When the Goal Gets in the Way

I’ve decided to drop part of my goal for 2013- reading 10 big books. Over the past several weeks, I’ve realized the goal isn’t working for me for several reasons. I never clearly defined what big books were. I imagined books weighty both literally and in ideas, but what I’ve realized is that was a placeholder in my mind for “books that I feel like I should have read, but I haven’t.” I told myself that this is because I lacked the time or the focus to read these books, but what I’m realizing is that I lacked the desire.

In the past 24 hours, I’ve read two books- Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Words that Work. I read Mr. Penumbra because I’d seen it on a list of books for adults that teens might enjoy. I’d had it around for a week or so, but what kicked me into reading it was a notification from the library saying it couldn’t be renewed because someone had checked it out. I was hooked by just the first few pages. It’s an adventure kind of book, about old technologies and new technologies. (It reminded me of Ready Player One.) There are geek and pop culture references galore. It’s certainly not dense reading, but it addresses broader cultural issues and themes.

Meredith Stewart (msstewart) on Twitter

I read Words that Work because a friend loaned it to me to read. It’d been sitting on my nightstand for weeks. I wanted to read it because it was important to this person, but I kept having difficulty finding time to dive into it. So on this lazy Saturday morning, I decided to read it fast, around an hour for the whole book. I picked up the key ideas and anecdotes, more than enough to have a good conversation about it with him, which was my goal in the first place.

As with most things, guilt isn’t a particularly powerful motivator, at least not one that makes you feel good about being spurred to action. For now, I’m just going to read. I’ll probably continue to pick up The Brothers Karamazov from time to time. Maybe this will even be the year that I finish it, but I’m taking it off the nightstand where it feels like it’s judging me for not finishing it.

50 Hikes, 50 Books

I’m not usually one for resolutions, but like Zac, I’m feeling that this might be a good year for them.

Publicizing your resolutions and goals is apparently a tricky thing because your brain derives satisfaction from telling people about your goals, which may actually make you less likely to achieve them. But it’s possible to circumvent this tendency by asking people to hold you accountable. So about March, someone should check in with me and see how it’s going ūüôā I’m also thinking about documenting my resolution somewhere, perhaps on a page here.



My resolution for 2012 is 50 hikes, 50 books. It’s a stretchy goal (I read 40 books in 2010 and did probably 20 hikes), but not one that feels so unrealistic that I’ll give up before I do anything.

Hiking around here is a relative term, especially for someone who grew up in the Appalachians, which likewise those in the Rockies or Alps would consider hills, so I’m being a little loose with that term. Generally, I intend that hikes will be 3+ miles with some elevation gain/loss, preferably in the woods.

I’m not going to be too prescriptive about what the books will/have to be. I mostly just want to get myself away from reading short pieces and into longer form narrative more often.

The first hike of 2012 happens today. I’m off to New Hope Overlook at Jordan Lake.

Converted Skeptic

The following are books I was initially skeptical about, but which turned out to be some of my favorites of 2010.

Shaun Tan Tales from Outer Surburbia
I initially read a ¬†few pages of this book and abandoned it, but I’m so glad I picked it back up. It beautifully weaves text and illustrations to tell out of the ordinary stories in the most ordinary of places. I’m using it as a read aloud in my 6th grade Language Arts classes; they love it!

Troy Hicks The Digital Writing Workshop
Because I already frequently use digital technology in my classroom, I doubted this book would be useful for me. I was wrong. What the book does well is to offer a conceptual framework for thinking about the use of digital tools in the writing classroom and connection to previous work on the writing workshop.

Paul Elie The Life You Save May Be Your Own
This book weaves together the lives of ¬†four Catholic writers- Flannery O’Connor, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy. It’s a long read, but when you finish it, you feel like you’ve read four books instead of one.

Cormac McCarthy The Road
I tend to avoid reading books when they become pop sensations, and an Oprah book club nod is usually the kiss of death. A friend pressed into reading The Road, and I finished it and McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited in under 18 hours. Both are intense and beautifully haunting.

The Danger of a Single Story

In World Cultures class, we are grappling with the complicated history of the Middle East. We’ve been looking at the history from as many lens as possible- creating drawings, spinning analogies, organizing information. Students are thinking hard AND synthesizing difficult information. Occasionally, a student will pop up, “So, it’s all about oil, right?” or “The Europeans are the bad guys, right?” I can tell they’re hungry for my assent. “Yes, that it is,” they want me to say. Much as I would like to offer them some certainty, some neatness of narrative, I cannot. I find myself continuing to say, “That’s part of the reason” or “That’s one way to tell the story.”

This afternoon I came across an incredible TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian author. She speaks eloquently about our tendency to flatten human experience and our impressions of a people into a single story. She shares experiences in which she either was surprised when people did not conform to the single story in which she imagined them or when she herself was expected to be a character in a single story.

The thing that I appreciated the most about the talk is that Adichie refuses to fall into the trap of saying we all have the same story. The problem with stereotypes, she argues, “is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” We should not try to cover over the difficult stories of history or literature, but we should tell them alongside of other stories.

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Earlier today Carol Jago asked on the English Companion Ning, “Why do you teach literature?” I immediately thought of Jeff Wilhelm’s characterization of literature in his NCTE presentation as “imaginative rehearsal for living.” He quoted Wayne Booth who argued that by tracing characters’ efforts to make moral choices, “readers stretch our own capacities for thinking about how life should be lived.” By living stories through the lives of the characters we read, we broaden and contextualize our range of stories, reducing the chances that we will pigeonhole the people we encounter into single stories.

Towards the end of her talk Adichie says, “Stories matter. Many stories matter…. Stories can break the dignity¬†of a people, but they can also restore the dignity of a people.” That’s why I teach literature (and history). I believe in the power of stories, and I want my students to know as many of them as they can.

Talking Back to the Teacher

Although, I blog primarily about my Language Arts classes, I also teach two sections of 6th grade History (World Cultures). We’re studying the Middle East right now and going through some pretty complicated material. Today students were reading a summary of the World War I peace settlement. I’d asked them to highlight the important information¬†in preparation for looking at a picture that their¬†text described as a visual metaphor, which we would label.

As I walked around the room, I saw highlighting bleeding indiscriminately across the page. This was actually one of the better examples…

It’s in these moments that I’m tempted to resign myself to total despair. Students were clearly frustrated and I was, too. I’ve learned that if I don’t try something quickly, the thoughts spin out of control (in my head),¬†and I spend a week in a funk convinced I should have been a lawyer.

K piped up, “Ms. Stewart, How do we know what’s important? Isn’t it all important if it’s written down?”

This felt manageable. “Ok, imagine you’re leaving your house in the morning. There are certain items of clothing that are essential. There are some items that are still important but not essential. When you’re underlining or highlighting, look for the essential parts. Look for the pants.” (Sixth graders are still innocent enough for this kind of metaphor to be silly but not out of control.)

K again. “But Ms. Stewart, what if we don’t know what the pants are? If you gave me a paragraph describing [our school], I would know to highlight information about the Middle School and the Fine Arts building, but not the information about the fish bowl (our name for the small windowless meeting rooms). But I don’t know anything about the World War I peace settlement, so how am I supposed to know what to highlight?”

Hello! Earth to clueless teacher!

I said, “Wow. That was really thoughtful, K. Someone explain to me what K just said.” Another student, “She meant it’s hard to decide what’s important when you don’t know what the thing is about.”

“Ok,” I said. “We’ve got two choices. Never read about anything we haven’t personally experienced or figure out ways to determine what’s essential without maybe totally understanding what we’re reading, at least not in the way you understand the school. I can tell you that first option probably isn’t going to work for you or me in the rest of school or life, so let’s see if we can read this together and find ways to identify the essential parts.”

I projected my copy of the text. We worked through it together stopping to rephrase what we just read, noting unfamiliar vocabulary, looking at the relationships between words, and realizing that we could just draw a line from the picture instead of having to underline entire sentences. About half-way through, I thought Cool! We’re doing a close reading. This was not anything like what I had planned for today.¬†

Today’s class reaffirmed my commitment to a classroom where kids can talk back without fearing that I’m going to get angry. I don’t allow disrespectful comments, but I also don’t assume I’m the only authority in the room.¬†If the lesson you need isn’t the lesson I’ve prepared, we’ll chuck it. If the lesson you need is one I don’t feel as prepared to teach, I’ll do what I can today and prepare so I’ll be ready next time.

It would have been easy just to restate my original directions and then tell students to be quiet. Honoring K’s comment and reorienting the class to address it meant admitting that I did not know what was best for the class that day. It also means I need to spend some time reading up on teaching annotating and note-taking strategies, especially as a way to help students construct meaning.

The learning never stops. Thank you for teaching your teacher today, K.