Craft Study and a Book Club Addition: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

I needed a book for my next student book club. I knew the book had to deal with war, literally or figuratively, in some way, so when I found Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, I had to crack the pages and give it a try.

I can see why Khaled Hosseini said this:  “Such a rich book. It’s angry, it’s moving, it’s compassionate, it’s dead serious, but it’s also really funny.” (I just finished re-reading A Thousand Splendid Suns as part of my students’ current book club. I trust this author.)

I’ve only read half of Fountain’s book, and I’ve marked almost every page.

Literature lover heaven.

Here’s a review in the NY Times in 2012. You can read how someone else likes this National Book Award Finalist, too.

Honestly, the last time I read something that struck me so emotionally was Yellow Birds, and I rave about it, too.

The story takes place at Dallas Cowboy Stadium on Thanksgiving Day. Bravo Squad is on a national tour “to reinvigorate interest in the war.” Billy Lynn, a specialist in Bravo, experiences moments of “pure love and bitter wisdom” as he meets the owner of the Cowboys, a born-again cheerleader, and various “supersized” players eager for a vicarious taste of war” (back cover).

Maybe I love this book so much because I’ve been there — sat in Cowboy’s Stadium and sort of thought similar things.

“The Goodyear Blimp is making labored passes overhead, bucking like a clipper ship in a storm. The Jumbotron is airing a video tribute to the late, great “Bullet” Bob Hayes, and displayed along the rim of the upper loge are the names and numbers of the Cowboys “Ring of Honor.” Staubach. Meredith. Dorsett. Lilly. This is the undeniable big-time, there is no greater sports event in the world today and Bravo is smack in the frothy middle of it. In two days they will redeploy for Iraq and the remaining eleven months of their extended tour, but for now they are deep within the sheltering womb of all things American — football, Thanksgiving, television, about eight different kinds of police and security personnel, plus three hundred million well-wishing fellow citizens. Or, as one trembly old guy in Cleveland put it, “Yew ARE America.”

They take the steps two at a time. A few people call out greetings from the stands, and Billy waves but won’t look up. He’s working hard. He’s climbing for his life, in fact, fighting the pull of all that huge hollow empty stadium space, which is trying to suck him backward like an undertow. In the past two weeks he’s found himself unnerved by immensities — water towers, skyscrapers, suspension bridges and the like. Just driving by the Washington Monument made him weak in the knees, the way that structure drew a high-pitched keening from all the soulless sky around it. So Billy keeps his head down and concentrates on moving forward, and once they reach the concourse he feels better” (21).

Not that I am in any way comparing my experience to a soldier’s. I just mean I’ve felt the hollowness of that place, and as I sat there in the leather seats of that stadium, I kept thinking: “Oh, the classroom libraries the money for this place could have filled.” Seriously. It’s huge. And frivolous in an embarrassing kind of way.

Maybe I love Fountain’s book because my four sons are football fans. My oldest son played on a state championship team. Huge deal. If you know Texas football, you know exactly what I mean. For almost two decades my husband I lived high school football — sometimes three games a week. That’s like nine hours on a bleacher.

Maybe I feel a tug into Billy Lynn’s story because two of my sons plan on joining the military. I’ve got about two years before that becomes a reality. (Right now they are serving missions. One in Puerto Rico and one about to leave for Taiwan. Missions then military. Both far from mom.)

I’m trying to show my students how literature can touch us, take us by surprise, raise our awareness, make us feel things we never imagined. That’s what is happening as I read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

That’s what I want to happen to them.

So I keep reading to find books for my student book clubs. Our next one starts after spring break. Students will choose to read one of the following. I am pretty confident everyone will find something that speaks to them (and we can practice analysis skills with pretty much anything.)

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer

ROOM by Emma Donoghue

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Do you have any suggestions for books that have particularly moved you? I’ll add your suggestions to my TBR mountain.

Book Clubs to Move Readers is the topic of this week’s #APLangchat

I volunteered to host #APLangchat this week. My reason stemmed from these three things: 

1.  Some of the best PD I’ve experienced has come from Twitter chats.

2.  I am hit and miss when it comes to regularly engaging in chats. Being facilitator should make me show up.

3. Many of the questions left in the comments on my post a couple weeks ago, Aim Higher: A Case for Choice Reading and a Whole Lot More in AP English, can be answered in a chat about book clubs; however, by no means do I have all the answers. I need help, too, so a discussion with my PLN is the best place to turn.

If you are available Wednesday evening at 7:00 CT, join in. You do not have to teach Advanced Placement to contribute. Every educator’s voice matters. You do have to remember to use the hashtag #APLangchat.

Here’s the plan for a finger-flying, Twitter frenzy of idea sharing on Wednesday:

Topic:  Book Clubs to Move Readers in AP English

To spark some thinking, consider these texts:

Not Reading: The 800 Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom” by William Boz, English Journal (2011)

Boys and Reading” video interview with male students by Penny Kittle (2013)

Why Book Clubs Matter” English Language Teaching, University of Michigan Press

From a Classroom to a Community of Readers: The Power of Book Clubs” by Jessica Cuthbertson, Center for Teaching Quality Blog (2013)

Book Clubs: NYC Department of Education” Unit of Study

To ponder and prepare, consider these questions:

Warm Up:  What are your habits as a reader? What do you read? When do you read? Who do you talk with about the books you read? #APLangchat

Q1 MC on the exam =hard, esp for non-readers. Besides close reading activities in class, how do we move kids into complex texts? #APLangchat

Q2 Many teachers have moved to balanced literacy w/choice reading as core. How might book clubs engage this pedagogy in AP? #APLangchat

Q3 Logistically, what do book clubs look like in a class of 35? #APLangchat

Q4 What book club book choices lead to the most reading, insightful discussions, best growth in student readers? #APLangchat

Q5 What does assessment look like during and after book clubs? individual and/or collaborative assessments? #APLangchat

Q6 What else do you need to know to feel comfortable facilitating book clubs with your students? #APLangchat

Book Clubs in AP English: Re-thinking Authenticity

Tonight we discussed Station Eleven, a National Book Award Finalist, wherein humanity is just about destroyed by a killer flu, and a troupe of Shakespearean actors who call themselves the Symphony travel the countryside performing for various survivors in various small towns.

I loved it in an English-teacher kind of way. The prose is lovely, and I found beautiful passages with beautiful sentences, like this one:

This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air (194).

And this: Hell is the absence of the people you long for (144); followed by this a few pages over: If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it? (148).

I am certainly not an end-of-the-world kind of book lover, but I did love this book.

Tess did. And Amber did. (She even wrote about it here because she wanted to.)

But not everyone in our book club did.

Heather and Alli read a few pages and called it a pass. “I couldn’t get into it,” one of them said. Whitney listened to the audio and said, “I respected it but didn’t love it.” At least she powered through.

Two members of our group were not there. No word on if they liked the book or not. I figure if they had loved it, they would have at sent that word.

So I come home this evening thinking about the book clubs I ask my students to participate four times a year. I want them to enjoy the books they read, but I also want them to be able to enjoy the art of conversation. More than anything, that is what our gathering was tonight. Five educators, sharing a meal, and talking about a book. No cell phones (until we looked up our next read). True face-to-face time.

No one will ask any of us to write an essay, craft a project, complete a timed writing, present to the class.

I’m glad about that.

I need to re-think how I hold my students accountable about their reading. Or not.

It’s not like Heather and Alli are getting a grade, and they didn’t read.

50 Shades of Normalization Part Two: the Cinema & Marketing to Teens


When I looked at my student’s personal dictionaries today, I read that one student thought an appropriate book for AP English was this one. The day before I saw the same title on two other female students’ reading goal charts. I do not usually ban books in my classroom, but I’ve never felt quite so passionately against a book before this. I am beyond dismayed and quite disgusted. The harm this book may do to impressionable young women! I actually wrote in my student’s notebook: “This book disgraces all women. We should fight against these attitudes not read books about them that normalize abusive relationships.” Too far? I wanted to write pages.
My friend Ruth recommended I read Lady Diction’s blog. I am sure Ruth had no idea I’d had these experiences with student readers this week, nor that I felt so adamantly against a book that debases women. (No, I have not read it — nor do I need to. ) Looks like Lady Diction has similar thoughts. Here is a post that says a good deal of what I am thinking:

Originally posted on Lady Diction :

In the winter of 1986 when I was just sixteen years old, I viewed Nine 1/2 Weeks (Directed by Adrian Lyne and starring Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke) at a local movie theater.  I was on a date with a boy I only liked platonically, which I’d have to explain later in the car, and was fascinated by the power dynamics and BDSM in the movie. The film, based on Elizabeth McNeill’s non-fiction book, Nine and a Half Weeks: A Memoir of a Love Affair, explores the brief sexual relationship between characters Elizabeth and John. I still vividly recall images from the movie: Kim’s bowler hat, the refrigerator and milk scene, the watch scene, and Kim Basinger crawling across the floor for money.

Were these healthy images for a sixteen year old girl to see? Perhaps not. At the time, I thought the relationship was romantic and cried when the couple…

View original 839 more words

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

10335308I work north of Boston in that pocket of New England that keeps getting blasted with snow this season. I know I shouldn’t complain—I live in New Hampshire after all—but the snow banks have far surpassed my height, making me even more stir crazy than usual. Even now as I write, snow is lightly falling outside my window. While I will readily admit that my state looks breathtaking blanketed in white, she is getting a bit narcissistic at this point. So for those of you who need a good laugh during these dark days of winter, I highly suggest Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).

I rarely watched The Office and I’ve seen one episode of The Mindy Project, but for some reason I was drawn to this clever and quirky actress. She is relatable and down-to-earth, a self-made woman who details her rise to fame in this book. What I love most about her book though is her identification as a writer. In fact, one chapter called “How I Write,” which I share with students, is entirely devoted to her process. She writes:

I’ve found my productive-writing-to-screwing-around ratio to be one to seven. So, for every eight-hour day of writing, there is only one good productive hour of work being done. The other seven hours are preparing for writing: pacing around the house, collapsing cardboard boxes for recycling, reading the DVD extras pamphlet from the BBC Pride & Prejudice, getting snacks lined up for writing, and YouTubing toddlers who learned the “Single Ladies” dance. I know. Isn’t that horrible? (Kaling 143).

While that doesn’t mirror my own writing process exactly and it certainly isn’t a method to aspire to, I know there are days when I sit refreshing Pinterest for inspiration. I imagine our students can relate as well.

In the end, readers will have a good chuckle given Kaling’s eclectic chapters that bounce around to different topics. Her energy and humor are just enough to brighten even the snowiest of days.

Sitting on the Hogwarts Express

“You must be a first year,” he asked the girl sitting across from me. Her brown bangs framed her eyesphoto 3-7 as she looked up at him, holding her mother’s hand. Her mother chuckled in the seat beside her. “And you two must be fourth or fifth years?” he continued, miming in the direction of my sister and I. I blushed at the thought of this man implying we were around 15 years old, the same age as my actual students. But I let him indulge.

“We are alumni, friends of Dumbledore.” And for a moment, I could see it—his hands perched on the head of his cane as he motioned towards his wife who sat wedged into the corner seat beside him. She nodded in affirmation, giggling at her husband’s show. I was on the train to Hogwarts at Universal Studios, a mecca for Harry Potter nerds like myself who never grew tired of the magic, the story, the wonder.

This was the first time that I truly gave into the commercialism of my favorite book. I had grown up alongside Harry; I was the same age as him when the series began and each new release marked my own maturation as well. Yet I was a selfish reader. I wanted the world between the book covers for myself. While some children indulged in sharing books with their friends, I loved the escapism of reading. Books made me feel special, unique, like somehow the author’s imagination was for me alone. I so desperately loved these worlds that I had come to indulge in that I refused to believe others could feel or even revel in the same universe I had come to know and appreciate.

As I entered the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I let go of the resentment and anger I had as a child—the feeling that somehow the world of magic had been poisoned. For the first time, the books my mind had lived in came alive around mphoto 1-11e. Throngs of readers surrounded me as I walked the streets of Diagon Alley, weaving my way through shops I had only dreamt of as a child. Flowing black robes enveloped children waving their wands and watching scenes awaken before their eyes as parents looked on sipping foamy pints of butterbeer. A stone dragon teetered atop Gringott’s bank, breathing fire towards patrons below.

Had I known when I was eleven that I would become an English teacher who presses students for their thoughts and opinions on what they’re reading, I would have to sought to share my relationship with books instead of internalizing it. Sitting on the Hogwarts Express that day with four generations of readers proved the unifying power of literature as I chatted with complete strangers from across the country about the intricacies of the series. We had each discovered these stories at different times in our lives and we had each read ourselves into the books, deriving different meanings from our separate readings.

I see this power every day in the turnover of my classroom library and the popularity of certain books. While the stories stay the same from year to year, my students do not. They ride the climaxes and lulls of common stories as groups, suggesting certain books to each other based on their own personal experiences. They laugh aloud in the middle of reading time and they cry quietly curled around their books in their bedrooms. They engage in the terror of The Maze Runner series then quietly lend the books to their friends only to excitedly discuss their individual experiences during down time. Books elicit reactions; they cause people to feel, and because of that, students pass on their suggestions to friends. The transformative power of common stories never ceases to amaze me—how such books can help define the path of one individual or bring together multiple. I spent years of my childhood believing that sharing my passion somehow devalued it, but I have learned that the uniqueness of reading lies in the fact that no two people ever read the same book. In the end, we can hold our individual experiences close, while still sharing the magic of common worlds.

6 Ways to Spend Your Snow Day

snow-day2So it’s your fifth snow day this winter…or your fifteenth.  Either way, you’ve done all of your spring cleaning, you can’t grade or lesson plan because you haven’t seen students for a week, and you’ve completely emptied your queues on Netflix and Hulu.  What’s a teacher to do?

1. Read a good book.  If you’re anything like the hundreds of English teachers I know, you love reading.  Use the time you’ve been cooped up to read something you’ve been wanting to but just haven’t had the time to start.  I haven’t stopped hearing about Jennifer Niven’s All the Bright Places, Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot SeeI’ll think I’ll try to tackle the last two this week.

2. Write around a poem.  Penny Kittle shared once that she likes to tape poems into her notebook and write around them–it’s one way to move toward doing your own beautiful writing, she advised.  So, I signed up to receive the Poetry Foundation‘s daily poem via email, and when I read one I love, I print it and tape it into my writer’s notebook.  I’m amazed at the nuggets of written wisdom I arrive at after responding freely to a poem in writing.

3. Read a teaching book.  I’ve been wanting to finish Tom Romano’s Zigzag and Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild for quite some time now, but with the day-to-day craze of the school year, it seems like the only time I find to read teaching books is over the summer.  This is the time of year, though, that I often need a little lift in my teaching spirit, so it’s always rewarding to explore some new thoughts from some of my old favorites.  Since I’m in the middle of a nonfiction book club and writing unit right now, I think I’ll settle down today with Georgia Heard’s Finding the Heart of Nonfiction.

4. Check out that dreaded State Test.  Dana Murphy at Two Writing Teachers reminded me that when our students are accustomed to writing in a choice-based, unit-driven workshop, they are not accustomed to writing to a prompt, and that while standardized tests do leave a bitter taste in our mouths, they are a reality our students must face.  If we want them to feel confident as writers in all environments, we must prepare them for all writing situations–especially the two or three standardized writing tests they may face each year.  Here in West Virginia, we’ve elected to go with SmarterBalanced as our Common Core-aligned assessment.  Today I’d like to spend some time looking at the writing portion of that test and brainstorming some lessons to help my students feel confident writing to those prompts.

5. Catch up with your tweeps. Twitter is a bottomless pit (seriously; you can get lost in it) of resources, ideas, and inspiration for teachers.  I could spend hours perusing the archives of #engchat, #titletalk, and #litlead, just to name a few.  I’d also love to look at the archives of some chats I missed recently–#mindsmadeforstories, for one.

6. Read incredible teacher blogs. I could browse the virtual thoughts of my colleagues forever!  We have so many brilliant and inspirational people in our profession, from the genius team at Nerdy Book Club to the marvelous ladies at Moving Writers; the steady wisdom of What’s Not Wrong to the joyful inspiration of the dirigible plum.  I’ve also been loving the thoughts of Hunting EnglishThe Reading Zone, and countless more…really.  I could never list all the great teacher blogs I’ve stumbled upon.  I feel so grateful to the many, many teacher-writers who have helped me fill my writer’s notebook with thoughts and ideas on dreary snow days like these.

What are your favorite ways to relieve the restlessness of several snow days?  Share in the comments!

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