and in making thematic connections, and so much more.

Also, I allowed students to work in groups to create their mind maps. This did not work because no one in the group would rise up and be the leader. They were new in the class and new in their friendships with one another. Group work is a topic for another post, really. This time it failed, and I’ll need to do a lot more prep work before I spend as much class time on this kind of project ever again (if I ever do).

Our second book club, students choice a title from this short list, all centered around themes of culture and how these cultures influence us:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Little Bee by Chris Cleeve

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Klaled Hosseini

More readers chose Sarah’s Key than any of the others. Students find stories of the Holocaust fascinating, and that shelf is a popular one in my classroom library. (Erika’s, too.)  Many students read The Namesake, and at least one book club read each of the others.

Assessment:  This one was even more lame than the first. Sometimes I feel the pull to get back to a Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.33 PMmore traditional pedagogy. I am the only one on my campus who fully implements readers and writers workshop, so I listen in often to what other teachers have their students do. If you teach AP English, at some point, you have probably had students write a hexagonal writing over a piece of literature. (Hexagonal because student write thinking about their knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation as it relates to the book. It sounds like a great assignment.)

It was the worst writing my students completed this year — if they completed it at all.

I know why. There was no authenticity in it. Follow the structure I gave you. Each paragraph should be about this… No wonder they didn’t care about writing well. I was their only audience, and I was making them write something worse than a book report.

We wasted a lot of time. (The grading policy in my district requires that I reassess major grades. Hey, let’s write this paper again since you cared so much about it the first time. Right.)

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.45 PMMy readers would have benefitted more from a gift of time to talk about the books more. Shana posted about the value of book clubs for talk earlier this year, and after two subpar experiences I began to agree:  “asking students to keep the conversation [about their books] going for 20 straight minutes provides valuable time for students to build relationships [around conversations about their reading.]”

I would just let them talk.

Our third book club students selected titles from this short list, all centered on war (or internal war) and its influences on individuals and humanity:

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Room by Emma Donoghue

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer (literary non-fiction)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The majority of my readers chose to read ROOM or The Bell Jar. They loved Room, and didn’t think The Bell Jar lived up to its hype.

I scheduled more opportunities for students to talk about their books. I wandered the room, sitting at Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 5.42.57 PMgroups and listening in as conversations circled in and out and back again. Often, I placed a stack of TableTopic cards for book clubs in the center of their table, and students used these to guide their discussions. (Looks like the book clubs version of TableTopics is no longer available. Sad.)

Next year, I will do this again. I might ask students to look for significant passages so they can practice analysis on a page they select for themselves. Here’s a post that I’ll probably show them with a sample passage for craft study.

I might have them create a found poem or a black out poem.

Or I might just let them read and talk and read and talk some more.

That’s what I do in my own book club.

 

If you have your own suggestions for improvement, please share them in the comments.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

Yes, I’ll Share my Reading List

Awhile back I wrote Aim Higher™: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English. I am pretty sure I thanked everyone individually for the comments. If not, thank you for helping me think through this pedagogy even more. One reader asked for my reading list, and I’ve been derelict in posting that. I am sorry.

Since my classroom instruction centers on helping students identify themselves as readers and writers, I being Readers and Writers Workshop on the first day of school. We read and workshop a short piece — sometimes my AP English Language syllabus one-pager. We write and usually do a short revision workshop. Students learn quickly that writing requires revision.

In years past I’ve even provided each students with a writer’s notebook — just so we could get started taking ownership of it on the very first day. (That was the year composition books were 10 cents. I haven’t seen them so low since.)

I give students the following list of books and tell them that at each quarter they will be responsible for getting their hands on one of the titles. They may purchase the book, borrow it from a library, download it to their device, or in extreme circumstances, check out one of the few copies of each title I keep in my room.

We are a classroom of readers, so reading is the only option.

Note:  I didn’t facilitate four book clubs this year. We only had time for three, and we never got to the first list of books below. It took me a long while to learn how to fit my instruction into the schedule at my new school:  a 90 minute period where I see my students every other day and then every other Friday. I lost some time figuring it out.

Next year, I am going to put this list first, and we will analyze author’s craft as we learn about argument. I’m also thinking of only introducing Gladwell’s books. I’ll add David and Goliath:  Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, and maybe What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures after I read it this summer. That way students will still have choice as to which book they select, but all students will be reading books by the same author. This should work well as we study the moves of one writer, something I waited way to late to do this year.

Book Club One:

Outliers, the Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink, the Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

The Tipping Point, How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

Quiet:  the Power of Introverts by Susan Cain

 

Book Club Two:

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safron Foer

The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls (non-fiction)

Swamplandia by Karen Russell

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon

Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

 

Book Club Three:

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Little Bee by Chris Cleeve

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Klaled Hosseini

 

Book Club Four:

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

Room by Emma Donoghue

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer (non-fiction)

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk by Ben Fountain

I am always reading some piece of compelling literature, always on the look out for the next book to add to these book club lists. My students did not enjoy The Bell Jar, although many students chose to read it, and no one chose to read The Things They Carried, even though I made as big a deal out of it as all the other titles. I just added Swamplandia this year, and then I forgot to talk about it, so it is still not vetted with students.

If you have any suggestions for compelling, complex, rich literature that engages adolescent readers, please share your titles in the comments. Thank you.

 

©Amy Rasmussen, 2011 – 2015

The Value of Talk

Talk is one of the most powerful tools at work in my classroom.  Now, I’m talking about talknot discussion, sharing, peer editing, Socratic seminars, think-pair-share, or any other structured form of communication that might occur.  The simple act of letting our students just talk is invaluable, and we must create spaces in our curriculum for it to take place.  Here are three ways I encourage talk in my classroom.

Conferences – Reading and writing conferences aren’t just about assessment.  They’re also a valuable time for teachers and students to just talk to one another, getting to know each other as the humans that we are.  Creating a space for talk breaks down the teacher-student barrier, humanizes both parties, and by and large erases discipline problems in my classroom.  I begin every conference with a simple, “How are you today?”, and after genuinely listening for the child’s answer, direct the conference from there.  Some conferences, we don’t talk about books or writing–we just talk, because the student needs to.

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Students chat during the ‘Book Bistro’

Book Clubs – Not every book club meeting requires structure or an agenda to be valuable.  During this most recent unit, I simply asked students to keep the conversation going for 20 straight minutes.  They sometimes had to cast about for topics, but they always found something to discuss–mostly their books, but often text-to-text/self/world connections they’d made, which spun off into generalized, real-life conversations between kids who wouldn’t ordinarily find themselves chatting.  After finishing book clubs, Ana wrote, “I loved our book clubs because I felt like I got to know everyone better.”  She wrote other things about how she grew as a reader and writer…but she LOVED the unit because of the TALK that happened.

Root of the Writing Process – My journalism students consistently talk out their ideas at the very beginning of the writing process.  They chat in groups, usually starting with, “so what should I write about?”  It takes a few minutes, but enlightenment inevitably follows–the other day, Shay threw a few silly ideas out for Kenleigh about bathroom graffiti, but then they got serious about that as a story idea.  “You could call your piece ‘Signs from the Stalls,'” Shay said.  “AHHHH, that’s a great idea!!” Kenleigh enthused.  What kids like to talk about is often what they’d like to write about, and they need to talk to get to the heart of those topic ideas.

Talk builds community.  Talk is the tool that made my former student Emily say, “I felt like by the end of the year, everyone in the class became my best friend, including you.”

How do you see talk improving your classroom and its community?  What spaces do you create for talk in your classes?

In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto

315425I grew up as a reader, but I was a steadfast reader of fiction only–especially series.  I remember receiving my PSAT score report in high school, which strongly suggested that I begin reading more nonfiction in order to improve my vocabulary and reading comprehension.

So, not being informed about the wonderful nonfiction tomes I now know about, I began to read the newspaper.  That probably contributed to my majoring in journalism, and now teaching that subject in addition to English.

But it wasn’t until I took Penny Kittle’s class at the UNH Literacy Institute in 2013 that I fell in love with nonfiction (pardon me, Mr. Lehman and Ms. Roberts!).  I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and was enamored of his use of narrative to help me understand seemingly disparate facts.  I quickly read all of Gladwell’s other books, then devoured the rest of the booklist from Penny’s class–The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, and plenty more.

However, it’s not since Gladwell that I’ve found another nonfiction author whose collected works I’m dying to devour…until now.

I recently asked my students to brainstorm as many nonfiction genres as they could, then select three for us to focus on for this quarter.  One of their selections was a recipe.  I wanted to show my students lots of examples of writing about food, so I purchased Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.  I picked up In Defense of Food first, and was left defenseless.

This book rocked my world, and my worldview.  It’s a book about the food we eat, where it comes from, how it’s different than other cultures’ foods, and how it’s good and bad for us.  I learned about the wild inaccuracies of food science, the nutrient-depleting process of processing food, and the government’s allowance of all this because of their dependence on food marketers’ money.  I also learned about the evolution of America’s food culture–from farm fresh to TV dinner to fast food–and its deleterious health effects on our population.

So, after Pollan sufficiently freaked me out and made me swear to myself that I’d never eat any processed food again in my life, he presented a clear solution to my fretting and outlined some rules for eating healthily (the subtitled Eater’s Manifesto).  I learned how to shop smart, defy the American diet’s unhealthy customs, and consider my foods in the contexts of their meals, which can completely transform their nutritional value.

It wasn’t just the topic that fascinated me (admittedly, I love to cook)…it was the writing.  From knee-slappingly incredible food puns like “let them eat Twinkies” and “the silence of the yams” to his deft skill at citing other writing to support his own arguments, I was convinced.  The clear organization of the book mirrors his three basic rules about eating well, which he states in sentence number one:  “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  The complex narrative he weaves makes perfect sense, but is incredibly layered.  Through it all, Pollan made his claims and supported them sturdily, leaving me not only swept up in a great story, but thoroughly knowledgeable about what real food is and isn’t in America today.

I can’t wait to bring this book to my students through book clubs, a reading challenge, or a craft study mini-lesson…so I’ll booktalk it tomorrow to my Funyun-munching students with as much fire and brimstone as I can manage, and hope they hop on the Pollan diet with me.

Heinemann

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Mentors with Insights, Ideas, and Resources for Secondary Readers & Writers Workshop

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