The first month of school has come and gone, and I am exhausted. Last year was a year of firsts for me. It was my first year teaching fully in person. It was my first year teaching at a private school. It was my first year teaching AP Language and Composition, US Literature, and yearbook. It was my first year coaching tennis. With all of these firsts, there was a lot for me to learn. I crafted my own curriculum, and my plans changed a thousand times as I had to account for interest and pacing. I was (and still am) learning how to manage a classroom, which, if we’re being honest, was a whole lot easier on Zoom (wow, do I miss the mute button some days). There is, however, nothing else that I miss about online learning. I love being able to see my students and colleagues in person and to experience the community of our campus. I love being able to see in my students’ eyes when they are amused and when they need a break. I’m immensely grateful for my first “normal” (knock on wood) year in education.
The first day of school is all about first impressions. As an English teacher, I feel required to tell you not to judge a book by its cover, but I do have to admit that the first day in a class sets the tone for the year. Our division is encouraged not to read off of the syllabus. Rather, we want to set the mood for the year. I stay up the night before I meet my students baking cookies. Whichever student emails me with a question first over the summer gets to choose which kind. 50 chocolate chip cookies are individually bagged with some being more gooey and some being more crispy (no, not burnt). Students get to munch on a homemade treat while they engage in one of my favorite activities of the year: book speed-dating. Each grouping of desks holds a different genre, and I have a smattering of books for students to peruse from each. Students are divided into groups of about three and circulate around the room to sample the various texts. Romance, fantasy, dystopian, historical fiction, and poetry are just a few of the categories the students will circulate through.
Once they are finished looking through the books, I explain the independent reading project. Each quarter students are responsible for reading any book that they would like and creating a review of it. This year I have students reading everything from graphic novels to classic literature to romance to fantasy. The students remark that they needed an excuse to read this book or that book or to shrink their TBR pile. They are so focused on getting their homework done that making something “fun” an assignment ensures that it will get done too. I know it can be hard for me to squeeze reading into my busy schedule. I lean on audiobooks during car rides. I keep track of which books I’m looking forward to reading and what topics most excite me (right now it’s anything about the British Royal Family). I hope to teach students to make time for the things that they love and to learn what it is that they love.
After they’re done reading, they have the option to make a blog post, a podcast, or a video for their review. Last year my students blew me away with their creativity and excitement, and I can’t wait to see what this cohort accomplishes when they submit their assignment. One of my students was so inspired by writing reviews last year that she’s created her own “bookstagram” account. A student this year thanked me for getting her out of reading slump my showing my excitement for the book she had chosen to read. It’s the moment a parent thanks you for assigning a project because their child is excited by it that you know you’re on the right track.
On the topic of independent reading, I’ve added 5 new books to my finished pile since my last update.
Carrie Soto is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid
Reid captured my attention with Daisy Jones & The Six, and I’m still waiting for her to top it. Her latest novel is all about tennis, the burden of fame, and the pressures of success, so it held a lot of interest for me as we began our girls varsity tennis season. Carrie is a compelling character, but I wished for a little more emotional growth from her. Her mantra throughout the novel is that she must be, no matter the cost to her body, emotions, or relationships, the best tennis player. Her relationship with her father and her romantic interest are often strained because of her single-minded desire for vaguely defined greatness, but her drive is so relatable in our modern culture. My students will tell me that they must be the best. They put everything they have into the idea of being the greatest at something. I know I was certainly guilty of this in high school. Carrie is arguably the best early in the book, but she must spend the rest of the novel defending her title as the greatest of all time. It raises the question of what brings us joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction. The audiobook narrators made this story really come to life for me, especially in the portrayal of the high-stakes father/coach-daughter relationship. libro.fm always has such a well-curated assortment of titles in their influencer program each month!
FRD’s Splendid Deception: The Moving Story of Roosevelt’s Massive Disability-and the Intense Efforts to Conceal it From the Public by Hugh Gregory Gallagher
I purchased this book in Charlottesville at Blue Whale Books. This scholarly bookstore has a focus on history, art, and maps and was delightful to peruse. My boyfriend and I both love history and came to Charlottesville for that very reason, but we learn about significant events and people in different ways. He loves history that is analytical. He wants the breakdown of wars and battles to understand the strategies, successes, and losses. I, on the other hand, want to learn about history through the people. I like to learn through the lens of an individual or family’s stories or experiences, and FDR’s Splendid Deception was the perfect example of that. Gallagher, as a polio survivor, has a unique and deeply personal connection to FDR’s physical, emotional, and mental struggles. In a time where handicaps and disabilities were hidden and rehabilitation was an often isolating process and the ADA was still years away from being passed and so much was not understood about the healing of a depressed mind or a paralyzed body, FDR faced daunting odds. Gallagher portrays him as intensely human. He was a man with an iron will and fierce stubbornness. He led the charge on changing how Americans received rehabilitation services. He helped build a facility that quite literally changed the lives of polio survivors. However, he was also a manipulative, cold, and emotionally distant man who was immensely hurtful to the women in his life. FDR was not my favorite president going into reading this book, and I had no greater love for him by the end. I was blown away by his strength and had more empathy for him, but the damage he did to those closest to him was heartbreaking. In my teaching of Of Mice and Men, I introduce the novel by talking about the Americans with Disabilities Act and highlighting how far we have come as a nation. This book was a reminder for me how important it is to change our perception of disability and to recognize that we all play a part in bringing about positive change. This was a thorough study on the many ways in which disability can impact someone over the course of their life and was spectacularly well researched and personal. I currently have this book on loan to one of my teaching colleagues, and I can’t wait to discuss it more in-depth with him.
Bookish People by Susan Coll
This book was full of potential for me. A libro.fm monthly influencer pick set in DC in a small woman-owned independent bookstore over the course of a tumultuous week seemed to tick all of my boxes. Books about books and writers and bookstores are perfect for book lovers. If I could have my wish, I’d own a bookstore and coffee shop and run literary events for the community. If I ever win the lottery, that’s exactly what I’ll do. The book was a solid 3 stars for me. The cast of characters, while broad and quirky, were not particularly likable or engaging for me. Mrs. Bernstein, our main character, was neurotic and mourning and perpetually worried about the state of the world and her family and her business, but like the rest of her staff, I struggled to really connect with her. Similarly, Clemi, the bookstore events coordinator, held promise but felt like a cliche. She was in her early 20s, overworked and underpaid, dreamt of being a writer, and was in love (or at the very least in like) with a hipster man who had no intentions of reciprocating her feelings. Her one point of intrigue was that her father may be the infamous poet who was scheduled to visit the bookstore. The greatest highlight of the novel was the end of day reports and media interviews with the poet. The humor and quirkiness of these sections were endearing and were the most memorable for me. Even a month later, I can chuckle thinking about the cheery frustration and utter mayhem that they conveyed. The pacing, in my opinion, was too slow, and the payoff at the end was not satisfying enough.
I’m Glad my Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy
This past month has really been a libro.fm influencer binge month for me. One of my new students chose to read this book for her memoir project in my AP Language and Composition class, and it sparked my interest to read it as well. I was a Disney Channel kid through and through growing up, so I never watched any of McCurdy’s acting as a child or teenager. I was aware through Instagram and Buzzfeed of her speaking out against Nickelodeon and the abuse that she faced on set and at the hands of her mother, and her tell-all memoir was a disturbing and haunting glimpse into the horrors of familial abuse and childhood fame. The book goes into intimate and descriptive detail as McCurdy describes her journey to develop OCD rituals, alcohol dependency and abuse, and disordered eating. Her mother exerted complete emotional control over McCurdy’s life, and while the book was marketed as having humorous reflections scattered throughout, there was nothing I could find laughable in the tragedies and traumas that McCurdy endured. Hearing her tell her own story was so powerful, especially as she grew to realize that the woman she thought loved, protected, and cherished her had taught, encouraged, and reinforced behaviors and mentalities that hurt her. This is a coming of age reflection like no other and provides eye-opening accounts of mental illness and recovery that are not often represented in such a personal way. It is graphic and authentic and so, so honest, and it is not a book to pursue if you’re looking for a light read.
Sweet, Soft, Plenty Rhythm by Laura Warrell
You guessed it, it’s another libro.fm influencer book! With all the driving that I’ve been doing, audiobooks have really been my go-to this month. This book was, in all honesty, a struggle for me to get through. Told through the lens of Circus Palmer, a flirtatious musician with some serious attachment issues, and the various women in his life, the episodic narrative explores Circus as a father (spoiler, he’s not a very present or engaged one), a lover (spoiler, he’s really only after his own pleasure and leaves at the first sign of responsibility), and ex-husband (spoiler, he’s not supportive or present). The women in his life are hurt by his selfishness, and while their voices are compelling, the central narrative felt tiresome to me. Warrell can certainly write a sensual character, but the continuous longing to be loved and seen and accepted by the women, especially his daughter, felt stale really quickly.
What I’m reading now:
The Palace Papers: Inside the House of Windsor—the Truth and the Turmoil by Tina Brown
As I mentioned earlier, I love following the British Royal Family’s fashion, charity work, and drama, and this inside look at the monarchy’s messy personal lives and political moments from Diana to the present day had me hooked from the very first story. Brown is a keen observer of details and relationships, and her sharp and witty commentary is holding my interest in this 18 hour long audiobook. Also, her impression of Charles is so spot-on and deserves all kinds of awards.
What I’m watching right now:
I want to say that I love Andor and Rings of Power because I’m a huge science fiction and fantasy nerd and grew up on Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, but neither show is holding my interest. Andor has yet to feel like it belongs in the Star Wars universe, and Rings of Power has some major pacing issues. I’ll still hold out and see where they go, but my expectations have been far from met.
What I’m cooking:
Iain and I made all the comfort food last week. Risotto, beef stew, and huevos rancheros were our hurricane meals. As my meal prep for the week, I made vegetarian burrito bowls with roasted portobello mushrooms, quinoa, tomatoes, peppers, black beans, corn, spinach, and tortilla chips for lunch and banana muffins for breakfast.
In my shopping cart:
Bare Minerals statement matte liquid lipstick is my absolute favorite because of how vibrant the colors are and how easy it is to apply. I’m nearly out of my favorite color, so I’ll be purchasing another tube soon.