Book Review: Writing Redefined

I’ve long been exploring how we might expand notions of what writing is, and what composition is, for years, and so have many others, particularly those of us affiliated with the National Writing Project. More than ten years ago, a book I co-edited Teaching the New Writing centered on this topic.

Shawna Coppola and I have often interacted on Twitter, sometimes with our friend Troy Hicks as a connector thread, and so I was excited and interested to learn more about her new book Writing Redefined (Broadening Our Ideas on What It Means to Compose).

(Note of disclosure: Shawna sent me a copy of her book to review. I made and shared comics as I was reading her book).

In her book, as in her teaching practice, Shawna explores a lot of terrain, but in a thoughtful way that balances rigor and exploration, bringing her own experiences as a teacher and literacy coach into the mix, and the wealth of resource she shares via QR Code within the book is staggering, and sure to keep an interested teacher inspired. As I think about her book, I wonder even more than ever how we might use the moments of the Pandemic/stay home to bring more of these kinds of authentic writing ideas into our online spaces for students, to engage them in meaningful compositional strategies and projects.

Response Comic 2 (Writing Redefined)

Shawna effectively makes the case that by limiting “writing” to words on a page, as opposed to being part of a multi-modal multi-medium stew of visual, audio and more, we are limiting our students as writers, too. We’re asked to think about alphabetic forms of writing (essays, etc.) might form barriers to students who struggle with traditional writing, who might have language barriers, who might have cultural barriers (particularly those students from cultures with a focus on oral traditions), who have other strengths to bring into the writing classroom.

Comic Response 4 (Writing Redefined)

Each chapter digs deeper into topics, but I appreciated the last chapter, where she anticipates the many questions and concerns teachers might have about ‘redefining’ writing with a larger net. Shawna patiently counters six different concerns with thoughtful, helpful advice and considerations.

Comic Response 8 (Writing Redefined)

While she may not have broken new ground in her book, Shawna effectively frames the discussion on what it means to write in this modern, digital, visual and audio age, in a way that can reach classroom teachers knowing that the dichotomy for young people of “school writing” versus “non-school writing” is always evident, but not insurmountable. Shawna builds some bridges.

Response Comic 1 (Writing Redefined)

Peace (draw it sing it act it write it),

Book Review: The Best American Non-Required Reading (2019)

I have this hope that somewhere, there is a high school or university class that uses the annual The Best American Non-Required Reading collections for its central text. And knowing that it is a group of high school students, connected through the 826 National organization, who choose, debate and curate all of the materials in the collection makes that dream even sweeter.

I hope it is so, but even if it is not, you need to get your hands on this collection each and every year. The 2019 edition of The Best American Non-Required ReadingĀ is another keeper, with a wide range of pieces that tackle important issues through fiction, commentary, comics, poetry and assorted other kinds of texts (such as the letter submitted by Holten Arms classmates of Christine Blasey Ford as public evidence in the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings).

The book’s collection has been guided by guest editor Edan Lepucki, but mostly, it has been the weekly gathering of high school students who have worked to find the pieces, debate the merits and determine which go into the collection. Their lens on the world is key to the diversity of the pieces. This all began with Dave Eggers at the helm (and his work in founding the 826 organization) but now different people help make the collection happen each year.

One of the more interesting choices is a pair of strange “Sound Translation” text interpretations of the Gettysburg Address by Keith Donnell Jr., which read like a prose poem in some alternative universe of Lincoln’s famous words, flowing with misheard phrases and rhymes and yet, finding a new but related center of the Address’s ideas in the concepts of “Who’ll weed our graves?” and “Force door of heaven” and so on.

Another powerful piece is a graphic interpretation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s On True War Stories (graphics by Matt Huynh) that puts picture to the story of immigration. And Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s powerful piece about black bears in New Hampshire (Barbearians at the Gate) transforms itself into a deep dive about people and nature, and about right wing survivalists transforming a small community.

And on and on.

Read this collection. Read last year’s collection. And the year before that. And hope the publishers keep supporting the young people’s voice in gathering and curating pieces that might otherwise get lost in the mix (I only recognize a few of the original journals where these were first published), but which rise here, among others, in a new light.

Peace (in the pages),

Book Review: The One and Only Bob

Bob ain’t Ivan.

That sounds snarky and negative, so let me say upfront that I thoroughly enjoyed The One and Only Bob, except I really missed the voice of Ivan, the silverback gorilla of The One and Only Ivan, in my head. Bob, Ivan’s close dog friend, is the narrator of this sequel, which centers on a storm and tales of survival.

In the original book, inspired by a true story of a gorilla being kept cruelly captive in a shopping mall, Ivan’s voice is so unique — the use of flow, of language, of pacing, of syntax — that I can still hear Ivan when I pass the book over to students with a “must read” recommendation. Bob, on the other hand, is unique, too, in his way, but he sounds to my ears a bit too much like a person at times.

It’s not fair for me to compare Bob to Ivan, but Ivan will always be the one and the only Ivan.

Luckily, Ivan is still a big part of Bob’s life. He makes not only an appearance in The One and Only Bob, but the gorilla is crucial to the storyline at multiple junctures. Ivan’s presence is everywhere, as it should be. And Bob’s voice, too, emerges more strongly as the story moves into gear. Maybe it took me, the reader, time to get into the flow of Bob, after putting Ivan aside.

Bob’s adventures here unfold gradually, picking up a few years after the first book, and it’s a huge storm that propels Bob into bravery he didn’t know he had and on rescue missions that force him into action he’d rather avoid. We also slowly get his family backstory, a rich narrative that moves into the main plot.

I’d recommend The One and Only Bob for elementary and middle school readers, and maybe pair it up with The One and Only Ivan, too. (I guess a movie version is in the works). You can’t miss with Katherine Applegate, really.

Peace (more than one and more than only),

Book Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a Hunger Games novel by Suzanne Collins

Traveling back by book into Panem, even as protests in real life take to our city streets and the federal government’s threat of a strong-arm military response, is an unsettling reading experience, to the say the least. Suzanne Collin’s latest book — The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes — is a prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy, focusing on the story of the emergence of Coriolanus Snow, 18, who will later emerge the main antagonist of Katniss Everdeen in his role as ruthless president.

Here, the alternative world of Panem is only ten years from the squashing of the violent street revolutions that wracked the world, and the Hunger Games ceremonies are being used to beat down the Districts that rose up against the central government in The Capitol by forcing the children to kill each other on live television. But the games themselves are still in development — one problem is no one from the Districts watches the games, and so part of the problem being tackled by the central government is how to make the games more “entertaining” and “television worthy” — and the terrible elements that we see in the games of the first three books of the series are either hinted at or introduced here (food and supplies sent to players via drone; the betting on winners; etc.)

Might makes right, in this book’s world, and the military power, and the use of it to crush any opposition, has echoes in the rhetoric of the White House right now. Add to all of this my own listening to a podcast version of Malcolm Gladwell reading a chapter from an earlier book of his (David and Goliath), in which he explored how the British heavy-handed use of force in Northern Ireland during The Troubles actually increased, sparked and seeded violent rebellion, not quelled it, and I found myself worrying about the path my country is on.

In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Snow is likable and sympathetic (an odd feeling, knowing who he becomes) — his once-respected family has struggled since the war, he saw things in the war that he can’t shake, he is barely hanging on to the education he needs to get ahead, he become a mentor to a young woman reaped (chosen) for the games, he falls in love, he protects and betrays his friends, he survives for another day (and we know that he not only survives, but becomes president of Panem, and architect of the ever-deadlier Hunger Games).

Snow lands on top — that’s the family motto and the last words of the novel.

Dystopian fiction is designed to make us think of the world we live in now, by casting shadows and possibilities of a dark future on the present. Collins does this well, and her use of action and character drive this tale forward. Just be ready to put down the book and pick up the news, and see convergence in the most uncomfortable way.

Peace (in Panem and beyond),


Book Review: I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf

I wish I could gently rip out every page of Grant Snider‘s new collection — I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf — and pin them up all around the house and the classroom, and celebrate the love of reading in Snyder’s colors, and wit, and gentleness. But, you know, then I would be both destroying the book (ack!) and maybe other people wouldn’t appreciate the sudden decor (but the people I love would appreciate the theme).

Snider, whose work as a cartoonist with a literary bent is someone I have been following for years with appreciation, dives deep into his love of books with every cartoon in this collection — some have been published elsewhere (his work is often in the New York Times, New Yorker, etc.) and at his blog site, but many of them here are ones I had never seen before. Like his other book collection – The Shape of Ideas — I can see myself coming back time and again for a little artistic rejuvenation and appreciation for the way he explores writing and reading at beautiful angles.

If you love books, you’ll love I Will Judge You By Your Bookshelf.

Peace (in pages),

Adventures in AudioStory Creation: Risking It All For the King

Risking It All For the King

As my students were writing their own “Stuck Inside a Game” short stories over a few weeks time in our distance learning adventures, I was recording an audiobook of my own story: Risking It All For The King. I’d been sharing each episode as I recorded them but then gathered all SEVEN episodes in one place, in order from start to finish. It was fun to layer sound effects in with voice for an extended story. This was fairly new to me.

Peace (in story),

Book Review: The Boy, The Mole, the Fox and the Horse

Sometimes, the right book arrives at just the right time.

So it is with The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse, by Charles Mackesy. At a time when a slower-paced book is needed, to calm the mind if not the heart, this small book — with such beautiful and evocative sketches and watercolors by Mackesy — offers an antidote of love, kindness, friendship and philosophy.

The narrative thread is a lonely boy who meets a cake-loving mole, who then rescues a fox, who then meets the horse, and all four creatures wander through a landscape, asking questions of each other on a range of topics, from what it means to be a friend to what it means to take care of yourself to what it means to love someone else and more.

There’s a quiet gentle, enhanced by the drawings, to the wanderings, sort of like the original Winnie the Pooh stories (before Disney got its hands on it), and that layered simplicity on top of message complexity makes The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse shine, page after page after page.

I’ve read the book twice in a week, and then shared it with my student book talk yesterday, and showed some of the pictures through video. This book is for any age reader, and while sharing it was the right thing to do, I believe this is one of those books you squirrel away, and take out when the world seems off-kilter, and maybe a little scary, and you need some reassurance that there is a path forward and you find the path with the ones you love, and traverse it together.

See? Perfect book for the times.

Peace (wandering through),

Slice of Life: The End of Days

The title of this post is a little click bait-y. Sorry.

The other day, I received in the mail a copy of a new book by my writing project colleague, Michael Silverstone and his writing partner, Debbie Zacarian. It’s entitled Teaching to Empower.

Michael sent me a copy of the book because I was one of many teachers Debbie and Michael reached out for vignettes from the classroom, around the theme of student or teacher empowerment, and I had forgotten most of what I had written.

So, I thumbed through the book and found my piece. In it, I had focused on our video game design unit, and how I entered into the world of game design, as a way to help students engage with technology and writing, after overhearing so many discussions about gaming, at the end of the school days, while waiting for the bus.

In fact, I’ve written many small pieces over the years about that particular period of the school day, of just waiting around, of boredom being interrupted by some interesting question or thought, of aimless chatter, or of how a line of discussion that starts one place and ends in another — all as we waited for the dismissal announcements over the loudspeaker.

Of all the things I’m missing now in the Social Distancing era, this end-of-days bus-waiting time (See? I told you the phrase would makes sense) doesn’t quite rank at the top of my worries, yet it’s emblematic of a periodic realization: I don’t quite know my students anymore. We’re in our tenth week of learning and teaching from home.

Honesty, I don’t really know how they are doing, other than how they look for a stretch of time on the screen. I try to read eyes, and gestures, and smiles, but the screens interfere with those moments. The technology masks the humanity. I don’t really know what’s shaking up their lives or what’s the newest, best, most exciting thing happening to them.

I’m in touch, but I’ve lost touch.

My piece in Michael and Debbie’s book reminded of this because it was such a celebratory moment of how eavesdropping in on student conversations helped me rethink the way I was teaching, and then guided me into some curriculum changes that made a huge difference for so many students (particularly my struggling writers).

I end the vignette with the idea of standing there, in the classroom, waiting, listening back in, with the reminder that you never know what you’ll hear if you don’t take the chance to listen. That seems quaint now, and so out of touch with the times. So it goes.

Peace (what we hear),

Graphic Novel Review: Bone (The Complete Collection)

Thirteen hundred pages of fantastic adventure. That’s what I dove into when I picked up my son’s massive book of Bone, by Jeff Smith. I’ve read parts of Bone over the years, but never in sequence (so I never really saw the larger story unfolding) and always out of context. Smith’s story is a classic, of course, and reading it from start to finish over 1300 pages gives you a sense of scope.

If you don’t know Bone, it tells the story of three cousins from Boneville — Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone – who begin the story on the run, driven from Boneville for some political scam (Phoney is always on a con or scam of some sort) when they stumble over the mountains, get separated and discover adventure that includes dragons, rat creatures, magic, a lost Queen and discovered princess, strange locusts, treasure found and lost, epic battles and more.

Told with humor and seriousness, Smith’s Bone book harnesses the power of graphic storytelling in so many ways, it’s hard to know what to focus on. There are allusions to classic stories and classic cartoons, to humous gags that are hinted at early and then re-emerge later, and somehow, Smith juggled it all over the course of more than a decade of writing and illustrating, and publishing in installments.

Given our time of staying inside during the pandemic, the discovery of my son’s Bone collection was a welcome site, and the hours spent with the cousins and their friends (and enemies) was a literary diversion that kept me deep in the story. Bone is worth a visit for readers of all ages. (Note: this huge book is costly – $40 at B/N. I think we picked up years ago at a book sale for cheap — what a deal!)

Peace (beyond Boneville),


Book Review: The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary

I could not help reading Laura Shovan’s The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary without thinking of my sixth grade students, now at home, and how our school is now closed (just like the Emerson Elementary is closing, but for different reasons) and traditions (like Step Up Day for us; Moving Up for the kids in the book) have all been rattled by the times.

This book’s premise is two-fold: each entry from the 18 kids of the classroom is part of a time capsule that will be installed on the grounds of the school, which is being demolished to make way for a grocery story; and each entry is written as a poem, with the 18 students represented on different days throughout the school year.

The result is a beautiful tapestry of stories — not just about the attempt to save the school through student protest and civic activism — but also of each student, as their home life and friendships and interests slowly emerge through the poems, and I appreciated the pace of the storytelling, how Shovan lets us settle in with the characters and watch many of them change over the poetic lens of a single year in fifth grade.

Not everything is knotted tight in resolution by the end, but that’s OK, too. We’ve come to trust the characters enough to wish them well on the next stage of their journey. And Shovan helpfully provides some valuable additions for the reader at the end — an overview of the many poetic styles used by her characters in their poems and a collection of writing/poetic prompts that one could use to write their own stories, told through poems.

Note: I was able to ‘meet’ Laura through her facilitation of the Water Poems Project at her blog and on Twitter, a recent daily water-themed poem project which I loved, and I bought her book because of that connection, and I am sure glad I did.

Peace (poetic style),