Written in Blood: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

“We read to know that we are not alone.” —William Nicholson

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The most recent kerfuffle surrounding Sherman Alexie’s award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian got me thinking about how I have approached teaching this young adult novel to my middle and high school students. Recently, a middle-school principal in New York City removed the book from the school’s required summer reading list after parents protested that it was inappropriate. One parent went as far as to say, “It was like Fifty Shades of Grey for kids.” My snort of disbelief after reading this was followed by the realization—and here I must offer my most sincere apologies to Mr. Alexie—that I myself have been guilty of censoring parts of the book in my classroom.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was published to great acclaim in 2007, winning the prestigious National Book Award for Young Adult fiction that same year. It has garnered numerous other awards and in 2008 the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) listed it in its “Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults.” But the book has also created controversy. It has been banned in several states and removed from the shelves of middle and high schools—deemed pornographic, racist, and anti-Christian. Since 2010 it has remained on the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books in the United States along with the likes of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon.

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The book is about Arnold Spirit Jr., also known as Junior, who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state. He decides to attend an all-white farm town high school, twenty-two miles from the “rez,” in order to get a better education. As Arnold points out, he’s the only Native American in the school besides the school mascot. The book is funny yet heartbreaking and deals with issues young people face today no matter their race, gender, or social/economic status. The part in the story that occasioned the outcry in NYC takes up about half a page of the book and it’s about masturbation. It is part of a chapter titled “Because Geometry Is Not a Country Somewhere Near France” in which the narrator explains his love of geometry and how isosceles triangles make him feel “hormonal.” Arnold then proceeds to assure the reader that he also likes curves, briefly veering off into the topic that alarms parents by admitting that he spends “hours in the bathroom with a magazine that has one thousand pictures of naked movie stars.” What follows is a funny and honest apologia for masturbation.

Yep, that’s right. I admit that I masturbate.
I’m proud of it.
I’m good at it.
I’m ambidextrous.
If there were a Professional Masturbation League, I’d get drafted number one and make millions of dollars.
And maybe you are thinking, “Well, you really shouldn’t be talking about masturbation in public.”
Well, tough. I’m going to talk about it because EVERYBODY does it. And EVERYBODY likes it.
And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs.
So I thank God for my thumbs.

This portrayal of teenage sexuality is frank and truthful. I can understand why it would make some makes parents and other adults uncomfortable, but to equate it with Fifty Shades of Grey is absurd and going a bit too far, especially when it results in yanking the book out of libraries and the hands of readers.

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The Absolutely True Diary is about a fourteen-year-old’s experience with the complexities of race both within and outside of his community, and with the grinding effects that poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, domestic violence, gun violence, death, bullying, stereotypes, and lack of educational opportunities have on individuals, families, and the larger community. It is also a book about friendship, love, forgiveness, hope, the strength of family, and finding one’s place in the world. Above all, this book brings to life the stark reality of being a Native American today in the United States; it is not a pretty story.

From the moment Alexie’s book was published it became part of my middle school classroom library. It also became one of the books I read aloud to my classes every year and a student favorite. This is a book that engages students and makes them think. Despite the serious topics explored in the book, the narrator is irreverently funny and appealing to teenagers—he is someone they can relate to. Yet there I was cutting out the controversial passage for my 7th grade students not because I objected to the discussion of masturbation in a young adult book, but because I imagined a possible afterschool scene like the following:

Parent: “Anything interesting happen in school today?”
Child: “Ms. Ortiz read this crazy book to the whole class where the boy masturbates.”

I could then visualize the outraged parent calling the principal, the DOE, and the media to complain about the use of “inappropriate” materials in the classroom, or even worse, accusing me of being inappropriate. It makes me shudder just to think about it.

I no longer cut out the aforementioned passage because I teach high school now. Students at times respond with embarrassed laughs when I read that part, but mostly they are captivated by Arnold’s struggles and adventures. Rather than being banned in schools, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian should be required reading in history classes. Before being exposed to the book, most of my students were unaware that Native Americans live on reservations throughout the United States, and that these reservations have some of the highest rates of alcoholism, poverty, unemployment, suicide, domestic and sexual violence, diabetes and other health related problems in the country.

In a 2011 Wall Street Journal blogpost titled, “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood,” Alexie explains the rationale behind the controversial topics he writes about:

I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed.

This is why my students understand Arnold’s struggles and why this book is a favorite—they live his struggles also.

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Comfort Reading

How do we cope when the world around us is seemingly going crazy? How do we grapple with the daily stream of horrific events we are confronted with, one more gruesome than the other: the Newtown school massacre, the gang-rape on a bus in New Delhi, the Boston Marathon bombing, the  Bangladeshi factory collapse, the ten-year sexual slavery of three young women in Cleveland . . . the list goes on and on. How do we get up every morning to greet the new day, raise our families, smile, and practice compassion when faced with a never-ending supply of tragedy? It’s enough to make one lose faith in humanity, to sink into despair.

We all have different ways of dealing with stress and grief. One can ignore the onslaught of bad news, or instead pray, meditate, or join action groups to create more awareness about issues like gun-control, violence against women and children, and work-place safety, just to name a few. But more immediately, we can also turn to books. And yes, while it is a rather simplistic coping mechanism, never underestimate the power of a good book. I’ve written before that books are my refuge, especially in those moments when my spirit needs solace. Specifically, I read books with HEAs—happily ever after endings. While I read widely and eclectically, sometimes I just need to read a book where I am guaranteed that in the end love will prevail, and the forces of good will overcome evil. These books are the perfect antidotes to the horrors of every day life.

Girl with the Dragon TattooVAmpire AcademyI’m especially a fan of books with smart badass heroines, like Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, who can take care of themselves and others. Another favorite comfort read is the young-adult Vampire Academy series by Richelle Mead. The six-book series has what it takes to supply a life-affirming dose of comfort when needed—a strong female lead who can kick ass, forbidden romance, sexy vampires, action, suspense, angst, and best of all, a happy ending.  What about you? Do you have comfort reads?

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Searching for Hilarity in the Classroom

Time spent laughing is time spent with the gods.—Japanese proverb

During a recent bout of spring cleaning, I was pulling out a plethora of long forgotten objects from my night table drawer—extra buttons, lip balm, cough drops, a variety of skin lotions, and such—when at the very bottom I came upon this long-forgotten thank-you letter from a former middle-school student.

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There are many things that thrilled me about this letter—the most notable being that the student claims I helped her become a better reader and writer, which is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing as an English teacher. But it was the following two lines that made me feel immensely satisfied and happy, “I think you are a really great teacher because you make learning fun. You are hilarious also.”  There is no better praise or evaluation than from a student at the end of an academic school year. Apropos of the current debate regarding teacher evaluations— what better evaluation than from a student? Do school officials take into consideration these kinds of things when evaluating a teacher?

The letter got me thinking about the role of laughter in learning. Making learning fun is not an easy thing, and one of the best qualities a teacher can have is the ability to do just that. It is a challenge to come up with creative lesson plans that will engage students on a daily basis. Teachers have a difficult role in the classroom, but I also sympathize with students who yearn to be anywhere else but stuck in a classroom where “learning” is boring, repetitive, and seemingly useless. Effective teachers are constantly looking for ways to engage students and meet the “standards” creatively because there is nothing worse than having a classroom full of students who don’t see the point of what you are teaching. It’s not a pretty sight when students become bored—all sorts of mayhem can ensue!

I was especially gratified that a student deemed me “hilarious.” Teacher education programs should include a class on the importance of humor in the classroom. It’s the best way to capture students’ attention—it can create a positive atmosphere, and diffuse tense situations. Using humor sensitively can turn things around and resolve the thorniest of issues.  Some of my students’ lives outside of school are difficult so that making them laugh while they are in my class is an accomplishment, the same sense of accomplishment that comes from getting them to read a challenging text or write a well-developed and supported essay.

I get a kick out of hearing students crack up when I mess around with them, like when I say “Dude, pull your pants up!” or “Girl, cover up those chichis”! Or when I tell a funny story about my own life to illustrate a point I am making with regards to a lesson. Positive humor can keep an audience enthralled, be it small children, adolescents, or adults. It is challenging to stand in front of a class of thirty students and keep their attention on you while directing a lesson. Many times I find my students are focused on me just simply waiting to hear what funny thing is going to come out of my mouth next. I’ll take that if it gets the job done.  In my book, being deemed hilarious is great praise indeed.

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Writing Like Sandra Cisneros

When English teachers choose a mentor author and a text for writing lessons they do not have to look further than Sandra Cisneros and her short story collection The House on Mango Street. Cisneros’s collection, first published in 1984, has become a favorite in classrooms across the U.S. and around the world—it has sold six million copies and been published in twenty languages. There is no better author to teach writers how to mine the stories we all have inside us, and how to use poetic and descriptive language to get those stories across. In fact, I want to write like Sandra Cisneros.

The House on Mango StreetI want to write something like, “She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow” (“My Name”). Wow! I want to write something this vivid and profound. Can you imagine this woman? Is her story familiar? Cisneros is writing about her grandmother, but this is my mother, my grandmother, and my aunts, too. I want to tell their stories and my story along the way. I’m working on it.

Cisneros’s is a brilliant book to use as a mentor text in writing and reading workshops. I have used “My Name” to launch a personal essay assignment on names—how we got them, their significance, and the stories behind them. Another story, “Those Who Don’t,” can be used to initiate a conversation about racism and how people view communities of color. Yet another, “Hairs,” describes varied hair types within a family, celebrating with lyrical language the differences among the family members. It is a story that can be used to show how descriptive language can make something as common and simple as hair seem magical, and allows readers to visualize and use their five senses. The House on Mango Street is also a favorite among students, especially girls. It is a gem; a must in every English classroom.

“Eleven” from the collection Woman Hollering Creek is another favorite of mine. Each time I read it to my students I marvel at its artistry and craft. Here’s the opening sentence:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one.

It is a challenge to read this sentence aloud, but I relish doing it every time. The story is beautiful and heartbreaking as is “Salvador Late or Early” from the same collection. Salvador, who helps his mama with his “string of younger brothers,” whose throat must “clear itself and apologize each time it speaks,” and who inhabits “that forty-pound body of boy with its geography of scars, its history of hurt,” will haunt you long after you have finished the story. If you have never read Sandra Cisneros, don’t wait any longer. You can learn more about this author by listening to a recent WNYC interview with Leonard Lopate.

As for me, I continue in my quest to write something as precise as “Salvador with eyes the color of caterpillar, Salvador of the crooked hair and the crooked teeth, Salvador whose name the teacher cannot remember. . . .”

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Resistant Readers

When students tell me they hate reading, I no longer react in shock or dismay as I did at the beginning of my teaching career. During my years of teaching middle and high school English, I have heard this sentiment repeatedly from low-income and minority New York City students.  I sense that many struggling students are traumatized by the idea of reading. While their lack of skills may have diverse explanations, this resistance is a defense mechanism developed over the course of their academic lives. Reading terrifies them. I’d also be terrified of books if I were a fifteen-year-old who could only read at a third or fourth grade level. For a bibliophile like me, the idea that books can inspire fear and dread, rather than excitement and wonder, is heart-breaking.

As the cultural critic Henry Giroux has noted, students’ resistance to learning is one of the few displays of power that they can claim in the classroom—they can simply shut down, withdraw, and resist. As a response to this resistance, I work assiduously to create a strong culture of reading and writing in my classroom that is respectful of all skills and abilities. I try to make reading as appealing as possible. On the wall outside my classroom door I keep a poster with the title and author of the book I am currently reading. Upon entering, students find themselves surrounded by books arranged attractively all around the room by genre and for easy access. I have made it a point throughout my career to amass a classroom library that gives me and my students’ pleasure. It is important to have high interest young adult books that will lure students into reading. I have also made it my mission to know what books are in the library, to read as many of them as I can, and learn my students’ reading levels and interests so I can suggest books they can dive into.

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Knowing that this is probably the only time they can or will read for an extended period, I set up daily non-negotiable reading time in class. What I never do is tell a student they are at a particular reading level and can only read books at that level. This is the surest way to turn students off to reading even more than they already are. No teenager wants to be seen reading elementary school level books. It is also okay to let a student struggle with a book, especially if it is one that everyone else is reading. I make sure I support that student in a variety of ways during this process.

One surefire way to hook students into reading is by reading aloud to them. I have yet to encounter a student who doesn’t like being read to. My best teaching experiences have been reading aloud books like The Outsiders, Animal Farm, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sold, Black and White, Seedfolks, Twelve Angry Men, and many others. The discussions generated are always insightful, the writing in response to the books is inspired, and the skills taught while I read and stop to think aloud and share my thoughts are what students take to their own independent reading experience.

Another way I teach a love of reading is to read alongside my students for part of the reading time. I make no bones about my own passion for reading. My students realize at the beginning of the school year that independent reading time is sacred. They learn to value this time and to behave in ways that do not interrupt the reading experience. I also maintain a reading notebook, just like I ask my students to. The notebook is a place to keep track of the reading experience and where the reader can make her/his work visible. The reading notebook, my own and individual students’, can be used to teach quick lessons. For example, one of the first reading lessons I teach is that “Reading is thinking” followed by “Readers read with their minds turned on.” In my notebook, I keep track of the thinking I am doing as I read and share that with students.

I used to assign reading homework but realized that many of my students’ lives outside of school are not conducive to accomplishing this work: some students work after school; others go home to take care of siblings and may not have a quiet place to read; or more depressingly, home is a place where reading is not valued. Instead, I require kids to always have a book with them so they are ready to read whenever the opportunity arises—on the train to and from school, during lunch, at the library afterschool, or whenever they have a substitute teacher. Soon they are sharing books with one another, making recommendations, and seeing progress in their own reading lives. I post charts in the classroom to keep track of books finished, and little by little students begin competing and bragging about the books they are reading. It thrills me when a student arrives to class and proudly announces, “Miss, I finished my book!” or “I was so into my book this morning, I missed my subway stop.” Unfortunately, not all of my students become enthusiastic readers at the end of their time with me. Some are too disenfranchised to care anymore; they have given up hope in themselves and in school.

I read somewhere that the Puerto Rican champion boxer Hector “Macho” Camacho, killed last year in a drive-by shooting in Puerto Rico, didn’t learn to read until he was fifteen. Apparently, Camacho lived an unruly life on the streets of El Barrio in Manhattan, which included getting kicked out of one school after another, until a teacher taught him how to read and helped guide him into his future career. There are many like Camacho who are going through the New York City public school system with the most basic of skills. Some will be lucky enough to find a teacher who will help them succeed, some will do it on their own, but many others will not. I am convinced that reading can make a huge difference in the lives of these kids. We just have to break through that resistance and show them the gifts that reading can bring to their lives.

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That Distant Afternoon

From the moment I learned to read, books have been my refuge. As the daughter of an Army soldier, I travelled in and out of Puerto Rico with my family to different places in the United States and overseas.  Because my education was constantly interrupted, libraries became the center of my life. School libraries, lending libraries on Army bases, small-town public libraries in the United States, and personal libraries in the homes of friends were my favorite places. Books became the one constant thing in my life. They provided comfort in each new place my family traveled to, and helped ease the transitions and challenges inherent in being the new kid on the block.

The certainty that I wanted to study literature came to me one day during my freshman year as a Liberal Arts student at the University of Puerto Rico. I had settled down to read in my favorite spot, the hallway floor in one of the campus buildings where I liked to read in-between classes. No one bothered me. I had the campus library nearby. It was the perfect setting. That day I had borrowed Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). I was eighteen years old, excited to be a college student and eager to expand my intellectual horizons. Little did I know that my world was about to be rocked like never before by the power of words on a page.

One thing that I always teach my students about writing is the importance of catching your reader’s attention with the opening sentence in any piece of writing. It doesn’t matter what you are writing I tell them – the lead, the hook, the introduction, whatever you want to call it – is what will snag the reader’s attention and keep them interested in reading on. What follows has to live up to the hype, but that first sentence is vital. And so there I was, innocently cracking open Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece when I was hit, gobsmacked, completely floored, my attention captured by this opening sentence.

“Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.”

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

In the essay “My Life’s Sentences,” Jhumpa Lahiri, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning short-story collection Interpreter of Maladies, writes:

“For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

After first reading Garcia Marquez’s artfully arranged sentence, time did stop for me. I was affected and profoundly altered by the images conjured in that opening sentence. Before that day, I wasn’t sure where I was heading with my studies. I knew I wanted an education in Humanities, but had not decided on a major; reading was something I did because I loved it. But after reading and rereading that magical sentence and the ones that followed, I decided to study literature.

I have reread One Hundred Years of Solitude many times since then, along with hundreds if not thousands of other books. I have read numerous other sentences that have left me breathless and caused me to stop and ponder their beauty, but I will never forget the one I encountered that distant afternoon in a quiet hallway when I was eighteen years old. And this, dear reader, is why I became a teacher of English. What better way to indulge my passion than by sharing it with others.

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Simple but Powerful Teaching Tips

Half of all teachers leave the profession by the end of their fifth year. Half of all inner-city teachers leave by the end of year three.

I recently read this in one of the education blogs I follow. Whereas I managed to hang in there by the skin of my teeth for ten years, deciding to call it quits this past June, I saw this happen to many colleagues.

Teaching is hard work, and I’m not talking hard as in getting up five days a week during the school year to teach classes of 30-35 students, which in itself is mind-boggling. We are not talking about 30-35 students who are sitting there all ready to learn. We are talking about rambunctious, energetic children, be they elementary, middle, or high school kids, who would rather be anywhere else but in a classroom. Just ask any kid about school. That’s the reality of teaching today.

No, teaching is hard because it requires constant emotional and intellectual work if one is to be an effective teacher. What constitutes an effective teacher is open to interpretation, especially in the current educational climate so I’ll leave that discussion for another blog. Today I want to begin blogging about my experiences as a teacher not because I now consider myself a teacher-guru, but because any teacher who has managed to stand in front of a classroom of children and not have a nervous breakdown at the end of the day, the week, month, year has accumulated invaluable experiences that can be of benefit to other teachers, especially to ones who are just starting their careers.

We all know that the best teacher is experience. New teachers can come from the best education programs in the country but there is no substitute for on the job experience. Remember how clueless we felt that first, second year of teaching? Nevertheless, I’d like to offer some basic tips that I learned along the way that allowed me to do my job better. Some of these are practices I observed other teachers doing, some I read about or learned at professional development workshops, others I arrived at by simple intuition and observation of what my students needed and responded positively to.  Here are a few.

Classroom Management Tips

1. Be confident – There is nothing worse, and sure to get you off to a bad start, than looking nervous and tentative. Students will cheerfully eat you up and spit you out if you show up looking like the new teacher that you are. I never let out that I was a new teacher until well into the school year after I had developed a relationship with my students. Do whatever it takes to feel confident. Dressing up and practicing yoga and meditation worked for me.

2.  Be prepared – Make sure you are prepared for class.  Don’t ever think you can wing it! That’s a sure-fire recipe for disaster. This means careful lesson planning. My “disaster” days were usually because my lessons sucked. More on lesson planning at a later date.

3.  Know your students – Learn your students’ names as quickly as you can, and pronounce them correctly! Whatever first day activity helps you do this, do it. I hate when students suck their teeth at me because I’ve mispronounced their name. With a name like Zulma, I know how that feels, so I learn names the right way real quick. And…know who they are as students. Start this knowing right away by assessing informally and formally what they are good at and what they need help with.

4.  Welcome students to class – Stand in the doorway as they walk in and greet them by name. It sets a positive tone – students feel like you are truly glad to see them and are more likely to feel better about having to spend a double block in your classroom. I found this to be a simple but powerful practice for developing positive relationships with students.

5.  Create an awesome classroom – Don’t be a slob! There is nothing worse in my mind than walking into an untidy and drab classroom. I’m not saying that you stress over decoration and such, but…invest in a broom. Janitors (at least in New York City) have a lot of classrooms to sweep, and you’ll be their darling if you help them out. Buy some hardy plants. It is amazing what a few plants will do to a classroom; they add vibrancy and good green energy. Organize, organize, organize so that everything in your classroom serves a purpose and students and you know where things are. Create a space for art – your own or someone else’s. And lastly, ask students to clean up after themselves at the end of class. It’s amazing how much trash they can generate and leave behind if you don’t remind them to be responsible community members. An awesome classroom is more conducive to inspired teaching and learning. Believe me, people will want to come into your classroom just to admire it!

These are some simple but effective tips for new and old teachers. More to come…

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