Review: Backbiters by Debra Leea Glasheen (Montag Press, 2017. 320 pp.)

Karen Ambrosh, Audubon High School, Milwaukee, kambrosh @ gmail.com


In Debra Leea Glasheen’s debut novel, Backbiters, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, Giluli, maneuvers between her own culture of mahogany-eyed mutants and the culture of her pre-evolved high school classmates (pre-evolved means you and me and all humans in our current stage of evolution).

In line with its dystopian genre, the story takes place fifty four years after a Corporate World War of 2020. Giluli wavers between angst and courage as she faces the prejudice that caused her people, the Red Mighties, to create their own Nationland in a territory in which squirrels and deer are extinct, clover and dandelion are nutritional staples, and even the water of the Great Lakes is putrid.

When a pre-evolutionite leader attempts to extort the Nationland’s water by threatening their future and past adoptions of mutant children, Giluli is selected to help the Red Mighty leader, Padrin Kongkassa. Meanwhile Giluli fantasizes about her own pre-evolutionite biofamily and tussles with her brooding childhood friend, Harsh, who can’t seem to compete with the charming Tariq, a pre-evolutionite boy from Giluli’s track team. Giluli is eventually betrayed by those around her and must choose sides.

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Major themes of the novel are ethnic understanding, intelligent loyalty, coping with anger, protecting the environment, and anti-bullying. I am using it in my 10th-grade English classroom with great success. The students love the familiarity of the Wisconsin setting, and the exotic qualities of a warped environment caused by a nuclear war.

Backbiters is a rich story with layers of thought-provoking concepts, all presented in a readable style and believable futuristic world. The story touches on many social issues with sensitivity and humanity. It has traditional teen experiences—crushes, identity issues, competition, conflict, and hope – all wrapped in a culturally diverse landscape. The theme of intelligent loyalty provides for rich conversations with students, giving them decision-making scenarios in which they can put themselves in the protagonist’s place and visualize what they would do in her shoes.

Glasheen deserves praise and recognition for creating such a strong female character for teens. Giluli has all of the normal insecurities of a teenager with questions about life and love, but when presented with a challenging task and high risk decisions, she stands by herself and finds her own way. Giluli’s inner dialogue is powerfully and memorably written. My students were able to imagine many possible scenarios and challenges for Giluli to face as she grows and develops in future books. Let’s hope there are more on the way soon!

Teaching materials for Glasheen’s novel are available at debraleeaglasheen.com; Glasheen is also available to speak to classrooms in person or via Skype.

Review: Teacher Man: A Memoir by Frank McCourt (Scribner, 2005. 272 pp.)

Thomas Hansen, past Illinois State Supervisor for
K-12 Foreign Language Programs, Illinois State Board of Education


I loved the other great books by Frank McCourt, but I had never read this one. I was lucky to come across a copy in one of my favorite Chicago thrift shops—where I find lots of goodies! Angela’s Ashes is one of my favorite books, and other writing by McCourt calls to me also. I hope I can find the time to read the rest of his work.

In Teacher Man, McCourt is able to make the tragic something we can endure and the crazy something we can laugh at. He can also take the impossible, the terrible, and the disgusting and turn it into the stuff of lessons—literally and symbolically. He teaches through his story-telling.

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Teachers will all see through a lot of his yarns and predicaments … discovering underneath a lot of the foolishness of everyday life the author’s ability to teach. Through his writing, through this book, and of course through the classroom activities and memories he shares, he is always a teacher.

Remember that he was a teacher of English, and of literature, and most importantly, of writing. It is his unorthodox approaches to the teaching of writing that any teacher will marvel at in this book. Certainly good teachers of writing will see themselves in his actions and words used for many years in the classroom.

He tells some very heartfelt stories, and tells us about the crazy characters he teaches in many classes during his career. He also tells us about the crazy bosses, and the excellent ones, he has to deal with over the years. We have all had those bosses who “just do not get it” and others whose shoes we would gladly shine for them. His encounters with colorful personalities in the classroom and hallway are just as fun as the ones with helpful or deranged or intrusive parents in the different – and disparate – types of schools in which he teaches.

He taught in public high schools in New York City and a year in the college system there. His ancestors, family, and neighbors of old in Ireland, and his current comrades in America, show the influences all the others people have in an individual’s life. He has met many interesting people in his life, had relationships, and struggled to figure out the meaning of life (he even worked on the docks). He gives us great insight to all kinds of immigrant experiences, including his own. 

He includes some of the funniest passages I have ever seen in a book. His style and his ability to manipulate the reader—through the use of sardonic and twisting adventures—are enthralling aspects of his writing. Teachers will love how he talks about all the typical personalities in a high school class and the way he lets each of them shine in their own way.

The story is, of course, a wonderful one if people are into teaching. Although others will like the book—especially if they have grown up with tales of Ireland in their kitchen—but teachers will by far be the ones who enjoy this book. What are you waiting for?

Review: Grammar to Get Things Done: A Practical Guide for Teachers Anchored in Real-World Usage by Darren Crovitz and Michelle D Devereaux (Routledge, 2017. 232 pp.)

Adam Sprague, Assistant Professor and Student Success Coordinator,
Bellin College, adam.sprague @ bellincollege.edu


Kennesaw State University colleagues Darren Crovitz, author of Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing, and Michelle D. Devereaux, author of Teaching about Dialect Variations and Language in Secondary English Classrooms: Power, Prestige, and Prejudice, have collaborated to offer readers a new lens to view grammar instruction. Their new book, Grammar to Get Things Done: A Practical Guide for Teachers Anchored in Real-World Usage, aims primarily to convince secondary English teachers to move away from traditional grammar instruction and embrace a pedagogy grounded in how we, as humans, use language in real-world situations on a daily basis.

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At first glance, this text may appear to be white noise lost in the shuffle alongside dozens of other books advocating for teachers to drop their worksheets and red pens in the trash bin and adopt a more modernized approach to grammar instruction. While Crovitz and Devereaux do spend a good deal of time and effort making it clear that they stand firmly with those who have argued for teachers to move away from decontextualized grammar instruction, this text differs from many of its predecessors in that the authors offer a specific alternative approach: teaching grammar within the applied contexts of everyday language use.

This approach is not without a well-argued rationale. The first half of the book defines key terms related to grammar and grammar instruction before exploring the differences between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Although these definitions and discussions will fail to contribute a wealth of new knowledge to the seasoned linguist or grammarian, the authors do provide a sufficient summary and explanation of the varying viewpoints for those new to the topic or just planning their first grammar-intensive course.

The authors also supply a sociocultural analysis of grammar, that is, front row seats to a debate focused on discussing just whose language standard English is and how our valuing and devaluing of certain dialects impacts those around us. In good humor, the authors label prescriptivists as “back-to-basics language scolds and ‘grammar nazis’” (p. 8). However, they do avoid showing bias as they state that such an approach to grammar instruction does provide “practical and professional benefit to students” (p. 8). Still, the critiques of prescriptive approaches come often. For example, the authors strongly critique teachers who ask their students to do traditional, repetitive grammar drills. One method the authors find particularly problematic is when teachers “ask students to memorize [a grammar rule], identify [a grammar rule] in ten unrelated sentences, and then rewrite another set of sentences using [the studied grammar rule] correctly” (p. 10). The problem is that while “teachers need a firm grasp of grammar and usage to help their students become better writers and language users” (p. 10), they question how this knowledge will help students see how grammar matters in their lives.

Also, the authors detail how viewing standard English as the only correct means of speech provides power to some while silencing and demeaning those who fall into a demographic that does not regularly use standard English. Here we see one of the authors’ main claims come to light: by valuing only standard English, we are negatively impacting our students (and many in society) emotionally and academically by “othering” them as incorrect. This section of the text is powerfully written and may be particularly useful for readers without strong backgrounds in linguistics and rhetoric and composition or for those unfamiliar with the connections between language and power presented by Paolo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Readers will enjoy how the authors continually pepper the section with ideas for teachers to bring discussions related to language-as-power into their own classrooms, a welcome change from other texts that, at times, rely too heavily upon theory rather than practice.

While the initial three chapters address the many rule-based grammars in use around us, the sociocultural aspects of these grammars, and the importance of understanding concepts related to language expectations among different contexts in order to teach grammar well, the strength of the text comes in Chapter 4. Here, the authors take on four specific grammatical concepts (sentence types, clauses, phrases, lexical categories, and punctuation) and provide 25 modules outlining how the concept works in our language, how speakers use the concept in the real world, and how to teach the concept via student-focused activities. Even though readers may be tempted to skip ahead to the sample units and modules, as they are excellently described and outlined in easy-to-understand language, the authors explicitly state that they do not mean for this section of the book to be used in isolation as a “straight-off-the-shelf workbook” (p. 11).

Still, Chapter 4 has to be considered the text’s largest achievement for its reliance on the practical. Readers leery of the theory-heavy onset of the book can rest assured that the primary emphasis of the text is classroom application. The sample integrated units and modules will undoubtedly help English teachers of all levels gain confidence in positioning their own grammar instruction in real-world experiences. In other words, Crovitz and Devereaux have created a text with various entry points for teachers and scholars of all levels. Some may find the brief history of grammar useful for their own teaching or research, while others may find the sample units most useful in helping them integrate this new style of teaching grammar into the units they already teach.

In short, this is a wonderful book on grammar instruction. It not only discusses the rationale behind their pedagogy, but it also provides examples of how to teach grammar in context. Readers will be happy to see that it is neither theory heavy nor an explicit “here is a curriculum” type book. Rather, the text will leave readers with skeletal base lessons, units, and a pedagogical rationale to use and modify.

Fear and Loathing in the English Classroom would likely make for a dreadfully boring movie, filmed in a classroom filled with fearful students, sentence diagramming worksheets, and subject-verb agreement drills. In some cases, the teachers may also loathe the unit–unsure of how to make the content both interesting and relevant to their students’ lives. Even the authors admit that “grammar is often viewed as a dry and boring subject by teachers and students alike” (p. xv-xvi). There are no easy solutions to this problem, but moving away from teaching grammar in isolation may be one way to overcome this fear and loathing. In this text, Crovitz and Deveraux have articulately made the case that teachers should consider requiring students to analyze their own communication in class but do warn readers that “there are no magic wands with grammar instruction, no quick and easy solutions” (p. 11).

Still, it is interesting that in most English courses, teachers regularly encourage their students to discuss the politics of power and language and analyze their own voices as student writers. This text left me wondering why it is, then, that we largely avoid these topics when teaching grammar. Perhaps we need to stop avoiding these conversations in the grammar classroom, but one concern the authors do seem to overlook is the issue of how overwhelming and time consuming the process of approaching each student’s unique voice can be (not to mention the unique communicative events they regularly encounter, potential intended audiences they are exposed to, etc.) in large, writing-intensive courses. These concerns become even more paramount when working with multilingual, remedial, or basic writers. For as positive as this review has been, readers may struggle with transferring these strategies into their already time-crunched curriculums, as the authors point out that you will need to spend much time “[working] through these concepts yourself until you feel confident connecting language choices to specific situations and intentions” (p. 11). For the overworked and underpaid adjunct professor, for example, such a task may simply not fit into one’s calendar. In some ways, the book may leave readers feeling as though the ideas presented are a bit too idealistic despite their practical presentation. What readers will not deny, however, is the fact that the arguments presented in this text do lead us to question our own methods of grammar instruction.

Review: The Little Book of Hidden People: Twenty Stories of Elves from Icelandic Folklore by Alda Sigmundsdóttir (Little Books Publishing, 2015, 116 pp.)

Thomas Hansen, past Illinois State Supervisor for K-12 Foreign Language Programs, Illinois State Board of Education


Reading Sigmundsdóttir’s little book brought back so many wonderful memories of all the stories I would hear around the fire Friday nights after dinner with teachers and professors (mostly of language) with whom I had worked all week, subbed for, and commiserated with. Elves play an important role in the history of the Scandinavian cultures, and they represent lessons, metaphors, touchstones, and reminders. With a rich past, the Icelanders have embraced the elf stories and other tales—of the sea, of dragons, of Viking times, of pirates, of sports games, and of Olympic sports from the past and from the remote past.

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Just like the German fairy tales (which are mentioned in the book), the Icelandic elf stories often contain very sad and sometimes disgusting details not exactly suitable for children. The merging of the magical elves—and sometimes their magical livestock—with criminals and outcasts is explained, as are some of the possible origins of the elf stories. As with all my reviews, I try to not give away too much information so that you will get something out of the reading for yourselves, dear readers.

I remember many of the stories, and in different versions. It is important to remember that these stories are part of an oral tradition—details vary as the stories change shape and some of the religious and political ideals of the day bend those shapes. The various Scandinavians, such as the Swedish, had other versions of these or similar stories. The Poles in our teacher groups could shock us as well as anyone else when the after-dinner brandy flowed and the more adult fairy tales full of gore and intrigue poured forth. The Poles would win the prize on storytelling. There were many silly hours spent with bad translations and questions about clarification constantly interrupting the stories (there were many, many speakers of Polish at our parties!)

Two years (interrupted) of teaching methods courses for English as a second language and subbing and sharing and learning were a wonderful experience for me as I traversed even some remote areas of Iceland—some mentioned in the book! Thank goodness the natives could put up with my old Danish as I did not learn Icelandic as fast as I should have! Both English and Danish are required, generally, in the schools.

The book is delightful and is as much history as it is literature. I recommend you read it and take some examples for use with especially older students to look at the didactic use of storytelling. Great stuff here!

Review: Lenses on Reading: An Introduction to Theories and Models (3rd ed.) by Diane H. Tracey and Lesley Mandel Morrow (Guilford Press, 2017, 302 pp.)

Heather Pauly, Assistant Professor, Cardinal Stritch Univ, hmpauly @ stritch.edu


True to its title, the third edition of Lenses on Reading: An Introduction to Theories and Models provides multiple viewpoints from which to consider the act and process of reading, reading comprehension, and learning. Tracey and Morrow write for those looking to develop an understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of literacy processes. This book is very helpful for graduate students or researchers in literacy, language, special education, or fields related to education, as a part of exploring and developing a theoretical basis for research or practice.

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Lenses on Reading is an excellent resource that summarizes important theories and models underlying researcher and practitioner conceptualization of reading development. In addition, it helps readers apply their understanding of research and practice through case studies and classroom vignettes that reflect the specific theoretical models.

Upon review, each chapter clearly categorizes and intentionally reviews a history of the theories within each category, which allows insight into the evolution of research and thinking in the field. Important to the context of the field of literacy and its scientific development, chapter 2 is dedicated to providing a history of theories from Aristotle and Plato to Rousseau and Wundt. Chapters 3-9 categorize specific theories together as follows: behavioral, constructivist, developmental, physiological, affective, social learning (including multiliteracies, critical literacy, and critical race theory), and cognitive processes. The final chapter synthesizes and reviews the aforementioned categories. Importantly, this third edition includes updated research applications in all chapters, giving the reader current examples of specific theoretical models.

The authors intentionally discuss the overlapping nature of the theories (p. xi), the importance of viewing reading development from multiple viewpoints (p. 267), and the abstraction of the categories put forth (p. 14). For readers new to the field, it is important to note that the theories included in this book are those carefully determined to be the most significant by these authors, but do not include all theories. It is also important to take to heart the authors’ message that the categories are author-created and flexible. It would be impossible to write a book that surveys and explores such a multitude of theories without organizing them into categories; however, these categories suggest a simplification that may lead novice researchers to believe that they understand a particular theory when, in fact, more reading is required. It is up to the readers to comprehend the ideas of each theory and to create the multiple viewpoints that they find true through their own practice and research.

Overall, this edition of Lenses on Reading is a strong summary text and resource on theories and models of reading development. It is accessible to those at an introductory level of understanding and also a fast, reliable reference necessary in a literacy researcher’s library. For readers akin to hiking, the text acts as a trailhead, pointing in multiple directions toward significant original theories, each of which may need further investigation. Though clearly organized by category, the authors themselves state that its organization is conceptual; therefore, students, practitioners, and researchers should think proactively and individually to synthesize what they are reading in relation to their own research and practice. In many cases, further reading will be necessary in order to fully grasp and apply a single theory. In sum, the text does what it sets out to do, leaving readers with a beginning understanding of theory, practice, and research.

Review: Teaching Outside the Box: How to Grab Your Students by Their Brains, 3rd ed., by LouAnne Johnson. Jossey-Bass, 2015. 320 pp.

Angela K Lenz, Hilbert School District, lenza @ hilbertk12.org

Johnson is no stranger to publication. Most famous for My Posse Don’t Do No Homework—the basis of the film Dangerous Minds—her numerous additional titles include Teaching Outside the Box: How to Grab Your Students by Their Brains, which offers both personal and practical ideas for success in the classroom. Now in its third edition, Johnson’s book asks the question, “Why do so many teacher candidates ace their education courses, read all the latest journals, carefully observe good teachers, shine like stars during their student teaching, and then crash and burn during their first year in the classroom?” (p. 17). By weaving this question throughout the book, she presents advice and ideas based on student success as a priority. In fact, she notes that the book is an “imaginary conversation” with teachers in an “attempt to share everything I have learned about effective teaching in one practical package” (p. xiv), a conversation asking all of us, regardless of teaching discipline, to look introspectively for what we want our students to know when they leave our classes and how we want to get them there.

At first glance, these eleven chapters seem geared toward future teachers, but Johnson makes sure that both beginning and experienced teachers can benefit from their contents. For example, before addressing specific pedagogies, she identifies three fluid categories of teachers–good, excellent, and super–categories dependent on “personal strengths, intimate relationships, professional goals, and individual priorities” (p. 7). This section speaks primarily to the introspective pre-service teachers who must “consider how much time and emotional energy you can afford to spend on your work outside the home” (p. 8). Frankly, Johnson suggests, it’s acceptable to choose to be a “good” teacher because “you will still be contributing to society, performing honorable and necessary work, and helping to shape the future of our country,” as long as you don’t fall into inexcusable mediocre or terrible teaching (p. 10). Pre-service teachers will benefit from considering the contents of this section before entering their own classrooms because, quite often, observed classroom experiences can be slightly skewed and, at times, predicted to be idealistic. Observing a seasoned teacher’s classroom management and organization may lead to believing that their own classrooms will run as smoothly.

Another valuable consideration is the teaching philosophy, which shapes every decision within the classroom. One might even argue that a teaching philosophy should be considered before setting foot into a classroom because it carries such weight. With that in mind, Johnson warns that “If you enter your classroom with a clear idea of why you are there and what you expect from yourself and your students, you stand a much better chance of being a successful teacher” (p. 15). This philosophy will likely include beliefs about how students learn, practices that influence learning, and specific, yet overarching, goals for student learning. This philosophy will also draw out the internal factors such as prejudices, personal agendas, and respect can influence a teacher as an individual. By having a clear understanding and plan for addressing or at least acknowledging these factors, teachers can focus on pedagogy and creating relationships with their students.

Once inside the physical space of the classroom, teachers of all levels can benefit from strategies to prepare the room, the paperwork, and themselves. Again, Johnson asks for introspection. While drawing attention to the importance of sensory details, seating arrangements, supply and paperwork organization, and personal appearance and attitude, Johnson avoids imposing a prescriptive agenda herself. In fact, she lists a number of questions for instructors to consider as they prepare their classrooms, such as “Which seating arrangements did you prefer as a child? Which do you prefer as a teacher?” or “What can new teachers do if they have mild personalities and want to develop an air of authority?” or even “What can teachers do to counteract the emotional and physical stress that accompanies teaching?” (p. 95). In other words, do what feels right for you and your students. Actually, one piece of prescriptive advice does emerge: new teachers will often be given the advice not to smile before Christmas to reduce and possibly eliminate discipline issues and classroom management problems. As someone who received this advice, it seemed counter-intuitive. I know the advice was well-meaning, but personally the idea of not smiling before Christmas would have meant presenting an inauthentic version of myself and that seemed like a greater risk than a student thinking I was too nice. However, Johnson challenges this idea and even encourages smiles. After all, “the opportunity to create a good impression, to connect with your students, will pass very quickly,” and when challenging moments happen, people are more likely to respond positively when faced with a smile (p. 98). Establishing a positive rapport can go a long way in establishing expectations and teaching procedures, leading to greater productivity throughout the remainder of the school year.

In order to maintain this positive energy, teachers must remember that discipline is necessary, which requires them to consider their true purpose in disciplining students: punishing an action for punishment’s sake or guiding a student to make better choices. Johnson proposes approaching discipline with both logic and respect in mind: the consequence should be logical in connection to the student’s action, and the teaching must maintain a high degree of respect for the student. By defining a clear philosophy specific to discipline, teachers can consider how to move forward. Discipline, expectations, rules, and procedures are all a necessary part of a classroom in their own way, and when used effectively, these pieces allow students to be more successful in the classroom, and ultimately, outside the classroom as well.

When Johnson turns to pedagogy, she seems to focus with prejudice on English/Language Arts. Indeed, she speaks the truth when she argues that “Every teacher is a reading teacher, like it or not” (p. 177), and turns to attracting students to difficult texts, such as poetry and Shakespeare. Still, she acknowledges various reasons that students may not be so eager to read in class, including social awkwardness, lack of comprehension, and minimal interest in required reading. With each reason discussed, she offers suggestions, such as offering choice in reading, even with class texts, and the willingness to abandon a class text if students are not interested in the reading. This is certainly a new idea, but if pre-reading work is done well, the students may choose not to abandon the class text. While it makes sense that the chapter is geared toward ELA teachers since they are the individuals tasked with teaching reading, if every teacher is in fact a teacher of reading, more time and attention should be spent here. But with an ELA background, Johnson does not share what teaching reading looks like in other content areas, which is a definite shortcoming.

When turning to educational influences in later chapters, Johnson offers some interesting and unusual ideas. For example, she asks that we pay attention to natural and artificial lighting. After explaining scotopic sensitivity syndrome, a type of light sensitivity, Johnson shares common symptoms and the potential for colored overlays as a way of coping. She also shares how nutrition may support or impede success in the classroom. In many cases, common ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup and aspartame harm the developing body and brain, but ultimately, it is up to parents to be informed about what to feed their children. Therefore, Johnson suggests helping students to educate their parents by working together to write shopping lists of nutritious snacks and drinks and by incorporating exercise into classroom activities. Both topics, lighting and diet, seem out of place in the text because some factors fall out of the control of teachers who recognize that students deal with varying degrees of challenges. Some of these challenges we can work to alleviate in our interactions and practices, but others, like diet, we have very little influence on. Teachers must recognize that they cannot control whether or not students are putting processed snacks and meals into their bodies or choosing better options.

Johnson also discusses the potential and value of project-based learning, that is, a teaching method in which students acquire knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge. Within this discussion, she includes ideas for groups and project difficulty. Ultimately, offering students more control in their learning does have a positive impact on their learning and productivity in the classroom.

Johnson wraps up her final chapter with a healthy dose of positive stories from readers and updates on students who were the focus in My Posse Don’t Do No Homework. Though ending on a positive note, these chapters don’t add to the practicality of the book, and if readers are not familiar with Johnson’s original story, these chapters fall short.

At first glance, it might be easy for a prospective reader to brush aside Teaching Outside the Box as just another “teacher book” because Johnson covers common topics. In fact, nearly all the topics covered are relevant to teachers regardless of grade level or content area, but it is the angle at which she approaches these common topics that makes this book valuable. Even when discussing topics like preparation and paperwork, the rationale behind her ideas always focuses on helping students succeed, and that is why teachers choose this profession. This is different from many other “teacher books” that focus on being student centered in regards to lessons and convenience for teachers when it comes to preparation and paperwork. This unique focus makes Johnson’s Teaching Outside the Box: How to Grab Your Students by Their Brains a worthwhile read for educators.

Review: Reading Students’ Lives: Literacy Learning Across Time by Catherine Compton-Lilly. Routledge, 2017. 140 pp.

Jieun Kim, doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison, jieun.kim @ wisc.edu

Corinne Ehrfurth, doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison, cehrfurth @ wisc.edu

“We construct meaning of our lives…across multiple timescales of action and activity, from the blink of an eye to the work of a lifetime” (Lemke, 2005, p. 110).

How does time add up in students’ literate lives? How do students construct meanings “not only at particular points in time, but also across time” (Compton-Lilly, 2017, p. 122) as they move through school? If students spend more time in school, will they be better readers and writers? Some students may feel that schools control the ways they use time. Some notions of time take into account students’ literacy practices situated within and across time. Every second, minute, day, week, and year, students use their experiences to make sense of their worlds. Compton-Lilly’s Reading Students’ Lives (2017) is an invaluable book for exploring how students become literate and make sense of their worlds over time.

Reading Students’ Lives is Compton-Lilly’s fourth book in a series published over the two last decades; the first three books invite researchers and practitioners to rethink students’ literacy development and their literate lives as they move through school. In the first, Reading Families (2003), Compton-Lilly interviewed her first-grade students and their parents and grandparents in order to learn how reading fits into their lives and their families, ultimately challenging the widespread misconception that urban parents rarely care about their children’s literacy skills and education. In her second book, Re-Reading Families (2007), Compton-Lilly returned to the same students (then fourth and fifth graders) and their families in order to analyze various forms of capital (Bourdieu, 1986) and explore the literacy learning of those living in a high-poverty community. In her third book, Reading Time (2012), Compton-Lilly explicitly highlights time as a theoretical construct and practical consideration to explore how students make meaning of their literate lives within and beyond the classroom.

The most recent addition to this longitudinal qualitative series, Reading Students’ Lives (2017), offers a richer and more nuanced understanding of the school trajectories and literate lives of eight students and their families over a ten-year period: Marvin, David, Bradford, Alicia, Peter, Jermaine, Angela, and Christy. Compton-Lilly revisits her longitudinal data to further challenge pervasive misconceptions about the reading practices and assumptions about urban and high-poverty families. By providing a stunning backdrop for teachers, practitioners, and literacy and language researchers, she focuses on students’ experiences of schooling, gender, immigration, high-stakes testing, and technology. Furthermore, she provides thoughtful insights into the literate lives of children and young people by drawing on three theoretical lenses that recognize temporality (Bakhtin, 1981; Bourdieu, 1990; Lemke, 2000; Lemke, 2005) and by applying temporal discourse analysis techniques (Compton-Lilly, 2015; Compton-Lilly & Halverson, 2014).

The book is divided into eight chapters that guide the readers through the children’s lives and their literacy learning. In each chapter, Compton-Lilly invites researchers, teachers, and practitioners to reason in innovative ways about case studies in order to make sense of literacy learning over time by providing an in-depth analysis of qualitative data and supports the plea for more qualitative longitudinal studies. Temporal discourse analysis and longitudinal qualitative research offer productive possibilities for understanding how students live out long-term situations in high-poverty communities and poorly funded schools. Her book’s consistent attentiveness to the longitudinal literate lives of children, their older siblings, and family members models a research approach that probes students’ literacy learning experiences.

Chapter 1 serves as a comprehensive introduction to the concept of time. Here, Compton-Lilly takes a deeper dive into her personal and professional experiences to explore how time has generally been recognized in educational research and practice. While educational scholars typically treat time as duration, ages, intervals, length, and amount in their studies, Compton-Lilly proposes “a vision of time” (p. 5) that recognizes history (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995) and is informed by life story research (McAdams, 2001; Wortham, 2006) to show how people make sense of selves and their worlds.

In Chapter 2, Compton-Lilly highlights three theoretical frameworks related to time to explore the evolving and complex nature of being a student. Applying Lemke’s timescales, Compton-Lilly explores how meanings are simultaneously grounded in past experiences of family members, personal histories, ongoing experiences, and possible futures. For example, Marvin and his family drew on past and ongoing experiences concerning the “library” as an icon of possibility and hope for Marvin’s future. To be specific, Marvin’s accounts of the library reference his enthusiasm to get his life “back on track” after dropping out of high school. His grandfather, Mr. Sherwood, also marked the library as a resource for literacy learning as he drew upon his own childhood experiences. To explore how Marvin makes sense of his experiences, acts in his everyday life, and contemplates his future, Compton-Lilly illuminates chronotopic motifs (Bakhtin, 1981; Bakhtin, 1986) that operate in schools: failing standards-based English Language Arts examinations, promotion/retention, meeting grade-level standards, and experiencing special education. Each chronotopic motif is associated with meanings that closely interweave and contradict in complex interrelationships. For example, Marvin drew upon the meanings that disrupted his intention to graduate from high school. Bakhtin’s chronotope plays a critical role in understanding how Marvin and other students operate within institutions including schools that impose temporal expectations.

Chapter 3 draws on temporal discourse analysis (Compton-Lilly, 2014, 2015) to highlight time “as a constructive dimension of experience that people use to conceptualize their encounters with literacy, schooling, and identity” (p. 28). The focus of this chapter is how three children–David, Bradford, and Angela–and their families attend to time by using now/then discourses to compare intergenerational experiences of growing up. For example, David’s mother related to recent social changes and the dangers of gun violence by referencing “in the day and age,” “nowadays,” and “that’s the day and age.” Ironically, David made sense of a dangerous present with the hope of entering the military and making money after finishing school. Bradford’s experiences of time were affected by the official time frames of school and incarceration. Once away from his special education placement, Bradford eventually felt confident and made academic progress during his incarceration. Angela highlighted a favorite teacher, Ms. Foster, for making sense of her own experiences with reading and writing. Repetitive accounts about this first grade teacher cement her concepts related texts and reading. Among other lessons, attention to the markers of time with these three focal students provides spaces for teachers and school leadership to reflect on how schools can make time for students to learn.

Lemke’s three timescales–historical timescales, familial timescales, and ongoing timescales–provide Compton-Lilly with constructs to capture how languages circulate and operate within families. In Chapter 4, she revisits Alicia’s case to examine a set of repetitive discourses regarding schooling and Alicia’s identities as a student. Compton-Lilly found that Alicia’s family drew upon their past experiences and traditional discourses which affected the way Alicia made sense of school and teachers. Most importantly, Alicia’s discourses and her literacy practices across time reveal that she fully engaged in familial reading practices with a diverse range of books featuring African-American characters and teen girls. Historical accounts of people and events were intermingled with Alicia’s familial timescales, which contributed to how Alicia voices resistance not to be positioned as a gang member and assigned to long-term suspension.

Chapter 5 explores the complex interactions that contribute to Peter’s desire to become a writer and his process toward achieving this goal. As understood through Bourdieu’s notion of fields (Bourdieu, 1990; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990), spaces are connected to social, economic, and other types of capital that privilege certain students more than others. Peter’s story emphasizes the knowledge and power required to negotiate successfully through the fields that students face throughout their educational experiences. Compton-Lilly’s analysis of what changed in the fields that Peter encountered during the ten years of her study illuminates the challenges faced by students living in egregious poverty, especially in terms of college preparation. She concludes that Peter’s severely limited access to the rules of the field of higher education, not his lack of writing abilities, contributed to his failing to meet his goals of attending a top-tier undergraduate journalism program.

Compton-Lilly’s obvious commitment to the focal students and their families is conveyed through the rich details about students’ lives, attentive research questions, and intentional avoidance of generalizing data and analysis other than to assert statements of exigency. When such researchers generalize findings as connected to a system–for example, “[u]nderstanding literate trajectories is particularly pertinent in communities that historically have been poorly served by schools” (p. 87)–readers are motivated to reason more broadly about how societal inequities impact individual students. Throughout Jermaine’s case study in Chapter 6, attentive readers notice a systemic analysis. Jermaine’s difficulties in keeping up with classroom pacing, such as when he states that students in his fourth grade class were “only give[n] five minutes to do something” (p. 93), were addressed when he was enrolled in a computerized, individualized canned-curriculum that the company purported would remediate and strengthen particular skills. However, the longitudinal scope of this study reveals the opposite to be true: Jermaine fell further behind his mainstream peers. Compton-Lilly’s application of chronotopic analysis considers how “school events become trajectories” (p. 95). Jermaine’s case offers educators opportunities to understand the long-term effects of interventions and policies that, while well intended, impact students in unintended ways.

In Chapter 7, Compton-Lilly’s review of her field notes as Christy’s teacher unfolds the compounding impact of lack of neighborhood resources such as grocery stores and libraries in inner city neighborhoods with standards-based emphasis on schools, represented by condescending in-service leaders, unsupportive administration, and competition between colleagues for test score improvement. Christy especially reinforces the prominent yet often unrecognized role of diverse relationships in the trajectory of students’ literacy learning. When Compton-Lilly concludes that her field notes were filled with “impositions placed on me as a teacher” (p. 108), readers realize that physical objects and spaces influence students’ reading skills just much as teachers, other adults, and the students themselves.  

Reading Students’ Lives provides a valuable opportunity for fellow educators to look into how one researcher’s awareness of time shapes her interpretation of the literacy lives of low-income students and their families. As a ground-breaking longitudinal study of ten years, Reading Students’ Lives promotes a rethinking of time as Compton-Lilly provides critical insights on how to consider students as beings who bring rich sets of temporally valued experiences and knowledge to classrooms and other spaces. The generalizations are not geared toward convincing educators and researchers to adopt a best-practices strategies or to teach according to research-based pedagogies. Instead, Compton-Lilly helps readers understand how systemic issues significantly impact students’ lives. Throughout the book, recognition of the complex tensions that students experience while developing their literacy skills and identities culminates into a conclusion, which ties together Compton-Lilly’s temporal notions, critiques of systemic inequities that impact individuals, and students’ literacy learning to provide insights into students’ long-term trajectories.

Reading Students’ Lives advocates for social justice through a wake-up call that allows for silent students’ voices to be heard across the trajectory of their educational careers. Throughout her longitudinal works, Compton-Lilly listens closely to the voices of her students and their families, which allows her to reveal complexities that previously published works often ignore. Her compelling narratives of the lively voices of students and their families inspire us to read our students’ lives and their literacy learning across time in order to mitigate and decrease further academic debt (Ladson-Billings, 2006). Researchers, teachers, and other individuals working with schools and families can read Compton-Lilly’s books to garner a “collective hope and possibility and a critical social imagination” (Gutiérrez, 2008, p. 154) for social justice and equity in American schools.
References
Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays (C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Trans., M. Holquist, Ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays (V. W. McGee, Trans., C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Eds.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The forms of capital (R. Nice, Trans.). In J. G. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education (pp. 241-258). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice (R. Nice, Trans.). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J.-C. (1990). Reproduction in education, society and culture (R. Nice, Trans.). London: Sage.

Compton-Lilly, C. (2003). Reading families: The literate lives of urban children. New York: Teachers College Press.

Compton-Lilly, C. (2007). Re-reading families: The literate lives of urban children, four years later. New York: Teachers College Press.

Compton-Lilly, C. (2012). Reading time: The literate lives of urban secondary students and their families. New York: Teachers College Press.

Compton-Lilly, C. (2015). Revisiting children and families: Temporal discourse analysis and the longitudinal construction of meaning. In J. Sefton-Green & J. Rowsell (Eds.), Learning and literacy over time: Longitudinal perspectives (pp. 61-78). New York: Routledge.

Compton-Lilly, C. (2017). Reading Students’ Lives: Literacy Learning across Time. New York: Routledge.

Compton-Lilly, C., & Halverson, E. (Eds.). (2014). Time and space in literacy research. New York: Routledge.

Gutiérrez, K. D. (2008). Developing a sociocritical literacy in the third space. Reading Research Quarterly, 43(2), 148-164.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in U. S. schools. Educational Researcher, 35(7), 3-12.

Ladson-Billings, G., & Tate, W. F. (1995). Toward a critical race theory of education. Teachers College Record, 97(1), 47-68.

Lemke, J. L. (2000). Across the scales of time: Artifacts, activities, and meanings in ecosocial systems. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 7(4), 273-290.

Lemke, J. L. (2005). Place, pace and meaning: Multimedia chronotopes. In S. Norris & R. H. Jones (Eds.), Discourse in action: Introducing mediated discourse analysis (pp. 110-122). London: Routledge.

McAdams, D. P. (2001). The psychology of life stories. Review of General Psychology, 5(2), 100-122.

Wortham, S. (2006). Learning identity: The joint emergence of social identification and academic learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Review: Rhetoric of Respect: Recognizing Change at a Community Writing Center by Tiffany Rousculp (NCTE, 2014. 185 pp.)

Review written by Yuan Sang, doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A writing center is an institution for people to discuss and improve their writing with tutors who work there, thus it is often seen in various levels of schools where it provides services to the school’s students. Compared with that kind of commonly seen writing center, one devoted to the community is rare and very different.

Tiffany Rousculp’s recent publication, Rhetoric of Respect: Recognizing Change at a Community Writing Center, revealed how the Community Writing Center (CWC) sponsored by the Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) survived and kept going forward in its 12 years of service to more than 5000 community members. It also had relationships with more than 130 various communities, especially those socially underrepresented groups such as homeless people, prisoners, and veterans. The book is not only a theoretical reflection on the operation of the institution, but also a thoughtful and practical reference on how to make a college writing center meet the needs of the community at large. Therefore, this book is bound to attract readers from a wide range of areas—those who have experience with a writing center, and those interested in community work, education, writing, or communication.

The Community Writing Center was founded in 2001 as the community college tried to reach out for its name’s sake. Over the years, it went through all kinds of struggles to survive—change of locale, construction of the rationale, constant flow of the staff, and clarification of their orientations and principles. Eventually, the people at the center worked toward a place where people in the communities gathered, enjoyed, and expressed their voices. It was not an easy process. Through all the confusions, uncertainties, dilemmas, stresses, and pains, the writing center explored its role in the community and negotiated its relationship with the college. The faculty and students working there also found their own position in the tutoring and serving of the community.

Using Marilyn Cooper’s ecological model of writing, Rousculp conceptualizes her reflections and rethinking on her work with CWC. Trying to maintain a healthy environment for each other, every element involved with the center—the time, the space, the individuals, the organizations—in the ecological cycle had been sending and sharing positive energy. Rousculp attributed that to the rhetoric of respect. It was this respect as well as trust among people of all different groups—staff, the working students, and the community—that led to the sustainability of the center. The staff and students exhibited their flexibility and self-awareness in their work with the CWC, for there were never strict boundaries dividing them. To name a few, the students came up with the ideas that connected the center with the communities, and the community writers defined their relationships with the center and with writing itself. Only with respect could all this happen, which determined the attainment of the ultimate purpose of the institution—serving the community.

The respect came with the challenges of conventional assumptions about writing, publication, education, community, and their relationships with each other. Are the tutors trained to be better in writing than the community writers? Does publication validate a piece of writing? Can students perform as workshop teachers? Does the writing center exist to tell people what they should write about and how? In asking these questions, Rousculp, the writing assistants, the faculty, and the staff, together with the community writers, were all learning.

Rhetoric of Respect was written in five parts. The first part, “Recognizing the SLCC Community Writing Center,” described the foundation and function of each element of the writing center. The second part, “Evolving a Discursive Ecology: A Rhetoric of Respect,” framed the author’s ideological and metaphorical reflection on the development of the center. The third part, “Transforming Energy in Pursuit of Uncertainty,” analyzed how elements in the ecology tried to make the energy flow positive and allowed uncertainty to be the center’s normality. The next part, “Shifting Relations, Transforming Expectations,” showed how people in the center accommodated what the community needed and transformed their own expectations into the respect of the direction and performance of the writers. The last part, “Engaging Place: Acclimation and Disruption,” concluded and prospected the road ahead in providing a better service to the community.

Rhetoric of Respect is a reflective story about 12 years of functioning of a writing center. The experience was not a planned or expected journey, as the staff and the assistant students had thought it would be. The survival and success were achieved through failures and struggles. What allowed them to succeed was respect in a sustainable ecological cycle. The writing center would encounter more unexpected challenges, Rousculp was sure, but the people in the center would not be afraid. The CWC would bravely face every challenge as long as they kept their gradually developed concept—respect—in mind. Therefore, this book would be a great guide for a writing center as well as a thoughtful perspective for anyone interested in the challenges and benefits of collaboration.

Review: Gathering Fireflies by Mai Chao Duddeck (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015. 215 pp.)

I need to be a voice for the Hmong people,

to make sure they are

not forgotten

in the American history books,

to give them the proper credit they deserve

as they make America

their new home.

–Kashia (in Duddeck, p. 195)

In her inaugural novel for young readers, teacher and artist Mai Chao Duddeck (2015) provides readers with a symphony of voices that will challenge, educate, and engage all ages and backgrounds. In the above excerpt, the book’s central character, Kashia, gives voice to a significant lesson learned through a school project facilitated by teachers committed to empowering their students to “research a topic that is meaningful and worthwhile” (p. 2). In response to his teachers’ challenges to grapple with the theme of “Conflict and Compromise” in a meaningful way, Kashia delves into the stories of his family’s perilous journey to the United States following the Vietnam War.

Gathering Fireflies, a novel-in-verse, is a remarkably powerful assemblage of voices which, taken together, tell a rich and complex story of the Hmong people’s journey from Laos, Thailand, and, eventually, the United States. The youngest voice in the book is Kashia, a 6-foot-tall and nearly 13-years-old middle school student who loves basketball. In part, the book chronicles his quest to learn more about himself and his family. Prompted by an interdisciplinary assignment (National History Day), he collects stories from his grandparents, Ginu and Mai Lia, about their experiences as refugees who eventually ended up in the United States.

Learning about the conflicts suffered and endured by his family members, including his mother (Pa Ying), as they cross boundaries of all sorts (e.g., geography, language, tradition), Kashia gains new understandings about his history and his dualized cultural identity. As Kashia explains, he is part of “a new generation of Hmong / a hybrid of Hmong and American” (1; 215). More specifically, Kashia’s mother, the daughter of Ginu and Mai Lia, is Hmong, while his father, Josh, is European American. Like other great young adult books addressing the theme of “hybrid” or bifurcated identities (e.g., Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Yang’s American Born Chinese ), this book will not disappoint teachers and learners seeking opportunities to discuss and deliberate on the complex questions raised:

“How many Americans stop to / think about what the Hmong have been through?” (pp. 64-65)

“Do you know that even today, in 2014, / there are still thousands of Hmong people / unable to get out of the dense jungles of Laos?” (p. 83)

“How can she love a man who looks nothing like her?” (p. 165)

“What do these children in America know about / hard life and suffering? … How dare they challenge and disobey their elders!” (pp. 140-141)

“I am sad that / our children are changing, / becoming Americans in their minds, / their needs, / their wants, / their dreams. / Individual, separate, single. / What about family? / What about us?” (p. 200)

The book also raises additional questions related to the following timeless themes:

Identity: Do you create an identity or are you born with one? In what ways to identities intersect to inform experience?

Conflict and Compromise: Why do we fight wars? How might it feel to live through a conflict that disrupts your way of life?

Culture and Tradition: Does culture isolate people or bring them together? What is the role of an “agent of change”?

Individual vs. Collective: Should responsibility to family take precedence over individual goals? When should an individual take a stand in opposition to an individual or a larger group?

The ideas encountered in this book, in other words, will challenge readers and teachers alike to go beyond the sound bites offered vis-à-vis today’s 24-hour cycle of fast-paced “news,” information, and entertainment in order to stand and give witness to the ambiguity, shifting contexts, and multiple perspectives that exist in history/ies and literature(s).

At a time of increasing political polarization between and within the ideological extremes of this country, this book will have immediate appeal to educators dedicated to improving the quality of classroom deliberations and preparing today’s learners for a lifetime of civic engagement, political thinking, and working toward the promise of democracy. As Hess and McAvoy (2015) detail in The Political Classroom, a question which lies at the heart of a robust democracy is “How should we live together?” Duddeck’s Gathering Fireflies offers plenty of opportunities for deliberating on this overarching and essential question.

Gathering Fireflies is more than an important contribution to a growing population of exceptional verse novels; it also offers very important perspectives. Duddeck’s 215-page, nine-chapter, free-verse book of poems (accompanied with beautiful black-and-white illustrations of people and landscapes), based on the lives of real people, offers unique interdisciplinary opportunities (particularly between English Language Arts and History/Social Studies). The book will appeal to students and teachers in grades 6-9.

According to Kashia’s grandfather, Ginu, “Teachers plant seeds in your minds / that take you to many roads of opportunity / where you can become somebody” (124). Who does Kashia become as a result of seeds planted by teachers and as a result of gathering his own fireflies? In part, he does become a voice for his people, and readers will be uplifted through his coming-of-age story.

Note: Teaching materials for Duddeck’s Gathering Fireflies, created by the authors of this review, may be accessed at https://teachingbooks.net

References

Alexie, S. (2009). The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. New York: Little, Brown Books.

Hess, D. E., & McAvoy, P. (2015). The political classroom: Evidence and ethics in democratic education. New York: Routledge.

Yang, G. (2008). American born Chinese. New York: Square Fish.

Jim Carlson is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse.

 Garrett Carlson, Krystle Thomas, and Zoe Simon are undergraduate teacher candidates at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Copyright © 2016 by the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English.

Review: Cultivating Racial and Linguistic Diversity in Literacy Teacher Education: Teachers Like Me

Aaliyah Baker and Nina F. Weisling
Review: Cultivating Racial and Linguistic Diversity in Literacy Teacher Education: Teachers Like Me by Marcelle M. Haddix. New York: Routledge, 2016. 138 pp.
[PDF Version Here: Review: Cultivating Racial and Linguistic Diversity in Literacy Teacher Education: Teachers Like Me]
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Cultivating Racial and Linguistic Diversity in Literacy Teacher Education: Teachers Like Me was written by Marcelle M. Haddix, a Dean’s Associate Professor and Chair of the Reading and Language Arts Center in the School of Education at Syracuse University in New York. Haddix is an award-winning educator whose research interests focus on the educational experiences of students of color, specifically those pursuing their teaching degree in literacy and/or English. She has a bachelor’s degree in English education from Drake University, a master’s degree in education from Cardinal Stritch University, and a doctorate from Boston College.

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