Splendidly Spring

Welcome to the first day of Spring! After such a long winter in the Midwest, I can definitely say that today has been much appreciated and anticipated. Sometimes just the appearance of the sun is enough to make someone happy. Today though, the combination of the later sunlight and the warmer weather was enough to make my day.

After having so many days of the freezing cold, the snow, early sunsets, and overcast skies today’s weather was a gift from Mother Nature. Not only was I able to let the sunlight into my classroom and have the lights turned off, but once school was out we were once again able to be outside for track practice.

While being outside for practice may not seem like a huge deal, the warmer weather and bright sunshine made it feel much more enjoyable and feel much more productive. While days like yesterday (where we were inside) are sometimes necessary, being able to spend the entire afternoon outside makes so much more pleasant. It was nice to be able to play in the sand again…or in other words, get to pit to work on jump practice. With the warmer weather our track has dried out enough (we have a cinder track) to where we were able to have relays working, hurdles out, shot put and discus practicing and the high jump mats out.

Even once I got home after practice, I was able to sit outside with the dog and enjoy a few more moments of the beautiful weather. I was especially grateful for the arrival of Spring today and remembering to enjoy the little things is something we all need to remember. I know that is something that I should keep in mind as things can get hectic as we all start that final stretch towards the end of the school year. I hope everyone was able to enjoy the first day of Spring as much as I was today, and happy teaching!

Book Review: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK by Piper Kerman

Cover image from goodreads.com

With a career, a boyfriend, and a loving family, Piper Kerman barely resembles the reckless young woman who delivered a suitcase of drug money ten years before. But that past has caught up with her. Convicted and sentenced to fifteen months at the infamous federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, the well-heeled Smith College alumna is now inmate #11187-424 — one of the millions of people who disappear “down the rabbit hole” of the American penal system. From her first strip search to her final release, Kerman learns to navigate this strange world with its strictly enforced codes of behavior and arbitrary rules. She meets women from all walks of life, who surprise her with small tokens of generosity, hard words of wisdom, and simple acts of acceptance. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and at times enraging, Kerman’s story offers a rare look into the lives of women in prison — why it is we lock so many away and what happens to them when they’re there.

(Synopsis from book cover; 2011 Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperback Edition)

Why did I decide to read a novel about a woman who spent a year in a woman’s prison? Well, it actually came about in one of those many conversations that I have after school with my fellow English teachers. One of the other English teachers that I work with had sparked my interest in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” back in December when we were on break. She and I had both watched the first season of the series and we were both absolutely in love with the story.

It was during one of our many conversations that this same teacher mentioned that a friend of hers had read the book, Orange is the New Black, before she started watching the show. As we talked about this, the idea became for the both of us and the other English teacher in our building to read the book in a sort of “book club” for the English teachers. I immediately whipped out my phone, got on Amazon and ordered the 3 copies of the book that we would need. I don’t know that I had ever been so excited to read a book!

I’ll be honest though…at first I had trouble getting started with the book. This is not at all a reflection on Kerman’s writing. The problem was that I had watched the Netflix series before I read the book. I must warn you…if you plan on reading the book and have not yet seen the series…do not, I repeat, do NOT watch the series before you read the book. It’s not that there are any real spoilers in the show or vice versa…it’s that the show is adapted from the book. This meant that I had a preconceived idea of how things were going to unfold in the novel, and when they didn’t exactly match up with each other, I began to get confused. This of course does not mean that I dislike one or the other, it just means that the information is presented in different ways and, of course, names have been changed for the show.

However, I’m not writing this so that you know about the show and the novel – I’m writing this so you know what I thought of the novel itself. In my opinion, I feel that Kerman did a fantastic job of writing about her experience in Orange is the New Black. I was fascinated by the relationships that she created while in prison. It wasn’t that Kerman became someone she wasn’t before, it was that she found (or rediscovered) another side of her – the side that will fight for survival without putting herself at risk doing so. It was also quite interesting to learn about the stories of the other women that Kerman lived with.

Even in the synopsis of the book it says that at times the story is “enraging.” I believe that I felt this way the most when Kerman explains the process that the women go through just as they are about to be released from prison to go home. It was shocking to me the lack of information that is given to these women as they are supposedly being “reeducated” so that they can enter and be successful in society. I felt that we are letting these women (and men) down by not giving them the proper resources to help them try to break any type of cycle if that may be the case. There are also not the proper resources for these women (and men) to be able to better their lives while they are in prison, even though they are told that they have those opportunities.

I don’t want to give much away about the novel because I found myself drawn into Kerman’s story. She uses a wonderful combination of humor, anger, honesty, and even a sense of sadness and desperation as she takes the reader along on her journey. Kerman has such an ease of writing that I found it impossible to stop reading the book (even though I was supposed to be staying on track with the other teachers). I have a great amount of respect for what Kerman went through, and I love the fact that she has also included Justice Reform Resources of groups who are trying to help those that are in prison, or family members of those in prison. This is a definite must read!

Getting Back On Track

Sometimes it seems that everything in life happens all at once…getting sick/hurt, work piling up, the calendar becomes loaded with events, meetings, appointments, etc. But after all of this ends, or we’re able to find a moment to breathe, how to we then pick up the pieces we feel like we’ve dropped and get back on track?

I’ve been struggling with this question ever since we went on Christmas Break. Once again, I let all of the traveling, weather, crazy schedules, holidays, everything…get to me. So I feel like I’ve been playing catch-up since then. I feel like this past weekend I was finally able to get everything back in place and find that groove that I need to be in to be my most productive.

The very first thing that I tackled was getting caught up on grading. As an English teacher (teaching 3 levels of English, as well as ACT Prep) I, of course, always have assignments that I’m giving – but this means that at some point those assignments come back to me to be graded. While I logically know this, in the mindset that I was in, I didn’t feel like I was properly handling them. So I had set aside this past Saturday to go to school, figuratively lock myself into my classroom and tackle the grading that needed to be done. This was actually quite difficult to do, because for some reason Mother Nature decided to let the Midwest feel the reprieve of Winter and it was a gorgeous Spring day Saturday. Nevertheless, I turned on Pandora and got to work. When I finally came up for air hours later I felt so much better about having accomplished so much.

Now that I had tackled this task, it was time to focus on the other things in my life that I had been putting off. Namely, this blog. I had reached a sort of writer’s block when it came to this blog. Over Christmas Break I had read a few more books, but I found myself strangely uninspired by these novels that I couldn’t even motivate myself to write about my lack of response to them. So, I didn’t. And then school started again and I still couldn’t find a way to get writing again. As the days went by, and we had numerous snow days, I let myself believe that I had nothing to write about. I found myself watching the days slip by and still having not written a word…and then I wondered, after so much time, how can I get started again?

I recently began reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin to use in a short unit with my Seniors (more to come on this later), and as I’ve been reading her book, she has one chapter devoted to “Work” in which her goal is to “Aim Higher.” While I am always looking for new ideas or ways to make lessons more interesting/effective with my students, her goal of starting a blog was actually the part that resonated with me. Obviously I have already done the part of starting the blog…my problem was figuring out how to get back into the blogosphere regularly. I didn’t want to set myself up for failure, so as I read this chapter, I let her experience sink in. Some of the advice Gretchen was given in regards to her blog was to write every day. This was the answer that I had been looking for!

While I may not be able to write every single day, I am resolved to blog at least 4 times a week. Even if I am stuck, I am hoping to use quotes that resonate with me to give something to reflect on as I get back into my habit of writing.

Wish me luck as I try to get “back on track” with my writing endeavor. While I’ll try to keep it on my original goal of education and books, I have the distinct feeling that some of my posts will also be including stories from the track season. Part of the journey of the track team will be the fact that I, along with my fellow coaches, are coaching not only the Junior High team this year, but we’ve also added the High School team. Wish us luck this season!

Book Review: HAVE A LITTLE FAITH by Mitch Albom

Book jacket image from goodreads.com

What if our beliefs were not what divided us, but what pulled us together?

In Have a Little Faith, Mitch Albom offers a beautifully written story of a remarkable eight-year journey between two worlds – two men, two faiths, two communities – that will inspire readers everywhere.

Albom’s first nonfiction book since Tuesdays with Morrie, Have a Little Faith begins with an unusual request: an eighty-two-year-old rabbi from Albom’s old hometown asks him to deliver his eulogy.

Feeling unworthy, Albom insists on understanding the man better, which throws him back into a world of faith he’d left years ago. Meanwhile, closer to his current home, Albom becomes involved with a Detroit pastor – a reformed drug dealer and convict – who preaches to the poor and homeless in a decaying church with a hole in its roof.

Moving between their worlds, Christian and Jewish, African-American and white, impoverished and well-to-do, Albom observes how these very different men employ faith similarly in fighting for survival: the older, suburban rabbi embracing it as death approaches; the younger, inner-city pastor relying on it to keep himself and his church afloat.

As America struggles with hard times and people turn more to their beliefs, Albom and the two men of God explore issues that perplex modern man: how to endure when difficult things happen; what heaven is; intermarriage; forgiveness; doubting God; and the importance of faith in trying times. Although the texts, prayers, and histories are different, Albom begins to recognize a striking unity between the two worlds – and indeed, between beliefs everywhere.

In the end, as the rabbi nears death and a harsh winter threatens the pastor’s wobbly church, Albom sadly fulfills the rabbi’s last request and writes the eulogy. And he finally understands what both men had been teaching all along: the profound comfort of believing in something bigger than yourself.

Have a Little Faith is a book about a life’s purpose; about losing belief and finding it again; about the divine spark inside us all. It is one man’s journey, but it is everyone’s story.

(Story summary from book jacket of Hyperion 2009 edition)

There are always those writers, speakers, singers who manage to draw you in to their message no matter what it might be. For me, one of those people is Mitch Albom. Consistently, Albom manages to simply draw me into his stories and speak directly to my heart and my mind. I have read a few others of Albom’s books and Have a Little Faith was no different from the others.

To be quite honest, I had not even heard of this one of Albom’s novels. I did not know what I was missing out on by not reading Have a Little Faith. It was because of one of my senior students that I was even aware of this novel. …To give a little bit of background, last year I taught my junior English classes Tuesdays with Morrie. Amazingly, all of my students really enjoyed reading this novel and they were moved by the story that Albom told with it. Apparently though, there was one student who was moved more than some of the others because this year she has made it her mission to read all of Albom’s books for her independent reading novels. I’m not sure if this particular student is so interested because she is so wise beyond her years with the experiences she has already had, but regardless of that, it is always an amazing experience to connect with a student on a different level and to be able to discuss similar interests in books.

I must commend her for her great recommendation. I simply could not put this book down as is often the case with a good book. What I always find amazing about Albom’s writing style is how he can take such a deep and thoughtful topic and make it seems so simple.

That became apparent once again in Have a Little Faith. If we think about that one word from the title “faith,” it is usually a word that as a society we tend to shy away from. Albom states this throughout his book…that as a society, we tend to not discuss faith or get into faith-based discussions – especially when there are differing views and beliefs. What Albom manages to do is make it obvious that this should not be the norm when it comes to our everyday lives as he is taught through his interactions with his Rabbi, Albert Lewis, and the pastor near in his Detroit home, Henry Covington.

The lessons that Mitch learns as he takes a journey with these two men are so complex and yet so simple, that words seem to fail me if I try to correctly convey these lessons. All I can simply say is that everyone, and yes – I mean absolutely everyone, should find a copy of Have a Little Faith as soon as possible and read it. I think the fact that we are so close to the holidays that these lessons might hit home a little bit more with people as we think about what traditions and family mean to us.

Even though I have decided that to be a teacher is what I was meant to do…it is apparent that I am never done learning. I thank this student (you know who you are) for sharing this book with me and teaching me something new.

Book Review: THE EXPATS by Chris Pavone

Cover image from goodreads.com

Can we ever escape our secrets?

In the cobblestoned streets of Luxembourg, Kate Moore’s days are filled with playdates and coffee mornings, her weekends spent in Paris and skiing in the Alps. But Kate is also guarding a tremendous, life-defining secret — one that’s become so unbearable that it begins to unravel her newly established expat life. She suspects that another American couple are not who they claim to be; he husband is acting suspiciously; and as she travels around Europe, she finds herself looking over her shoulder, increasingly terrified that her own past is catching up with her. As Kate begins to dig, to uncover the secrets of the people around her, she finds herself buried in layers of deceit so thick they threaten her family, her marriage, and her life.

(Novel synopsis from back cover of Broadway Paperbacks 2012 edition)

I know that it has been about a month since my last blog post, but it took me almost that long to read the latest novel to blog about. Chris Pavone’s The Expats was the November choice for my Pi Beta Phi book club. While I absolutely loved the premise of Pavone’s novel, I had a hard time relating to Kate’s character. There would be some moments where I could see her and understand her, and then she would do something that I just could not connect with.

Without giving anything away about the storyline, Kate is an ex-CIA agent who has moved with her family to Luxembourg to start a new life built around her husband’s job in banking. In Kate’s career there was especially one incident that she would love to leave behind her, but the memory of it seems to be chasing her as she tries to build a new life with her husband and two young sons. However, it turns out that Kate isn’t the only one living in Luxembourg who is hiding a secret…

As I mentioned, there were many moments where The Expats lived up to it’s potential, and then there were many others where the story became entirely too predictable. Adding to the difficulty (for me) to become fully immersed in the story was the constant changing of time. Part of the story took place “today” and much more of the story took place in the past. While the perspective was always Kate’s, the most obvious change in time was through a slight change in font used to tell the story. This alone did not prevent the story from being disjointed in its flow. There were other instances where the story would break apart and jump days or locations unexpectedly.

I was also left unsatisfied with the ending of the story, but who knows, it could be because Pavone has plans to continue Kate’s story in the future. One thing I did notice after visiting his website, is that Pavone has created a new novel using one of Kate’s contacts from The Expats. I am interested to see if Pavone’s next novel (The Accident) is able to intrigue me a little bit more as I was left slightly underwhelmed with The Expats.

Book Review: I AM THE MESSENGER by Markus Zusak

Cover image from goodreads.com

protect the diamonds
survive the clubs
dig deep through the spades
feel the hearts

Ed Kennedy is an underage cabdriver without much of a future. He’s pathetic at playing cards, hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and utterly devoted to his coffee-drinking dog, the Doorman. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery.

That’s when the first ace arrives in the mail.

That’s when Ed becomes the messenger.

Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary) until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?

(Book synopsis from back cover)

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak was a book that I was interested in reading for a couple of different reasons. The first reason that I wanted to read this book is because about a year ago I read The Book Thief and I thoroughly enjoyed reading that book and the style of writing by Zusak because he took a different approach with his storytelling. Even with this unique approach, his story was still relatable to the audience and I wanted to see what I Am the Messenger brought to the readers.

While I enjoyed that The Book Thief was set during World War II (again going back to my enjoyment of historical fiction), I was glad that I Am the Messenger takes a more modern tone. I was glad of this because it relates back to my second reason for wanting to read this novel: this book is on the list of books that my students can choose from for the Independent Reading novels and I wanted to be able to answer their questions about the book.

In my opinion, by having this novel take a more modern tone, my students (being high schoolers) will be able to relate to it better. As my students go through the year and start to think about their own futures, I feel as though they will be able to relate to the challenges that Ed faces throughout the novel. My hope is that as they experience Ed going through his tasks, they too will become inspired to do such acts to help out others that they meet in their lives: strangers and friends alike. Zusak seems to speak to those young adults that will be reading his novel to have them examine their own lives and where they are going with them. I feel that his message that he presents through Ed is one that educators and teachers try to impart upon teenagers, but I feel that Zusak seems to present in in a way that young adults will just “get.”

What I also found interesting in I Am the Messenger, is that the voice taken in Zusak’s writing is a great representation of the young adult/teenage mind. There are times that he writes in short bursts – short passages and short sentences. At other times, the passages become longer and more detailed as Ed begins to focus in on things that are happening to and around him.

One thing I feel that readers might struggle with however is some of the slang and language that is used in the novel. My students in particular may not know some of the slang that is used, but I also believe that Zusak gives enough detail that readers should be able to discern the meanings through context clues. It is a fun way to experience other cultures from the comfort of one’s own home or room while reading.

Not wanting to give too much away (in case any of my students read this review trying to garner information), this is a great book for everyone to read, not just a young adult audience. I Am the Messenger holds a message that everyone can relate to, no matter what age they are or where they feel they are at in their lives. Zusak not only allows students (and all readers) to look at the choices that they make and how it affects others around them, but also the relationships they have with their friends and families. I highly recommend this book to everyone.