Book Review: Scythe by Neal Shusterman

scytheIn late January, I picked up a copy of Scythe by Neal Shusterman at the Texas Council of Teachers of Language Arts because everyone there was buzzing about it. A nice gentleman working for Monkey and Dog Books in Fort Worth had an attractive table set up with copies ready for purchase and because I was so excited to read it, I bought it on the spot. I’m really glad I did; I think it’s Shusterman’s best novel yet!

It’s long – over 400 pages, but worth the time investment. I found myself engrossed in this dystopian society where death due to illnesses or accidents have been eradicated. Scythes make the decisions about who will be gleaned and who will be granted immunity. Just like in the world we are familiar with, there are scythes who are of pure heart and intention and those who glean for the rush of power. Citra and Rowan are chosen, against their will, to be scythe apprentices. They begin their training as strangers working side by side and end up facing off in the most permanent of ways. Shusterman pulls us into this dystopian world where people don’t simply die and nanites heal both emotional and physical pain. The characters, some better developed than others, are cleverly named and beg readers to delve more deeply into their namesakes. I suspect this story will linger with me a long time, but right now it leaves me thinking about Shusterman’s craft and ability to make such a far-fetched story seem possible.

I would recommend this to older fans of The Giver. Note that to be gleaned means to be killed and that is the premise of the book.


They Keep Coming Back (Part 1)

Way back in March  I accepted a position as an instructional coach position for 8th grade SSI (student success initiative) in the summer. At that time, SSI was a state requirement for 5th and 8th grade students who did not meet satisfactory requirements on state math or reading tests after two attempts. During SSI, students were to take a third administration of the test and the following year’s grade placement would be determined using the third score as part of the decision. I knew the research that states summer school has very little bearing on student success but I also knew our model for instruction was unusual and encouraged teachers to take risks and be brave in their instruction. I wanted to be a part of it.

Flash forward to a couple of days before students were expected to hit the doors of SSI. The Texas Education Agency issued a declaration that students were no longer required to attend SSI, there would be no third test, and no one would be held back due to test results. Chalk one up for the kids! But that left the 70+ 8th grade SSI teachers wondering what would happen. Once the students and parents realized summer could start three weeks earlier than planned, would they keep their kids home? We nervously waited and were surprised when over 250 students showed up.

Day in and day out, the kids keep coming back. I have a theory about why they keep showing up. SSI has no grades and no tests-there is no risk of failure, but more importantly, the teachers have built relationships with students and made learning relevant. The teachers have worked hard to ensure students know that mistakes are part of growth and that we only wear the labels we let others put on us. The teachers have challenged their students and the students are engaged, they are learning, they are showing up and NO ONE IS MAKING THEM DO IT. This is big. We can’t ignore it.

Tomorrow  is the last day of SSI. Students will take a survey about their experiences in SSI and one of the questions asks why they kept coming back. I can’t wait to see the results; I’m guessing  John Hattie is right-teachers and relationships matter.

Review of The Fallout

imageI’m trying to expand my blogging habits a bit by writing about the books I read and how I might use them in the classroom. here’s my first post:

I started and finished The Fallout by S.A. Bodeen laying on the beach in the Cayman Islands yesterday. It is the sequel to the wildly popular The Compound and by wildly, I mean my students loved it. It’s been a while since I read the first one, but it wasn’t difficult to pick up the story line. Eli, the protagonist of this sci-fi novel, is picking up the pieces of a normal life when, once more, everything he knows is turned upside down and he is faced with very real dangers to him and his family.

How I would use this in my classroom:

  • I would read some excerpts-once you read the first chapter aloud, chances are you will have kids clamoring to read it.
  • Use the beginning of the novel as an example in a writer’s craft lesson. The novel hooks the reader in quickly. I would facilitate a discussion about what Bodeen does that works. Why do we want to continue reading?
  • Sentence variety. BOden does  a nice job of varying sentence structure. You could spur a discussion about the impact on the reader.
  • Several chapters in, the family makes an important trip to Costco. I know what Costco is, but I was left wondering if all readers have been to Costco and would understand how that setting is helping to drive the events in the novel. I think writers would benefit from hearing this chapter read aloud (short, like most of them) and then talking about the pros and cons of using such a specific setting in their writing.

Things that I like to know about YA books:

  • Character development: eh. Static teen characters put in unlikely positions
  • Genre: sci-fi. No aliens-medical sci-fi (at least I hope it’s not real)
  • Bad language: none
  • Sex: none (just a quick smooch at one point-nothing startling)
  • Drugs/alcohol: none

I’d recommend this novel to any of my readers. Quick-moving storyline.

Lollipop Moments

My principal throws herself, heart and soul, into everything she does. She works hard and is creative in finding opportunities for teachers to grow. When she found out the What Great Educators Do Differently conference was coming to our town, she found a way to take 15 of us. I’ve been to a lot of conferences and this was one of the best. I have so many take-aways and so many ideas in my notes and in my head, but I want to address just one today. Lollipop moments.

Jeff Zoul and Jimmy Casas were presenting (forgive me, I don’t remember who specifically talked about those moments) and one of them talked about the lollipop moments in our lives. Lollipop moments, according to them, are when someone does or says something that makes your life fundamentally better; no matter how big or how small. We need to share those lollipop moments with those who have impacted us so they know how important they are. I’m 50 and I have a lot of those moments, so I think I’ll just start with yesterday.

Kate Kitchens  you energized me yesterday! Thanks for being so excited in the workroom about writing your first blog post. You inspired me to make my conference reflections and learning from the conference public. Your blog got me thinking about what I usually do with notes and ideas from conferences and what I want to START doing with notes and ideas from conferences. So thanks for making a difference in my learning life, Kate! You’re a great educator!image


Grandparenting Fail

Sunday evening as we sat down to dinner, my daughter-in-law (dil) called sobbing; the dogs got out. She and my son (currently working on an oil rig-no lie, there’s still at least one working) have three furry children. One of them, Layla, is a rescue and extremely obedient. The other two came to them as puppies, are best friends, and trouble makers.

Woody, a two-year-old beagle, and Bo, an eight-month-old GIANT lab, made a break for it when she was taking them out for a walk. Bo was collarless for reasons I still don’t understand, but Woody was sporting his collar. Dil saw them take off down a busy street, Bo’s mouth pulled into a giant grin, ears whipping in the wind. She gave chase, but four legs – actually eight, I guess – are faster than two. She ran back to the house, grabbed her phone and frantically hit dial. We dropped everything and headed over. By we, I mean my husband, daughter, son-in-law (sil), and my seven-month-old granddaughter. Daughter and sil took their truck and hubs and I took the baby in my car. We spread out, searching all the neighborhoods near their home.

It was getting dark and hubs decided we should check to see if maybe the rascals ran home. We pulled into the driveway, he got out of the car to check the backyard, and I got out of the car to check the front yard-the card was still running because we were planning on getting right back in. That’s when the week really went awry. We both closed our doors. And they locked. And the baby was in the car. It was like sloooow mooooootion…first the desperate pulling of the door handle, next the running to all doors and desperately pulling the handles, finally the realization that we locked the baby in the car. We managed to raise two children to adulthood and never one locked them in a car! How could this happen??

Hubs screamed (although he claims he did not, he did) , “Why did you lock the doors????!”

“I didn’t!” I yelled back, “I just got out and closed my door! They locked by themselves!”

“Who’s going to call daughter and explain that her mom locked her baby in the car??” he demanded.

Well, there was no need to worry about that call because daughter and sil rolled up at that moment to check to see if the dogs returned and why I wasn’t answering my phone…it was in the locked car. Hubs quickly explained what happened, described exactly where the spare key to the car was hidden in the house (allegedly from me who would “lose” it) and daughter and sil jumped back in their truck and headed home to retrieve it. I couldn’t understand why I was the only one panicking. Yes, it was cool outside, yes the car was running with the ac on, and yes, she was asleep, but still. SHE WAS LOCKED IN THE CAR!

Just after they left to retrieve the key, dil rolled up in her car; the dogs were not with her. She was still sobbing when son called from the rig anxious about the whereabouts of the dogs and then horrified to learn they were still lost AND we locked his niece in our car. My mom beeped in to check on whether we found the dogs only to hear that the dogs were still missing and great-granddaughter was now locked in the car. Shortly after that conversation we heard the sirens of emergency vehicles. Had the neighbors heard the commotion and called 911? We all stood like statues and waited to hear if the sirens turned in or passed us by. They passed us by.

Fortunately we live ten minutes from my son and dil, so it didn’t take long for daughter to return with the key. About the time they returned with the key and popped open the doors, dil’s phone rang. THE DOGS WERE FOUND! They had run a good five miles and a kind stranger coaxed them into their yard with some crackers. She set off to retrieve them and we headed home.

Later that evening, daughter and I were talking about all that transpired. I was feeling a lot of guilt about LOCKING MY GRAND IN THE CAR. She said she wasn’t worried. It wasn’t hot, the ac was on in the car, and baby was asleep. It was through this grandparenting fail that I learned how much trust our daughter has in us. She knew, she said, that if it was hot or the ac wasn’t on, her dad would have busted out a window to get to our nugget and she was right.




I Can’t Believe It!

As I reflect on this month of blogging, I have to say I’m proud of myself. My blogs weren’t anything newsworthy, but I made a commitment and I followed through. That’s a big deal for me because often (most) (always) I throw myself into something and give it 100% until I quit about a week in.

For example, diets, healthy eating habits, barre (which, by the way, I LOVE but the classes are soooo late-I’m ready to pass out without physical exertion by 8:00), crafts of all sorts, you name it, I’ve probably tried it for a week. But writing, this commitment I made to myself was important. Like all of you, I’m busy, but I loved participating in this challenge and seeing it through.

I’m going to continue blogging, probably not everyday and I’ll be checking my feeds to see if my new writing friends are blogging, too! Thanks for all the support, Friends!


Writer’s Block

Guys, does anyone have any idea why Day 30 is sooooo much harder than days 2-28? I have gone back to my idea generating notebookS (notice the plural), read other posts for ideas, and watched the world around me,meet I can’t seem to find the ideas to inspire me to write. I thought Day 30 would be easy as pie (get it…is served in slices) but it’s just hard.

This day leaves me wondering what about students in our classes who show up for 45 minutes and they just can’t find the ideas to write about-I totally get it now. I’ve had over 12 hours to find a worthy topic and its evaded me. Maybe the writer’s block, once in a while, is okay and maybe our students need to know that and learn how to embrace it and push through.

Good talk, guys!image

My Girl

Tonight my daughter asked me if I miss her as a baby or little kid (she’s 22). I said no; I always knew she would grow up. But it got me thinking. Whenever we were coming to the end of something, I would say to myself, “Remember THIS-it won’t happen again.” I remember what she felt like moving around in my belly. I remember the day we took the training wheels off her bike-it was hot and she was insistent. I remember the last day of dance class, softball, basketball (oh, but was she awful), and volleyball. I remember the last time I watched her dance on the football field with the drill team. I remember how much she wanted to be on that team and how hard she worked to get there. I rememeber when she got the acceptance letter to Texas A&M and I remember when she told me she was pregnant. There are thousands more “I remembers” and there are thousands more to come.

And the fact is, she will always be my baby.


It’s Only a Test

Tomorrow is the official start of the testing season. I loathe this time of year because our attention turns from the real work of readers and writers to the work of learning how to take a test. Don’t get me wrong, I had to take tests, too. It’s not something new and I do see the value in getting a bead on student learning. But for some reason our kids are a nervous wreck about these high stakes tests. That’s what stinks the most. Honestly, I don’t remember getting prepped for a test, taking a test or anyone having to participate in remediation because of a test. Maybe it happened, but I don’t remember it.

Last week I worked with a group of sixth graders after school. We talked about standardized testing (they KNOW this phrase and that’s sad) and obstacles to feeling successful on these tests. Almost every single student (I was working with 12 or so) said they get anxious, their stomachs hurt, they have headaches, and the cannot stand it when other student fidget during a test. We talked through some of these issues and made categories of things we can control and this we can’t. We made lists and came up with solutions together. We laughed and just talked. I think the kids were relieved to find their fears, concerns, and ailments were shared by others.

What mlearned from this conversation with kids is that even when it comes to testing, we really just want to know we belong. For those of you monitoring tests tomorrow, good luck and don’t forget, test monitoring is prime time for isometric exercises!