My Top Reads of 2015

I meant to post a blog a few weeks ago about my favorite reads of 2015 but never took the time to do it.   I only read 31 books and couldn’t decide on a top 5 much less a top 10.  So here are my top 12 picks, in order only by when I read them this year.

  1.  The Hunger Games:  Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins.  I started 2015 with the final piece of this fantastic trilogy.  I actually watched the first movie before ever reading book one and knew I had to read the books to get more from the characters.  As is usually the case, I enjoyed the books much more than the films.  I didn’t want the series to end and am still not sure how I feel about the ending.  I do think the book (series) sends a strong message that mankind is capable of both great evil and great resiliency.  I did like how family is important in this book, even if there are some loose ends that are not tied up neatly.
  2. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  This book is so many things!!  Creepy, suspenseful, sad, gross, funny, exciting, romantic, sweet, inspiring…  I went from being totally scared to totally enveloped by the determination of the characters.  Another aspect that fascinated me is the pictures Riggs uses throughout the story are real pictures he’s collected at various flea markets and thrift stores, and they very much remind me of Austin’s own “Uncommon Objects” store on South Congress.  The story line, characters, and setting are so believable and I’m hoping this series becomes a well-made movie soon.  It begs the question “what if?” multiple times in the story and really made me question so many things and what I would do if this was a nonfiction story.
  3. The One World School House by Salman Khan.  This book may be the “Dead Poet’s Society” of books, and it’s not even about teaching English.  But it is definitely about teaching and that’s why I really, really, REALLY enjoyed it.  I love that it’s also a book about thinking about things from multiple perspectives and understanding that just because something has been done a certain way for hundreds of years (i.e. public education), does not mean it’s the best way to keep doing it.  Many of the anecdotes Khan provides are applicable to my own philosophy of teaching and it really inspired me to keep working at my practice and to never be satisfied.  There is always something more to learn…
  4. Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  I actually read book one kind of late in the game and was super excited to find out books 2 AND 3 of the Peregrine series were being released in 2015 so I didn’t have to wait as long as everyone else.  I still can’t decide if this book was better than the first or if it’s just wonderful in its own way and therefore equal to the first.  I was worried that I would lose interest in the storyline but Riggs does an excellent job of creating new conflicts, as well as developing both old and new characters.  One of my favorite quotes from this book is how to deal with loss:  “Laughing doesn’t make bad things worse any more than crying makes them better.  It doesn’t mean you don’t care or that you’ve forgotten.  It just means you’re human.”
  5. The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  This book was recommended in a Twitter conversation between English teachers.  I can’t remember which teacher tweeted about it, but I remember most of what they said:  “Honest, heart-breakingly hilarious perspective of a teenage boy”.  And it is.  It’s so blunt at times that I could not stop laughing because it’s how I would’ve reacted in the same situation.  It’s heart-breaking because adolescence is confusing and sometimes I’m not quite sure how anyone survives it, especially the kid in this book.
  6. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher.   I read this book in TWO DAYS because I could. not. stop. reading.  I had to know what happened next, just like the characters involved in the story.  I loved that one of the major elements of the story is an old school Walkman because it helps the reader forget how much we rely on smart phones and technology today.  It’s actually a very frustrating novel in that it makes you want to help the protagonist figure everything out.  But then you’re reminded that sometimes people do things that we may never truly understand no matter how hard we try.
  7. Always Running  by Luis J. Rodriguez.  One of my reluctant readers actually read this book for SSR this past spring and it made me wonder what was holding his attention so much.  He told me in the last week of school that it was one of the best books he’s ever read and that he now knows what kind of books he likes.  I asked if he meant he likes books about gangs and violence (based on the blurb on the back of the book), and he said no, that he wanted to read more books about overcoming obstacles.  So, of course, I had to read it.  I guess what’s hard for me to believe is that the issues in this story still happen in the 21st century.  We have entire school systems that fail our kids every day, and we have teenagers turning to gangs and drugs because that’s what they’ve grown up around.  This memoir sheds some light on what that life is like and also that it is possible for change to happen and for people to survive despite their circumstances.
  8. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.  One of my girls asked me to find this book for her because her dad told her she should read it.  I became intrigued when I noticed her reading logs were filled with positivity and discussing “one’s journey”.  I asked her why she thought her dad recommended the book and she said it’s because he wanted her to start making better choices and being more responsible.  After reading this book, I can see that message.  But I don’t know if it’s a responsibility as far as typical teenager stuff like getting good grades, being on time for curfew, etc., so much as it’s about the larger picture and how everyone is connected.  This book reminded me that I still haven’t seen so much of the world but that no matter where I travel we are all the same.  One of my favorite quotes from this book: “When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.”
  9. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  This book was so much more than what I expected.  I really liked the fact that some of the main settings were in NYC, Los Angeles, and Vancouver.  It made me want to revisit all three places.  The story line is so intricate yet plausible.  It is very human in that it focuses on people’s flaws and insecurities, but also their will power and ability to survive.  I’ve seen it described as science fiction and post-apocalyptic, but I think those terms are too vague for this book.  I was surprised how much of a “TMZ” vibe is given but it’s not overdone, and actually makes you a little grateful that it mostly vanishes in the “new world”.  Two lines that really stood out to me:  “The more you remember, the more you’ve lost.”  “Those previous versions of herself were so distant now that remembering them was almost like remembering other people, acquaintances, young women whom she’d known a long time ago, and she felt such compassion for them.”
  10. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.  I recommend this book for anyone that has a teenaged daughter or son.  It is a story about rape and how different people react to it, and how those reactions can have enormous impacts.  Just so you know, the rape is not described in vivid details, which almost makes it worse because it leaves a lot to the imagination.  What I really enjoyed about this book is how well Anderson captures how teenagers process different emotions, regardless of how adults may or may not be trying to help them.
  11. The Library of Souls:  The Third Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children. by Ransom Riggs.  As I mentioned earlier, I debated on just listing this series all together, but the books deserve to be written about separately.  I’m still not sure if this is the final book of the series and really hope it’s not.  There’s still too much I want to know about!  However, that does not mean the third book ends with too many unresolved issues. Rather, I think Riggs did a pretty good job of bringing the conflicts from the first two books to a major culmination in the third.  I had to apologize numerous times for gasping out loud while reading this book in class as my students read their own books.  I had a silly grin on my face at the end of this one; it just made me feel good.
  12. The Martian by Andy Weir.  Holy cow.  I may have inadvertently saved the craziest book for last.  Because really, it’s one that I just haven’t been able to stop thinking about.  I think mainly because I can’t get over the fact this is Weir’s FIRST BOOK.  Like really?  It is that easy??  And it could also be the opening lines, which some may consider inappropriate, that immediately got my attention (I’m not going to write them here since this is an education blog and it involves the F word! #spoileralert).  I absolutely loved how real this book seemed while at the same time being completely incredulous.  I became very aware of just how available clean oxygen is and how easily we breathe.  The book is loaded with all sorts of crazy math and science talk but I never got lost and only felt more intrigued to see if whatever he was talking about was going to work.  There are times when the plot becomes a bit redundant (problem + worry + sarcasm + solution) but it was a fun read nonetheless.  I’ve always had soft spot in my heart for NASA and space travel and this book brought back a sense of childhood wonderment.  I felt like I read a memoir of something that really did happen and I ended the book wishing it was a true story…

Other books I read in 2015 that are worth checking out:

  1. The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls
  2. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
  3. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
  4. Spare Parts by  Joshua Davis
  5. Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls
  6. Girl on a Train by A.J. Waines
  7. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  8. Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan
  9. Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz
  10. Point Blank by Anthony Horowitz
  11. Tyrell by Coe Booth
  12. Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
  13. No Choirboy by Susan Kuklin
  14. Compliant by Paige Hill
  15. Paper Towns by John Green
  16. This I Believe edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman
  17. Stolen by Lucy Christopher
  18. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  19. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Changing My Classroom Culture One Book At A Time…

People say hindsight is 20/20 and while I usually scoff at the sentiment, I couldn’t agree more after this fall semester.

For the first time in 11 years, I devoted reading time in my classroom for myself and my students EVERY CLASS PERIOD.  I wish I had done this in my very first year of teaching, but then I was still figuring out classroom management issues and trying not to take everything my students did and said so personally.  I’m not saying I didn’t have classroom management issues this semester, but I certainly didn’t let them stop me from providing reading time.

See, when I tried “SSR” or “Silent Reading” or “Reading Time” (whatever teacher term you want to give it, feel free) last school year, I allowed some minor student issues to influence my determination.  I only had a handful of students that seemed genuinely interested in participating and the rest were very vocal about NOT wanting to participate.  And I hate to admit this, but I let the nays have it.  They won.  I stopped scheduling reading time and spent our time doing online lessons, class discussions, etc.  And while I believe we still had worthy learning moments throughout the year, looking back a year later I truly feel like my students (of last year) did not win; they lost.  I allowed them to lose the opportunity to build a relationship with reading, and I sincerely regret that mistake.

I can only say I regret my past decision because of the progress I have witnessed recently.  This year’s students were no different from last year’s students.  Actually, I take that back.  They are WORSE.  I had heard from many different 9th grade teachers how bad this group of students were but I shrugged it off to 9th grade growing pains.  And oh man, were they right!!  But that’s a different blog post entirely…so back to reading time this year.  When my students said “NO!  We don’t want to read!  Reading SUCKS!!” this year, I didn’t give in or tell them to be quiet.  Instead, I changed the game.  I said, “Okay, you say reading sucks.  Now tell me WHY”.

The answers, as you may have guessed, were pretty superficial:  “Reading sucks because it’s boring.”  “I hate reading because it takes too long.”  “Reading puts me to sleep.”

So we began to discuss the problems and come up with solutions about how to get around their issues.  The boredom issue is usually solved by allowing students to choose their reading material, and finding something that actually interests them.  I also remind students if they don’t like what they’re reading, it’s perfectly acceptable to find a different book.  The timing issue of was solved by deciding we would start with 8 minutes of devoted reading time, then 10, then 12, then end at 15 minutes.  In reality, I think my kids are reading for about 10 minutes total, but for many of them, that’s 10 more minutes than they usually read.  The sleep issue was solved by allowing students to move around, play music quietly, stand while reading, or anything that might help them stay awake.  I think I’ve only had one or two kids doze off (and I must admit, in my quiet, comfortable room, it’s hard not to do).

After 16 weeks of consistent reading time, I am happy to report that at least 90% of my students are now actively reading when given the time.  Sure there is one, maybe 2, students in each class that grabs a book and stares into space for the duration of reading time, but at least they know better than to distract other students that are choosing to read.  Also, on more than one occasion, I have had to tell students to STOP READING (cringe!!).  Many students have said they would like MORE than 15 minutes to read in class and that they would like to have more discussions about the books they have chosen to read.  I have watched the classroom culture in each period change from “Reading is for nerds/reading is boring” to “What are you reading/I like my book!”.  I’ve been looking at lesson plans for the spring semester and I’ve come up with a few ways to incorporate group games with silent reading.  I just hope the students enjoy them.  We even have our own “What are YOU reading wall” outside for students to post short book reviews and recommendations.  Sometimes when a kid can’t decide what to read, I’ll tell them to check the wall out.

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I know one of the biggest reasons my students have said reading isn’t so bad and is actually getting easier is because I am reading with them.  As a teacher, I have always had the same philosophy I used to have when I was a manager at a theme park restaurant:  I will never ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself if I was in their position.  Now, for restaurants, this meant not telling someone  to clean the disgusting dishes at the end of the night and just watch them do it, although I knew many managers that did this.  They would claim they had “paper work” to do, when our paper work was rare if not non-existent in the restaurants.  My philosophy meant me telling them to wash and I’ll dry or that we would wash together.  I still have vivid memories of washing pots full of mushy beans and rice and watching the sink fill up with rank water.  I always wanted to be viewed as an equal in the work we were doing, and I feel the same way in my classroom.  I want my students to know I am still growing as a reader, that I do not like every book I pick up, and that sometimes I get fidgety when I’m told to sit quietly and focus for 15 minutes.

Bringing in my own books for my classroom library has also tremendously helped the process of reading in class.  And I’m not just talking about the classics like Lord of the Flies or Catcher in the Rye.  I’ve brought in my own “guilty pleasure” series by Lauren Conrad, that’s loosely based on the hit reality TV series “The Hills”.  My girls LOVE her books.  And I’ve brought in World War Z (that’s incredibly different from the movie!!), Haunted Austin, and some other supernatural stories that my more reluctant readers have admitted to enjoying.  Of course I have the Twilight and the Divergent trilogies as well.

I also told my students I would be open to suggestions, and a good percentage of them strongly recommended The Hunger Games series since I had not read them yet.  And I have to admit, they’re good!!  I’m in the middle of book two and can’t wait to bring it to class to let other students borrow it.  I have become a book scavenger at Goodwill and other local thrift shops.  Half Price Books is a solid go to, but Goodwill usually has better prices.

I do not assign outside reading for grading purposes, but strongly encourage it.  My teacher heart skips a beat when a kid stays after class to ask if he/she can borrow one of my books “JUST FOR TONIGHT!” or even over the weekend.  We do have daily reading logs that I’d be happy to share if you’re interested.  It involves a short summary and a lot of choice for a short reader’s response.  The things my students write let me know they’re not just bs-ing when they read; they’re actually taking in the characters, setting, conflict and so on.

Ultimately, my goal this year is to reinvigorate my student’s relationship with reading.  It doesn’t mean they have to love it; I just don’t want them to hate it.

To close, I will share a list of the books I have read this year (starting in March) and that are in my classroom to borrow (with the exception of Gone Girl; I lost that copy to a friend).  I’m going to keep a reading journal for 2015, and I hope to continue reading time in my classroom…

  • Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
  • Of Mice and Men  by John Steinbeck
  • “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry
  • Divergent  by Veronica Roth
  • The Fault in Our Stars  by John Greene
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • What is the What  by Dave Eggers
  • Infamous by Lauren Conrad
  • The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Positive  by Paige Rawl
  • Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy
  • Dress Your Family in Corduroy & Denim by David Sedaris
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest G. Gaines
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  • Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (almost finished!)