Weekly Diigo Posts (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.


Weekly Diigo Posts (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Hide and Seek by Kate Messner

I don’t read a lot of middle grade books now that I teach high school, but there are certain authors I always read.  Kate Messner is one of those authors.  A few weeks ago I finally got a chance to read her newest novel Hide and Seek.  As usual, it did not disappoint.

The second in her series, this mystery is perfect for middle grade readers.  José, Anna, and Henry are junior members of the secret Silver Jaguar Society, sworn to protect the world’s most important artifacts. In this adventure,  they discover that the society’s treasured Jaguar Cup, which members have whispered about for generations, has been stolen and replaced with a counterfeit.  The kids and their families soon rush to the rain forests of Costa Rica in search of the real Jaguar Cup. The adults try to keep the kids out of the mess, but of course that never works.  When they are left on their own at an eco-resort, they begin their own investigation. Middle grade readers will find themselves on the edge of their seats as they race alongside José, Anna, and Henry, in search of the cup before it disappears forever!

Highly recommended for the fast-paced mystery,  the realistic middle-school characters,and the amazing setting.

But here’s the thing.  Kate is going to get me in trouble because after reading Hide and Seek I need to visit Costa Rica.  In fact, the night I finished the book I emailed Kate and asked her where she stayed on her research trip and for any other advice she might have.  That’s how good the setting is.  That’s how magical Kate’s words are- she brings the rain forest to life. Plus, she shared a bit about her research trip here, here, and here!

I’m still looking into a trip to Costa Rica and I hope it happens in the future.  If it does, I will thank Kate Messner for introducing me to the amazing eco-lodge profiled in Hide and Seek!

Is It the Teacher or the System?

No doubt you have seen this week’s viral video of high school student Jeff Bliss demanding an end to what he calls “packet teaching.”  I don’t disagree with Mr. Bliss’ sentiment and I sincerely hope he does create change.  I hope people continue to talk about education and what students deserve long after the furor has died down. But I do have a problem with how the media has attacked the teacher seen in the video.

Do we blame the teacher or the system? That’s the question we need to focus on.

The media and most comments on news websites are attacking the teacher for being a paper-pusher, an awful teacher, and much worse.  The vitriol is cruel and beyond the pale. But how do we know this specific teacher made the packets that she handed out?  How do we know she had a choice in the matter? We don’t, and that’s a problem.  I refuse to crucify a singular person for what may be a much larger problem over which she has no control.

Right now we have Jeff Bliss’ side of the story, and a 90-second long clip of his speech during class.  We do not have information from the teacher and if she expects to continue teaching in any capacity I imagine we will never hear from her.  However, a little digging will show that she has a social media presence devoted to her classes. (I won’t link to her here because I don’t want to contribute to her name being brought up any more, as the district is not using it in their statements).

She has a Pinterest page devoted to resources students can use, a Youtube page linking to Crash Course videos and other content for her classes, a Twitter account, and a few other history-based resources where she interacts with students.  Obviously, this does not mean she is a wonderful teacher, but it does seem to me  that she is passionate about her job.  Those social media sites are most likely culled together outside of school hours as most schools block them, so she is devoting time outside of the 9-3 of classes to her profession.  It seems to show dedication to her students and passion about the subject matter she teaches.  And I have a hard time juxtaposing that with the comments I am reading on websites decrying her as the world’s worst teacher, a lazy idiot, and a detriment to society. Again, there’s nothing about a social media presence that guarantees she is a vibrant, engaging teacher. But it does give me pause. If she is a terrible teacher who does nothing but pass out packets, why has the district not addressed that prior to this situation? Does she have positive evaluations? Has she been encouraged and mentored? What is the truth about this situation?

I’ve read too many comments on news websites that say something along the lines of,  “Come on, this is all on the teacher.  It’s not like there are principals out there saying, here, hey you have to devote all of your class time to test prep.  You are required to assemble some packets of prep, pass them out, and have students complete them before the standardized tests.”

I have news for those commenters.  There are many, many districts like that.  Too many.  I have friends who are amazing teachers and are now being handed a packaged curriculum, complete with a script, that they must follow.  They are being forced to skip teaching science and history and instead must hand out test prep packets for math and ELA tests that will decide whether they are “good” or “bad” teachers.  They must administer practice tests in their classes instead of doing PBL or science experiments.  One friend, currently teaching elementary school, just told me that after our state tests next week her school will finally let her teach science and social studies.  Pretty much an entire year’s worth of curriculum in one month.  And this is in a good district, a district that people move into because it is highly-ranked!

They aren’t an anomaly.  Sadly, in our standardized-test obsessed culture they are becoming the norm.  And that is a huge problem.  It’s not the students’ responsibility to fight this and I don’t blame Jeff Bliss for standing up to the person in front of him, the teacher he deals with daily.  But the reaction from the public needs to go way beyond that one teacher.  Where is the investigation into the district as a whole?  Where are the interviews with students talking about the test prep they are forced to do in all classes?  Where are the interviews with parents in other states explaining how their children no longer take music or art classes but instead they take test prep classes in their place?  Where are the interviews with administrators explaining how their schools are  considered failing or no good because the difference between their special ed population and gifted student population scores is too large and now they must force packaged curriculum on their teachers and students in order to satisfy the state or federal government?

“But why don’t they fight back? A good teacher would stand up and refuse to teach like that!” commenters say.  But they do fight back. It’s not just in a way that gets them fired and I can’t begrudge them that.  They fight back by attending meetings, bringing research to their supervisors, talking to parents about getting involved, sharing books and other unpackaged curriculum with students.  They put themselves in the line of fire as much as possible without getting fired.  Are we really asking teachers to get fired in order to prove they are good teachers? Can’t you fight from the inside? Don’t you want those teachers in front of your classroom while they wage a silent war outside the classroom walls? Or would you prefer they get fired? Is that the answer?

That’s the problem. And that’s what I wish we were talking about thanks to Jeff Bliss.  And I’m pretty sure it’s what Jeff Bliss wants us to talk about. Because that’s how we will begin to change things.  Not by focusing on a single situation in a single classroom but instead, focusing on the results of NCLB and the standardized tests being forced on our students and teachers.  By 2015, our students will all be taking the PARCC tests and teachers’ jobs will depend on the results. In NJ, PARCC third-grade assessments will have nine sessions with an estimated eight hours of testing compared to NJ ASK’s five hours and four days. The PARCC assessments in other grades will run approximately nine and half hours compared to about six for NJ ASK. That’s a lot of lost teaching time in just a few grades in one state.  It’s even worse in other places.  The numbers get worse when you add in test prep classes that districts require students to take and the time taken from other content areas in order to prepare students.

So yes, Jeff Bliss has every right to confront his teacher and demand a better education.  But the adults reading the articles, writing editorials, and speaking on 24-hour news channels about the situation have a responsibility to dig even deeper.  One teacher in one school is not the problem.  Administrators and districts who demand “packet teaching” are the problem. And that’s what we need to be talking about.  We need to put the spotlight on the decision-makers who choose the curriculum teachers are told to teach with. We need to demand that politicians stand up for our students instead of making money for Pearson and other testing companies.  I am grateful to Jeff Bliss for showing the world what testing culture has done to many of our schools. I just hope that parents and taxpayers start to see beyond that classroom and look at the bigger picture.  Because I don’t think Jeff Bliss is speaking about one situation in one class.  He wants to change the paradigm and we all have to stand up in order for that to happen.

Weekly Diigo Posts (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

A #coverflip Experiment with High School Freshmen

Today in class the freshmen read Maureen Johnson’s awesome essay, “The Gender Coverup“, wherein she takes a look at gendered book covers and calls to task those who think there are  “boy” books and “girl” books.

“I don’t care,” say some other people. Probably most of the people. Because a lot of people don’t read much or see why any of this affects their lives. But I believe it does affect us all, very much so, because these are all subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) value judgments on what kind of narratives matter.

“But!” some of those people who are still paying attention cry. “Boys don’t like to/can’t read about girls!”

“&^%$@,” say I.

Of course they can, and stop making their choices for them or telling them what they do or don’t want to do. This may be a big part of the problem.

I see this issue every day as a teacher.  I saw it in 6th grade and I see it with my high schoolers.  I’ll booktalk a fabulous book and the cover will influence students to read it or not read it.  I have plenty of male students who, as avid booktalkers of Thirteen Reasons Why  would love Before I Fall, but avoid it because of the cover. They deem it “feminine” and say that they will be made fun of.  A problem in and of itself, obviously, but we need to stop placing gender labels on books, too.

The conversations that stemmed from the article were fabulous.  I eavesdropped as students argued over whether girls are more willing to read broadly while boys stick to certain topics.  I watched as they analyzed the covers of the books on their desks.  And I hid a smile as they vehemently argued over whether the covers of YA novels fit gender stereotypes.  Plus, it led to a great analysis of the many editions of our current class novel, Things Fall Apart.  The students noted similarities between how Achebe’s characters were presented on some covers and how those in the Western world view(ed) Nigeria (and Africa as a whole).   Could this English teacher be any happier?

After reading the article and viewing the slideshow, I challenged my students to try #coverflip.  In groups, they decided on a book that they felt had a cover that appealed more to one gender than necessary.  Then, they searched for Creative Commons images that they could use to create a new cover.  In photoshop, they designed their new book cover with either a more neutral cover or one that appealed to gender stereotypes.  Take a look at what they came up with!




a wrinkle in time










Twilight Flipped Cover











Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 9.53.46 AM



Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 9.55.38 AM



Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 9.53.28 AM


Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 9.58.59 AM











fahrenheit 451




Screen shot 5773-09-29 at 10.38.41 AM











Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 10.46.12 AM




PJ Book Cover




the hunger games







The Fault in Our Stars




Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 10.55.21 AM




Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 10.56.57 AM




Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 10.57.55 AM




Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 10.58.36 AM






So impressed with what these students came up with in only 40 minutes!  And I have to admit, some of these #coverflip books really make me think.  What about you?

As a lover of books, I dream of a day when there are no “boy” or “girl” assumptions when it comes to audience.  After discussing it with my students, I think they will be the ones to make it happen.  For the most part, they see no reason why the narrator or characters should influence  the gender of a perceived audience.  You hate romance and love action?  Great!  Doesn’t matter if you are male or female.  You love character-driven stories with romance and can’t deal with gore?  Awesome!  Who cares if you are a girl or a guy?  An appealing cover should show some aspect of the story and the audience will find it, as my students said.  Marketers can’t always predict who will buy a book (data isn’t perfect, they pointed out!) so why not appeal to the broadest audience possible?

I love my students. 🙂



*students- if you don’t see your cover here, it’s because I didn’t get it!  Tweet or email it to me and I”ll update this post!




I’m very excited to have Shana Mlawski, author of Hammer of Witches, here today. Hammer of Witches, a fantasy set during Columbus’ westward voyage, is fantastic and unique and I highly recommend it!

But Shana isn’t talking about her new book today (which you should totally read!).  Shane also blogs over at Overthinkingit.com, which is an awesome website where pop culture is looked at through a variety of lenses (mostly critical).  Plus, she includes infographics in many of her entries and I have an infographic obsession!  So today Shana is here to talk about the intersection between her life as a writer and her life as a pop culture critic.  And it’s a fascinating read!



What is the relationship between authors and critics? Should writers adjust their work to please reviewers, and what happens when critics try to write fiction themselves?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions lately, and not just because my first book, HAMMER OF WITCHES, was recently put out into the world to be judged. (Irrelevant side note: The reviews are pretty good.) The thing is, *I’m* a critic. Some of you might know me not for this book but for my pieces on OverthinkingIt.com, a blog full of pop culture criticism. During my tenure as an Overthinking It staff writer, I’ve criticized the idea of strong female characters, the philosophy behind Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, books that have the word “daughter” in the title , and every episode of LOST. If I have any fame whatsoever, it comes from being a critic.

But what happens when someone who has spent her life criticizing other people’s work tries to create her own works of art?

In my case, the answer to that question is, “She sits down and has a long think.”


Criticism can hurt. We’re not supposed to say that, because we’re supposed to have thick skin, and the millions of rejections I’ve gotten over the years have certainly thickened mine. Nevertheless, criticisms hurt, and when they do I feel guilty about all the times I’ve criticized other people’s work. Then I vow never to criticize again.

Silly vow, ain’t it? Criticism is fine—at least, some kinds of criticism are, sometimes. And, yes, there are different kinds of criticism. I’m no literary theorist, so instead of quoting Michel Foucault or Harold Bloom, I made a chart:


As you can see, I’ve listed the five main types of literary criticism we see on the Internet. The first three are reviews you see on Goodreads, Amazon, book blogs, Roger Ebert’s old website, and so on. Snarky, balanced, and obsessed-fan reviewers write for different audiences and for different reasons. Some have commerce in mind (“I want to help people decide whether or not they should buy this”). Some have community in mind (“I want to share my love with other fans and bring new people into the fandom”). Some have entertainment and their own ego in mind (“I’m want to make people laugh”), and some have the author’s ego in mind (“I’m going to cut her down to size”/“I’m going to show her how much I love her”).

In those first three kinds of Internet criticism, star ratings count. But there are two more types of criticism where star ratings are irrelevant. Writers of Internet-based New Criticism assume the reviewed work is great and everyone already agrees it’s great. Here, the critic’s job is not to judge but analyze and deepen the fans’ reading of the text by noticing symbols, themes, allusions, and other literary techniques. Most blog posts about Mad Men fall under this heading. The critic usually assumes that everyone agrees Mad Men is amazing and that everything in each episode was placed there with care by Matt Weiner and the other writers. The purpose of the review is to gather around the digital watercooler and pick apart why one episode was named “The Collaborators,” why Don Draper was reading Dante’s Inferno, and why it was symbolic that Betty dyed her hair black. In this way, the critic deepens our enjoyment of the text.

The last kind of literary criticism is the postmodern kind. Here, critics can view the text from a political angle. They may question Game of Thrones’ imperialism or praise its feminism. They might criticize Girls for its overwhelming whiteness or The Big Bang Theory for the way it treats autism. These last two types of criticism are the kinds I write for Overthinking It.


Once I realized I was conflating five different things and calling them all “criticism,” my question changed from, “Should I stop writing criticism now that I’m an author?” to “Which kinds of criticism should we write, and how?”

The answer depends on who we’re trying to help.

I’m an author now, so mainly I want to help other authors, so I’m going to try really, really hard not to write any more snarky reviews. These reviews can be a blast to write and read, and they might help someone make a purchasing decision. But they’re often unfair. Strip everything away from a snarky review, and what’s left is, “This text is bad and you should feel bad” Except, “This text is objectively bad” usually means “I didn’t like it for some personal reason.” The reason can be innocuous—e.g., the writer used the present tense and you hate the present tense—but sometimes it’s based on prejudices and cruelty. Some reviewers approach certain books with extreme skepticism and give their authors no benefit of the doubt because of the author’s race, gender, sexuality, age, or some other factor that has nothing to do with his or her skill as a writer. This kind of criticism needs to be called out by other readers. We reviewers also need to consider our own unconscious biases when we start to unload the snark on a possibly-undeserving author.

What about fair and balanced reviews? They seem more useful to authors, because they’re said to offer constructive, rather than destructive, criticism. However, in my experience, these reviews aren’t really constructive to authors at all, because they tend to contradict one another. One reviewer loves the main character; one hates him. One loved the prose; one hated the prose. One was moved to tears; one felt nothing. Unless 90% of the reviewers make the same exact comment, this type of criticism will not help an author improve his or her craft. But fair, well-written reviews help authors in a different way. Reviewing a book puts it on readers’ radar, so your balanced review acts as a form of advertising. So if you’re a reader and you want to support an author, write a fair review for one of the major websites. It helps!

As for gushing reviews: they’re nice for a quick ego boost and a smile, but they won’t help me improve my craft, either. (I appreciate the ego boosts, though! Thanks!) That said, I’ll never give up writing gushing reviews myself. Sometimes you need to express your love for a work of art. Unrelated: Has everyone here watched Slings and Arrows yet? OMG it’s amazing! Funny, clever, wonderful for Shakespeare fans and even more wonderful for artists. Mark McKinney’s in it! And Rachel McAdams! It’s on Netflix! Go watch it now!

Writing New Criticism is fun, and so is reading it. I can’t imagine analyzing the symbolism of a writer’s work actually helps the writer improve his or her craft, but it helps readers enjoy the text more, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Anyway, my editor at Overthinking It will flip out at me if I give up this type of criticism. I promised I’d do video recaps of Game of Thrones and Mad Men every week.

The one type of criticism we should never give up is the postmodern kind. I can’t. I can’t shut off my brain when I’m reading or watching something. Let’s say I’m watching a comedy, for instance, and there’s a rape “joke.” I’m not NOT going to notice it. It’s not that I’m looking for sexism; it’s that the movie features some sexism. I’m going to point it out in my reviews in the hopes that writers stop writing sexist things and that audiences stop enjoying them. This type of criticism can truly be called constructive, as long as it’s fair. I like to give authors some benefit of the doubt and assume they’re at least trying to write in good faith. After all, criticizing is easy. Creating is hard.

What do you think? Should critics risk becoming authors? Should authors risk writing criticism? If so, what kind? I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments.

Weekly Diigo Posts (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.