Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Week of Young Adult Lit in between the Russians

In the aftermath of the Anna Karenina Effect (the hours spent thinking about why I'm glad I was not born in any other time period on earth, despite my sometimes-wish to be Elizabeth Bennett) I read some of the Young Adult novels that I ordered for my classroom. I love that there are books who have true female heroines: teenage characters who are human, therefore not flawless, think about romance, but who are also creative, smart, daring and question the world around them. These are the books that I'd want my daughter to read, if I had one. (An excellent bridge to these books for younger girls is anything by Sharon Creech--Walk Two Moons, The Wanderer, Chasing Redbird-- whose characters are a bit younger but so so wonderful.)

The Disreputable History or Frankie Landau-Banks A girl at a boarding school in Massachusetts finds herself proving in ridiculously creative ways that girls are extremely capable at brainstorming and putting into action means of peaceful protest and general mischief.

Kiki Strike series: a band of smart, creative girls battle mysteries not limited to the secret world beneath the streets of New York City.

In other reading news, I read my first Manga this week (the Japanese-style graphic novels), Deathnote. Pretty resistant to reading manga at first, I actually enjoyed it after my eyes got used to reading left to right and back to front and used to reading pictures as well as words. I was surprised by the presence of so many philosophical issues within it. I am currently taking a class where we are studying the kid-phenomena of manga and how it affects their reading levels and it all points to good things...a surprise even to us more progressive educators.

Anyway. My book club (er...partnership) is reading The Brothers Karamazov. Off to that.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Best Kinds of Books.


I find a book that is able to completely remove me from whatever my schedule dictates, whatever cursed month is prohibiting me from wearing flip flops, whatever lack of funds is restricting my travel and it transports me. Granted, I get lost in books a lot. I can't help it. But there is something different about books that reawaken you to wonder and believe. Sigh. I just finished The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. This book, like most others who fit into this category are led by adventurous, precocious, brave children. Hugo Cabret is an apprentice time keeper in a Paris train station in the 1930's. Struck by tragedy, the book follows his earnest adventures to find answers and while doing so, uncovers a mystery and some beauty in the human experience.

The most wonderful aspect of this book is not only the words on the page and the escapades they pull you into, but the illustrations. Selznick is a renowned illustrator as well, and his pencil drawings magically capture key moments in the story and invite the reader to slow down. The drawings don't just supplement the text, they replace large swathes of text and ask the reader to stop and look and imagine. I'm not sure if others get or understand this feeling, but I love it when various medias of art combine for a depth and beauty that is unable to be expressed in any other way? (I had the same feeling reading/looking at an installation at The Powerhouse Arena in Dumbo last weekend--a self proclaimed laboratory for creative thought: bookstore, gallery, boutique, performance space. Definitely worth a trip if you are in NYC and wanting to channel creative juices...the installation I saw goes through Sunday only, so hurry!)

I don't think it's a surprise that these "transportation" books often have children as the main characters. They are the ones who don't forget to wonder and who aren't afraid to wander and don't get caught up in the worries of the adult world. If I were an 8-12 year old, Hugo and Isabelle, his parter in crime, would be my heroes. As a 28 year old, I kind of want to be them, still. Or else be an adult who encourages adventure and imagination. Sigh.

Read. This. Book.

Friday, March 20, 2009

a facetious poem about real feelings. or, my way of dealing with waking up to snow on the first day of spring. or, seriously? or, curses!

March, oh March,
season of seasons
why art thou so elusive?

thy bringeth me light
and the movement of clocks
thy bringeth me spring
the rebirth of my heart

i can not comprehend why this morning
when i woke
white flakes coming down
oh heaven, i choke

on the bear hug of winter
that has gone on too long
please don't play with my heart
to me it's no joke

the poor youth that i teach
are being affected
because my longing for sun and warmth
is being rejected.

but i can only hang my head
as i look out my window upon the gray

But the old ankle length down
hangs in my closet mocking my frown.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It's spring in Brooklyn and why 8th graders are amusing to me.

First, a note on the weather. There is something truly great about walking down the street in Brooklyn on one of the first 65 degree days. I swear, light feels more real and the buildings look different as the old timers pull out plastic chairs to sit on the sidewalk. Spring officially starts on Friday. Ok. Just had to get that out.

Second, I have to share one of my favorite, most laugh out loud moments as a teacher:

Background: We are currently in the depths of Romeo and Juliet. The namesakes have fallen in love/lust. Mercutio is dead. Tybalt is dead. Our class conversation yesterday revolved around violence: how something light hearted and entertaining can turn disastrous when a weapon is pulled, or how easy it is to cross the line when "the mad blood is stirring." I always share the idea that in Romeo and Juliet "it's all fun and games until Mercutio dies." And yes, my 14 year olds had some excellent insight into the issue.

Today, since it was so nice out, kids were all over the place after school: sitting outside every local coffee shop and park, so obviously I ran into a few and they called me over: Ms. Robbins, you'll never guess what he did! They proceeded to tell me how a boy in my homeroom was trying to get ready for gym and they were horsing around in the locker room around a door that didn't have a handle. There was pushing from both sides, each boy on either side trying to alternately close or open the door to block the other. Then. The boy in my homeroom slammed the door not realizing that the other kid's fingers were in it. Ouch. And no, I am not heartless, this is *not* the laugh out loud moment. I hope that poor boy is ok. The humor came when the boy in my homeroom said:

"It's all fun and games until Mercutio dies, Ms. Robbins."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Love and duty, passion and indifference: Mutually exclusive?

(This post is mostly influenced by reading Anna Karenina, with hints of Romeo and Juliet, films such as Shakespeare in Love, The Duchess, Manhattan, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Brideshead Revisited and the television series Mad Men. I apologize for any incoherence or lack of breadth or depth...this issue is so so big and I'm unable to wrap my mind around it all in a single post)

Anna Karenina is the namesake and possible heroine of Leo Tolstoy's book carrying her name. She is a woman of 19th century Russian aristocracy, a mother of one and a wife in a loveless marriage. Characterized by her passion and willingness to go against society's norms (though not immune from the isolation it creates), she loses--and gains, then loses--herself in an amorous affair.

Her abandoning of her husband is unsettling, but a gray space in my mind because it was a marriage not born of love to begin with. (I could argue either side and probably make a lot of people really angry. But thus is the whole topic of this post and why this book is interesting. Clamor away. I can take it.) There is a part of me that admires Anna's unwillingness to settle for a societal-prescribed, bland existence, but her potential heroism becomes shadowed in her abandonment of her son.

I remain convinced that it must be possible to live a poetic life that is responsible (be it not abandoning your family, obviously, or being a person who is dependable, invested in good), even though putting the word responsible next to poetic seems to be a desecration. Or maybe it's just the connotation that the word responsible carries. Is is possible to create a new conception?

This issue can easily be examined through the feminist lens as well, though I'm not going to pursue that thread in this post. But my heart has broken over women from history like Lady Georgiana Spencer (characterized in The Duchess) in the 1700's to the portrayal of the 1950's housewife like Betty Draper (Mad Men) who are asked to swallow their intellect, ardor and hearts and accept their position gracefully and gratefully. Perhaps it makes for better drama, but whatever the reason, the mutual exclusivity of living passionately or dutifully/responsibly has arisen in nearly every book, movie and television show that I have seen or read lately. I cannot accept this, for women or for men. Go. Do something.

Perhaps this is why one of my favorite phrases in all of scripture is the pursuit of "life that is truly life." I think. I think. That kind of life is one in which poetry triumphs, but under the umbrella of unconditional love and trust, with some grace?

The bottom line for me is that Anna leaves her husband to pursue passion and love, but ultimately is left unfulfilled, insecure and filled with jealousy. So. I am off to seek the alliance of a life that is defined by being a trustworthy friend and socially responsible citizen, but one given to fits of adventure and spirit: the intersection of passion and duty.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What my attempt at reading a book en espanol is teaching me.

I'm laughing because at first I forgot to type "in Spanish" in my title.

I am trying to work on my Spanish in a few different ways: a workbook on verb tenses, vocabulary memorization and by reading a Young Adult novel (The Color of My Words, or El Color de Mis Palabras). I am nerdily loving my workbook and finding it hard to believe that hated them when I was actually taking Spanish classes. I have started a little notebook where I keep track of new words and try to practice them. In short, I am a dork. Clearly.

But it got me thinking about struggling readers. Here I am, reading a 5th/6th grade book and realizing that I don't know nearly as many Spanish words as I thought I did. For each paragraph I am making a inferences for at least 5 words and looking up at least five more. It is frustrating to not be able to read the story as it is meant to be read: my reading experience is choppy and held together only by the fact that I am motivated to figure out what it is trying to say.

This is the equivalent experience of handing a child a book that is way too difficult for him or her to read, except in most cases--especially in a middle school--take out the self motivation and focus. Any meaning becomes absent as words are mindlessly plowed through.

Two interesting points arise: one, the only way I can become a better Spanish reader and speaker is to learn and memorize more vocabulary. Two, I probably need to go sit in the children's Spanish section of the Brooklyn Public Library and read books that are on my level, then grow into harder texts. So. as an educator I can take away the same two points: make sure kids are reading on level and push them to the next as needed (which my school attempts to do, as of course budgets allow for books in the classroom...aye.) and. teach. them. vocabulary.

This has become slightly out of fashion in progressive English education. My 8th grade English Language Arts team has been discussing the possibility of ordering old school vocabulary books in hushed whispers as though it needs to be a covert operation.

So anyway. I'm convinced that having a higher vocabulary will infinitely increase not only my ability to become a better Spanish speaker, but enable my students to become smarter. Period.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things: a friendly reminder about daylight savings time.

I've been planning this post in my head for weeks. Today is one of my favorite days of the year, shared by two of my favorite Springboro alums and two of the maybe five readers of this blog, Kendra and Emily. Today is the day we can legitimately begin to hope.

Winter in general can be depressing: I should know as my college roommate and I diagnosed myself online with Seasonal Affective Disorder back in 2002 (that link is to The Mayo Clinic...see I am not just neurotic. It's real!) . Winter in New York can be even more depressing: no hill in my non-existent front yard to sled down, walking to work is not only painful (head bowed against the wind, face being whipped, etc.) but it is time consuming (buttoning all of the snaps on my ankle length down coat, putting on and the removing of layers of sweaters, fleeces, scarves, hats, gloves) and generally unattractive (see previous parenthesis). My coat takes up an entire seat wherever I go out and I have to shamefully excuse it as if it were an unruly child or socially awkward friend. Beyond the apparel aspect, the shortening of days that begins when all of the finery of autumn is gone from the trees is heartbreaking. The fact that we gain an hour of sleep when we "fall back" is crap! I'm a teacher and it is still practically dark when *I* leave from school in the dead of winter. But enough of this talk.

Today we may lose one hour of sleep, but what we gain is incomparable! Daylight savings means that we really can say that spring is around the corner and mean it, not the way my mom and I try to say it in the middle of January to make ourselves feel better. Spring! Is! Around! The! Corner! Starting today we can look forward to the fact that THREE GLORIOUS SEASONS IN A ROW are within our reach and that the hopelessness that begins on or around January first is at its farthest for a whole year!!!

It really feels like a figurative new day today: the high is 60. I am planning on going for a run (though let it be known that I have been running in the cold for 2 weeks now). I have the motivation to go to the Farmer's Market at Prospect Park. I actually would rather go do things with my morning rather than sit around reading news online in my pajamas until 1 pm, followed by sitting around watching quality programming (see last post) until I finally decide I should shower and talk to people. There is fast paced music on in my apartment (Paul Simon! Phil Collins for my brother! ha.) not the melancholy, I-hate-the-winter kind of reflective music I often default to and wallow in. Who cares that on Monday I had my first snow day in 5 years! It's daylight savings!!

So. Feel free to hope today. Now that the days are getting longer, you can feel justified in your incessant talk of the impending marvelous season. Feel justified in your hope for flip flops and parks. Hope for smiling when you step outside. Hope for sitting outside and enjoying a beverage. Hope for Uncle Louie G's next door to finally open again for the season and sell me a delicious $2 vanilla chip Italian Ice (or The K, or whoever your local ice cream provider may be.) I can't contain myself. I may have to add an addendum to this post later today after I let it all sink in that this day has actually arrived. Sigh.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What winter does to a reader.

A. I am much less likely to want to go outside. (In the nice weather, you will undoubtedly find me--book in hand--at the park.
B. I am easily convinced that it is a better idea to stay inside and hibernate than put on my not cute sleeping bag of a coat and go out to a place where said coat is too big to hang or put on back of a chair.
C. The lack of inspiring weather makes my brain not really want to work on its own, hence it is better suited for watching television online, making the most of my Netflix account or borrowing entire seasons of TV from my cousins.
D. Instead of going to the Farmer's Market at Prospect Park, I am apt to sit in my pajamas for the entire morning/afternoon reading not my novels, but online news. Granted this is technically reading, but there is an overall glaze on my eyes and an inability to follow a story that lasts for more than four paragraphs or so.
E. Less leaving my apartment means less time on the subway to read.

This being said, I am still reading. Just not as much, obviously. I am half way through two long (700+ page books: Winter's Tale and Anna Karenina), which is why I haven't posted much about my reading lately. So I can't really update you on my reading life, but I can update you on my watching life. I have to confess, as a typically motivated, ambitious person, I am kind of embarrassed to admit all of this. But. Here is what I've been doing with my winter time:

Damages. This is what I did over my week off from school in February. I have successfully wrangled at least one friend into watching it all in a week as well. Glen Close plays a brilliant but dark New York City criminal lawyer. Rose Byrnes plays her young protege who becomes entangled in all the drama and conspiracy that one would hope exists in fictional law shows. All of season one is on for free. Just saying.

Mad Men. I justify because some of my colleagues have sworn by it, so this has become my Netflix television show. Brilliant. My main reaction after every episode I see is that I am glad I am a woman today, and not in the 50's. This has been a fascinating portrayal of New York, gender roles, advertising and culture.

The O.C. This show (seasons one and two) never get old to me. It is comforting to enter back into the Cohen's kitchen and swoon over Ryan Atwood. My few of my favorite television-savvy cousins and I recently inducted our younger cousin (and her mom! yes!) into the beauty that is season one. And I feel like I am justified in that The OC has become a family affair: fans include my favorite brother, my mom, an aunt AND my 93 year old grandmother.

Friday Night Lights. My television-savvy cousin and the cousins we introduced to the OC handed me season one a few weeks ago. Not only is the football part a good substitute for the off-season, but I don't want to be the only cousin out of the loop! I have fallen for this show as well. The family does remind me of the Cohens--and solid marriages aren't portrayed often on television anymore.

Others that have been around, but I watch on the regular, weekly basis:

Lost: this season is the best since season one.

Bones. This season is campy and disappointing. I recommend seasons 1-3 only. (This was my pick of last winter.) But. I did recruit 2 friends into watching this show and discussing it on a regular basis is amazing.

Gossip Girl. Judge all you want, but this show is satirically hilarious. Except for the past few episodes. It is on the brink of ruining all that makes it great with ridiculous plot lines (no, that is not meant to be sarcastic. ha.).

So, in conclusion, this post was born from the fact that I haven't written anything on my blog in a few weeks. But I will tell you another thing. Quality television makes for great conversations. Case in point: I became friends, not just colleagues, with people at work over the OC and Gossip Girl. Watching the first 2 seasons of Lost with 5 of my great friends forged a bond that will never be broken. (And no, I'm not being over-dramatic or facetious.) The OC with my television-savvy cousin and 2 best friends proved to be my favorite weekly ritual EVER. Television forms community, friends.