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


The Potato

potatoMy daughter, a senior education major at Texas A&M, texted me this photo today. It’s a potato. Each student in her methods class was given a potato with instructions to write a description of their potato. Descriptions were written on index cards which the professor collected, shuffled, and passed out. The students were expected to match the index card they received with the appropriate potato. Evidently some students were not as descriptive as others and the task proved to be quite difficult.

I’ve done something similar, but with a shell. Let’s face it, shells are not all that difficult to describe. But a potato – that’s hard. So here’s my attempt at describing the potato in the photograph:

My potato is oval and about the length of three binder clips. The most obvious physical characteristic my potato possesses is three very obvious eyes. One eye, deep and dark, is on the left side of the potato. The other two eyes on the right side of the potato with the third eye below and to the right of the second eye. The third eye is most unusual because if you look closely at it, it almost looks like a combination of two or three eyes. The most unique property of this potato is the scrape just to the right of the second eye. The scrape has opened the flesh a little so a peek-a-boo of ivory root is showing. There are several brown pits, although not as deep as the eye, on my potato. The rest of the skin of the potato looks like alligator skin – a little cracked, but nothing a little olive oil can’t fix right up.

My takeaway from this is describing a potato IS hard, but it’s a pretty good way to exercise those writing muscles.


Making It Fit

Last year my son built a birdhouse for me and hung it up right out side my kitchen window. I’ve been waiting for months for a bird couple to decide to call it home and finally my wait has come to an end. I have the most hard-working sparrow couple making renovations right now. Over the last few days, I’ve watched them  bring in all kinds of bits and pieces – dried grass, bits of fluff from the dryer and even what looks like plastic Easter grass.


This morning I watched as the male tried to enter the tiny hole with a GIANT twig. He tried so many ways to get that twig into the hole. I was mesmerized as I watched him coming up with options. His wife (I’m assuming his wife, but perhaps I shouldn’t jump to conclusions) would poke her head out every so often and cheep out her words of encouragement. He kept trying. Eventually he was successful. I watch him bash the twig against the fence, breaking into pieces. He flew each one up and into their little home. His wife, partner, housemate, flew back and forth helping with the task.

Like always, I started thinking about how this encounter transfers to our writers. I remember seventh graders wanting to write about their entire week-long vacation instead of the most memorable parts. Sometimes I had to work really hard to convince them to whittle down their great big ideas into smaller, more manageable chunks. I bet you’ve done the same. But I didn’t leave them to their own devices – I checked back on them. Often. I gave them encouragement and feedback. I let them figure stuff out because when we figure it out, we own it. And when they declared they were finished – we cheered together and shared their masterpieces.  image

Feedback Junkie

Okay, it’s only DAY 3 of SOL and I’ve already learned something super valuable. Feedback is the BEST motivator. Seriously, I know the importance of feedback. I understand why we use it to coach our students through their writing, but holy smokes, I’ve become a feedback junkie. The first thing I did when I woke up this morning was check my blog to read new pieces of treasured feedback. I suspect I would have been disappointed if nothing new had been added last night. The feedback matters.

Feedback is the BEST motivator.

I couldn’t believe the wonderfully perfect feedback I got from my short and tentative post on Monday. I read each comment and with every one I could feel myself becoming more confident as a writer. What I noticed about the feedback was not one single comment was generic. No one said “great job” and moved on. Instead, the feedback was specific to my writing or the topic. The feedback is what propelled me to write again yesterday and really commit to the challenge.

Why does the feedback matter so much? Because it makes me feel like my writing is valued. Other people, people I don’t even know, are taking time from their busy lives to read a little about mine and not only are they reading about mine, but taking that extra time to provide me with a slice of encouragement. That makes me feel what I have to say is important.

Here’s my take-away: we have to teach our students WHY feedback matters before we teach them how to give it and how to use it.  Thank you, my fellow slicers, for your feedback that is helping to grow the writer inside of me!


Feedback Isn’t Defeat

Today I felt defeated; a colleague unwittingly tapped into the dark place where I keep my self-confidence.  We were discussing my goals and her response threw me into a frenzy of self-doubt that was accompanied by messy tears. At that moment, all my work quickly became pointless. I was frozen with doubt and just wanted to find a quiet place to tend to my wounds.

After a ridiculous amount of time spent on self-pity, I pulled myself together and thought about my reaction to the feedback I received and what I learned from it. There was no self-flagellation involved; instead it got me thinking about our students (I often go down these rabbit trails). We are constantly giving our students feedback, both written and oral, but are we paying attention to the aftermath of our feedback? How often do I work with a student who has poured their soul into a piece of writing or response to literature and, with one benign comment, I send them spiraling into the abyss of insecurity? Of course I pay attention to a student’s initial reaction to my feedback and my feedback always includes compliments, but what happens when I walk away? When I wait a few days before I check back with readers and writers, I often find the writing we talked about erased or scribbled out. These young writers are not yet equipped with the emotional tools necessary to wallow, reflect, and revise; instead, they decide their writing stinks and begin anew.

I don’t want fledgling writers to give up because of something I said. When working with young readers and writers, we have to make time in our conferring plan to check back in before they give up on their masterpieces.  In order to build confident writers, feedback cannot simply be a check mark on a list of names. We must be purposeful in checking in and pause long enough to teach our students how to make progress based on feedback. We need to teach our readers and writers that feedback isn’t defeat; feedback is progress.



I’m Ready!

This summer has been filled with so many fantastic learning opportunities. I can hardly wait to take my learning back to campus  – I’m ready to change things up. I’m ready to implement new ideas and reinforce the great instruction already happening. The trouble is I don’t know where to start. I have notes scattered all over my home office, on my phone, on my iPad and on pieces of paper stuffed at the bottom of a number of bags and purses. It’s this time of year that panics me the most. And this isn’t the first summer I’ve felt this way.

In years past I’ve felt exactly as I do now – excited to start the year and full of ideas, but I failed in following through on any of those ideas; I was so overwhelmed with where to start. Instead of planning with the end in mind, I just went head-first into the year and hoped for the best. What kind of coach does that? One who depends solely on the ability of her players, I suppose. But even the best players need practice and that, my friends, is where I’m making my change this year.

First, I’m going to take all the idea scraps I have and organize them. Yup, this means rummaging past the smushed protein bars, crumpled receipts and various writing implements at the bottom of numerous bags. I may or may not have a chance to use them this year, but I want them available if I need them. Next, I’m going to the players on my team with a three question survey: what do you want to learn more about, what do you want to get better at doing, and what do you want to implement or improve upon in your classroom. The answers to these questions will drive my coaching. Pete Carroll, the greatest coach of all time according to my husband, believes that, “each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching, and the greatest things can happen.” So this year, I’m going to nudge, I’m going to support, and I’m going to coach.

Second Chances

What a tumultuous week this has been in the life of my mom and dad’s cat.  Mica (rhymes with pizza) has not been herself.  Normally an aloof member of her human family who prefers to stay outdoors, she chose to stay inside curled in a corner of the sofa.  There were several phone calls exchanged between my mom and me regarding the health and well-being of this furry family member and many cancelled vet appointments made in the process.  Then came Friday.

It started with a late afternoon phone call from my mom saying she thinks the cat is dying. As I often do, I chalked it up to my mother’s dramatic tendencies and soothed her with assurances that the cat would be okay.  A few hours later, my husband and I received a panicked phone call from my mom.  She and my dad were at the emergency vet clinic and they needed help filling out the forms.  We dutifully went to the clinic and it was there that I learned the impetus for the ER visit. The cat passed out.  I didn’t know cats could pass out. Evidently they can.

Fast forward a few hours.  The results were in. My mom and dad’s cat was diagnosed with feline leukemia with a secondary infection. It was the infection that caused a high fever which, in turn, caused the cat to faint. My mom made the decision to euthanize their treasured cat.  My husband and I were back home when she called and asked me to meet her at the clinic and be there when Mica took her last breath.

Here’s the thing.  I knew I was going to be the one holding the cat when the vet plunged the needle of death into her furry little backside and, for purely selfish reasons, I just did not want that to happen.  I don’t have a real attachment to the cat, but I really didn’t think we gave her a chance to recover and I didn’t want my dad (who has dementia and is seriously attached to the cat) to have to live through the loss of his cat on a daily basis-if you know anything about dementia, you will get what I’m saying. So I asked for a second chance for the cat.

$369 later, the cat is home. She got a second chance because I didn’t want to be the one holding her when she died.  As I considered my actions this morning, I couldn’t help but think about second chances.  The cat is going to die because she has a terminal illness, but doesn’t she deserve a chance? We all deserve second chances.

How does this relate to teaching? Stick with me.

We all have our share of students who take the easy way out.  They don’t do their assignments or they turn in subpar work.  It’s way easier for us to give them the grade they “deserve,” but what are we saying to them when we do this? When we accept their lack of effort, we are essentially giving up on them.  We are telling them that their academic life doesn’t matter. These are the students who need second chances.  And third chances.  And maybe more.  These are the students who need us in their corner looking for ways to save them.

Because without second chances, where would any of us be?