Popular

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Popular (Photo: Penguin UK)I recently spent a week house-sitting for my parents while they enjoyed Easter break in Arizona. We all had dinner together when they came back last weekend, and my mom couldn’t wait to tell me about a new book she had read about in their hotel’s USA Today.

Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek was written by Maya van Wagenen, who is being described by book reviewers everywhere as a “breakout” teenage author. Maya is, to put it mildly, spectacular. The summer before her eighth grade year, she finds an old book in a closet in her home: the 1958 bestseller Betty Cornell’s Glamour Guide For Teens. Encouraged by her eccentric family, Maya decides to follow the book’s advice to the letter over the course of one school year to see if rag curls, girdles and 1950s fashion can help improve her standing on the vicious eighth grade social ladder.

Of course, as a former braces-wearing, acne-riddled grade eight student with aspirations of becoming a writer, I identified wholeheartedly with Maya. But never in a million years would my 14-year-old self have had the poise and gumption to follow through on her social experiment for an entire year.

Grade eight was hard enough at a small school in a close-knit semi-rural community in Alberta, Canada. We were, on the whole, genuinely nice kids and school certainly felt like a safe space. Even though I was an ugly duckling (with photographic proof) going into my grade eight year, I always had lots of friends. (Getting my braces off at 13, a course of Accutane at age 14, learning how to use makeup properly at 15 and the discovery of a magical device known as a hair straightener at age 17 meant that things got a lot better, eventually. I was also smart, which wouldn’t have helped at every school, but it did at mine.) But isn’t it funny how there’s always a piece of you – a little tiny piece – that remembers exactly what it is like to be an awkward grade eight kid? It never really goes away, does it? Maybe that’s why I identified so much with my younger high school students when I was student teaching last month.

But in another setting, like Maya’s school (located in Texas close to the USA-Mexico border and home to gang members, pregnant seventh-graders, drug dealers, frequent lockdowns and more violence on a single Friday afternoon than I probably saw in 12 years of public education combined), I might not have fared so well. Maya and I probably would have been friends, though. She would have been my really brave, creative, well-spoken, story-writing friend. And I identified completely with her.

Maya is frank, honest, charming, funny and – best of all – insightful. As an adult, and as an almost-teacher, she probably would be one of my favourite and most memorable students. I think she’s at her best when she comments on her ongoing definition of what it means to be popular – and I think it is interesting how this definition changes over the course of her school year. Everyone who was ever an awkward grade eight girl, or who knows any junior high-age kids, should read this book. It’s absolutely perfect.

 

Drama High

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Drama High (Photo: Penguin Group US)Full disclosure. I didn’t buy Drama High for myself. I picked it up for Matt, who is directing a spring play, a couple of weeks ago as a Valentine’s Day present. It’s a fascinating portrait of one of America’s best drama teachers, Lou Volpe, who has been asked to pilot high school versions of big-ticket Broadway shows (Rent, Les Miserables and Spring Awakening, to name some of the more controversial ones) from his unassuming school auditorium in Levittown, Pennsylvania during his 40 years on staff.

But of course, I got curious (I’m a huge musical theatre junkie) and started reading. I read all but 70 pages, and then it was Valentine’s Day, so I stopped reading, wrapped it up, gave it to Matt and then promptly asked for it right back so I could finish it (I also got him some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, so that did soften the blow of me stealing his present just a little bit).

I think maybe it’s partly because I feel like I’m in a much calmer headspace about my career shift than I was last semester when I was still figuring the ins and outs of returning to university as an adult, but I find myself gravitating to a lot of ‘teacher’ books right now (case in point: Tony Danza’s I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. I’m still talking about it to anyone who will listen). It’s not conscious, but it’s something I’m noticing about myself right now. I guess maybe I’m looking for a little bit of inspiration.

Luckily, Lou Volpe has inspiration in spades. Michael Sokolove is a former student of Volpe’s from his earliest years of teaching, and he’s managed to paint a sensitive, respectful and compelling portrait of a beloved educator. Drama High follows Volpe’s class at Harry S Truman High School during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years with sharp observations. “Confidence is a funny thing in high school. Almost everyone has it in the wrong measure – either too little or too much,” Sokolove writes. Unassuming Volpe has the gift of bringing out the best in his students, which is one of the things that makes him a great teacher.

The New York Times did a really nice review of Drama High when the book first came out. It points out that Sokolove’s personal connection to the story is another reason why it’s such an excellent read. He’s not only a former pupil of Volpe’s, but his kids are also high school-age, which means he has a vested interest in arts education and the impact of heroic teachers.

“What Volpe’s students gain from him is a passion and sense of self unrelated to anything having to do with money, power or status, Sokolove continues. “Nothing matters except what they do together.” Isn’t that what every person, regardless of their profession, should want to achieve in their work? I hope so.

I Am Malala

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I Am Malala (Photo Credit: Hachette Media Group)I Am Malala has been in the headlines a lot this week after promotional events to launch the book at Peshawar University were scrapped in late January. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about any of this until today, when I finished the book and did a bit of Googling to find out more abut this fascinating and well-spoken young woman.

I didn’t read I Am Malala because of the news headlines this week. Back in the fall, my educational psychology instructor played the Jon Stewart interview with Malala Yousafzai for my class as an end-of-year wrap-up and I added it to my reading list for the holidays. Then,¬†Matt picked up a copy of I Am Malala over the Christmas break and left it with me. I’ve actually been reading it on and off for the better part of the last month. It’s not a difficult read in terms of language, but the subject matter is heavy – after all, she did get shot by the Taliban. I tried to read it before bed a couple of times, but it left me feeling restless and unable to sleep. I guess that’s kind of the point.

What can I say about this incredible, incredible book? At 16, Malala has experienced more than most people will go through in their whole lives, and she has handled incomprehensible adversity with grace, intelligence, confidence and plenty of brains. At 16, I could have written my entire life on a the front and back of a piece of lined looseleaf and there wouldn’t have been very much to say. Malala has enough for an entire book and then some.

At many points, I was moved to tears. “We human beings don’t realize how great God is,” Malala writes. “He has given us an extraordinary brain and a sensitive loving heart. He has blessed us with two lips to talk and express our feelings, two eyes with which to see a world of colours and beauty, two feet which walk on the road of life, two hands to work for us, a nose ¬†which smells the beauty of fragrance, and two ears to hear the words of love.” What an incredible young lady. You can read more about her girls’ education charity, the Malala Fund, here.

In my opinion, there are also two ‘other heroes’ of this story. One is Ziaddin, her dad, who is a passionate advocate for education for girls in a culture where this is definitely not the norm. Malala tells the story of her family – and the history of Pakistan (which I’ll freely admit to being mostly in the dark about before I read this book) – with a graceful matter-of-fact approach and a little bit of sharp, observant humour.

The second ‘other hero’ here is Dr. Fiona Reynolds, who happened to be in Pakistan at the time Malala was shot and risked her own personal safety to travel to Peshawar because she wanted to help an advocate for women’s education. Later, Dr. Reynolds acted as Malala’s legal guardian when she was airlifted to Birmingham for further medical treatment. Around the time I Am Malala first arrived in bookstores, the Huffington Post ran this article on Dr. Reynolds, which I think is a testament to her bravery, quick thinking and huge heart.

The writing in I Am Malala is very raw. You can feel the fear that the Taliban instilled in Malala and her family – and the loneliness of her new life in Britain. That was the thing that struck me the most about this book. Even though Malala is the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and addressed the United Nations on her 16th birthday (I was too chicken to try for my driver’s license on my 16th birthday, although I did have dinner on a restaurant patio with my friends sans parents, which seemed very grown-up. And very insignificant when compared with all this), really, she’s just a lonely 16-year-old kid who wants to go home and can’t. My heart would break for her, but Malala knows exactly what she is destined to do – inspire people all over the world to take up the cause of education.

“So let us wage our global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism,” she told the United Nations in July last year. “Let us pick up – let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” Malala’s message is too important to be kept quiet. I encourage everyone to read this beautiful book.

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had

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Tony Danza (Photo Credit:  Crown Publishing)I don’t know what kind of rock I’ve been living under for the past few years (oh yeah, a big, Australia-shaped rock), but I completely missed that in the fall of 2010, A&E aired a short reality/documentary series called Teach: Tony Danza, which followed Tony Danza as he taught grade 10 English in inner-city Philadelphia for a school year. It’s the kind of thing that’s just random enough, and just awesome enough, that I would have absolutely loved to watch it when it was on.

So when I discovered at work a few months ago that Danza had written a book on his experiences in the classroom, I added it to my mental list of things to read when I got a spare second. And then I promptly forgot about it until Sunday.

I was perusing through the audiobooks when I found a copy of I’d Like To Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had at a markdown price. With my employee discount, it rang in at under $12 – the perfect gamble to take on six hours of entertainment to see me through my road trip to and from Edmonton to visit Matt, who is doing some work there this week.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not always sold on audiobooks. Usually, I can read a lot faster than I can listen – and in the case of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, which was my road trip pick back in November, I sometimes feel my attention begin to wander. But Tony Danza is different. I actually think this story works better as an audiobook than a real book because you can feel his passion and emotion come through more clearly. I’d wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is a teacher, is (like me) studying to become a teacher or who has ever wondered what teachers get up to all day. There’s a great review from the New York Daily News and you can also read an excerpt here if pages, rather than audiobooks, are your preference.

The basic premise is this: In 2009, with a cancelled talk show, a marriage on the rocks and pushing 60, Tony Danza (who has a degree in history, which I didn’t know) decides to become a qualified teacher. Through Teach For America (which I don’t entirely understand but appears to be some sort of summer camp-style program where skilled and qualified professionals do their teacher training), Danza gets the credentials you need to teach in Philadelphia, and then makes his way to Northeast High – one of the city’s largest and most diverse inner-city schools.

I have to give Danza a lot of credit. He is very clear from the outset that even though a reality show is being made about his experience, he is taking his year of teaching very seriously. He’s up at the crack of dawn, coaching football, organizing talent shows, taking his kids on field trips, planning Shakespeare lessons and grading papers. He starts a lunchtime mentorship group, the Half-Sandwich Club, and helps kids with everything from homework to planning birthday parties. And when the reality show is deemed to be ‘not interesting’ enough, Danza refuses to compromise by scripting scenes or manufacturing drama. While the show is cancelled and the camera crew is gone before Christmas, he remains with his class all year, showing staff and students that he’s committed to the experience – and to them.

I spent six hours in the car with this audiobook over the past couple of days and I think it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes, the prospect of becoming a first-year teacher (which, next year, will be reality for me) is really exciting, and other times, it’s scary – especially when, as Danza describes it, it’s a ‘second-act’ career. I’m going into a ‘second-act’ career too and even though I’m pretty young, it’s daunting to start fresh from the beginning again.

I found him really reassuring for a number of reasons, not least of which because he cries a LOT in his year of teaching. I anticipate some tears of my own as I spend more time in classrooms. It’s nice to know that’s sort of normal and that even Tony Danza cries sometimes. It’s also nice to see him use experiences from his first-act careers (as a boxer and an actor) as lessons for his students. I know I’m not pushing 60, but I’m not fresh out of university either and it’s really good to know that the years I spent working really hard, travelling the world, and figuring out which careers worked and didn’t work for me might contain lessons that benefit someone else as much as they have benefitted me. I know that this inspiring and moving book will now start slowly making the rounds – first to Matt and my mom, who are both teachers, and then to my Bachelor of Education friends.

This book also really made me want to go track down the seven episodes of Teach: Tony Danza. Check out the preview below. Doesn’t this look awesome?!