Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on my Fall TBR List!

Wow! It has been awhile since I've participated in a Top Ten Tuesday! I knew this topic was coming up, and as you know, lists are my favorite. :) I almost let this one slip by, but here I am!

I love making lists of books to read-and even though I don't always complete them, it usually inspires me to get around to books that I've been "wanting" to read for quite some time.

I'm currently in the mood for some rereads and YA lit...which has been my mindset since June. I'm enjoying myself and all these rereads and fun YA titles, so this list follows that same vein. It's helping me stay focused as the school year begins, and having some comfort reads is forcing me to make time to read-something I let slip by last school year.

Anyway, here is my list, in no particular order.

1. The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan: Back in 2012 or 2013, I read the first 4 books of the series (I thought there were only 4...). Much to my dismay, as I neared the end of book 4, I realized there was another unreleased title. And I was uber sad. So, I bought book 5 the day it came out, and it is still sitting on my shelf waiting to be read. I'm currently on book 3 (just started it this evening), so I know I'll get to the next 2 books soon!

2. Queen of Shadows and Empire of Storms by Sarah J. Maas: I INHALED the first few books of this series back in early summer. And I purposely set Queen of Shadows aside so I would have another to read before Empire of Storms came out. And that is MOST DEFINITELY happening this fall. I'm going to try and save these for the readathon because flying through them sounds like a fabulous way to spend 24 hours. :)

3. Replica by Lauren Oliver: I've read every Oliver title, so it makes sense to read this one too. :) Some I've like better than others, but I usually find them to be fast, fascinating reads. I enjoy Oliver's writing style!

4. The Kane Chronicles by Rick Riordan: In my attempts to read from my own shelves, this is another series that has been sitting for far too long. I bought each title as it came out, so I think its time to read these as well!

5. All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: This is another title that I was super excited to read when it came out, and I bought ti shortly after. And yep. It's still sitting on my shelf. Some women at work were talking about it the other day, so I moved it to my nightstand in anticipation.

6. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: I actually started this one back in August, and set it aside for something lighter. But I know I need to read it and I enjoyed the chunk I read in that sitting. I think it'll be a good read, especially with all that is going on in the U.S.

7. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: The fact that I haven't read this yet is a bit of a running joke between myself and one of my friends. And...no one has spoiled it for me yet. This is probably as "thrillery" as I'll ever get, as thrillers and horror are outside my comfort zone. But it's one that has been sitting on my shelf for awhile and I've been meaning to get to...

8. The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer: I think Schumer is hilarious. And I think this would be a perfect gym listen.

9. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: A parent volunteer in our media center (who I love), recommended this to me last year, so I picked up a copy. She said it reminded her a little of The NIght Circus, which I just read this summer and truly enjoyed.

10. Saga, Volumes 4-6 by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples: I read volumes 1-3 in a matter of a couple days over the summer and fell in love with the world and the story. I don't read many graphic novels (leave me suggestions!), but I know this series is something special. I'm hoping I can get my hands on the next 3!

What are you planning on reading this fall? Let me know below!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

On Finding A Work/Home Balance.

I had an incredibly difficult school year last year, which is part of the reason why I disappeared from the internet, blogging, and reading. There were many factors-among them: a tense relationship with a co-worked turned toxic, too much grading, and too much pressure put on myself. I was also horrible at managing my time and giving myself the space and time needed to focus on myself.

By the time school ended in June, I was ready to leave. I was exhausted in a way that I haven't been in years, and I was done trying to keep it all together. I walked out of there on the last day of school ready to get back to myself and make a better plan for a healthier lifestyle overall.

The truth is, I'm a workaholic. I love working, and I love being busy. And with teaching, there is always something you can be doing-grading, lesson planning, writing emails, volunteering for committees, hosting clubs, and the list goes on and on. My problem is that I solely focus on these things September-June. And I use the rest of June, July, and August to recuperate and rest up before running another marathon.

And last year, it caught up to me. Perhaps it was the stress of teaching two hours of an AP class and the immense amount of grading that came with it, or perhaps the tense working environment, but I felt overwhelmed for a majority of the year. In October (nearly a year ago), my grandmother passed away and I was out for a week. And I felt that I was playing catch-up after that all year. For months. It also put me into an incredibly bad place, that was only amplified by conflicts at work. For months I felt I was skating around tension, barely keeping my head on straight...and I lost all sense of myself.

I'm trying really hard to fix that this year. I'm no longer teaching AP history, and while I miss it, I'm grateful for the change and the reduced workload. I didn't start out my year with 70+ essays on the first day. I'm not spending hours preparing lecture notes and finding historical documents, and putting it all together to fit into a week's span of classes. I feel a lot lighter letting go of that course, and the tension it brought with my co-worker. I feel free. And much more like myself.

I'm also working to be better about creating a division between work and home, especially with grading and lesson planning. I brought work home with me every night last year. And grading every weekend. By March, I was tallying up the hours I was working at home (which I am in no way compensated for), and it was reaching ridiculous numbers. It was not uncommon for me to spend 12+ hours every weekend grading and planning. So, this summer I decided I needed to figure out how to grade smarter.

It starts with making the determination that I don't need to collect every thing I assign. I've known for a few years that I needed to stop doing this, but I think it finally sank in. And after talking with colleagues in both my departments, I realized they were collecting and grading far less than I was. I also decided I needed to utilize the kids more-let them grade short multiple choice quizzes in class, so I would just have to scan and enter them. And, by being more selective of the assignments I collect, it puts more pressure on the kids to make sure they are keeping up.

I also made the decision to set aside my weekends for myself. For the most part, I'm going to try to NOT grade on the weekends (Unless I have essays). If I bring home something, I can set a time limit. Otherwise, it can wait. This hopefully allows me to be an actual adult-to clean and do laundry and not feel like those chores are taking away my work time (that's an unhealthy thought, you know?).

I'm also setting aside more time for myself on weeknights-leaving school at a reasonable time (4 instead of 5 or 5:30), and leaving work there if I know I won't get to it. Allowing myself to go to the gym afterwards to decompress and feel better. And letting myself read a little. Because I went 4 or 5 months without reading last year....and it was horrible.

Truthfully, I'm only 2 weeks into the year and while I've failed at some of these things, I'm making strides and feeling better about the balance I'm making between my work and my home. I can still be a great teacher without killing myself and pushing my body to the brink of exhaustion. And I can still have me time and be a human without it hurting the quality of my work. I still have a ways to go to get it down, but my routine is better and I'm feeling better about the changes I'm making.

How do you make a balance between work and home? Can you give me any other tips?

Monday, September 5, 2016

7 Years.

Roughly 7 years ago, on September 1, 2009, I decided to start my little blog here on the internet. And while I'm a few days past that anniversary, it did get me thinking about coming back and trying. Again.

I can't make any excuses that haven't already been written here. I had a very busy, and very difficult, school year last year. The last 3 months of the year were the worst, and I plunged into a deep depression that didn't go away until early July. I took the summer off and planned on reading and relaxing. And trying to get back to myself.

School starts tomorrow and I feel more than ready to get back into the swing of things. I very much lost all sense of myself last year. I spent most of the year in a fog and there was no work/home balance. I had no idea how to make more time, as I was consumed by prepping/grading a difficult course and maintaining my sanity.

This year I have a new schedule and I'm teaching a lighter load (in terms of grading responsibility). I'm excited to finally have that work/home balance I've been craving since starting in this position 5 years ago. I'm finally feeling super confident in my abilities and I have enough lessons under my belt that I don't have to obsess over the planning aspect of my job.

This summer I had intended on returning to blogging, but truthfully, I was enjoying my time reading, relaxing, and spending time with my husband. I also started up a new work-out regimen and have had a lot of success. I'm excited to continue all those things moving into the school year, but I want to add blogging back into the mix. I'm shooting for 1-2 posts a week. I mean, I have a ton of books to talk about. And other things.

I doubt I will ever return to the blogger I used to be. For awhile, I really lost sight of the importance of reading in my life (I went 4.5 months earlier this year NOT reading. Anything. I think that added to my poor mental health). I've been reading a lot of YA and few classics, which is okay. I'd like to read more oldies, but right now, it's enough that I'm reading. In any case, I'm here to revive this dead space and begin again.

Wish me luck.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.

“War is catastrophe. It breaks families in irretrievable pieces. But those who are gone are not necessarily lost.”

I have been anticipating Sepetys' newest book since I finished Out of the Easy a couple of years ago. I find Sepetys to be a phenomenal historical fiction writer, as she manages to find topics that are known, but unknown. First, in Between Shades of Gray, she focused on the Soviet work camps and relocations that took place during and after World War II, then in Out of the Easy, on life in a brothel in New Orleans around the 1950s, and here, in Salt to the Sea, on the massive Operation Hannibal, an ill-fated attempt by Germany to evacuate citizens from the eastern front as the Soviet Red Army closed in on Berlin.

I love that Sepetys chooses time periods that we're familiar with, but focuses on topics that we might now know about. Truthfully, I knew little about Operation Hannibal before reading this title. I know I learned a little about it in a college history course, but as it is absent from most common history books, it's not something I would have come across recently. Basically, Operation Hannibal occurred as the Red Army began pushing the eastern front back toward Germany in early 1945. The German government, in fear of what Stalin's army was doing to its citizens, ordered a late evacuation of anyone with German descent. Some citizens escaped back into Germany on foot or by train, but there was also a massive operation to use remaining ships and transport German citizens that way (much faster, but also more dangerous).

The book does involve this process, but it is so much deeper than a simple book about a failed sea evacuation. Instead, Sepetys weaves together a gruesome depiction of what war does to everyday people. The novel switches perspective every chapter between 4 young adults as they all converge on the ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, in an attempt to evacuate. Each of the 4 come from a different country and a different background, but all see the ship and evacuation as a beacon of hope-for different reasons. On their journey, we learn what has happened to them over the course of the war-who they once were, who they lost, and what their hopes might be.

And as the ship is hit by enemy torpedoes, we see what happens to those hopes and dreams...

What struck me most about the novel is that yet again, Sepetys manages to capture the realities and horrors of war. And in particular, on the horrors of the Red Army. I feel as though little is taught here in the States about what exactly was going on in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and what the state of eastern Europe was like during the last few years of the war. Stalin committed the same atrocities as Hitler, and did things that are often unmentioned in our history books. For example, I know book talks in length about the horrors of the Holocaust, etc, but only a brief mention is given to Stalin's own work camps. We know the names of Auschwitz, etc, but can you easily name a Soviet camp? I know I probably can't without looking it up for reference.

I love that Sepetys does this-that she captures historical timeframes in a new light and makes you question what you know. I mean, after all, Stalin was our ally in World War II....is that why little is taught about what his army did? I don't know. But it makes me curious and wanting to know more.

In any case, this is a fabulous book that discusses a naval tragedy talked about seldom. It's beautifully written, and the characters are well-developed throughout. If you're looking for a great piece of historical fiction, I highly recommend this one.

“What had human beings become? Did war make us evil or just activate an evil already lurking within us?” 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books Every High Schooler Should Read.

Hi everyone!

It's been quite some time since I've participated in a Top Ten Tuesday (or blogged....but that's another story), but I loved this week's "Top Ten Books Every ____________ Should Read."

As a high school English/history teacher, I am forced to teach books to my students. Sometimes, I totally see the merit in the books we are required to teach. And sometimes...I think there are so many others worth our time. So, here is my list of books that I think high school students should read. Please note-this is based on my own experiences as a high school teacher and knowing what the majority of our students love. Most of these books ARE taught in my building in varying classes...and some are not. And, this is just my top ten. There are quite a few books I have VERY strong opinions about that are not on this list. ;)

In no particular order...

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: I think this is the quintessential book that all high school students should read-and most do. Lee's masterpiece is a part of our ninth grade curriculum (one of the many reasons I wish I taught that course), and the students usually love it. It's very much a book about losing your childlike innocence and it definitely brings up adult topics. I think that for ninth graders, who are struggling with that very thing, this book speaks to them in a way that many cannot.

2. Othello by William Shakespeare: If I had to pick just one title by Shakespeare for high schoolers to read, it would definitely be Othello, not the overdone Romeo and Juliet. Personally, I think that today's high schoolers can handle the darker and more mature themes found in Othello, and it offers much more textual complexity than the other. Sadly, Othello is not a part of my Shakespeare class curriculum, as it is taught in a senior English class, but I do think it is one every high schooler should read.

3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: Our district teaches the much shorter Steinbeck novella, Of Mice and Men to our sophomores, and while that has some similarities to The Grapes of Wrath (the Great Depression, migrant workers, etc), it pales in comparison to this tome. And while we talk about the loss of the American Dream when reading Of Mice and Men, it pales in comparison. I also think that The Grapes of Wrath captures what it means to be an American more than many other texts that are often taught in high school.

4. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: Although I have only read this title once, I was struck by how much it could potentially teach a high schooler. As we all know, many high schoolers struggle with identity, appearance, and the perception of themselves by others on a daily basis. I think this book teaches, not in an overly preachy way, to value yourself for what you truly are.

5. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien: This was a title that I thankfully did read in high school (as a free choice read in an honors English class), and I do think it's a necessity for all high school students. It is one thing to teach about the horrors of war-the futility of fighting for something without a real purpose, and the dangers that faced very young men and women. O'Brien manages to capture all of this in many of his works, but this is an incredibly raw account of Vietnam. I think that for many of today's high schoolers...well, they have a jaded view of war. I think this is an eye-opening and necessary read.

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Hand's down, The Great Gatsby is my favorite book to teach. I love pulling apart the beautiful language and discussing the prosperity and excess of the Jazz Age with my sophomores. They love the vapid nature of Jordan and Daisy, and the hopeless love between Gatsby and Daisy. They also love the ending...and the lessons that life, even with the best laid plans and all the dreams in the world, sometimes has a mind of its own. And for my kids, they need that lesson.

7. A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn: Every summer, my fellow AP U.S. History teacher and myself assign portions of A People's History as summer homework to get the kids ready for the year. We've modified the assignment every year, but the book remains constant. What I love about Zinn's take on U.S. history is the alternate viewpoint. All textbooks are biased, and none more so than U.S. History textbooks. This challenges our students to think beyond what they already know and introduces them to historical perspective. I love this title, and have already decided to integrate it more into my curriculum next school year.

(I also wanted to mention that Lies My Teacher Told Me comes in a close second to this title. I have my students read the intro to that book on the first day of school to get them thinking-I highly suggest it as well).

8. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: Competing with Moby-Dick, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is THE American novel. Sadly, it is not a novel that is currently taught in our district, and it is the subject of frequent challenges across the country. However, I think it's an incredibly important book for every high schooler to read-it truly encapsulates an era of our country that we shouldn't be proud of. And that is the single most important reason why it should be taught.

9. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: Many of the students in my district come from fairly wealthy backgrounds. Many of them have been sheltered from the outside world as they live in the "bubble" of our city. That's why I'm glad the district added this title to our twelfth grade curriculum a few years ago. This memoir strikes a chord where many others do not. As a memoir, students have to accept that these things actually happened to Jeannette Walls and her family. It opens their eyes in a way that other book "horrors" cannot.

10. The Odyssey by Homer: I cannot leave any list about favorite books or high school reads without the addition of my favorite epic. Since Homer was pretty much the beginning of literature as we know it, The Odyssey is also pretty key to any student's literary education. Odysseus and Telemachus face many challenges and battles on their separate quests, but they face them down and succeed. I think that level of determination and hope is important for high schoolers to experience.

There you have it-my top ten. I did leave off quite a few titles that I also think are important, but these just claimed the top spots. What would you have on your list? Let me know below.