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Vagabond Librarian

Reports from the intersection of military life, motherhood, and a high school library.

Reading the Hard Stuff

screen-shot-2016-12-03-at-8-35-53-amJust a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of spending the better part of a school day engaging with students as they checked out To Kill a Mockingbird for their American Literature classes. Class after class of students commented as they checked out this classic work that they knew the book was going to be good when the pages were worn and the spine was taped up (see photo). It was a spot-on observation that made me smile. Some books checked out for class reading are returned to the media center looking untouched, and probably abandoned in favor of SparkNotes or Thug NotesTo Kill a Mockingbird is not one of those books. The copies of Mockingbird come back to the media center dog-eared and well-used. Mockingbird is the type of story that our students value most–a story that is relatable, and at the same time calls us out, makes us feel challenged, and inspires us to question our world view.

I was saddened this week to read The Associated Press article School District Temporarily Pulls Classics After Complaint  and to learn that Accomack County Public School System was temporarily suspending use of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn after a parent submitted a complaint about the effect the language, particularly racial slurs, in these books could have on students. I appreciate reading about a parent coming forward to voice her concern at a school board meeting, which is an appropriate and effective forum for civic engagement. (Click here for audio of the  Accomack County, Virginia November 15, 2016 School Board Meeting) I am horrified, though, that the school system’s review process apparently includes suspending the titles in question while they are under review. Surely, there could have been some less drastic measure taken, such as offering an alternative text for this individual student while going through the process of addressing the parent’s concern.

I am a champion of reading choice. As a high school media specialist, that means I provide access to a wide diversity of information and stories. While the Accomack story centers around two classic works presented in the classroom, I am concerned as a parent and a librarian that a piece of valued literature could be so quickly “suspended” from use by students school wide after a single parent complaint. I want my son, who is in high school, to have the benefit of exploring challenging literature with a professional educator who will help him navigate the inquiry process spurred by his reading. Removing texts that are uncomfortable is contrary to that.

Stories are important. Especially the ones that make us uncomfortable. Words are important. And, the stories that resonate with readers do not shy away from words authentic to their time, place, and situation. Stories like To Kill a Mockingbird touch students by personalizing history. These stories also provide a platform for students to explore challenging topics, such as prejudice (historically and today), our country’s ongoing civil rights struggle, “fitting in” to society, failures of the justice system, and personal morality. We simply can’t afford to remove access to stories that help give students the context to grapple with complex issues.

 

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Diversity in Literature

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk  The Danger of a Single Story is an inspiring look at the importance of exposure to a wide range of stories that reflect ourselves and those around us.

 

To Kill a Mockingbird 

In my own high school media center, I can’t keep To Kill a Mockingbird on the shelfOur students check Mockingbird out to read for their English, they choose it for independent novel assignments, and they read (or reread) the book for pleasure.

 

 Roy Newquiest’s 1964 WQXR interview with Harper Lee in which Lee talks about her writing habits, her opinion of the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird, Southern people, and her book.

Jamie LaRue’s September 2016 School Library Journal article All Schools Need Book Challenge Policies

American Library Association 

The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. You can learn more about this topic in relation to librarianship by exploring the following links:

Intellectual Freedom Round Table

The Freedom to Read Statement

Informed Voters

I became a librarian because I am passionate about empowering people by connecting them with information they can use to positive effect in their lives and communities. With the election fast approaching, we all continue to seek out information that we can rely on as accurate–for ourselves, and to use with our children and students. I hope the information in this post will help you feel empowered when you go to the polls next month.

Please vote.

 

Our System: The Electoral College

Having trouble explaining the electoral college process? The National Archives and Records Administration U.S. Electoral College webpage can help! This collection of current election information, historical resources, and Frequently Asked Questions is a great place to begin when explaining our electoral process to students or foreign friends.

 

The Candidates: Their Positions and Policies

Get it straight from the candidates’ websites. Click the name of each candidate below to visit the page of their official website on which their policies and positions are articulated. The candidates have been listed here in alphabetical order.

Hillary Clinton

Gary Johnson

Jill Stein

Donald Trump

 

Educational Resources 

Newsela: Students Vote 2016

Newsela is a website that many educators at my high school rely on for current event articles that can be adapted (scaled) to different Lexile reading comprehension levels. In addition to providing high-interest articles for readers of all levels, Newsela is currently featuring Students Vote 2016, in which Newsela presents a collection of articles, profiles, biographies, speeches, maps, and other resources for students to explore citizenship, voting, and the election.

PBS LearningMedia Resources: Election Central

PBS LearningMedia’s Election Central provides a treasure trove of multimedia resources to engage voters and future voters of all ages. You will find information about the election process, debates, electoral college, candidates, as well as films, lesson plans, and tool kits to engage students in actively learning about the electoral process.

TED-Ed Video and Lesson: The Electoral College

In the following video from TED-Ed, Christina Greer explains the Electoral College, and how votes are counted on the state and national level. You can find the learning material associate with this video on TED-Ed here: Does your vote count? The Electoral College explained.

National Education Association Lessons and Resources: Elections

Retired middle school teacher Phil Nast has curated a rich collection of resources and lesson plans that are available via The National Education Association’s Elections webpage.  The page includes lessons for student from Pre-K through 12th grade, and are curated from sites such as Scholastic, PBS, National Endowment for the Humanities, and other organizations with a history of providing reliable information in formats that provide a platform for students to engage their inquiry and critical thinking skills.

 

For Fun and Further Exploration: The Political Quiz

Having trouble defining your stance on some issues? Looking for a way to spark a conversation based on thoughtful consideration of the issues with your students? One of the following political quizzes may help get you started.

Pew Research Center: Political Typology Quiz

I like the Pew Research quiz for two big reasons: the questions are thought provoking, and there is a group version of the quiz that could be used to engage a class or other group interested in engaging in meaningful inquiry of political typology.

iSideWith.com: Political Quiz

I like the iSideWith quiz because it provides granularity in the available response choices to each question, and allows the person taking the quiz to weight the importance of each issue to them as a voter.

 

Photo credit: The featured image on this post is Vote by Theresa Thompson, who made the image available via a Creative Commons 2.0 license. Thank you for sharing your work, Theresa!

Summer Road Trip, 2016

Book Review: Sapiens

The Vagabond Teen and I took Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari on the road this summer. We listened to the audio book on road trip days, read some chapters in our down time, and further dove into the subject of humankind, our biology, and our social history by watching videos about early humans and looking at what we’ve learned about our own deep ancestry through participation in National Geographic’s Genographic Project.

Sapiens offers up what the title indicates–a view of human society and the way our biology and beliefs have influenced our development as a species over the course of our existence thus far. Harari’s writing is clear, direct, and well-paced. Sapiens is an enjoyable book to read (and listen to), and it is full of facts, theories, and historical anecdotes that inspire great conversations.

Harari does veer into sensational territory a few times toward the end of the book, when he talks about more recent history and when he makes predictions for humankind’s future. These chapters may have been less interesting (and more eye-roll inducing) had I been reading the work on my own, instead of listening to the work and discussing it as it progressed.

Hominin Ancestry
Our Vagabond DNA is strong. Source: The Genographic Project.

Both the Vagabond Teen and I found the book informative, entertaining, and though-provoking. We enjoyed the way Harari presented complex concepts and theories through interesting facts and stories. We loved that Harari seemed to trust that we were smart enough to understand what he was presenting. He provided us just enough background information so that we didn’t get lost in his work, and he didn’t waste time with long-winded explanations full of insider jargon when plain language served his purpose. The Teen and I re-read and talked most about the theories surrounding early man’s relationship with other humans, and were interested in the conflicting theories that have sought to explain just “what happened” to these humans. Having our Genographic Project results to connect us to the Neanderthal and Denisovan populations enriched our experience of Sapiens–we seem to have higher percentages of each population in our DNA results than is currently theorized to be average, which lead us to quite a bit of speculation about what our long-long-ago ancestors must have really been like.

While Sapiens particularly appealed to us Vagabonds because we are fascinated with early humankind and the development of human society, I think any reader interested in the world around them will connect with this well-written and fascinating history.

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Want to dig deeper?

Yuval Noah Harari: What explains the rise of humans? | TED Talk | TED.com

NPR Author Interviews: We went from hunter-gatherers to space explorers, but are we happier? | All Things Considered | February 7, 2015

Avi Tuchman: How humans became human | The Washington Post | March 13, 2015

Visit the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) website to find a treasure trove of documentaries and other shows. Searching NOVA episodes is a great place to start if you are interested in learning more.

Author’s note: I mention The Genographic Project  a few times in this post. I am not associated with National Geographic in any way beyond being a NatGeo Fangirl, and I am only associated with The Genographic Project as a participant who loves being the contributor of a very tiny piece of research that could help us better understand the early human journey.

 

Book Review & Library Lesson: Tribe

I approached Junger’s latest book expecting it to be a compelling and deep look into why some of our nation’s military members have such a hard time reintegrating into society when they return home from deployment. This book did not live up to my expectations, but will serve as a valuable learning tool to emphasize to young writers the importance of maintaining a clear main idea in their writing and of utilizing an organized system of citation to give credence to their work.

Book Review

Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is a brief and thought provoking book. Tribe’s strength lies in Junger’s insights, which provide a starting point to important discussions about modern society, belonging, and the disconnect between soldiers returning from deployment and the society into which they are attempting to reintegrate. I anticipated the release of Tribe for two reasons–I love well researched books and I enjoy reading about society and military life. Reviews of the book in the Washington Post,  National Review  and  New York Times, as well as on social reading sites such as GoodReads, overwhelmingly refer to Tribe as richly researched and deeply insightful. While Junger’s ideas are worth reading, much of this book feels cobbled together and spread too thin. Based on the professional reviews and interviews with the author that preceded this book’s release, I was expecting more depth, substance, and well documented research in Tribe–and I was left disappointed.


Library Lesson

Tribe’s lack of cohesion, combined with the author’s haphazard method of citation, make this book a useful example to share with our high school teachers and students who are approaching research writing projects. The subject matter in this work is engaging. Junger’s writing is solid. And, Junger’s observations and claims provide rich material for students to engage critical thinking skills to form their own opinions and then support those opinions with further research. Having students begin their own research by engaging with the alphabetized (by chapter) Source Notes at the end of the book to investigate the “proof” behind the author’s claims in Tribe will be a valuable exercise in the frustration a reader experiences when an author makes the choice to throw a bibliography at the end of a work without organizing the resources included in an accessible and useful format.

Stay the Course

In Tribe, the author’s purpose seems clear, as is his theme. The main idea, however, is muddled by Junger’s inability to explicitly tie together related topics about which he is obviously passionate–namely, tribal society, the societal implications of the 2008 financial collapse, and the reintegration of soldiers into society after deployment. Having students talk about the main point of Tribe will yield a variety of discussions about society in general, dishonesty on Wall Street, and problems faced by soldiers with PTSD. As a counterpoint to these varied topics, students could read and discuss the main point of Junger’s 2015 Vanity Fair article How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield. The article provides an example of the power of focusing on one clear point. The personal and historical examples Junger provides in the article all work together to strengthen his purpose and his main point, leaving his focus clear to his readers.

Prove It

I have no doubt Junger did plenty of research prior to writing Tribe, but his research doesn’t do much for inquisitive, fact checking readers the way it is presented. Sometimes, Junger cites studies in text. More often than not, though, Junger relies on the reader to trust his statements as fact–or to work through Source Notes that require what feels like major detective work to navigate. Junger addresses his use of Source Notes (instead of footnotes) in his Author’s Note, making the point that “this is not an academic book and footnotes can interfere with the ease of reading.” (ix) While I appreciate that Junger is thinking of his readers, there are long established norms to unobtrusively cite non-fiction work like Tribe. In similar non-fiction books (The Punishment of Virtue by Sarah Chayse and My Share of the Task by Stanley McChrystal are two of many examples that may be on the shelves of readers like myself who are likely to pick up Tribe), End Notes are organized by chapter and page number so that readers who want to dig deeper into the source material are not left wondering which of the 34 sources about the same topic in a given chapter back up a particular claim by the author. Exploring and discussing the challenges in navigating Source Notes like those used in this work provides young writers a valuable lesson in connecting with and respecting their audience, as well as establishing their own credibility.

Vagabond Connections

While I found Tribe’s lack of depth and untidy source notes disappointing on a personal level as a reader, those very faults give this thought provoking book great potential as a learning tool for young writers.

If you are interested in hearing more about the impact of war and combat on our society, from Sebastian Junger and others, the following provides compelling food for thought:

TED Talks: War & Peace which aired May 31, 2016 on PBS

If you are interested in learning more about the writing process, I recommend the following resource from Purdue University’s Purdue OWL Writing lab:

The Purdue OWL: Starting the Writing Process

 

An Involved Military Spouse

News Flash, Army People: It’s OK if your spouse works.*

I can’t stop thinking about the language and tone of  Army Lieutenant Colonel “Dom” Edward’s article, 31 Things Your  Senior Rater Would Like You to Know That He Probably Won’t Tell You, which I found a few weeks ago while scrolling through my morning news feed. In 31 Things, Edward doles out career advice to younger officers through the lens of an outgoing senior rater (supervisor). Much of the advice he shares rings true for any professional: be aware of the impression you give; learn your organization’s norms; seek out information about your supervisor’s expectations. Good advice, right? Unfortunately, much of that good advice got lost in the noise of some of Edward’s specific examples and judgmental language, especially in the Family Life section of the article.

While I believe most senior raters in any profession leave their personal bias at the door for evaluations, the fact that Edward was comfortable publishing an article for Army officers about career success that includes a section about Family Life in which he states “I’m talking to Family members about you” indicates that we as an Army culture have a very long way to go in communicating professional expectations. I understand the leadership point Edward was attempting to convey — that getting to know an officer’s family helps a leader get to know the officer as a whole person, which Edward says is an important component of Engaged Leadership. My problem with that is this: Engaged Leadership isn’t really about getting into people’s personal business. Engaged Leadership is about strategic and genuine listening, sharing, and connecting with subordinates in the context of your profession. After 23 years as an Army spouse who has a profession of my own and who volunteers in my Army community, I understand the importance of getting new spouses involved in both their military community and the traditions that are an integral part of that community’s culture. From where I sit as the spouse of an Infantryman, the military profession has always placed an emphasis on spouse involvement, and, often by necessity, is an organization that is heavily involved in the family life of its personnel. The words we use to talk about that involvement and connection matter. The words that Edward chose to employ in his article to give family advice to junior officers demonstrate an attitude that I find at best condescending, and at worst pejorative. Given the judgmental tone of his article overall, advice such as “I’m watching your kids. If they are brats…I wonder that how [sic] you’re going to lead Soldiers,” and “it’s OK if your spouse works” leave me absolutely cringing.

Taken at face value, Edward’s emphasis on the importance of a senior rater’s approval of some extremely personal decisions and relationships is harmful to promoting the esprit de corps that I’m certain he is attempting to encourage. Being involved in Army Life looks different for every family. Senior leaders and seasoned spouses should be communicative, supportive, and encouraging to all our Army families, not just the ones that fit old school expectations. Instead of outlining advice that smacks of judgement, we should be engaging in conversations and demonstrating the benefits of being an “involved” Army family.

I am grateful for Edward’s article. Edward’s 31 Things have sparked a number of meaningful conversations about involvement and expectations throughout the last month between spouses, soldiers and officers in our unit, in my workplace, at social events, and with neighbors. In all those conversations, we seem to arrive at a common theme — a little understanding and compassion, together with clear communication, go a long way.

*Also, when my spouse gets home from his latest TDY, I’m looking forward to letting him know that I checked with my boss, and she says it is OK that he works.

3.1 Things a Seasoned Army Spouse Would Like You to Know for Your Own Sanity

Thing 1: You are perfectly unique, so just be yourself. We military spouses are connected by our love for a person in uniform, but we are a diverse bunch of individuals. Be you. We’ve never met anyone exactly like you, and we’re glad you are here.

Thing 2: Most other Army spouses aren’t judging you. Each of us is busy juggling in our own circus; we don’t really have time to judge your juggling. We will find the time, though, to help you learn new juggling strategies when you need an assist. Unfortunately, there are always going to be a few people who are judging you. That is their problem, not yours. Refer to Thing 1 and you’ll be fine.

Thing 3: Being involved in Army Life is pretty awesome. No kidding, it really is. Think about what “being involved” means to you and your greensuiter, talk about it, and prioritize accordingly. My “involved” has looked different at different times over the last 23 years. Sometimes the extent of my involvement was making sure I knew what my key caller’s number was. And, sometimes, my involvement has meant leading, making calls, baking, consoling, advising, informing, and organizing. The reality is that by marrying a military person, you are by default “involved” in military life, so find the level of involvement that is right for you and your own family right now — your Army family is always going to be here for you. 

Thing 3.1: Please, oh please, RSVP for events, whether you are going or not. Even if you have decided to not be socially plugged in for a while, you are going to get invitations to things. Please take the moment to reply “yes” or “no” so that the person planning the event isn’t left wondering who will or won’t show. Also, if you have RSVP’d, you will not have to mutter some lame excuse next time you see the host.

This is obviously not a comprehensive list, but it seemed like a good place to start. If you could share 3.1 Things with other military spouses, what would be on your list?

Book Review: Antifragile

I tackled Nassi41y+-2A1XZL.jpgm Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile slowly–both to reflect on Taleb’s ideas, and because reading this book is like hanging out with a brilliant and obnoxious friend who is best taken in small doses.

Nearly a year later, reading the book’s Conclusion, I found Taleb had articulated exactly why I couldn’t stay away from this dense, sometimes fervently arrogant, work:

It is hard to find people knowledgeable and confident enough to like to extract the essence of things, instead of nitpicking. (p. 421)

The concepts Taleb puts forth in Antifragile are simple, and not new, but the thought behind those concepts is substantial and not quickly navigated. In our modern world, and to our detriment, we too often attempt to control the uncontrollable. Accepting and embracing the random and improbable are necessary to thrive in our unpredictable world. If that sounds like a premise you strongly agree or disagree with, you will find plenty of food for thought in this book.

 

Book Review: A Little Life

This review contains spoilers.

 

Unknown.jpegI am still emotionally reeling from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It is a brilliant and heartbreaking story that grows darker and more intense as it progresses.

A Little Life begins as the story of four men whose friendship first develops in college. The characters are compelling from the outset, and they become even more so as their lives unfold, individually and in the context of their relationship to each other. To say that the story gains intensity as the author tightens focus one of the friends (Jude) seems inadequate. The slowly unearthed revelations about Jude’s past are engrossing–and engender a visceral understanding of Jude’s behavior, his self-loathing, and his complex approach to relationships.

Yanagihara does not shy away from tragedy, or try to brighten it up with a “happily every after,” which I appreciate. This is not a happy story, but, for me, it is a dark and hopeful story of the relationships that sustain us.  I have seen reviews that criticize the amount of tragedy Yanagihara heaped on Jude, who is the focus of most of the book. Those reviewers profess to have found it unbelievable that one character would experience so much horror in life, and they found disappointment that even Jude’s “happy” years would be fraught with self-doubt, self-harm, and anxiety. This lack of “happiness” made me sorrowful for Jude and the people who love him–as well as emotionally exhausted–but his story did not feel to me overwrought or forced. For this reader, the fact that Jude survived an unimaginable series of horrors and continued to want to participate in life and friendships is so quietly, stubbornly hopeful that I can’t help but love this story.

Yanagihara does not pull any punches, whether describing stomach turning abuse or the heartbreak of self-doubt. Her language is elegant, masterful, and simple without being spare. I cried a number of times during this novel. I felt intensely uncomfortable during Jude’s flashbacks. And, I found myself saying “Oh, Jude…” and hugging my book on more than one occasion during reading.

This was not an easy story to get through, and I felt that my discomfort as a reader in facing the revelations of Jude’s past  reflected Jude’s constant fear of not being accepted. I will not recommend this book lightly or to just anyone; but, I found A Little Life a beautiful, if harrowing, story of the depth of love, understanding, and perseverance that friends who become family find in each other.

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Hanya Yanagihara: “I wanted everything turned up a little too high.”                                           Books, The Guardian, July 26th, 2015

Best Books of 2015: Hanya Yanagihara                                                                                              Kirkus Reviews

Goodreads Community Reviews for A Little Life

A Reading Life: Making Our Literacy Traditions Explicit to the Children We Teach by Dorothy Suskind

What a wonderful way to begin a conversation about reading enjoyment and literacy! I’m so glad my reading life includes my morning reading habit of checking out blogs (like this one) that inspire me to “[paint] innovation all over the walls of school” and that keep me energized to strive to be the type of dynamic & engaged librarian our high school students deserve.

Nerdy Book Club

Children do not become readers because we tell them to read, but because we immerse them inside of our own reading lives and invite them to create their own. These immersions charge us, as teachers and readers, to tell the story of our roads to reading, detail our daily traditions with books, and create opportunities for our students to engage with words inside and out of the walls of school. Below is the story I will tell my students, all boys, on opening day.

Boys …

As a young girl I struggled to learn to read, and we didn’t talk books in our house. I managed to make it to a doctorate program before I fell in love with words. Before the fall, I found meaning primarily in the pictures I painted of my world, and inside that stillness, I extrapolated a sense of peace within a chaotic childhood. Art…

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