Book Review: Building the English Classroom

I won’t even try to be unbiased here. Bruce Penniman, the author of Building the English Classroom: Foundations, Support, Success, is not only a colleague (and past director) in the Western Massachusetts Writing Project but he is also a former college instructor of mine, a writing partner for a National Writing Project resource, and a friend. But those connections won’t stop me from saying that Bruce’s book (which I notice is currently sold out on Amazon, which says something about the book’s appeal) about constructing a rich, diverse and challenging English classroom is a wonderful resource worth reading.

Early on in the book, Bruce, a former Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, among other accolades, explains the rationale for the book:

“Teaching English is challenging in part because it is many subjects in one — traditionally, writing, literature, public speaking, and grammar, but now all of those plus media literacy, computer technology, social justice, and much more … The job of organizing those demands can be overwhelming, especially to a teacher still developing a repertoire of management strategies.” (p. x1)

In engaging prose peppered with personal anecdotes from the classroom, Bruce distills his 40 years in the classroom into practice advice around curriculum development and assessment in the era of standardized testing while keeping his focus on for main themes that all of us teachers would do well to heed as a sort of professional motto:

  • Collaborate
  • Plan
  • Reflect
  • Believe

Building the English Classroom is structured around how to plan, teach and assess a wide range of writing and reading activities, using the Backwards Design model, and he puts a strong push later on in the book around opening the door to multicultural voices and authentic writing for students. Along with the traditional essay, Bruce has always been ready to provide a range of writing assignments that can demonstrate student knowledge beyond the five-paragraph model. While Bruce’s experience is in the high school (and now at the university level), the book can be of use to middle school teachers, too.

Of great value in here for anyone, however, are the many charts and graphs and samples that Bruce provides to the reader.

When I was a first year teacher, I took a graduate course through the Western Massachusetts Writing Project with Bruce as one of the co-instructors, and to this day, I keep his concept of “stakes writing” handy in my mind, and in my desk. Bruce thoughtfully lays out the ways that some writing is personal for the student (low stakes), some of the teacher and the classroom community (mid stakes), and some for the world itself (high stakes). In each of those tiers, there are a variety of expectations of the writer. This kind of thinking opened a lot of possibilities for me, which I continue to use to this day.

Peace (in the classroom),

PS — You can sample some of the book at the NCTE book website.



Book Review: At Home

AT HOME A Short History of Private Life  by Bill Bryson

Leave it to Bill Bryson to shift his view from expansive (A Short History of Nearly Everything) to contained (At Home: A Short History of Private Life) and still draw the reader in with the rich storytelling has come to mark Bryson’s work for the past few years. At Home begins, aptly enough, in Bryson’s own home, as he begins to weave a rich tapestry of history behind each of the rooms, the furniture, the architecture and more that we mostly ignore in our day-to-day lives. At Home makes us look closer at what it is that makes our home our home. We spend some time in each chapter inside his home as Bryson focuses his gaze on his own English place, even providing us with the original architectural plans (and the revised ones that actually got built). All you need is a cup of tea, and maybe a cracker or two, and it is like spending time with an old friend who can talk your ear off for hours in a way that rarely gets boring.

The book is as much a history of England (with some early America thrown into the mix) as it is about why we have bathrooms, why the best bed in the house was often the one not slept in, how the nursery came to evolve in a time of high child mortality, and more stories of disease and illness than you really want to know, and yet, Bryson keeps you hooked amid all that pestilence and grief. Don’t even ask about the rats, lice and other critters …

I find it fascinating how Bryson is able to cobble together such rich prose out of some mundane ideas, or so I often thought, and yet, I could barely put At Home down, and I even know in whose hands I am going to pass this book to. That is the mark of a good read — you know who would love it next. At Home is a sure winner for those looking for an unexpected non-fiction treasure right inside your own four walls.

Peace (in our homes),


Collecting Books and Considering Stats

Kevin’s currently-reading book montage

Bum Rush the Page
Tablet & Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East
The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to The Sports Guy
At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Kevin Hodgson’s favorite books »


My Books from 2011
According to Goodreads, where I have been faithfully documenting just about every book I read this year, I have consumed more than 50 books (and counting). I had set a goal for myself of reading 40 books over the course of the year of 2011, and exceeded that by just more than 10 books. I started using Goodreads a few years ago but this last year, I was sort of obsessive with it. It’s one of those spaces that is both a source of book ideas and also a place to add what you know to the general cloud of data.

So, what does the year say about my reading habits?

  • I did a lot of read-alouds with my youngest son. We’re now in that prime age of 7 years old when he is getting to love more complex stories, so Harry Potter, the Throne of Fire series, and more were a hit with him. Another year or so, and the read-aloud moments might be more difficult to sustain. For now, I am enjoying the time together, with a book between us.
  • I read less graphic novels this year than any other year in recent times. I can’t quite say why, but I did.
  • The longest book I read was Reamde by Neil Stephenson, and I still think he could have cut about 300 pages and still had a good book.
  • I had 14 books with the top rating and just one book with the lowest rating. I think I am a generous reviewer.
  • I can’t help but notice a few books on my “current reading” have been there for some time. These are mostly collections but still … get ’em read!
  • I created my own category of “abandoned” books this year. I am at the point where I don’t want to waste my precious reading time with a bad book. I feel guilt when I abandoned a story, but I can live it with (as long as the next book is good)
  • There is a solid mix of fiction and non-fiction in my book pile. I like to mix it up.
  • I have 24 books on my “to read” list, and a pile of books by my bedside table.

So, what is my goal for 2012? Bump it up to 45 books! I think I can do it.

Peace (on the shelves),


Book Review: Learn Me Gooder

I’d love to be able to say that I hear no echoes of my own classroom experiences in John Pearson’s Learn Me Gooder stories, which follows a fictional teacher throughout the year in a series of email correspondences with his friends and relates all of the odd things that go on inside of a high-energy third grade elementary classroom. But I do, darn it. I hear those echoes and I can clearly see the students as if they were standing right in front of me, with off-kilter insights, emotional baggage and wide smiles at the fun of being part of a classroom where anything goes. (Note of disclosure: Pearson provided me with a free ebook version of Learn Me Gooder in hopes that I would do a review, but we had not arrangement regarding positive or negative review).

Luckily, my own experience in the classroom is not quite as odd as that of the teacher in Learn Me Gooder. Educator Jack Woodson, whose teaching tales formed the narrative of the first Learn Me Good novel by Pearson, survives the turmoil of teaching in a Texas school beset by standardized testing, immigrant families arriving and departing with little notice, language barriers and more by using humor to lighten the load. Pearson entertains, but also educates, as he explores the daily life of a teacher through the wide-eyed lens of humor.

So, yes, I laughed at much of what goes on with Jack Woodson. I laughed hard and loud.(Plus, Woodson finally gets a girlfriend in this second book. See? Even teachers have lives!)

The use of the email correspondence with friends from Woodson’s past job is a smart narrative touch by Pearson, as we see the back-and-forth emerge with playfulness, and some wistfulness of Woodson sometimes regretting leaving there for teaching but never enough to leave his kids behind. And in the end, it is Woodson’s nurturing nature and understanding of his wacky students that anchors this book firmly into the ground, and those very qualities of Woodson the teacher make Learn Me Gooder a recommended read for any teacher or any parent or anyone who has ever been in a classroom that made you just want to shake your head and smile.

Peace (in the learning),

PS — You can also follow John Pearson’s blog for Learn Me Good, and see where some of the stories come from.




Book Review: Chronicles of the Red King (The Secret Kingdom)

Two of my three sons loved the Charlie Bone series. One read all of the books; the other listened to most of them on audio. Me? I found the writing too slow-paced and too much like Harry Potter to really get into the Charlie Bone narrative (the story tells of a boy who goes to a school to develop his magical abilities to enter into photographs, and he comes to realize he is one of a line of descendents of the powerful Red King.)

Now writer Jenny Nimmo returns with The Chronicles of the Red King, which tells the historical tale of the original ancestor. I’m happy to say that I found the writing more lively than Charlie Bone, and the characters of Timiken (the king in search of a kingdom that he can call home) and his sister, Zebaydah, and their camel, Gabar, (yep, a camel with attitude) are nicely done. I did enjoy most of all the story of where the magic comes from — in the guise of the last web spun by the last Moon Spider, woven with tears and rain and more, and given to Timoken by a small magical creature who gets destroyed by an army of evil creatures who want the moon cloak.

I read this novel as a read-aloud with my youngest son who loved the story. It was a quick read, just right for the holiday season.Clearly, Nimmo has further plans for the series (this is book one) and while I don’t think it is the best book I read this year, it was decent, and I can see my son and I following the series in between larger books (we’re reading Summerland right now by Michael Chabon … it’s wonderful).

Peace (with the moon cloak),

PS — the book video



Happy to be Part of the Nerdy Book Club

I had the honor of having some writing posted at the Nerdy Book Club this morning. I wrote about those students who read furtively under the table as the teacher tries to teach. If you get a moment, give it a read, or you can listen to the podcast version, too. In either case, make sure you pop the Nerdy Book Club blog into your RSS and capture some interesting insights into why we love reading so much.

Read “Just Let Them Read” at the Nerdy Book Club


Listen to my post as a podcast

Peace (in the sharing),



Other Than Peace and Love, Books are Holiday Treasures

One one hand, I am difficult to shop for in the holiday season. I don’t need much. I have a beautiful family and more stuff than I need. On the other hand, I do love books. So I found a few paper treasures with my name on it yesterday (and gave out my fair share, too). The problem with receiving so many cool books at once is not just where to begin, but how to finish the book already underway (I am reading At Home by Bill Bryson) so that I can get to the pile of books that await me.

Here is what is in the personal book queue (aka, the pile of books on my bedside table):

The Best American Nonrequired Reading

The Best Non-Required Reading of 2011. This series remains my stalwart favorite, and I just read the introduction by Dave Eggers (loved it) and Guillermo del Toro, who not only makes interest films but also keeps an entire house just for his books. That’s right. He has a house as a personal library. His intro really captures the love of reading and why books matter. And I love that this collection is culled by high school students, and that the writing comes from traditional and non-traditional sources.

The Best American Short Stories of 2011. Another great collection, and one which I look forward to reading each year. It turns out I have a bunch of these “best of …” that I read throughout the year (the technology stories one is always a keeper, too). I’m a sucker for the collections, I guess.

Steve Jobs, the biography by Walter Isaacson. I guess this has become required reading, and my two older sons said they might read it, too. I’ve read biographies of Jobs before and found them interesting. I’ll see how this one holds up too, given all the praise it seems to be getting (or is that because Jobs is dead?). I’m all for what Apple has done for design and ease, but I am a little leery of the Cult of Steve that seems to have been built around him.

I walked With Giants, an autobiography of Jimmy Heath, is a nice surprise. My dad gave it to me. Heath, the famous jazz saxophonist, had a celebrated life in the world of jazz, and I know his life story is interesting, beginning with his role as the “Little Bird,” in the shadows of Charlie Parker. Life stories of musicians always fascinate me.











And my own purchase for myself: Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. I know his writing a bit, but not much, but the rave reviews of his essays has me ready to jump in.

What are you reading?

Peace (in the pages),



So Long, Harry Potter

I can’t believe we finally got to the end of the Harry Potter series. Oh, I read them all myself years ago as soon as they came out (but after all the kids in the line in front of us got their copies …I didn’t elbow anyone out of the way). But the thing with having your own kids is … you can revisit books as read-alouds and rediscover (sorry) the magic of what first drew you in. So, for the past year or so, my seven year old son and I have been completely immersed in the world of Harry Potter, and last night, we came to the last word on the last page of the last book. Here is my son’s reaction:


Uh, yes.

What I loved about the read-aloud experience, other than how close it brought me to my child in the shared literary experience, is how I could see parts of the story that I had long since forgotten as a reader myself. The entire last book — The Deathly Hallows — is much darker than I remembered, and also, much more complex than I remembered, too. Rowling’s writing certainly improved as the series went on, which is a relief when you are faced with reading aloud seven very large books. The secrets and plans and puzzle of who owns what and why …. OK, so that is still a bit confusing, but I loved how my son and I kept stopping, as I asked him what he thought and he asked me why something had happened. You could see the wheels turning in his head as Harry discovered the “truth” of the situation and all of the pieces that were set in motion in earlier books. We both held back tears when Dobby died, and we expressed anger when Dumbledore was killed, and then we scratched out heads when we realized it was all part of a larger plan.

And so, I say, So Long Harry Potter.

You’ve been in our lives like a faithful companion for the past year or more, and I honestly don’t foresee myself reading the Harry Potter series for a third time. I know: never say never. But I can imagine my son coming back to the books when he is a little older, and maybe, just maybe, he will find himself revisiting Hogwarts as an adult, too, with his own child by his side as he rediscovers the boy living inside the cupboard at 4 Privet Drive . And he may well remember the sweet snuggling times we two readers had as we followed Harry Potter on his adventures into the magical world, right to the very end of the tale.

Peace (with Potter),


Book Review: The Connected Educator


It says a lot about a book when the last line is “Choose to be powerful.”

So ends The Connected Learner: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Lani Ritter Hall. Here is a book that explores the ways that teachers need to be connecting with other teachers outside of the physical confines of their buildings or school districts, and joining the movement to use online tools for professional development, professional inquiry and action projects. (Note of disclosure: the writers sent me a free copy to review but laid out no expectations of a positive review.)

While many trade books are emerging about ways to engage our students as learners on the global stage with technology as a tool for engagement, Nussbaum-Beach and Hall train their sights on the people who can really make a difference in the classroom: the teachers themselves. And, as they rightly note, as more teachers start using technology for constructing valuable learning spaces for themselves, they will then understand the power and potential of those concepts for their students. We need teachers to become models for our young people, and to make that engagement in the information world more transparent.

“Teachers must learn to model connectedness and enable students to develop personal learning networks, made up of people and resources from both their physical and virtual worlds — but first, teachers must become connected collaborators themselves.” (p. 4)

At my own school, we spend one period a week in what was first called a Professional Learning Community, and now has been relabeled as a Community of Practice. (So, I was interested to see the chart in this book that defines both of those ). Our aim, as set forth by our building principal, is to use data to drive changes in our curriculum, and to focus as a teaching team on an issue. Our principal has the right idea to structure collaboration among colleagues, but I wonder what it would be like to connect our small learning sphere to other ones emerging in other schools, and how shared action research projects and collaboration might unfold. I don’t think our school is ready for that. Most schools are not. But this book paves a path of rationale for why educators might consider a move in that direction.

I enjoyed the many anecdotes from teachers in this book as they talked about the ways that connections improved their teaching and students’ experiences. I also appreciated that they walked the walk here, too, setting up a variety of platform spaces for readers of the book to engage in the material. The chapters connect to a Voicethread, a Google Doc presentation, a Wallwisher, a hashtag on Twitter, and more. While there has not been much activity on those spaces (and I wonder, will there be? Perhaps as the two writers use the book as a jumping off place for workshops and seminars, those spaces will grow with new insights. One can hope), the fact that those elements are there in the online world shows how the experience of learning from books can be extended to reader engagement with virtual tools. Which is yet another model for our classroom, right?

The Connected Educator is enlightening in many ways, and if you are seeking for ways to move beyond your own professional learning circles, Nussbaum-Beach and Hall show you the way forward. Remember that last line of the book. Choose to be powerful. It matters.

Peace (in the connections),



Book Review: Maps and Legends (Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands)

I’ve long been a fan of Michael Chabon, ever since I stumbled upon his Summerland book and read it aloud to my first son, then my second son and now I have it in the queu for my third (probably after we finish the Harry Potter series, and we are more than halfway through the last book there). Summerland is a messy book but full of imagination, and it has baseball at the center of its fairy tale narrative. That always hooked my kids.

Then, I loved The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, with its hook of characters inventing a comic strip. Imagine: an entire novel built around the creation of a comic strip. (The book went on to win a number of literary awards).

So, I did not hesitate to pick up Chabon’s collection of essays when it went on a fire sale at McSweeney’s publishing house. Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands is an uneven but always interesting mix of writing and speeches in which Chabon explores the creative areas where writers go to find their way, often without maps or understanding of where they are going. I appreciate the way Chabon takes comics and pulp fiction and science fiction and even ghost stories serious and defends their place in the world of literature. Maps and Legends provides a little window into one writer’s view of the world, and for me, I enjoy getting those glimpses. The insights into Carmac McCarthy, in particular, brought me back to a period of time when I devoured McCarthy’s novels. Chabon reminded me of why I was in that phase.

Chabon ends with the text of a speech he gave a number of times that centers around the discovery of Golems that connect to his childhood, only to let us in on the joke at the end: the narrative is mostly pure fiction, and he did it to understand how much, as readers, we buy into the narratives we are given as fact, and to let us know that, just like the writers, we readers are often in undiscovered countries, making out way forward with only the maps of insight and experience — and even those can’t always be trusted.

Peace (in the lands beyond lands),