A Book About Food?

IMG_20141216_210906You better believe that when Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey collide (behind the big screen) an emulsion of magic erupts.  The One Hundred Foot Journey written by Richard C. Morais turned film was two hours and four minutes of robust richness, immaculate vastness, and intense human connection.  So, no…this book is not solely about food.  Although food, most of the time, tends to be the main character.  I love when authors and film makers do that!

Immediately following my trip to the theatre, was (obviously!) a trip to the bookstore.  Yes, at 9 p.m.  I wasn’t worried about the bookstore not being open but I hadn’t even thought to think that they would be out of the book.  I should have!

An immediate login to Amazon.com and my book was on its way — to be delivered a quick two days later (Thank you, Amazon Prime).  And it wasn’t long into the book when I came across this:

But this you must know:  the violent murder of a mother – when a boy is at that tender age, when he isIMG_20141216_205952 just discovering girls – it is a terrible thing.  Confusingly mixed up with all things feminine, it leaves a charred residue on the soul, like the black marks found at the bottom of a burned pot.  No matter how much you scrub and scrub the pot bottom with steel wool and cleansers, the scars, they remain permanent.

Did anyone else just witness the intense power of Morais’s carefully chosen craft?  Imagery, word
choice, symbolism…shall I continue?  When students ask me what I’m reading or why I’m even reading it; I turn to this page and let them read it for themselves…it’s already tagged.  Most times students’ responses start with a sigh followed by a “Wow” or “Whoa”.  Then the conversation begins.  And, just like what Spielberg and Winfrey have created, our conversations chronicle the richness of this sentiment, immaculate precision and craft of Morais, and the intensity of this reality.

What books have you stumbled upon that have hidden gems in them that you love to share with your students?

An Important Invitation


“WHAT THE [insert expletive]?!”

I do not move.

“NO WAY!  I can’t believe it!  How the [insert expletive #2]?!  Miss Bogdany, come here!”

I’ve been invited.

As I slowly walk toward Christian, both legs extended and perched atop his desk; he need not move. His eyes are bulging.  Is his look one of momentary panic?  Complete disbelief?  A moment of sadness? Regardless, the look on his face is all the body language needed to understand; this young man has just experienced the beauty of literature.  (Although I bet he would beg to differ that ‘beauty’ may not be the appropriate word choice.)


This year has been remarkably challenging in ways that I have had yet to experience.

All gritty yet beautiful.

After three and a half months of trying to persuade…breathing (deeply!) through rejected book recommendations…buckling up for the daily roller coaster ride of never really knowing what opinion will be formed about reading that particular day; this invitation could not have come packaged anymore suiting.

While there have been constant shifts, differentiated activities, mentor texts, book talks (on countless genres), writing topics, unsuccessful attempts at captivating student interest…(we all know how long the list gets); one thing has remained constant.  I committed, at the very beginning of the year, that no matter how many changes are made to our learning community, the Reading Writing Workshop goes nowhere!  Student choice has remained constant…and thank goodness it has because the expletives, the lounging student…this is exactly how today’s position on reading needs to be explored; gritty yet beautiful.


As ChrisIMG_20141215_175627tian holds tight to Tears of a Tiger by Sharon M. Draper (a popular read among students and the first book in the Hazelwood High trilogy), he points to this passage and invisibly underlines each word as he flies through the paragraph that starts “There’s nobody home – 

He then pauses.   His finger moves to the last line, lingers there as he looks up at me, and continues…”I’m sorry for all I’ve done – so sorry, …so very, very sor-

“Ms. Bogdany, did you SEE that?!  He kills himself!  He doesn’t even finish his sentence!”

I am most definitely taken aback.  First by Christian’s intense grasp on the craft of the writer and secondly by the wild intensity of a young man taking his own life.  My eyes bulge too.

Then Christian continues.  Again, his finger leading the way…


“Suicide!  This is the police report.  He killed himself.”

We both pause.  The weight of the word.  We both feel it.

“Ms. Bogdany, I just can’t believe it.  I knew it on the page before, but here it’s confirmed.  I had no idea this would happen.”


Christian has chosen many-a-piece that deals with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and this piece is no different.  Here you have the main character who deals with survivor’s guilt after accidentally killing his best friend in a car accident.  You can only imagine how difficult life, for Andy Jackson, must be.  While attempting to ask for help throughout the piece, Andy feels as though he is alone.  Very alone.

This piece chronicle’s Andy’s journey and the fatality in which it brings.  Please note that students may want (and actually need) to talk about their feelings regarding this heavy issue.  Christian did, albeit the way in which he initially hinted.  Through the expletives I realized that Christian couldn’t be silent about the tragedy he just witnessed.  He needed to voice (in whatever way that surfaced) his knee-jerk reaction to the shock of Andy’s decision.

This piece has connected Christian and I.  It has given us the opportunity to chronicle his study on PTSD…and the real consequences that are associated with it.  He was able to walk me  through the craft of Sharon M. Draper.  This book will remain important for Christian for very specific reasons as it may very well be the piece that is forever etched in his mind.  This piece will also remain incredibly important for me, but for very different reasons.  Regardless of the reason, we are both grateful to Ms. Draper for her dedication to addressing real issues that touch the lives of our youth.

Poetry in AP Lang

Do you subscribe to Poetry 180 through The Library of Congress? It’s probably the single most valuable thing I’ve done as a way to remind myself to use poetry in my AP English Language and Composition class. We read and write many an argument. I often forget about the poetry.

But I read a poem every day. You can, too. Sign up for a poem in your inbox here.

Some days it’s a natural fit to incorporate the poem into my lesson. Some days it’s a little more complicated. Some days I don’t even try to make the poem fit — we just enjoy the language.

Like this one today:

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 6.26.56 PM


Conferring: On the Lookout for Gifts

“I think parents should read this book — these kinds of books, too,” Monica said as we chatted about the book she just finished, Impulse by Ellen Hopkins. “They need to know what we go through and how we think about things. It would help so much.”

I listened as she shared her feelings. She needed me to hear her disappointment at the ending. The characters mattered to her, so I knew they needed to matter to me.

The relationship between student and teacher changed in that moment. We gave each other a gift in that brief conversation about a book.

When we consider our conferring moments with students, do we give enough gifts? Do we allow our students to?

Think about the origin of confer:  Latin conferre to bring together, from com- + ferre to carry.

At the end of that three-minute conference with Monica, I carried a bit of the burden she had on her heart, and she carried the knowledge that one more adult cares about what she thinks. A conversation about a book brought us together.

I love that.

At NCTE I asked a room of teachers what part of their workshop classroom they struggle with the most. They all said student conferences.

Finding the time, being consistent, knowing how to prod students into thinking, allowing students to do most of the talking —  these concerns all emerged as trouble spots that we’d like to overcome.

In a perfect classroom with perfect students it would be easy. What’s the big deal? Just talk to your students. Yeah, right.

I asked one colleague how she conducts her reading conferences. She replied quickly, “Oh, I don’t do those. I cannot talk to one kid without the other 35 talking.”

Yes, that can be a problem.

I don’t think we stop trying though.

One-on-one conversations with students create the heart of my workshop classroom. Our relationships grow and change as we gift one another with ideas and information. We learn and change together as individuals who are trying to make sense of our world. Regular conversations make this happen.

I’m reminded of a line I boxed in bold when reading Choice Words by Peter Johnston: “Talk is the central tool of their trade.” Their meaning teachers who create environments wherein through language they help students “make sense of learning, literacy, life, and themselves” (4).

Talk is central

That’s what I want as I create opportunities to confer with the students in my classroom. I want to help my students make sense of all it:  what happens in the classroom, what they read in books, what they’ll face in the future, and what they see in themselves. That’s a tall order, and the only way I know how to do it is to talk to more of my kids more often.

My burning question now circles on student conferences. How can I improve the precious moments of time I have with each of my students?

I am paying a lot more attention to the gifts we give as we converse with one another.

What about you? What are your ideas, concerns, questions about student conferences?

Craft Study – Brown Girl Dreaming

20821284Jacqueline Woodson is a native first of Columbus Ohio, then of Greenville, South Carolina, and finally, Brooklyn, New York.  Her nomadic childhood during the tumultuous 1960s and 70s inspired this incredible memoir in verse, which is surely the only autobiography I’ve ever read in poetry.  Layered with tales of tragedy, uprooting, defeat, dreams, and hope, Woodson conjures a nostalgia for her unique upbringing with ease.  She explores themes of family, race, poverty, education, and our life’s callings in this beautiful text.

I can’t wait to share Brown Girl Dreaming with my students. There are so many amazing poems that make up the text as a whole–from the spot-on “stevie and me” (If someone had taken/ that book out of my hand/ said, You’re too old for this/ maybe/ I’d never have believed/ that someone who looked like me/ could be in the pages of the book/ that someone who looked like me/ had a story) to the haunting “what’s left behind” (Sometimes, I don’t know the words for things,/ how to write down the feeling of knowing/ that every dying person leaves something behind.).  But the one we’ll imitate for craft is “what i believe,” which brilliantly combines repetition, deliberate contrast, and an elegant articulation of Woodson’s beliefs.  I hope it will lead my students toward a “This I Believe” essay, and toward wanting to read this book in full.

From Brown Girl Dreaming, p. 317-318

I believe in God and evolution
I believe in the Qur’an.
I believe in Christmas and the New World.
I believe that there is good in each of us
no matter who we are or what we believe in.
I believe in the words of my grandfather.
I believe in the city and the South
the past and the present.
I believe in Black people and White people coming together.
I believe in nonviolence and “Power to the People.”
I believe in my little brother’s pale skin and my own dark brown.
I believe in my sister’s brilliance and the too-easy books I love to read.
I believe in my mother on a bus and Black people refusing to ride.
I believe in good friends and good food.
I believe in johnny pumps and jump ropes,
Malcolm and Martin, Buckeyes and Birmingham, 
writing and listening, bad words and good words–
I believe in Brooklyn!
I believe in one day and someday and this perfect moment called Now.

We Learn Facts from Fiction

NCTE is always so magical, isn’t it?  It’s a five-day frenzy of learning and teaching and connecting and wondering and writing, which should be exhausting.  But it’s not.  Somehow, I come back to school every year with so much energy, revitalized by the conference and its plethora of ideas and inspiration.

This year at NCTE, as the words and wisdom of my teacher heroes washed over me, I was drawn in by one theme that kept recurring–the role of narrative in informational text.  Given that the theme of the conference was “Story as the Landscape of Knowing,” this wasn’t surprising.  What did surprise me, though, was that almost everyone I heard speak discussed how narrative helped learners in the context of nonfiction.  I began to wonder–what about narrative in its most accepted place–fiction?  What information do readers learn from reading fiction?

ptiIn addition to hearing from many teacher-researchers, I also got to hear from many authors.  David Levithan, e. lockhart, Libba Bray, Lester Laminack, Paul Janeczko, Georgia Heard, and more spoke about their writing processes.  Every one of them mentioned research at length, and I jotted a note–“research processes are as multigenre as its products.”  All of those writers had a unique research process, but they were all strong.  These authors put work into making their fiction as fact-based as possible.  Others discussed putting their own lives into their fictional works–Sherman Alexie has too many parallels with the narrator of Part-Time Indian for it to be a coincidence.  What’s more authentic and research-based than a lived experience?

bsogMy brain was whirling.  How many fictional novels have helped me fill gaps in my understanding?  Between Shades of Gray enlightened me to the fact that there was a Baltic genocide.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian taught me about culture on a reservation.  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close brought 9/11 to life for me.  Peak showed me the world of Mt. Everest in a new light.

Fiction transports us to other worlds…it lets us know we’re not alone…and it saves our lives.  But it also teaches us a great many facts.  We don’t ask our students to read in order to just make them better readers.  We ask them to read because we know it will improve their lives…help them attack the “idea poverty” they suffer from, in Kelly Gallagher’s words.  Fiction, especially the YA fiction that is so popular in my classroom, is educational at an informational level.  Readers acquire knowledge of topics they had limited prior knowledge about by reading fiction.  They also gain understandings of universal themes and grand ideas, but they also learn facts.

Forgetting this is a grave oversight, and perhaps is at the root of why YA lit isn’t always considered “serious” literature.  Kelly Gallagher also said that “there is wisdom in Hamlet that is not found in Gone Girl,” and he’s right.  But there’s also factual information in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody series about Egypt and archaeology that I did not get out of Antony and Cleopatra.  We do a disservice to authors when we discount their research processes just because they write in a genre called fiction.

All that we learn, and that our students learn, may best be processed in narrative form…but information doesn’t just have to come from nonfiction.  This is an important lesson–it’s why reading needs to be a schoolwide, nationwide, worldwide focus–not just the job of English teachers.  Reading EVERYTHING helps us acquire knowledge, expand our schema, make sense of the world, and become productive, intelligent, informed, democratic citizens.  And it also makes us pretty damn happy.

What fiction are you and your students reading that helps you acquire knowledge?

Talking Choice Reading, NPR Radio

When Highland Park ISD banned (suspended, officially–then reinstated w/parent permission required) some books during Banned Books Week, my students and I paid attention.  Of course, I pulled the books in question from my shelves — and book talked them right then and there.

The True Story of a Part-time Indian is one of the hottest titles in my classroom library year after year. I know it gets raw in places. I know that it’s the grit that makes kids want to read it. I get that this book is not for everyone.

Few books are.

And that is why choice is so important.

I had the chance to share my thoughts on this in an interview for KERA,  NPR nor the Texas. You can read/hear the news article here.

In a few days I will return to my classroom, fresh from NCTE and ALAN with boxes of new books for my students to read.


My box of books at ALAN

We talk a lot in my class about books being windows and mirrors. Windows help us see outside ourselves into the lives of others. We grow in empathy. Mirrors help us see ourselves so we know we aren’t alone. We read literature to learn what it means to be human afterall.

It would be hard to learn the truth if we never read the raw and the grit that makes humanity humanity.

"All this happened, more or less."

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