Audiobooks: Do you have a good book in your ear?

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When my son was younger and we had a long road trip ahead, I would hunt for the best audiobooks around. Harry Potter, Summerland and The Golden Compass filled our car rides with suspenseful storytelling and creative voices.

Last year, one of my talented teaching colleagues noted she was listening to a terrific audiobook. Hmm… I hadn’t thought about audiobooks in ages. My Amazon membership provided a couple credits for Audible so I opened the catalogue. With amazement, I scrolled through the vast collection of choices. Top YA titles, biographies, history books and more were available to accompany me on my way to work.

A librarian friend extolled the virtues of Libby, the public library app, to access all the audiobooks on the digital shelves of my local public libraries. I dropped the Audible app and moved comfortably into the shelves of the Arlington and Alexandria public libraries.

Now, I have an audiobook, as well as a paper book going at all times. The Libby app allows me to wait in a cue for the most popular books while I listen to an available title.

Here are some of the best audiobooks I have heard over the last year:

Biographies

  • Becoming by Michelle Obama
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • Unfaithful Music Elvis Costello
  • In Pieces by Sally Field
  • Yes Please by Amy Poehler
  • Bossy Pants by Tina Fey

 

Fiction

  • Beartown by Fredrik Backman
  • Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
  • American Street by Ibi Zoboi
  • The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert
  • Far From the Tree by Robin Benway
  • The Passion of Dolssa by Julie Berry
  • My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton & Jodi Meadows
  • Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
  • The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

 

Non-Fiction

  • Console Wars by Blake J. Harris
  • On Writing by Stephen King

 

 

 

Finding Community at the Farmer’s Market

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Days are busy, time is short,

so we often keep our heads down and forge ahead.

An email in my inbox yesterday stopped me short

and reminded me to look up from my life.

My favorite farmer’s market vendor — Twin Springs Farm —

sends a chatty, enticing message each week sharing

the latest news on harvests, both fruit and vegetable.

But, this week’s newsletter is a bit different.

Following the regular farm news, the owners of Twin Springs

dedicate two pages in tribute to a farmer’s market neighbor.

“Bill Preston was a fellow vendor…a couple of decades ago he set up next to me

with buckets and buckets of gorgeous cut flowers.”

Bill “stopped raising cut flowers and planted an orchard”,

focusing on persimmons.

The lovely tribute continued to share details,

both simple and extraordinary.

The message from Twin Springs Farm

reminded me that while our days may be busy,

it is the relationships with others in community

that are the true measure.

When I go to the Farmer’s Market on Sunday,

I will thank the folks of Twin Springs for the news

Next, I will thank them for the gorgeous red, crisp apples

and vibrant green kale and arugula.

There are stories everywhere and we miss them

when we keep our heads down,

buried in our own concerns.

This week, I will keep my head up

to greet my neighbors and

partake of the news all around me.

 

Thank you, Linda Rief

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Linda Rief’s recent The Quickwrite Handbook is filled with 100 mentor texts to spur creativity in writers young and old. When I got the book this summer, I started each morning for two weeks with one of her prompts. I continue to experiment with her mentor texts. Here is my response to her “The First Part Last”:

The First Part Last

 So here’s a good day,

We’ll call it a favorite day.

The sound of birds out the window

wake me in the early morning hours.

My sister is still asleep

in the matching twin bed

as I slowly tiptoe out of the room.

My grandmother stands in the small kitchen

Mixing a fresh pot of iced tea.

She uses the white china pot,

covered in lovely red cabbage roses,

to prepare the hot tea before pouring the brew

over ice cubes that crackle and dissolve.

A few mint springs and lemon

will make the tea perfect for the warming day.

My grandfather sits on the screened porch.

Long before I was born,

My uncle and grandfather built that porch –-

everyone’s favorite room in the house.

Time alone with my grandparents,

before siblings and cousins arose,

was a rarity I inhaled like the

first breath taken when breaking through

the surface of a pool after a deep dive.

 

 

 

Can We Just Read?

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As the day goes on, many students drag themselves down the hall and into the classroom with the weight of resignation that comes from a tightly, packed middle school schedule. The luster of these bright, inquisitive souls is, at times, dimmed by exhaustion.

“Can we just read?” is the question that repeats throughout the day.

“Yes, we will be reading today. Find a cozy spot and dive into your books.”

“Just reading?” I am asked again.

I smile when I repeat my affirmation.

I watch student after student visibly exhale. Shoulders relax and a bounce is detectable in most steps. Of course, I do have some students for whom reading is not the first choice. But, given space and time, and a pile of books constructed just for them, these students settle into the task with more attention each time.

There is nothing better than looking around at students curled in cozy chairs, spread out on the rug or leaning with a pillow against the wall.

But, the question, “can we just read?” digs in like a burr.

Reading is at once an incredibly complex task and a great escape. In her groundbreaking book, Proust and the Squid, cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf states, “human beings were never born to read.” She continues, “We now know that groups of neurons create new connections and pathways among themselves every time we acquire a new skill….Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design.”

In other words, every single time a student picks up a book and learns new vocabulary or creates connections between previously learned information and the text in front of him/her, that student  is undertaking an extraordinary task.

I believe if my students were given an hour to read every school day, their curiosity would be sparked, their empathy would increase, and their academic performance would rise. Reading time is precious and we do not give it enough stock.

But, more importantly, reading is a new frontier and as Wolf adds, “…when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually.”

Reading is the most noble task we can give our students.

 

 

The Power of Solitude

 

07hhimarshmhI just started reading Delia Owens’ book, Where the Crawdads Sing.  The book has spent weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. However, what spurred me to open the book was an interview of the author about the roots of her rich, textured setting.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the tale of a young girl growing up essentially alone in the remote marshes along the coast of North Carolina. When a handsome nearby town resident is found murdered in the marshes, Kya is the chief suspect. While the plot sounds compelling, what draws the reader in is the gorgeous descriptive language. Owens knows wilderness.

When Owens was in her twenties, she and her then-husband lived in Africa caring for wild animals. Her Ph.D in animal behavior prepared her for wildlife care. Much of the time, Owens and her then-husband were the only humans for hundreds of miles.

Owen commented the inspiration for her book came from spending everyday with lions, elephants and baboons. She said that we are not so different in our behavior from the tight female packs or the strutting male baboons.

Owens now lives in a remote corner of northern Idaho. The view out her window is of towering mountains. But, Owens lives her alone. She says she gets so lonely sometimes that it feels hard to breath. She values her solitude. Her first novel is an “ode to the outdoors” that reveals “the affect loneliness can have on a person”.

As a reader, I find what shines through in Owens’ lush landscape is the power of standing still in  middle of nature. Kya, the main character, is comforted and enveloped by her surroundings. Birds, minnows and reeds come to life in the mind of the reader thanks to Owens’ quiet attention to detail. Writers can learn much from Owens about immersing oneself to tell a worthy story.

Student Study

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He busts into the class, hood up,

eyes scanning the room.

It is hard to tell if his eyes

are searching for friends or warily

appraising what the content may have waiting.

J. has come a long way this year.

The sullen, young man

that entered in September,

has given way to a frequently gregarious,

slightly more open version of himself.

When he thinks no one is looking,

J. guides nearby classmates if they are confused.

What’s more…

J. is on time, mostly prepared and willing to participate when asked.

The maturing student in J. has started to peek out

from under his guarded exterior.

However, he refuses to give up the ghost in one area.

“I hate reading,” he says as automatically as one might say hello.

“Oh, that’s a shame,” I say,

“because I just got the hottest new graphic novel title

and I was going to have you try it first.”

His eyes slide up from under the lip of his hood,

“What’s it about?”

As other students clamor to get their hands on the newest book first,

J. somewhat reluctantly accepts the title.

Later on, I see him reading in a comfortable chair.

The next day, when another student asks if he is finished with the book,

J. smiles and says not yet.

“You want me to tell you about it though?”  he offers.

J. may not realize it but he is moving from resistant student to classroom teacher.

 

 

 

CBS Sunday Morning: The Art of Storytelling

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My very favorite television show is CBS Sunday Morning. Each week, the show mixes news, human interest stories and nature to provide a perfect 90 minutes on the weekend. Since life is busy, CBS Sunday Morning often becomes “must see tv” on a weeknight after dinner.

It is rare for a week to go by when I don’t find a story or two that my students would love. In fact, I have a couple of pages in my bullet journal dedicated to mentor stories. I often weave the stories into reading and writing units.

What makes the items on CBS Sunday Morning so memorable is the storytelling craft employed. The stories: have clear arcs, offer emotional connections and use sound, sights and other sensory details to bring the “reader” in.

One of the best storytellers on the show is Steve Hartman. He took over the On the Road series made famous by Charles Kuralt. I recommend you open a few of the clips on Youtube. Hartman finds quirky, often quiet stories. His stories are a mix of interview, narration and strong imagery.

Whether relating the tale of a 95-year-old WWII navy man walking across America to raise funds to care for the last of a WWII Navy ship, meeting a whole community learning sign language to relate to a two-year-old girl, or sharing the story of three students and a community building “magic” rock, Hartman lets viewers see good in the world. Given the negative tone of discourse these days, CBS Sunday Morning is just the thing to add light to the day.

My favorite moment of each CBS Sunday Morning show is the “Moment of Nature” at the end of the show. CBS’s cameras capture nature across the country and the only sounds are those picked up by the microphones. I stop and breath deep with each moment. Try it yourself and you will be hooked.

Have you tried bullet journaling?

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I am a list person. The habit was instilled in me at a young age. My father, a brilliant lawyer, always kept a folded sheet of yellow legal paper in his left shirt pocket. He would pull out the paper regularly to jot a note or task. As children, my siblings and I often wondered if the notes about us meant good or bad news. But, the image of his list making is seared in my mind.

I have tried keeping every kind of list/calendar possible — a large leather calendar with notes pages, a notecard holder in my jacket pocket with 3×5 index cards filled with bulleted lists, scraps of paper, mini-notebooks in my bag — you name it, and I have tried the list-making technique. That is, until four years ago when author Kate Messner blogged about the magic of the bullet journal method. If you have not heard of bullet journals, here is a quick video from creator Ryder Carroll explaining the system.

Now, much of my life is organized in an A5 Leuchtturm 1917 journal. My bullet journal offers a space to keep bulleted lists, but I can also dedicate a couple pages to planning my next teaching unit or brainstorming with colleagues. The heart of the system is the index at the front. If I start a page of mentor texts in September, I can add to that page or create another page later in the notebook for more mentor texts. In the index, I add all the pages with mentor texts and I can easily find my work.

In between note sessions, calendars and doodles, I keep my daily lists. Boxes next to an item means I still need to accomplish the task. A filled in box is pure joy — who doesn’t love to fill in a checklist when a job is finished? Once I established the routine of daily list creation in the bullet journal, I found myself limiting tasks to one’s that mattered for that day. I will usually start a page of “Things to Do” for items that don’t have to be done that day or lack a defined timeline. Honestly, I found that my weekly and daily spreads change based on how busy I am or the best way to visualize my day or week at the moment.

There are whole bullet journal communities you can follow on Instagram to get ideas for organizing your journal. But, the key is to make the journal work for you! If you want to make it pretty, get out markers and brush pens…if you want to make it messy, go for it. I average one bullet journal each school year, and one in the summer when my mind is brimming with plans, free writes and story ideas.

Here are a few pages from my current bullet journal to give you an idea:

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Tips on Finding Writing Inspiration

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I just finished Sophie Blackall’s gorgeous Caldecott Medal-winning picture book, Hello Lighthouse. On the flyleaf in the back of the book, Ms. Blackwell notes that her inspiration for the book arrived in the form of an old print spotted at a flea market. The print showed a cross section of the rooms in a lighthouse. She was hooked.

Ms. Blackwell researched, visited lighthouses, read lighthouse keeper’s journals and even spent the night in a lighthouse on an island at the tip of NewFoundland. The book Hello Lighthouse is stepped in the kind of details only possible with lots of background research.

Many authors delve into their family history to find writing inspiration. Take L.M. Elliot, whose Under a War Torn Sky finds its heart in the experiences of her father, a bomber pilot shot down in World War II. Or Ruta Septys, whose father shared stories of Lithuania that found a home in her book, Between Shades of Gray.

Loree Griffin Burns, author of several Scientist in the Field books including the gorgeous Life on Surtsey: Iceland’s Upstart Island, says she is a believer in the power of first-hand research. She takes copious notes in a small notebook that she takes everywhere. She also makes audio recordings of interviewees and takes hundreds of photographs.

Author Linda Urban is a notebook fan too. Mingled together in her notebook are shopping lists, notes about her kids, and ideas that may spark a new novel. Here is a comment from Linda Urban along with one of her notebook pages:

This is a page of observations from a trip to the dentist’s office.   While I have not written a novel set in a waiting room, I can’t say it won’t happen.  And the practice of observing small details has most definitely come in handy.             Linda Urban

 

Ideas are all around us — consider the box you haven’t opened since your last move, a story your mother told when you were young, the deserted house in the neighborhood, or your new interest in beekeeping. Perhaps you want to follow Loree and Linda’s lead and carry a small notebook everywhere. Keen observation can lead to great storytelling.

 

 

 

 

Defacing Monuments

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For tourists traveling to Washington, D.C.

in hopes of viewing historic monuments,

the city might be a bit disappointing these days.

Many of Washington’s historic sites

are shrouded in tarps and scaffolding.

Cranes extend far above Memorial Bridge

and lanes are closed as cars speed under the Kennedy Center.

Blazing orange cone and barriers mar

the view of the tidal basin

and potholes rattle cars traversing city streets.

As Washington’s monuments age,

the city has ordered a facelift.

Hopefully, the cherry blossoms

peaking in April

will distract from the

flashing construction signs

dotting D.C.’s historic byways.