Friday, September 24, 2010

A Great Success!

I am happy to report that 182 people visited the library last night.
What a relief!!!!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Notes On Various

It happened again. Right in the middle of a promising YA book, the girl became a dufus. Maybe that's not fair, since I was really enjoying the book, and will probably enjoy it well enough to the end. But come on now, it was exactly what I was talking about in my previous posts.

Girl, unsure of herself, works at fast food restaurant with two boys from her school. Boy #1 is a supposed political activist who drinks mocha lattes, reads Russian literature, and badmouths big corporations. Girls loves Boy #1 and feels that he is way out of her league.
Boy #2 is a goofier, more "normal" boy, burps, looks at girls' chests, but also waits every night to see that Girl's old car starts, passes Girl notes in class all the time, and reveals (without really meaning to) that he also has read some Russian literature. So, he's smart, and he CLEARLY likes Girl. But Girl just thinks he's annoying and focuses her sights on Boy #1, who HAS a girlfriend, but still makes mix CDs for Girl and caresses her cheek in the parking lot. Jerk.

At one point, after Boy #2 shoves a bully into some lockers in defense of Girl, and Girl's best friend points out that this means Boy #2 likes Girl, Girl actually says something like, "No, he doesn't like me, he just can't walk straight." And she believes herself, at least mostly.

I know I wrote my YA character Louisa the same way, and I understand about glass houses, so this is not an indictment of the writers. It's just such a powerful coincidence that so many people would portray teenage girls this way. It must mean something, yes?

On a completely different note, it is Back-To-School night once again. The last time I wrote about this, it was comically sad. No one came to the library. I believe this was because a) I did not aggressively encourage anyone to come to the library because, b) it was the end of the school year and we were all burnt out, especially since c) everyone knows parents don't come to conferences just a few weeks from the end of school.

At the very beginning of this school year, we had another Back-to-School night. I was ordered to close the library and stand in the quad to direct parents to the proper classrooms. I spoke to 3 parents in 2 hours. I was furious. I was humiliated. I protested.

Tonight, which is a combo Back-to-school for A-track students and parent conferences for C-track students, I convinced the administration to let me keep the library open. I insisted it was a critical part of our school that the parents need to see. I stomped my feet about the fact that I actually HAVE students whose parents I'd like to meet (both the Yearbook class and my Student Librarians).

Now I am paralyzed that no one will come. What if the library doesn't need to be open on these nights? My promotion of the evening was severely limited by the 4 furlough days I had last week and this week. I've really only promoted this with a few fliers and announcements to every kid that's come through the door for the past three days (that's hundreds of kids). I've prepared several hundred giveaway books (things we can't use anymore) and that's usually a big draw. Anyone who is into Star Trek, Encyclopedia Brown, or the Hardy Boys is really going to hit the jackpot tonight, boy!

But the question remains. If the library is open, will they come? Cross your fingers!

Monday, September 13, 2010


Our school's test results from the 2009-2010 school year.
58% on English and Math is considered proficient.

Further thoughts on the "Bella Problem"

I've been thinking a lot about this idea that girl protagonists in YA fiction can be, well, let's just say less-than-100%-awesome. It didn't start with Bella in the Twilight books, but it is most noticeable there, in terms of recent publications. Plus, since the Twilight books are so well-read by pre-teen girls, the ways in which Bella is a wuss may be more influential than one would like.

First, some titles to add to the butt-kicking girl characters list (thanks to reader comments and further reflection):

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (Stargirl is not the narrator, but is pretty butt-kicking and totally central to the story)
Lyra in The Golden Compass (and the rest of the series) by Philip Pullman
Wicked Lovely by Melissa Marr (there is a love triangle here, sort of, but the girl solves her own problems in a big, strong way)
Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer
ooh, and the girl character in Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix (although not the narrator, again)

I wonder how one avoids the pitfalls of writing girl characters who are unsure of themselves, timid, malleable, or generally vapid. I've been trying to write a YA book for over a year, and my main character is a complete moron when I think about it in these terms. She makes all the wrong decisions, completely ignores the obvious, constantly accepts sub par treatment from boys, and cannot see what's good for her to save her life. Now, I must say that I intended for her to be that way. It's sort of the whole point of the book. But when I think about it carefully, I have to wonder why I made that choice, and why it seems like a great idea to put her out there for the pre-teen girls of the world to read. She's an anti-example, maybe. I gave the book to an 8th grader at my school last year, just to see if I was headed anywhere good. She read it in about 3 days and came back to say that she loved the book but hated the main character. So, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

I hated Bella but loved reading the Twilight books. Part of the fun of watching a horror movie is the idea that we can yell at the screen, "No! Don't open that door, you fool!" Maybe there is a part of us that really likes to do the same thing when we're reading. When Bella prolongs Jacob's agony over her by kissing him as Edward stands and watches, don't we want to yell at the screen, "You idiot! Why are you doing that?" That tension is exciting and fun, and I think that in writing my book, part of the pleasure is actually to make the reader squirm at how agonizingly stupid the main character really is. And it's not hard to do that, since when I think back to what I was like as a teenager, I want to scream at myself, to warn myself, "What are you thinking? He's a total Neanderthal!" or "Have you lost your mind? That's the last thing you should do/say/think/believe/try!"

So what's the difference between an adult's reading of these stories and a pre-teen girl's reading of the same material? Where we can appreciate or even enjoy the discomfort of the angsty situations, since in most of our cases we've experienced some level of those feelings ourselves, the kids who are reading these same books are just at the beginning of their own years of misery. So does this act as a warning for them? Or a road map, an example, a set of instructions, a preview? Does a pre-teen girl take important lessons away from reading about the behavior of these girls, or does she just enjoy the story and leave it at that? And how do those writers who are able to create un-afflicted girls do it? Were they that well-adjusted as kids? Maybe their imaginations are far superior and they can just pretend that they know what it was like to be a strong, confident, unwavering teenage girl.

It makes me wonder if I could write something different, something that is not a reflection of my own experience or memory of high school. To write something that is instead a picture of what I would have liked to be, even then, even as I went through each day knowing that I wasn't.

And what about the boys? We can't forget about the boys.....

Thursday, September 9, 2010

You Can't Do It All...

When did you learn to tell time? Or the order of the months in the year? How about your own birthday? Was it before the 6th grade?

I thought so.

Each year, I teach our new 6th grade students to use a computerized reading program called Accelerated Reader. This program requires the kids to log into an account after reading a book in order to take a short comprehension quiz. To log in, they need to know how to write their birthdays numerically. 6 numbers. 2 for the month, 2 for the day, 2 for the year. No slashes, no dashes.

This ends up being REALLY hard for about half of the 6th graders each and every year. One big issue is that they don't all know how to assign a number to the months. In this case, I'll say something like, "Let's start counting then, January being #1. So, what comes after January?" Often the kid will catch on right away, but now and again I will get a blank stare. There I am, holding up two fingers, my lips poised in an almost-F, front teeth sticking out on top of my lower lip, ffff-ing a little to help them along. But the blank stare continues until I hear a meak, nearly whispered, "March?" or "April?"

No. It's February, kids. February comes next.

Another obstacle is this:
I ask, "So, what's your birthday?"
They say, "1998."
"Well, ok, that's the year, but what about the month and the day?"
Sometimes, I do not kid, they do not know. Other times they know the month and day, but not the year. This I can sort of understand. The former sort of implies they may never have celebrated a birthday, which is really too bad.

In any classroom, there is always (ALWAYS!) material that slips through the cracks for one reason or another. A fire drill, state testing, prolonged illness, unexpected anything. Yet some things are repeated, year after year, especially in elementary school, so that the students are given every opportunity to figure them out. Nevertheless, each year there are plenty of 6th graders who do not seem to be able to:
  • tell time
  • capitalize the beginning of a sentence, or a proper noun
  • use end punctuation
  • name the months of the year
  • spell the word library (libery is not a fruit!)
  • spell their last names (yikes!)
  • tell me their birthdays
  • tell me their phone numbers (safety be damned)
Of course, I am sure the 9th grade teachers who get the kids from my school would be happy to provide a list of all the things our graduates cannot do. And that's my point. What the heck ARE we doing then, if not helping kids learn the tell freaking time????

In order to understand this, I took a look at the content standards for elementary school. These are the guidelines the state sets for what each grade level should be learning. I have to say, I think these standards are much more accelerated than when I was a pup.

Kindergarten students are expected to locate the title, table of contents, name of author, and name of illustrator. Huh. I wonder why? But, ok.
Oh, yes. Here it is. Kindergarten students will "Name the days of the week." and "Identify the time (to the nearest hour) of everyday events (e.g., lunch time is 12 o’clock; bedtime is 8 o’clock at night)." Hallelujah!

In 1st grade, we strike gold again, for they must: "Use a period, exclamation point, or question mark at the end of sentences; Use knowledge of the basic rules of punctuation and capitalization when writing; Capitalize the first word of a sentence, names of people, and the pronoun I". Ha! So they learn these things in KINDERGARTEN and the FIRST grade. Five- six years of practice seems like a lot, but perhaps the rocket science of proper nouns and periods takes longer to brew in the average child brain?

In second grade, things get really serious. Maybe there's just no time to reinforce the basics anymore, because it's on to the kind of academic rigor that will prepare them for whatever lies ahead. These little 7-year old darlings should "use knowledge of the author’s purpose(s) to comprehend informational text", "Determine the purpose or purposes of listening (e.g., to obtain information, to solve problems, for enjoyment)", and.....ok, enough.

But wait, a 2nd grade student should also:
  • "Explain how the United States and other countries make laws, carry out laws, determine whether laws have been violated, and punish wrongdoers";
  • "Describe the ways in which groups and nations interact with one another to try to resolve problems in such areas as trade, cultural contacts, treaties, diplomacy, and military force";
  • "understand basic economic concepts and their individual roles in the economy and demonstrate basic economic reasoning skills";
  • "Describe food production and consumption long ago and today, including the roles of farmers, processors, distributors, weather, and land and water resources" really. ENOUGH! I CAN"T TAKE IT ANYMORE!

Why are we doing this to our little sweeties? And WHY are we doing this to ourselves?
Does a 7-year old child need to know the ways groups and nations interact with one another to try to resolve problems MORE than s/he needs to know that May comes before October? I think the LA Times has missed its mark with all of these articles about how much we teachers suck. And these parents who feel their children need to wait until age 6 for kindergarten, well No Wonder! This stuff is brutal.

My schooling went like this:

In Mrs. Bean's class I made a drawing of an ear of corn using the letter 'C' as the kernels in order to learn to write my letters. (I also made artwork using Q-tips dipped in bleach, but no teacher is perfect.)

In first grade I learned to write my letters, ate my first pomegranate, played with snake skins, and got my first F.

In second grade I made a gen-u-wine Indian village out of clay, listened to Mrs. Williams read Charlotte's Web and Where the Red Fern Grows out loud after lunch, and wrote a story called "Bats, Bats, Spooky Bats".

In third grade I was in charge of passing out milk tickets before lunch.

In fourth grade I read Judy Blume's Are You There God It's Me Margaret? four times.

In fifth grade I made the aforementioned model of Nicaragua.

In sixth grade, months and time-telling would have been a laughable problem should any of my classmates have admitted ignorance on these subjects. Probably I learned those things in 1st or 2nd grade, like the California kids now are supposed to do. When I think about my niece (who is four), I am convinced that she could learn anything thrown at her. The real question is, what would I LIKE her to learn in the next few years? To tell time, certainly. The months of the year, absolutely. As for the rest? I think I'd go for things like: working in groups, planning ahead, using a library, staying organized, asking clarifying questions, etiquette, loving to read, creative writing, and other strategy and process-based things, rather than content that will inevitably be repeated at every level throughout her education. Of course, processes cannot be taught in a vacuum; some content must be added in order to make it work. ARG! This is HARD!

In the end, I have no idea why these kids can't tell time or name the months of the year. Or why they haven't yet mastered concepts that were first introduced to them in kindergarten. Or why they've had five teachers since then who have either tried and failed or not tried at all to teach them these things. I also have no idea why the state of California thinks it's a super great idea to pack all this crazy content into the 2nd and 3rd grades. Somehow, these things seem to be at odds, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how to make sense of it. Where is the problem? What is the solution? I just don't think anyone knows, nor do I think anyone has ever known. Maybe that's why education is such a tricky business. And maybe it's also why I love it.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Are we all this dense at age fifteen?

As I read more and more YA fiction, something has begun to bother me. It's about the girls in so many of the stories. What is wrong with them? I mean, why in the world are they so clueless?

Here's what I mean. Most people would agree at this point that Bella from Twilight is a total ninny. She's klutzy and weak, always in need of a hero, willing to let herself be destroyed to keep her man around, etc. I've been poo-pooing Bella for a long time, recommending other titles to my female students in order to give them a chance to read about some butt-kicking, no-fear chicks. Problem is, even the girls who appear to be awesome at first often end up as mind-numbingly dense when it comes to boys. So frustrating.

Example: The totally fun books in the Mortal Instruments, and now Infernal Devices, trilogies by Cassandra Clare. I talk these up all the time. They are supernatural books, so they appeal to the Twilight drones. They have romance. They have danger. They have adventure. They are better than Twilight all around. However, in this new installment (a prequel to the first series) called Clockwork Angel, the main character Tessa is infuriatingly stupid about whether or not Will (sexy demon-killer) really likes her. This is in spite of the fact that he planted a seriously smoldering kiss on her while they were sprawled on the attic floor, he recovering from ingesting vampire blood, she delivering the holy water that would be his cure. He risks his life numerous times to save her, blushes furiosly every time their eyes meet, and every other character in the story has made some comment to Tessa about Will's interest in her. Yet she still doesn't believe it. She constantly wonders to herself why he is so rude/cold/distant/confusing/aloof. For god's sake woman!

Another example: Pretty much every book by Meg Cabot. I like these books. They are light and funny. They usually present some real confict about friendship to which my students can relate. But in practically every dang book the girls spend the entire time misreading very clear signals from boys about how they feel. Signals like: being asked out on a date, holding hands, audibly beating hearts, defending against bullies, phone calls at night, embarrassment at being called about having this crush, etc. The girls don't see it until the very, very end of the story, at which point I am literally yelling at the page every few paragraphs, "What is WRONG with you? Just freaking kiss him already!"

My question is this: Was that what it was really like? Are these realistic portrayals of teenage girls? I cannot remember. What I do remember was never thinking a single boy liked me all through high school. Could that have been true, or was I just like these girls, blind to the reality all around me?

When and how do we begin to learn to read the signals? In middle school, we send ambassadors to one another's lunch tables to explain this or that other feeling and ask for a response. In high school, what did we do? Have our friends call the other person and ask? I don't think so. That would have seemed juvenile. According to these books, we did nothing. We remained totally confused and frustrated, one moment believing our dreams were about to come true, the next feeling utterly rejected and hopeless.

When I was in fifth grade, every student in the class was paired with another to do a project about a Central American country. To choose partners, we drew names of countries from a hat. Then the teacher would call out the country and the two people would stand up to see who their partners were. When Nicaragua was called, I stood up. So did Ben Lee. The entire class went, "Oooooooooooh", in a very embarrassing way. And then? Nothing. Did Ben Lee become my boyfriend? No. Perhaps while building our cornstarch-and-saltwater model of Nicaragua (volcano included I believe) we exchanged desperately confusing signals that caused us to have rollercoaster like emotional reactions. I don't remember.

I would like to read a YA book in which the female protagonist is direct and unobstructed by her low self-confidence. Does that book exist? Maybe not, because that girl may not exist. Except that I really, really hope she does. Maybe a YA book with a girl character like that would inspire some real YAs to get it together.

Some thoughts about contemporary YA fiction:
  • It's harder to think of a boy protagonist who feels quite this way.
  • Many authors introduce a love triangle. Why? Are they really that common? They seem to incerease the confusion and frustration. Even Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, a book with a seriously butt-kicking girl main character, has a prolonged love triangle that tears her apart.
  • When there is no love triangle, the girls tend to be stronger emotionally.
  • Boy characters with low self-confidence are often funny in YA lit. Humor supersedes awkwardness. Girls with low self-confidence are often clumsy, misunderstood, or introverted.
  • Girl characters are often wondering "Does he like me?" rather than "Do I like him?". I think this is highly realistic, but I wish it were reversed. I spent a lot of years worrying more about whether I was liked than if I even liked the person in the first place. This is bad.
So, I am in search of really kick-butt girl characters so that I can spread the word. I am also curious about what anyone else things about this topic. How far off the mark am I, for example?

Finally, some books with girl protagonists who are very, very cool and are not involved in love triangles and do not, if memory serves, completely fall apart because a boy does or does not glance their way:
A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray
Gingerbread by Rachel Cohn
A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Razzle by Ellen Wittlinger
Just Listen by Sarah Dessen
The Earth, my butt, and other big round things by Carolyn Macler
Bloody Jack by LA Meyer (she is SO awesome, I can hardly stand it!)
Undone by Brook Taylor (my memory is a little fuzzy on this one, but I know I loved it)