Peeking Inside Reader Response Journals

We’re in the midst of an independent reading unit and this weekend, I finally got around to reading through the student reading journals. I’ve been pushing hard for them not to summarize what they have read, but to take a step deeper into reflection and make predictions, judgments, connections and more as they are reading.

While a few still can’t seem to make that next step (a predictable few, unfortunately), most of my students have used the models from earlier in the year for their reading responses. They are asking questions of the writer, wondering about the motivations of characters, analyzing setting, and connecting the stories and characters with their own lives. For me, this demonstrates good evidence of active reading.

Here are some sentences that I pulled out of the journals:

  • A connection I am starting to make is that all things we do affect everything. (SkyClan’s Destiny).
  • She (the librarian) found him (cat) huddled up in a tiny ball, in the library book return box. When I read that, my heart sank. (Dewey the Library Cat)
  • I think the concept here in this novel are like problems in the real world, so it helps me to understand the book better. (City of Ember)
  • From what I’ve heard, Tom, the main character, may be a bit of a devious person. (Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
  • A lot of people could relate to this scene, where you get mad at someone and you say stuff you later regret. (No Small Thing)
  • I want to save this quote because it reminds me of how my dog sleeps because when he sleeps, he looks dead with his tongue hanging out. (Eggs)
  • … his name, Smoke, leads me to say that he is not a very good influence. Just by the name, the author expresses to us how he is bad. (Scat)
  • He is adventurous, like me. He is courageous, like me. He is fast, unfortunately — not like me. (Fablehaven)
  • I found an error (in the book). It says Ron’s bike is a YZ80. It says it would not start because of a dead battery but it’s a kickstart. Kickstarts never need a battery. (Dirt Bike Racer)
  • I am really getting a good picture of it in my head. (Swindle)
  • This book is giving me good ideas for my own writing (Maximum Ride: School’s Out Forever)

Peace (in the reflecting),

Books Reviews: The Red Pyramid and The Tiger Rising

The Red Pyramid

One of these books — The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan — I read aloud to my six year old and the other — The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo — I read as part of our independent reading unit in the classroom (Yeah, I read with my students and talk through what I am thinking as I read).

Boy, I wanted to like The Red Pyramid more than I did.  I dove in, all ready. The book never really delivered, which was hugely disappointing (particularly since the thing is more than 500 pages long). It occurs to me that Rick Riordan may have taken on one too many writing tasks in the past two years. Along with his book, which is the first in his Kane Chronicles, he launched an offshoot series of The Lightning Thief with the book The Lost Hero and has contributed to the 39 Clues series.

It’s not all bad. The Red Pyramid tells the tale of two children who are blood descendants of Egyptian Pharaohs, and who must save the world from destruction by using new-found magical powers, and allegiances to an array of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. Like his use of Greek Mythology in The Lightning Thief, Riordan grounds the story is Egyptian Mythology. But it seems to much. There are more names to follow than you can imagine. I kept hoping Riordan provided a glossary at the back of the book (which would have been quite helpful).

There are sure glimmers of a good story here, as the kids (bi-racial siblings who spent their childhoods apart and drawn into adventure in the aftermath of their mother’s death and their father’s disappearance) tell the story in alternating chapters in their own voices.

Unfortunately, all to often, the story got bogged down. We wanted more excitement! More adventure! More, eh, clarity of story! Even so, my son and I are looking towards the next installment of the Kane Chronicles, which comes out in May. There was enough here to make it worth a possible dive back into the Kane kids and the world of Ancient Egyptian magic.

Meanwhile, I just finished a short, but beautiful book by Kate DiCamillo entitled The Tiger Rising. DiCamillo is a wondrous writer, and if you read The Tale of the Despereaux (the book, not the movie) or The Magician’s Elephant or any of her other books, you know she has a talent of weaving stories together.

Here, she brings us into the world of Rob, an adolescent now living in a run-down motel in Florida with his father. Rob’s whose mom died (is this a theme or what?) and his father refuses to grieve, or let Rob grieve. So all of his sadness and emotions are locked down tight (in a “suitcase” that Rob imagines he drags around with him). Into this world comes spunky and thoughtful Sistine, a girl of Rob’s age who has her own problems: her father cheated on her mom and they have come to live in Florida, too. Like Rob, Sistine is completely out of place.

The tiger is an animal they find caged up in the woods. It’s the property of the owner of the motel, where Rob’s dad works in a low-paying job, and Sistine is determined to free the tiger, much to Rob’s initial dismay. They eventually do free the animal, only to have Rob’s father shoot the tiger and kill it. That tragedy finally opens the door for Rob and his father to grieve over their own loss of mother and wife.

This is not necessarily a tidy book (and not as strong as The Tale of the Despereaux either), but that untidiness is a good thing to me, as a reader. Not everything gets put in its place by the end. The story risks the artifice of a “lesson learned” as opposed to a “story told” and I feel that DiCamillo found a certain balance.  Sistine still feels abandoned by her father. Rob still is an outcast. But Rob and his father do finally find each other, and Rob has found a true connection with a new friend, Sistine. The language here in The Tiger Rising is lovely and the pacing, just perfect.

I quickly passed this book on to a student, who has since passed it on to her sister.

Peace (in the books),

Book Review: Sergio Aragones’ Mad View of the World

Image of MAD's Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragones: Five Decades of His Finest Works

Anybody who says Mad Magazine was for just kids didn’t ever read it.  Or didn’t read it carefully. I was reminded of this recently when I bought a book that featured five decades of the drawings and cartoon work of Sergio Aragones, who is the master of creating biting, funny critiques of all sorts of topics with pictures but very few words. (The book is MAD’s Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragones: Five Decades of His Finest Work). In fact, you have to read his work on a whole other level than you might expect, interpreting every nuance of every space of his comics.

Sergio has called his brand of art “pantomime humor” and in a short interview that introduces this collection, he talks about how this style came about partly because he immigrated to the United States from Mexico, and struggled with language. He decided that his art would not be fixed in an oral language tradition, but in the realm of visual literacy. His “outsider” status also allowed him to fix a critical eye on American culture, which informed much of his wacky insights.

And Mad Magazine was a true home for Sergio and his offbeat vision of the world, allowing him freedom to explore not only fun topics (video games, cell phones, mothers, etc.) but also some pretty serious social topics, too. (Later, he also created the Groo graphic novel series, which my older son just loves.) I went through and highlighted just a few topics in this hardbound collection that might surprise the casual reader:

  • Illegal Immigration
  • Racism
  • Gun Control
  • Sexual Harassment
  • Terrorism
  • Education
  • Double-speaking rhetoric
  • Airport Security
  • Summer Camps

OK, so that last one isn’t quite in the league as the others, but still, Aragones skewers everything and everyone and comes across as pretty balances in his humorous looks at our lives.

One of the things that I loved about his work with Mad Magazine, too, is that he was charged with doing all of the little cartoon drawings in the margins of the pages. These are tiny masterpieces of art, really, and often ignored. Luckily, in this collection, he has replicated dozens of these margin artworks onto a poster. You realize quickly that literacy is not just words, not just written language, but also art. One small image by Sergio Aragones packs a lot of punch.

Is this book appropriate for the classroom? Eh, no. Not at all. Too much nudity and too much content that might offend most sensibilities. But you could pick and choose from this collection, I suppose, and talk about telling a story with no words. Aragones is a master at that (did I say that already?)

Peace (in the toons),

Book Review:The Best Technology Writing 2010

Some people have pilgrimages that they go to every year — some place in the world that strikes their fancy or addresses some need they have for the year. Me? I have a few book series that I look forward to each December into January of each year, and one of my anticipated series has become The Best Technology Writing series put out by Yale University Press. This year, the editor is Julian Dibbell and the collection, as usual, is very strong and interesting and certainly food for much thought. What I like, too, is that this is not a cheerleading manifesto or love letter to technology. It’s an exploration of the good and the bad and the unknown as technology infuses all of our lives.

Here are some of the articles collected in this book:

  • Evan Ratliff writes an interesting piece (from Wired) about slipping away from the grid and trying to hide in an experimental piece done with the magazine. His task was to remain hidden from the prying eyes of technology (credit cards, electronic records, etc/) but still live a sort of life for an extended period of time. The article, “Vanish,” brings us both Ratliff’s reflections while “on the run” while also giving us his rich, reflective perspectives of how connected to the electronic world we really are. He really has to work to stay hidden. Meanwhile, the article also keeps track of the many Wired readers who were trying to track him down through crowdsourcing and databases and GPS systems, and how they eventually did find him.
  • Lawrence Weschler profiles the artist David Hockney and his passion for creating art on his iPhone. The article, from The New York Times Review of Books, goes into the concepts of artistry changing in this modern age, and how mobile devices can both limit and expand what we consider art, and what we consider art distribution.
  • “Handwriting is History” by Anne Trubek, from Miller-McCune, was a fascinating look at the history of handwriting and how technology is changing those perceptions of how we write with our hands, scribbling on paper. I am one of those people whose mind is more connected to my keyboard because my fingers keep up better than when I am trying to write with pen and paper. Trubek explores this idea of the mind connected to how we write.
  • David Carr’s column from The New York Times entitled “The Rise and Fall of Media” is not quite a postmortem on newspapers and magazines, but close. Or least, newspapers and magazines as we have traditionally known them. Carr ponders what is happening to media these days and wonders where it is going in this Age of Disruption.
  • The book ends with a Tweet by astronaut Michael James Massimino as he orbits the planet. “From orbit: Listening to Sting on my ipod watching the world go by — literally.”

And that is just a small bit of what is in this book. If you have an interest in technology in the bigger picture — the wide angle lens, so to speak — then I would recommend this book collection.

Peace (in the books),

Edublog Challenge: Deconstructing an Effective Blog Post

The most recent challenge with the Edublog Teacher Challenge is to find a blog post that we admire and write about it. I am choosing one particular post by my NWP friend, Andrea Zellner, entitled “A Community of Readers.” I am hoping she won’t mind me deconstructing her post a bit. (Actually, she just tweeted her OK. )

Andrea begins this particular blog post with a recent news item (Kindle sharing of ebooks and the reaction that the move has received) and then branches off into how we develop our community of readers that we can turn to for advice, suggestions and feedback. Finally, she ends by asking us, her readers, to write about their own reading community and its value.

What I like here is that her wedge issue — reading and technology — became a stepping stone for something larger — how people read and how reading remains important to our lives, even with the transformative qualities of technology.  She also nicely addresses her own mixed feelings about ebooks and physical books. And then, she reminds us that technology has the potential to expand our reading community (via Goodreads, social networking, etc.) in interesting ways, although this technology should supplements and not replace our reading communities.

I love this bit from her post:

Reading, after all, is a solitary experience. Yet we yearn, especially after reading something profound and transformative, to turn around and thrust the book into the hands of those we know.  “Read this,” we implore.  We can’t contain ourselves. — Andrea Zellner

She also quotes from other sources, and provides valuable links. These are important elements to a good blog post because I can travel ahead or stay behind, whatever I want. I sort of wish more readers had responded to her (maybe you will? Go ahead.) and hope that that will still happen. She posed a question that is open-ended enough to spark comments and discussion, with no real time limit. (The limit? Exposure to more readers.)

In the end, she had me thinking and wondering. Yes, reading is solitary in the act of reading but the desire to share what we have read, and to find like-minded readers (and maybe, not so like-minded readers) is a powerful urge that most readers have. Technology and social media can be part of that community building, but I agree with her final thoughts about physical books being precious in their own special way, in part because they are something we can put into someone else’s hands and hope for a similar rich experience.

I realize now that I am doing the same here, passing her blog post along to you. So, maybe I am conflicted about it, too. That’s OK, as long I keep reflecting on it.

Peace (in the post),

Book Review: Hint Fiction

For a few months now, I have been writing 25-word stories and posting them to Twitter as part of the #25wordstory hashtag. I’ve been enjoying the experiences of this flash/quick fiction and more folks are now also writing and posting their stories, too. I recently picked up this book — Hint Fiction, edited by Robert Smartwood — and found it to a truly lovely little tome about small stories. Smartwood called 25 word stories “hint fiction” because the stories are designed to merely point to, or hint at, larger stories that are not being said.

“… a story of twenty-five words or fewer can have as much impact as a story of twenty-five hundred words or longer,” Smartwood writes in the introduction, later adding: “It’s my belief that the length of the story does not determine the credentials of the writer.”

Smartwood put out a call for these hint fiction stories and was overwhelmed by the response (from published and non-published writers), so this book represents just the tip of the iceberg of folks writing these pieces. There are plenty of great stories in here, such as:

The Strict Professor
by John Minichillo

A card in the mailbox: “Withdrawal: student deceased.” She remembers the name, the only essay in the stack she’ll really read.


The Return
By Joe R. Landsale

They buried him deep. Again.


Noah’s Daughter
By Shanna Germain

“Can’t you count I said two of each. This ” — he shook the squirming fluff of black and white in front of her — “is three.”


By Stuart Dybek

Broke and desperate, I kidnap myself. Ransom notes were sent to interested parties. Later, I sent hair and fingernails, too. They insisted on an ear.

Tell me you don’t get a kick out those. The book contains dozens more.

Sure, on one level, they are quick read. But most will make you pause and think, and wonder about what is going on just outside your field of vision. I notice how the use of titles here (as opposed to on Twitter, where space is a real issue) makes a difference for some of these stories. Here, most titles are part of the story, and if you miss the title, you may miss the story. That’s interesting — how important the title is.

Peace (in more than my 25 words),

What My Students Are Reading

We moved into an independent reading unit this week, and as my students sat around in a circle yesterday and shared their titles and the first sentence of the book (as a teaser), I made notes of the titles that they had chosen for themselves. I have read about half of them, and know about 25 percent more of them, but a few of the books have not come into my radar before.

The books I had not heard of before include:

  • The Secret Society of the Crystal Ball
  • Soul Surfer
  • Dewey the Library Cat
  • Shiver
  • You Wish

My goal is to put this list of books up in the room (and also, at our class blog site) as a resource for all four of my classes, for times when they are in the process of choosing a book to read.

I could not help but notice a few classics on the list:

  • The War of the Worlds
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
  • Treasure Island
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • White Fang

Wordle seemed an apt way to highlight the book titles.

Peace (in the books),

Autotune Saturation Point

I just finished Jay-Z’s Decoded the other day. Although I can’t say that I sit around and listen to Jay-Z, I certainly have heard some of his work and certainly know of him. The book itself is pretty cool, as he works through the thinking behind lyrics and offers up some background on his days growing up in the projects of New York City.

Towards the end of the book, he starts to make a stand on the importance of hip-hip music as it stands now, with a somewhat negative outlook on its very commercialized bent (while celebrating hip-hop’s ability to take over the music world, which it surely has). Jay-Z takes particular aim at Aut0-Tune, which has filtered into just about every song that I hear on the pop stations that my sons listen to in our car. Seriously, I hear it everywhere, and I point it out to my sons, too. (Auto-tune is a computer effect that takes a voice and situates the pitch of the voice perfectly. It also can alter the timbre and tone of the voice. That’s that slight robotic effect you hear.)

Jay-Z sees the Auto-tune effect as having a potentially devastating impact on hip-hop music. While he acknowledges that some artists (Kanye West) have used Auto-tune to their advantage as a medium of musical expression,  the problem is that it is now overused to cover up blemishes — slightly out-of-tune voices.  This glossing over rips something special from music, he insists, and he notes that an Auto-tuned track “…gives you a sudden sugar high and then disappears without a trace.”

This quote says it all: “Instead of aspiring to explore their humanity — their brains and hearts and guts — these rappers were aspiring to sound like machines.”

And Jay-Z notes that it reminds him of something similar — the Hair Bands that took an idea and a sound, and pounded its audience into submission, to the point where it took Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, and a slew of others, to come along and dethrone the Hair Bands (Poison, Motley Crue, etc.).

Jay-Z notes: “Musical genres have been known to die, mostly because they lose their signature and their vitality ..”

Which makes me wonder what style of music or what kind of bands/artists are waiting in the wings, with Auto-Tune clearly in their sights, ready to take it down ….. I’m sure they are already there.

Here are some more quotes from Jay-Z that I was sharing on Twitter as I was reading. I was looking mostly for his thoughts on writing and making music.

“That gave me freedom to be myself, which is the secret to any long-term success, but that’s hard to see when you’re young …” (p95)

“I’m a music head, so I listen to everything.” (p128)

“….I also make choices in technique and style to make sure that it can touch as many people as possible without it losing its basic integrity.” (p129)

“Knowing how to complicate a simple song without losing its basic appeal is one of the keys to good songwriting.” (p130) #JayZsez

“…whoever said that artists shouldn’t pay attention to their business was probably someone with their hand in some artist’s pocket.” (p131)

“There’s unquestionably magic involved in great music, songwriting and performances …. but there’s also work.” (p141)

“So I created little corners in my head where I stored rhymes …. it’s the only way I know.” (p144)

“Hip-hop, of course, was hugely influential in finally making our slice of America visible through our own lens …” (p156)

“The entire world was plugged into the stories that came out of the specific struggles and creative explosion of our generation.” (p159)

“It’s one of the great shifts that’s happened over my lifetime, that popular culture has managed to shake free of the constraints that still limit us in so many other parts of life.” (p163)

Playing at the rock concern “…was one of those moments that taught me that there really is no limit to what hip-hop could do, no place that was closed to its power.” (p163)

“Hip-hop gave a generation a common ground that didn’t require either race to lose anything; everyone gained.” (p180)
“I’ve never been a purely linear thinker … my mind is always jumping around, restless, making connections, mixing and matching ideas, rather than marching in a straight line.” (p180)

“My life has been more poetry than prose, more about unpredictable leaps and links than simple steady movement …” (p191)

“Great rappers … distinguish themselves by looking closely at the world around them and describing it in a clever, artful way.” (p203)

“Artists can have greater access to reality; they can see patterns and details and connections that other people … miss.” (p205)
“… hip-hop lyrics — not just my lyrics, but those of every great MC — are poetry if you look at them closely enough.” (p235)

“Rap is built to handle contradictions.” (p239)

“Hip-hop has created a space where all kinds of music could meet, without contradiction.” (p240)

“… when I started writing about my life … the rhymes helped me twist some sense out of those stories.” (p245)

“Musical genres have been known to die, mostly because they lose their signature and their vitality ..” (p251)

“I remember the music making me feel good, bringing my family together …” (p254)

“I think for hip-hop to grow to its potential … we have to keep pushing deeper … and (do it) with real honesty.” (p279)

“My songs are my stories but they take on their own life in the minds of people listening.” (p297)

Peace (in my blemished voice),

Some Lines about Writing, Art, Music by Jay-Z

As I am reading through Jay-Z’s book Decoded, I am making some notes about his articulation of music, art and writing. He is very insightful in seeing rap and hip-hop through the lens of appropriation of traditions, I think, and how many rap artists saw hip-hop as a way to tell their story. I’m not sure if that is still the case, given the commercialization of the genre and the global reach, but it was true at the start: rapping and rhyming gave voice to many of the urban musicians’ world that was mostly forgotten about or ignored by mainstream America.

Here are a few quotes from Jay-Z:

In poetry, the meter is abstract, but in rap, the meter is something you literally hear: it’s the beat.” (p10)

The flow isn’t like time, it’s like life. It’s like a heartbeat, or the way you breathe ...” (p12)

(I love) … the challenge of moving around couplets and triplets, stacking double entrendes, speed rapping.” (p17)

Great rap should have all kinds of unresolved layers that you don’t necessarily figure out the first time you listen to it.” (p54)

A poet’s mission is to make words do more work than they normally do, to make them work on more than one level.” (p54)

(Poets and rappers) …bend language, improvise, and invent new ways of speaking the truth.” (p56)

Everything that hip hop touches is transformed by the encounter, especially things like language and brands, which leave themselves open to constant redefinition.” (p84)

I’m only about halfway through the book and yesterday, I was posting these on Twitter with the hashtag of #JayZsez and it sparked a number of people’s interest in the book.

Peace (in the writing),

Musical Reads: Jay Z, Keith Richards, and beyond

Like most Christmas seasons, I found a bunch of books under the tree with my name on it. I love that. This year, there were two musical related books that seem at first to have very little in common: Jay Z’s Decoded and Keith Richard’s Life, and yet, I have some sneaking suspicion that there may be some common themes to emerge as I read them.


I have started with Jay Z, whom I sort of know musically but not so much. I’ve glimmered pieces of his life and musical vision from Rolling Stone Magazine, and heard some of his music over the years. My sons were quite surprised I got a Jay Z book (from my own father, that hip dude), but I am finding Decoded to be quite interesting. I’ve read a lot about the history of Hip Hip Culture before, and Jay Z’s tales of the streets and the importance of music on his life — music to tell his story — is a pretty detailed look at how the surroundings influence the music. The book is called Decoded because he literally decodes phrases, references and words inside his lyric charts, bringing us into the mind of the songwriter. As someone who is interested in the construction of songs, that pinpointing of influences in lyrics is an incredible view of the songwriter deconstructing their work.

So, yeah, interesting.

I haven’t cracked the Keith Richards’ book yet, but I know from reading about it that it will bring me right into the mess of The Rolling Stones. I’ve always been a fan of the messy Rolling Stones (Exile on Main Street) more than the glossy Rolling Stones.

Actually, one of the books I want to get is Just Kids, by Patti Smith (it won the National Book Award, I believe), which chronicles her time in New York City as an emerging punk rocker in the art scene. It has gotten rave reviews.

But I still need to finish an interesting history of the saxophone that I am reading, entitled The Devil’s Horn, which tracks the invention of the saxophone right back to Adolphe Sax (crazy, crazy visionary man) through the modern times of my favorite instrument (sorry, guitar, you don’t come close).

Peace (in the reads),