Sunday, November 25, 2018

SIGIS Cyber Monday Shopping Suggestions

Cyber Monday is upon us.  While I do advocate shopping local whenever possible, I am also a shameless participant of online shopping.  And because this blog is a participant in the Amazon Associates program and gets a tiny bit of revenue when you order through my links, I'm going to share some gift suggestions and some of my favorite things with you!


First, I offer four terrific book suggestions. Yes, one of them is mine, but hey, it's a pretty good book! The other three I have read and are among my absolute favorites: Next, curl up under one of these great blankets while you read and stay warm this holiday: Stay warm with a new coffee maker: I have all but eliminated my use of plastic bottles this year; I've been using one of these refillable water bottles every day. As a bonus I have drastically reduced my soda intake. Some of my funky wardrobe favorites: I got this green ruffled jacket this week and I love it so ridiculously much: The animals are never overlooked around here; we recently bought these self-warming thermal pads for the outside cats and they love them. I know a lot of people who won't have an Echo in their house, but honestly we love ours. I have one of the older Echos, but we talk to Alexa all the time. She plays music for us, tells us jokes, gives me news updates, weather updates, and is generally all around useful. And the Ring doorbell? Everyone needs one of those these days: Some of my "must have" products: the L'occitane skin care line has been on my shelf for over a year now and I can't imagine being without it. I love it. The Redkin products for my hair have quickly become favorites as well. When you have fine, limp hair like mine, it needs all the help it can get! The video gamer in our house is hot on the Nintendo Switch these days: I have some favorite non-Amazon shopping sites too. For unique jewelry items checkout Restrung Jewelry out of New Orleans where a portion of the profits are donated to charities like The New Orleans Musician's Assistance Foundation, among others.

I also really like the beautiful work of Bayou Glass Arts Jewelry.  I've purchased some cool, unique pieces from Contina.

For stunning photographic prints and calendars, consider Nikki Sumrow Photography out of Texas.  The Longhorn Calendar is one of my favorites and I have the sunflower prints as well.  (Full disclosure: she is my very talented daughter!)

Have a happy shopping season and please share in the comments any great deals you find out there or suggestions for this post!  I'll keep updating it!

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Shop Local in Shreveport: Small Business Saturday

It's Small Business Saturday which means you are encouraged to get out and spend your Christmas shopping dollars in local brick and mortar shops.

Small Business Saturday has been around since about 2010 when American Express first offered their cardholders a small cash incentive to shop locally after the Black Friday extravaganza.

Here, in Shreveport, there are many unique local shopping options.

If you head downtown, there are lots of options, from shops to restaurants:

Downtown Shreveport POP UP Shops at Artspace Shreveport - 710 Texas Street
Hippie Baby- 450 Clyde Fant Parkway
Appli-Ks- 450 Clyde Fant Parkway
Robinson Film Center- 617 Texas Street
Epic Aquaria- 725 Milam
The Agora Borealis- 421 Lake Street
Norsworthy Gallery- 214 Texas Street
Lena's Shoe Gallery- 501 Milam Street

Other downtown businesses offering Small Business Saturday specials include: Martha's Hallmark, On Time Fashion, Bon Temps Coffee Bar, Nicky’s Mexican Restaurant, and Fully Stacked.

Here's a list of some of my favorite shops and restaurants for truly unique gifts:

King Hardware:  you can get everything from home decor to a Yeti here, and if you're looking for gifts with a true Louisiana flavor, this is the shop for you.

Sweet Tee Shreveport: cool nostalgic clothing and other gifts with a local twist.

The Enchanted Garden on Line Avenue is a great shop crammed full with unique gift ideas from ornaments, clothing, candles, and home decor.  It's a great place to find exactly what you didn't realize you needed!

Lewis Gifts is offering store wide discounts today and is a Shreveport classic.

Kings Antiques and More (formerly Kings Ransom) next to Strawns is a fun place to spend the afternoon browsing for not only antiques but unique handmade gifts and even great collectible books!

And nearby is the terrific Shreveport Trading Company in the old Sooto Records building; this is another favorite of mine for antiques, costume jewelry, glassware, and other oddities.

If you like antiques, be sure to check out Timeline Antiques on Line.  I never leave there empty handed.

At Brewniverse you can create your own beer advent calendar!

Don't forget about our local craft breweries, too.  There you can find cool swag for the beer lover or foodie in your life and certainly gift certificates are always welcome!

Obviously my tastes tend to be rather narrow so be sure to  check out Cobalt Chronicles for more local shopping haunts.  As much as I love cyber-Monday for its convenience, I truly do love shopping local and believe in supporting our local businesses.

Happy Shopping!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Take a Trip to the Louisiana Book Festival, 2018

Signing copies of Cane River Bohemia.
The fifteenth annual Louisiana Book Festival was held last weekend and your humble correspondent was honored to be a part of it as one of the presenters for my book Cane River Bohemia.

You know you have reached the surreal when you are signing books fifteen feet away from Donna Brazile who was there signing her new book, Hacks, or riding the elevator at your hotel with the legendary Ernest Gaines. I was fortunate enough to see Mr. Gaines last year at the Books Along the Teche literary festival: he is a gracious gentleman and gifted writer.

My husband and I drove to Baton Rouge Friday afternoon in time to make the author’s party at the State Library of Louisiana that evening. I’ll admit that I did think about Stacy McCain when we drove through Livonia. (You might ask him about that speeding ticket a few years ago!)

The author’s party was fabulous; there was a jazz band and enough superb Louisiana food to feast upon for days: gumbo, boudin balls, crab cakes, shrimp alfredo, bread pudding, etouffee, and of course Abita beer; the food just went on forever.



I met the most fascinating people and added to my “want to read” list in a significant way. I even added a children’s book to my list: Poncho’s Rescue: A Baby Bull and a Big Flood, by Julie Thomas, who was working with the LSU Vet school during the floods of 2016 and was involved with the team who helped save the very sick little animal after his rescue. It’s quite a story!

I ran into the fabulous Mary Ann Wilson who I met last year, also at the Books Along the Teche Literary Festival; she was giving a book talk entitled "Voices from Louisiana: Profiles of Contemporary Writers."  In New Iberia last year she spoke so eloquently on James Lee Burke's Tin Roof Blowdown I had to come home and re-read it.

With Dr. Mary Ann Wilson

I also chased down Karen McManus, author of the popular YA novel, One of Us is Lying, to tell her how much both I and my students love her book. She was very gracious and didn’t seem to mind my gushing fan-girl approach, thankfully.

And of course, I got to visit with my favorite editor, Margaret Lovecraft of LSU Press who made my book so much better than what I envisioned.

With Margaret Lovecraft, LSU Press.

Day two began with a little sightseeing around Baton Rouge; we spent a lot of time on the levee watching the tow boats and barges on the Mississippi River; we toured the old Louisiana State Capitol which is absolutely stunning.

Old Louisiana State Capitol

 The stained glass, kaleidoscope dome is breathtaking. Then we headed over to the Capitol grounds for the festival.

Stained glass dome, Old State Capitol


The Louisiana Book Festival draws about 20,000 people and is one of the top book festivals in the South. This year there were 250 authors either giving talks about their books or participating in panel discussions. There are children’s events and various live music performances as well as food trucks all day long. The book presentations take place in the State Capitol Building in the various House and Senate Committee meeting rooms in thirty-minute intervals and then the authors are shuttled over to the signing tent to sign copies of their books.

 My presentation was one of the last ones of the day and so we had plenty of time to browse the book tents while waiting. We picked up My Brother’s Keeper by Chris Blackwood, which is a true-crime thriller about the 1984 death of Gary Kergan from Crowley, Louisiana. The case went cold and was finally resolved thirty years later and it’s a wild one. Chris sat next to me as we signed books together and she signed our book! We also bought The Sound of Building Coffins by Louis Maistros, the epitome Southern Gothic novel filled with voodoo, quirky characters, and mysterious plot. It’s getting good reviews so I can’t wait to just get lost in this one.

 Louisiana is home to so many terrific and talented authors, I think in part due to the cultural diversity we have in our state. From the southern tip of the state to the far northeastern corner, we are a mĂ©lange of swamps, rice fields, sugar cane and cotton fields, and bustling cities. We are refineries and skyscrapers, blue collar workers and suits. We are the Shreveport Symphony, New Orleans jazz, and Cajun zydeco. We eat boudin, crawfish, alligator, meat pies, and the infamous gumbo. We are fine dining with a river view in Baton Rouge, woodfired pizzas at the craft beer tap room in Arnaudville, and huge homemade burgers in Coushatta, and delicious pies in LeCompte. We are magnolia trees, Spanish moss, azaleas, and cape jasmine. We are Spanish, French, African, Jamaican, Creole, Irish, English, Hispanic, but uniquely American. It is no wonder that Louisiana writers and authors create such a wonderful and diverse collection of material every single year which is celebrated at the Louisiana Book Festival.



Be sure to put it on your calendar for next year: you won’t be sorry!



Sunday, November 4, 2018

Bring Back the Sun

I dislike time changes.

It is, right now, 4:58 p.m., but really it's 5:58 p.m.  It is already dusk outside and the cars driving past my window have their headlights on.

When I go to work at 6:40 (7:40?) in the morning, it will be a little brighter than it was last week, but really, I don't mind driving to work in the dark.  That's a small trade for having a little daylight at the end of the day, after work. 

It turns out that we have an entomologist from New Zealand to blame for daylight saving time; he wanted more daylight hours to go bug hunting.  The Germans adopted the practice during WWI, followed by England, and then the United States in 1918 in an attempt to have more daylight working hours.

Maybe it's just winter and shorter days in general that I dislike.  I need sunshine and light.

I find all this darkness depressing. 

Yes, Christmas is nice.  All those Hallmark movies, the twinkly lights on the Christmas tree, the endless commercialization and pressure to buy things... But the older I get I find Christmas to be hard, sort of sad, and I get weepy and nostalgic.

And those long, nasty days of January and February!  They go on forever!  At least with March there is a little hope of a warm day.

Honestly I'd rather have the warm, balmy, long sunny days where I can work in the yard, walk the dog, plant flowers, and read books in the shade of my magnolia tree. 

It feels like I'm bracing for winter right now, hunkering down ready to wait out these long months of darkness until the sun shines again.  Steel gray days, wet with sleet and cold wind; bare trees, low clouds...I know it's not really that bad; there are plenty of beautiful, crisp winter days so beautiful that your heart wants to break, but, well, I'm just not that kind of girl.  I like the sun.

And in just the few moments that it has taken me to type this it is now full dark. 

Can't we just spring forward, already?

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Take a Trip to the Cane River Bohemia Book Launch at Cammie Henry Research Center in Natchitoches

The Cammie Garrett Henry Research Center, NSULA
We drove to Natchitoches Thursday for the first book event for Cane River Bohemia.  I was a nervous wreck and looking back now, I can't fathom why.

The event was held on familiar ground, the Cammie Henry Research Center at Watson Library at Northwestern State University, where I did most of my research.  This is where Cammie Henry's archives are and a great deal of my research consisted of reading her letters, papers, documents, and the correspondence she received from others.

Mary Linn Wernet is the archivist there and she terrified me when I first began this project but soon became a friend and guide.  I could not have written this book without her and that's a fact.  Today, I treasure her friendship and smile every time I think about some of those days pouring over photographs with her and the discussions we had.

With Mary Linn Wernet, archivist, CGHRC


Mary Linn's assistant, Sharon Wolff, prepared a terrific exhibit prior to the book event which will remain on display for several weeks if you want to get over and see it.  It's all about Cammie and her circle of friends, and her children.  You can see photographs and scrapbook pages from Cammie's collection as well as letters between the circle of friends.  There is also a small table with Lyle Saxon's Children of Strangers on display and Caroline Dormon's Wild Flowers of Louisiana, which is very rare and impossible to find now.  It's the first time I've actually seen it and the color plates are absolutely stunning.

Wild Flowers of Louisiana by Caroline Dormon

As time for the event approached, I actually began to calm down.  The books arrived from the bookstore, the caterers arrived and began setting up, and soon the first guests began to arrive.  It meant so much to see some familiar faces and friends who drove over from Shreveport. That helped my nerves immensely.

The fabulous caterers: the cucumber sandwiches were fab!

The next two hours went by in a blur.  Literally everyone was so warm and welcoming.  Everyone was as interested in Cammie as I have been and it was especially gratifying to me to see that this is a book that people have been waiting to read.  Not necessarily MY book, but people have been waiting for a book about Cammie Henry.  Like me, they want to know more.  People got their books signed and then sat down at the tables and had refreshments or visited with friends.



During the evening I was so honored to see the president of the university, Dr. Chris Maggio, come by; he's doing great things at NSULA and is such a friendly and personable man. I really enjoyed visiting with him.

With Dr. Chris Maggio, NSULA President.  (Bill Vance photo used with permission,
Natchitoches Parish Journal).

I was over the moon when J. Michael Kinny came in.  J. Michael had The Book Merchant on Front Street for a very long time and it is still missed.  It was the perfect indie book shop and I have always wanted to open one just like it.  Maybe one day.  J. Michael wrote the blurb for the book and it was just perfect; he captured exactly what I wanted to achieve: "...you'll see Miss Cammie and Lyle Saxon sitting behind the Big House sharing stories and laughter...".  I want my readers to feel like they have experienced Melrose as it was when Cammie had her writers and artists colony there.  When J. Michael came in I bolted around the table to give him a hug. I'm forever grateful to him for not just the blurb but for being who he is and for sharing books with me through his shop.

With J. Michael Kinny, The Book Merchant

One of the highlights of the evening was when the Henry grandchildren came in.  I felt right at home with those ladies and wish I could spend more time with them.  What fun they are!  We laughed and shared stories and I just fell in love with them.  They felt like family.  I could not have been more honored that they came to this event.  I wish I'd taken a picture with them!

Several ladies with the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches came by and bought books, and had them signed, and that meant so much to me.  Their mission in preserving these historic sites, Melrose and Lemee House, and well as the rich cultural legacy of Natchitoches, is so important.  Having Cammie's story now available now only adds to the rich history at Melrose and hopefully will help support their cause.  I lobbied a little bit for the site manager job at Melrose but I didn't get very far!  ;)

In short, there was never any reason for me to be so nervous; everyone was, as Natchitoches always is, so warm and welcoming.  I was sorry for the night to end.  I was sorry we sold out of books: I wanted everyone to be able to go home with a book, but the bookstore did take orders and promise free shipping as soon as they arrive, so it turned out fine.

After the event, Steve and I headed down to my favorite eatery, Pioneer Pub, for fried alligator bites (and he had eggplant fries).  After dinner we turned north on I-49 and headed home but I felt like a kid at Christmas for the next 24 hours.

I'm looking forward to sharing Cammie's story in the coming months; the next event is the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge on November 9-10.

As I prepare now to begin another book, I'm not moving too far away from Cammie.  I don't want to go into details on the project yet but I will say that I am collaborating with someone on this one and I could not be more excited about it.  We've been doing some necessary legwork over the past few months and have all the pieces in place now, so I've boxed up my Cammie files, kept out the things I'm going to carry over, I've cleaned off my desk and I'm ready to start writing.

I'm not comfortable with a lot of self serving posts like this but the event was so wonderful and so gratifying that I just had to share it.  I can't thank everyone involved enough for making this happen.

Further Reading:
Cane River Bohemia Book Signing Held at Cammie G. Henry Research Center (Natchitoches Parish Journal, October 19, 2018).


Sunday, October 7, 2018

What are You Reading?

What are you reading?

I want to know!

I recently finished reading  One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood at the recommendation of my daughter, who has never steered me wrong in books, and it was exquisite.   I loved every single page and every little nuance.  It was simply the most beautiful book I've read in a long time.

It's a book that makes you feel smart, too.  So often I was thinking, "Yep, I see what you did there!  Very good!"

The premise of the book via Amazon is:
The story of your life never starts at the beginning. Don't they teach you anything at school?  
So says 104-year-old Ona to the 11-year-old boy who's been sent to help her out every Saturday morning. As he refills the bird feeders and tidies the garden shed, Ona tells him about her long life, from first love to second chances. Soon she's confessing secrets she has kept hidden for decades. 
One Saturday, the boy doesn't show up. Ona starts to think he's not so special after all, but then his father arrives on her doorstep, determined to finish his son's good deed. The boy's mother is not so far behind. Ona is set to discover that the world can surprise us at any age, and that sometimes sharing a loss is the only way to find ourselves again.
The relationship between Ona and the boy (he is never named) is charming and heartwarming.  Their conversations are delightful, funny, and enlightening.

I fell in love with Ona, yes, but I also fell in love with Quinn and with the boy who I really feel like I know.  But most of all, I fell in love with the writing of Monica Wood.

I have decided to buy this book for everyone I know for Christmas because everyone needs to read it simply because it's so beautifully written and crafted.

True love = me and this book.

I'm also doing some YA reading to keep up with my students so I just finished reading We'll Fly Away by Brian Bliss which is on the long list for the National Book Award.

This book will definitely engage my students and I can't wait to share it with them.  So many of them are in love with Angie Thomas's The Hate u Give and while this is not exactly like that, (different plot) it is as engaging.

Here's the premise for We'll Fly Away from the National Book Foundation:
Uniquely told through letters from death row and third-person narrative, Bryan Bliss’s hard-hitting third novel expertly unravels the string of events that landed a teenager in jail. Luke feels like he’s been looking after Toby his entire life. He patches Toby up when Toby’s father, a drunk and a petty criminal, beats on him, he gives him a place to stay, and he diffuses the situation at school when wise-cracking Toby inevitably gets into fights. Someday, Luke and Toby will leave this small town, riding the tails of Luke’s wrestling scholarship, and never look back.  
But during their senior year, they begin to drift apart. Luke is dealing with his unreliable mother and her new boyfriend. And Toby unwittingly begins to get drawn into his father’s world, and falls for an older woman. All their long-held dreams seem to be unraveling. Tense and emotional, this heartbreaking novel explores family, abuse, sex, love, friendship, and the lengths a person will go to protect the people they love.

Again, I felt like I knew these people.  Bryan Bliss has created a heart wrenching, thoroughly believable story and the tragedy of this book is that what happens to Luke and Toby can and does happen to our teenagers all the time. #truth

The writing is fast-paced, the dialogue is real, and whether or not you're into YA lit, you should read this book because it has implications for adults as well.  As a teacher, it has a message for me, too.  I'm interested in checking out other books by this author.

I've been reading a new author lately - new to me, that is.  I was checking out the list of authors that will be at the Louisiana Book Festival in November (I'll be there with Cane River Bohemia) and came across Steph Post.  When Michael Connelly writes the blurb for your book, I'm going to check you out!

I'm a stickler for reading books in order so I started with A Tree Born Crooked; again, here's the premise from Amazon:

James Hart, with a tough-as-nails exterior and an aching emptiness inside, does not want to go home. Yet when James receives a postcard from his mother, Birdie Mae, informing him of his father's death, he bites the bullet and returns to the rural and stagnant town of Crystal Springs, Florida, a place where dreams are born to die. James is too late for Orville's funeral, but just in time to become ensnared in the deadly repercussions of his younger brother Rabbit's life of petty crime. When Rabbit is double crossed by his cousin in a robbery-turned-murder, James and a local bartender, the unsettling and alluring Marlena Bell, must come up with a plan to save Rabbit's skin. A whirlwind road trip across the desolate Florida panhandle ensues as James tries to stay one step ahead of the vengeful Alligator Mafia and keep his brother alive. With bullets in the air and the ghosts of heartache, betrayal and unspeakable rage haunting him at every turn, James must decide just how much he is willing to risk to protect his family and find a way home.

I loved this book and I loved the characters, even the ones you're not supposed to like.  The whole time I was reading this book all I could think of was, "First novel?  Good lord, I can't wait to see what this writer can do!"

The story was fast-paced and full of suspense.  I was quite satisfied with the ending and so I moved on to Post's next novel immediately which is Lightwood.

Lightwood begins the Cannon trilogy and begins with Judah Cannon walking out of prison after serving his time for the family crime business.  He immediately reconnects with his lovely girl, Ramey, and then life gets complicated - not because of Ramey, but because  Judah is sucked back into the family business so fast he doesn't know what happened. He promises Ramey that they'll break free.  Soon.  Just not yet.  Tension.

In this book, Post creates one of the more interesting characters I've ever come across in Sister Tulah, a truly crazy preacher who has an iron thumb over the entire county.  You just know there is more to her story and Post artfully withholds some of that for later.

Where Lightwood ends, Walk in the Fire continues, the second book in the Cannon trilogy. I'm not finished with this one yet, but with only a quarter of the book left, I can tell it's going to be a real page turner until the end.  We have many of the same characters in this book as with Lightwood; even some of the ones who didn't survive Lightwood have a role in Walk in the Fire.  Post introduces a few new characters to this story and with each book I can see her craft become more and more polished.

I can say that because I've also read an advance copy of her latest novel, Miraculum, which will come out in January 2019.  I'll do a full review of Miraculum in a few weeks, closer to her publishing date, but just go ahead and pre-order that one because you're going to want to read it.

Miraculum is not about the Cannons, but is completely separate.  (Will there be a sequel, Steph?!)

 For now, I'll just say this:  think Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked this Way Comes crossed with The Greatest Showman, and Water for Elephants; add a serving of Steph Post suspense and tension, and you have Miraculum.  I truly loved this book and can't wait to share it with everyone!  It's the kind of book that even after you close the covers it stays with you.  You keep thinking about it.

I hope someone makes a really great movie out of this one because it's so visual and so textured; the characters are rich and finely drawn, and Daniel Revont needs to be played by Daniel Day Lewis.  Just saying.

I'm usually reading two, maybe three books, at a time and so I'm about to begin Delia Owens's book Where the Crawdads Sing.  This is another one recommended by my daughter, and like I said, she's never steered me wrong.  I can't wait to start it!  I also have some YA that I brought home for Fall Break reading: Mirage by Somaiya Daud and Dry, by Neil Shusterman among them.

How can one not love reading?!  There are so many great adventures between the covers of a book!

So, what are you reading?


Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Classroom Reading Project: Week Six

My classroom Friday afternoon; everyone is reading!
It's been a couple of weeks since I last updated on the Classroom Reading Project and so here at the end of Week Six, I thought it might be time to catch you up!

We are reading!

The background:  After spending the summer doing a lot of research and inspired by Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer and Penny Kittle's Book Love, my students are starting every class with fifteen minutes of silent reading.  My classroom library now has just over 300 unique titles and the total book count is about 340 with duplicates, and this is in a large part thank to the many generous folks who have been sending us books from my Amazon Wish List.  Additionally, I have been hitting thrift stores almost weekly and also ordering specially requested books from Amazon with my own money.  (I currently have three copies of The Hate u Give, and the school library has one, and we still have a long waiting list!)

Currently:  As of today, my students, across three classes, have read about 35 books since school started the second week of August!  (That's just counting books from my classroom library; I have one boy who read voraciously in books from home.) Plus one girl's mama read The Hate u Give too ("Where's your book today?" I asked.  "My mama picked it up and now she's all into it and I have to wait until she's finished!")

I'm pretty impressed with that number because when I went back and looked at my surveys we filled out at the beginning of the year, I did not have thirty kids that could remember the last book they read outside of required school reading.

That being said, I still have a number of students who have not finished a single book; they keep abandoning them and picking others.  This does not bother me a whole lot just yet because a lot of these students are not experienced readers and are finding their way to books, genres, and authors that they can connect with.  I'm doing everything I can to facilitate that and help my kids find the right books.

One of the things I’m trying to do more of is have conversations with my students about what they are reading. Now that we are some six weeks into this independent reading, I want to encourage them to finish books, reduce the number of abandoned books, and put books in their hands that ignite their love of reading and story.

I want to encourage them to read outside of class as well. We truly need to increase the number of minutes we read each day outside of class. The standard seems to be anywhere from 200 - 600 pages read a week to be prepared for college level reading, but for now, I need to meet them where they are and to help guide them to books that they enjoy but that also challenge them.

Overheard in the classroom this week: “The Bone Witch is so good! I read three chapters
My classroom Friday afternoon
yesterday!”

Spontaneous discussion among those finished with The Hate U Give:
“I didn’t like Starr; I didn’t like the way she changed herself and tried to be two people like when she went to school, it wasn’t how she really was.”
“No, I didn’t either! You have to be true to yourself, you have to be yourself!”
“I liked Kenya! She was funny!”
"But wasn’t Starr just doing what she thought she had to do to survive and do you think the story was about her actually finding out who she really is?"
"Maybe but you can't fake who you are."

One of my girls, at the end of The Fault in our Stars:
“Oh my gosh I thought HAZEL was the one that died! All this time I thought….oh my gosh, oh my gosh….” and she covers her face with the book for a moment before finishing the last few pages.

“Oh! You got the next Full Metal Alchemist?! I want it!”

"Is The Hate u Give back in yet?"

Reading Notebooks:  Each week my students write a letter to me in their reading notebook where they discuss what they've read, what they think will happen, how the book relates to real life (or not), or whatever is on their minds about their reading through the week.  Now, each week, more and more are giving me suggestions and requests to add to our Amazon Wish List.  Their letters are getting longer and more detailed, more thoughtful.  More reflective.  Many are asking for suggestions for their next book.  And I write back on each and every single one.

Wrap up:  So, here at the end of Week Six, I am still solidly committed to our classroom reading.  I don't have one-hundred percent buy-in, I won't lie.  I still have one boy who puts his book on his desk and never opens it.  I have a couple of students who are probably fake reading.  I'm hoping they will all come around.  I will continue to work with them and have conversations where I try to steer them to books that ignite a love of reading for them.  I have a couple who may or may not finish more than two or three books before the end of the semester in December, but that will be two or three more books than they have ever read, so I'm okay with that.

I do think that for many, it is the best part of their day (for some it may be the worst part, too!)  ;)

I'm keeping copious notes and reflections each day.  At the end of the semester I need to do a serious, hard reflection over this and be certain that it has been beneficial.  I expect to see improvements in writing, in vocabulary, in comprehension, and I expect my students to move to more challenging books by the end of the semester.  We are reading anywhere from a fifth grade reading level to an adult reading level.

My goal has always been to try and build lifelong readers and if I can aim some of my students in that direction then this has been a success.

Most Popular Books in M205 this week:  
The Hate u Give by Angie Thomas
The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater
Full Metal Alchemist series by Hiromu Arakawa
My Hero Academia series by Kohei Horikoshi
One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Paper Towns by John Green
The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Shameless Begging:  Our Wish List is updated with most recent requests from my students nearest the top.  Some are becoming invested in the series and want the next book and some have heard about books from others and have made requests.  Most are around the $10 to $15 range, all are less than $20.  We would love it if you would like to send us a book!



Sunday, September 9, 2018

John Bel Edwards Ready to Buy Teacher Votes for 2019

After listening to Governor John Bel Edwards rant and rail about Louisiana's fiscal cliff all spring, and after listening to Louisiana politicians wrangle over a single penny for months, now things have changed.  Now we are looking at an election year and Edwards wants to buy teacher votes to ensure his re-election in 2019.

The budget crisis gripped the state all spring and into the summer: old people in nursing homes got letters of eviction; every program imaginable was threatened with loss of funding from TOPS scholarships to food stamps.  Eventually, after scaring everyone in the state to death, legislators agreed on a 4.45% sales tax rate to save the day, plus some other shell game moves.

The crisis averted, the governor now looks toward re-election in 2019 and where else to start loading his votes but on the backs of teachers. This plan worked so well for him in his initial run as his wife, a former music teacher, appeared on television asking all of her brethren to vote for her husband because he knows what teachers go through.  He believes in teachers, she said.

That may be so, but we still have John White as our State Superintendent of Education and because of that we still have canned, scripted lessons in our classrooms and for that I hold John Bel Edwards responsible.

Granted, Edwards did not hire White; that distinction belongs to Bobby Jindal.  And Edwards has at times seemed interested in questioning White's job security:

In a renewal of tensions, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday his office is reviewing state Superintendent of Education John White's job status.  
Edwards, in his statewide radio show, said White should have faced state Senate confirmation during the 2017 regular legislative session, which did not happen. "He needed to be confirmed to continue to serve," the governor said. "We are looking at that situation."  
Edwards, an attorney, said the issue may need to be litigated but that he was not prepared to make an announcement.

That was over a year ago.

Efforts through the courts to remove White have failed due to lack of standing; the efforts have not come from Edwards who, according to the court, is one of only four people who could challenge White's contract.

As a teacher, it's probably not in my best interest to criticize John White, but as a human being I do think that the current curriculum that White has implemented across the state is a failure, a mess, and is dangerous to the future of our students.

I know students who used to love reading and love English who now hate it.  This is true.

I will never, ever be a fan of a canned, scripted curriculum that strips autonomy from teachers, that removes the teachable moment from the classroom, that requires teachers to read from scripts, annotate thick binders of scripted teacher notes, produce said annotations on demand, display canned PowerPoint slides, or that requires students to read the same non-fiction speeches and texts over and over and over and fill out the same graphic organizers over and over and  over for each one.

I could go on, but I'll stop with that.

And for this, I hold John Bel Edwards responsible.

It is almost without exception that each election cycle the politicians use educators and first responders as pawns to get themselves back into office.  The only time anyone ever seems to care about paying teachers or police officers an adequate salary is during an election year.  Otherwise they threaten old people with loss of health insurance coverage and terrify college kids with loss of scholarships unless they get more tax dollars with which they can continue spending lavishly on pet programs.

It's no wonder I've lost my taste for political blogging.

I don't know who is running against Edwards yet, but I'll be looking their way and listening to what they have to say about curriculum in our public schools.

They can keep their bribe money; I just want my classroom back.


Further Reading:
Louisiana's Future First Lady Donna Edwards has her Husband's Ear on Education Issues (NOLA, January 5, 2016)
Louisiana House Approves Compromise Sales Tax (NOLA, June 22, 2018)
With Cuts Near, Edwards Says Time for Solutions is Now (U.S. News, June 18, 2018)
What is a Scripted Curriculum and How Flexible is it? (SIGIS, May 30, 2018)
The Effects of Student-Teacher Relationships: Social and Academic Outcomes of Low-Income Middle and High School Students (Opus; NYU, 2013)
Meet John White (La DOE)
Teacher Slams Scripted Common Core Lessons that Must be Taught Word for Word (Washington Post, November 30, 2013)



Monday, September 3, 2018

Waiting for Gordon

Tropical storm Gordon

Last night as I was watching LSU’s trouncing of the Miami Hurricanes on television, I received a text message from a friend which included a screenshot of the new tropical storm in the Gulf, Gordon, with the question “Am I the only one who can feel a faster heartbeat and creeping anxiety over a pic like this?”

It’s an ongoing group text thread with some friends and every one of us knew exactly what she meant. I’d been watching that cone of probability all day long as it centered this storm right over New Orleans.

It’s only a tropical storm, it’s not a hurricane, and it’s probably not that big of a deal, but this is what living in Louisiana is like, especially after Katrina which was much in the news the past week with the thirteenth anniversary of that devastating storm.

Add to that last year's flooding along the south Louisiana coast with Harvey and, well, we can be forgiven if we look at tropical storm warnings a little differently than normal.

The New York Times has a story today about Hurricane Harvey and about how many poor neighborhoods in Houston are “slow to recover” :

A survey last month showed that 27 percent of Hispanic Texans whose homes were badly damaged reported that those homes remained unsafe to live in, compared to 20 percent of blacks and 11 percent of whites. There were similar disparities with income: 50 percent of lower-income respondents said they weren’t getting the help they needed, compared to 32 percent of those with higher incomes, according to the survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation. 

And while Louisiana escaped the brunt of Hurricane Harvey, areas along the coast received up to twenty-two inches of rain which just added insult to injury after the devastating 2016 Louisiana floods.  In August 2016 much of south Louisiana received devastating rain totals as a slow-moving storm drenched the state and left many homes uninhabitable.

 So, yes. Whenever we see those weather graphics with those cones of probability slamming right into our fragile coast, we get a little nervous.

It doesn’t stop us in our tracks, though. We are used to this. It comes with the territory (literally!) and the flooding and storms are part of our routine. We prepare, we wait, we watch, and sometimes the predictions are wrong. Sometimes they are right.

But I do believe that Katrina changed things for us. I’m in northwest Louisiana and so Katrina as a weather event didn’t affect me very much, but Katrina as a human drama certainly did. I’ll never ever forget the haunted eyes of those refugee children in my classrooms.

With this little storm, Gordon, who is making its way over the coast this week and later across the northwest corner of the state, what I worry about most is south Louisiana and our very fragile coastline and vanishing wetlands. I wonder why we have no better answers to protect them and I worry about places like Isle de Jean Charles, for example, that are already so endangered. What must those people be thinking as they look at the weather forecast this week?

In the meantime, we celebrate our LSU Tigers' performance last night, and I think I will go start a pot of gumbo and hope that the storm moves quickly through.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Classroom Library Project: Week 3

There is good news to report this week!  Not only are we still reading in all three of my classes but now many of my students are finishing their first (and second) books and asking for more!

If you are just now tuning in to my Classroom Library Project, you need to catch up!  Go here first for the week one update, then here for week two.

As I have done for the past two weeks, I stayed about an hour late after school Friday afternoon to read and respond to every student's letter in their Reading Notebook.  What was different this week is now they are asking for certain books, authors, and series to be added to the library! 

When I started buying books last spring and filling out the Amazon Wish List, I think I was pretty heavy on fantasy and gothic sort of YA novels.  I did NOT anticipate the huge love of manga and graphic novels.  I have now added lots of these to the wish list, as requested.  

I also am learning about my students and their individual interests.  I have one young man who wants to draw comics and he is obsessed with Stan Lee and Marvel comics.  He has asked for a couple of titles to be added to the Wish List that he would love to read, and so I have added How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way for him as well as Stan Lee the Man Behind Marvel.  

I have another young man who is burning his way through the My Hero Academia series and is reading them as fast as I can order them; he is currently waiting on volume 5 which I have on the way.  I have added other volumes to the Wish List.

I can't keep The Hate U Give on the shelf; both my two copies and the copy in the school library have waiting lists and so I went out today and picked up another copy.  Everyone wants to read it before the movie comes out next month.  As many book donations as I've received, trust me when I tell you I've spent a fortune out of my own pocket at both Amazon and thrift stores.  A.Bloody.Fortune.

No regrets.

There is another young lady who is currently reading Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Beals about the integration of Little Rock Central high school.  She's dying for more books like that one and so I've added some titles that she would read.

The bottom line is that they are reading and asking for more.  It doesn't get any better than that.  

In their notebooks this week, when I wrote back, I started prompting various students about titles they might consider for their next book because I know they are getting close to the end of their current book.  Additionally, I've started displaying books on the chalk rail with catchy blurbs to spark interest.  These books tend to get picked up faster than ones on the shelf, so I'm going to probably add to that and increase display area.

It's not all sunshine and roses.  I have two boys who will not open a book.  Both pull out the same book every day, set in on their desks, and leave it closed, staring sullenly into space.  I'm not sure what to do with these two.  They're not ugly about it at all, but they don't want to make an attempt.  Both are smart boys.  I've talked to both and both insist they are reading but I never see the books open and neither book ever leaves the room. I don't want their reluctance to spread to others so I need to find something that will catch both of them and spark interest.  I'm working on that.  It is my personal challenge!  Bring it on!

The best part of this whole thing is that I know the large majority of my students are reading and enjoying their books.  They talk to me about them and they tell me about their books.  I hear the gasps of surprise in those fifteen silent minutes every day and I see them pull their books out when they finish their work to read for just five minutes more.  

I have two Donors Choose Projects up - one for fiction titles and one for non-fiction.  I'm hoping some philanthropist will come fund them.  I have the Amazon Wish List which works better than anything else.  And I have a couple of grant proposals out there.  I'm going to keep this going and keep adding books, one way or another!

Read on!




Sunday, August 26, 2018

Louisiana's Criminal Justice Reform: Sheriff Prator Expresses Concern

Last week Caddo Parish Sheriff Steve Prator visited with Erin McCarty and Robert J. Wright on 710 KEEL radio about Governor John Bel Edwards touted Criminal Justice Reform.

The bipartisan legislation revamping the way Louisiana deals with criminals and crime was passed in 2017 in an attempt to lower Louisiana’s notoriously high incarceration rate. The reform bill was authored by six Republicans, two Democrats, and one Independent. Those designations mean little though; in Louisiana all you have to do to get re-elected to the other side of the legislative chamber is change your political affiliation, if not your beliefs.

In a meeting with President Donald Trump in early August, Governor John Bel Edwards said, "In Louisiana, we're proud of the work we've done. It's been sentencing reform, prison reform, and a real focus on reentry and for the first time in 20 years, I can tell you Louisiana does not have the highest incarceration rate in the nation today."

In 2017, U.S. News and World Report listed the top ten states with the highest incarceration rate in the nation and Louisiana was number one, and designated the prison capital of the world.

Everyone agrees there is a problem here but consensus begins to diverge when we begin to nail down what those problems are and how to solve them. Senator John Kennedy, (R-LA) is one of those voices against the new reforms: “Well, the governor and I just disagree,” said Kennedy. “He thinks our problem in Louisiana is we have too many prisoners. I think our problem is we have too many people committing crimes.”

Sheriff Prator is more specific. In his visit on KEEL radio last week he enumerated several changes he believes are problematic. One of his concerns is that the re-entry programs that are supposed to help the newly released acclimate into society are not yet in place. “We’re designing the bus while we’re driving the bus,” he said, “and somebody is gonna get killed, and people are getting killed…”.

Sheriff Prator is referring to two prisoners who were arrested on drug charges that were released in November, who have now committed murder, and have been rearrested. One of these was in Ouachita Parish and the other in Bossier Parish.

These re-entry programs are supposed to be funded in part by the savings gained from lowering the incarceration rate. Sheriff Prator directs citizens to page 38 of the Practitioners Guide for the new reforms which explains that in the first year, 35% of the savings will go to the Office of Juvenile Justice for Strategic Investments and to the Department of corrections for the same purpose. Nobody has said what those strategic investments are; Sheriff Prator did not know.

Still in the first year, 14% of the savings will go to Victims’ services (this number drops to 10% after the first year.) Twenty-one percent goes to “Grants: community-based programs” (drops to 15% after year 1) and 30% of the savings from early release goes to the General Fund to be spent at legislators’ discretion.

What concerns Sheriff Prator a great deal can be found on pages 6 and 7 of the Practitioner’s Guide which outlines new thresholds and penalties for non-violent crimes. Apparently, we are not all in agreement on what “non-violent” means. For example, under the new law, a person could barge into my home with a firearm and could be free the very next day. This is now a probationary offense.

Specifically, the former penalty for this was mandatory five to thirty years. Now it is 1-30 years and the one year is not mandatory, according to Sheriff Prator.

 Another example: no longer considered a violent crime is “mingling harmful substances”; in other words, if someone drops a date rape drug in your drink, this is a non-violent offense. So is extortion and a drive-by shooting if you happen to miss hitting a person. See page 7 of the Practitioners Guide for these.

Here is the chart found on page 7 of the Guide:

Reducing Minimum and Maximum Sentences, p. 7

 Penalties for crimes have been drastically altered as well, such as debt forgiveness. One scenario described by Sheriff Prator would be that of a repeat offender for theft, for example. If the judge orders that person to reimburse the victim, the most they have to pay back is the equivalent of one day’s wage per month, and if they do that for one year the balance of the debt is forgiven.

 Additionally, third and fourth DWI offenses are now backed down to probation and may qualify for diversion, which means that it is not recidivism if it never happened. At least on record.

Nobody, not even Sheriff Prator, thinks our prison system was without fault before these reforms. Everyone agrees that change was needed. But perhaps we have once again passed a bill without really knowing what is in it. At the very least, we have passed a bill that releases prisoners without the safety net to keep them from reoffending. Those programs simply do not exist yet and that is not a good situation for the citizens of Louisiana or the newly released.

Read the Practitioner’s Guide; it’s not a complicated document. You can find it here.

Further Reading:
U.S.News and World Report:  10 States with Highest Incarceration Rates (7/26/17)
Two Louisiana Inmates released early under reform accused of murder: The Advocate (8/2/18)
Louisiana's Criminal Justice Reforms 2017: Pew Research Group (3/1/18)
Governor Edwards Meets with President Trump: WAFB (8/10/18)
Disputes over La. Criminal Justice Reform Continue: KTBS (8/16/18)
Sheriff Steve Prator Highly Critical Of Prison Reform Efforts KEEL Radio (8/22/18)
Louisiana's Justice Reinvestment Reforms Practitioner's Guide (8/1/17)
Equal Justice Initiative

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Classroom Reading Project: End of Week Two

Every single student is reading!
I sat at my desk after all the students left on this Friday afternoon and wanted to weep.  I was overwhelmed.  But it's probably not what you think.

I started Donalynn Miller's Forty Book Challenge this year after reading (devouring) her book, The Book Whisperer, this past summer.  Here at the end of Week Two, I am simply astounded.  I did not think that after twenty-three years in the classroom that my students could or would surprise me, but boy was I wrong.

I wrote about Week One here - you should read that before you go any further if you haven't already.

Briefly, I have dedicated at least twenty minutes, and perhaps more, of class time every single day for my students to read books of their choice.  I spent the summer collecting books through donations (thank you!!!!) and through my own thrift store excursions.  We now have almost three hundred unique titles and duplicates of about twenty-five more.

As our new school year started, discussions of books was part of the very first day and by the end of week one (which was only three days), I had ten books checked out already from our classroom library.

The next Monday, the first full week, we started reading.  We started at fifteen minutes every single day no matter what.  I don't want to signal that anything else is more important than reading.

I have one Creative Writing class, one regular English II class, and one Pre-AP English II class.  Last week I reported that perhaps five were not really on board with this reading thing.  In the meantime I picked up one new student who was not with us from day one and that changes the dynamic just a little.  He was not there for the Readers Interest Survey or the initial book frenzy that happened the first week.  He's a little reluctant.  Very polite, but for the past four days has had a book on his desk with the cover closed, sitting quietly until we are through reading.

This won't do.

So Wednesday I conferred with him before class and explained, this is what we do here in this class; we are readers.  We read.  "I promise, we can find a book here that you will enjoy reading."  He looked at me skeptically, nodded his head, and kept the same dystopian novel on his desk, unopened.

Thursday I stopped him as he entered the class and asked him if instead of reading today, would he mind filling out this Reader's Interest Survey and this Student Interest Survey that everyone else filled out on the first day?  He happily agreed.  So at this point, he was not just doing his own thing,  he was doing what I asked of him.

From his survey I learned that he does like sports and he is in fact not a fan of reading.  He has few books in his home.  He has not read a book since middle school.  But, somewhere in that process he became more open to what everyone else in the room was doing and today, Friday, he read a chapter in his book.  Not only that, he wrote about it in his Reader's Notebook which we turn in every Friday.  He's with us!

When I took up Reader's Notebooks last week, the response letters the students wrote to me were perfectly adequate and covered their bases, but nothing stood out much.  As I said last week, the responses were not superficial - I could tell they were reading, but it was obvious that the relationships weren't all in place yet.

This week?

Oh my goodness.

I stayed late (again) to read and respond to every single one.  The responses made me want to weep!

These kids are really reading.  Several have finished books already and are on their second or third books.  Some are relishing the books they have and said they don't want them to end.  Many of them asked for recommendations about what to read next:

"Mrs. Becker, I'm reading this book, and it's good and all, but I really don't know what I want to read next.  Suggestions appreciated.  And welcome!"

The beginning of a trusting relationship.  BOOM!  (I suggested five different titles for her.)

In these early weeks, I am reading with them: in her book, Donalynn Miller makes the point that kids need reading role models and she says she read along with her students for the first few weeks before she then began to move among them having little conferences with each one about what they were reading, making suggestions, and sharing thoughts.  I am currently reading What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World by Cat Warren.  (I love the irony of a book about dogs written by a woman named Cat.)

I'm going to make an analogy here - it might be a stretch, but stay with me on this.  In this Dog book, Cat Warren is discussing training dogs; she has a German Shepherd she has trained to be a cadaver dog.  In discussing this training, she compares the energy level and curiosity of working dogs to the "notion of human expertise":

"We watch playful children start out banging incoherently on the piano.  That's a start but it's the structured, guided practice and play with constant feedback over an extended period of time that can turn random notes on a keyboard first into 'Doe, a deer, a female deer' and ultimately into Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight'.  That is, if a parental figure doesn't ruin the sound of music by haranguing the child to practice.  Along the way, a number of the motor behaviors for playing the piano become automatic, so the child doesn't have to think about them. The fingers start to fly by themselves up and down the ivories as body memory pulls them along."

Why would reading be any different?  I don't believe that it is.

Warren goes on to explain that in training dogs, it takes time to develop the necessary skills and that they "need a chance to learn before their capabilities are dismissed."  It takes time.

And this is why we do not, and will not, skip our designated reading time every single day.  It's that important.  Students need to see that it is priority.  Their learning, their time, is priority.

Warren later explains about training her dog, Solo, to specific scents.  She describes hiding the cadaver scent in a series of buckets and to the dog it all seems like play, but of course it is through conditioning that the dog is rewarded when he finds the right bucket with the right scent.  Praised and rewarded, "he is hooked."

One of the trainers Warren worked with explained it to her:

"When people get interested, they can get hooked hard-core.  They don't like not being successful." 

He was talking about gamblers and comparing that drive to training dogs, but the analogy seems clear.

Students don't like not being successful either, and I believe that when they have choice about what they read the odds of success go up exponentially.

So, we read.  And we will read, every single day.

Watching this all unfold in my classroom over these past thirteen days has been the most remarkable thing.  I know it's early.  This could all still go crazy wrong.  I sure hope not.

This afternoon when I stayed until four o'clock on a Friday to read and respond to these weekly letters in their notebooks, as I said before, I wanted to cry.  Remember my boy I wrote about last week who told me he did not like to read, did not want to read, and he just looked miserable?  Last week I put Chasing Space on his desk with a sticky note that said, "Try this one!"

This week, this is what he wrote:



He is enjoying the book!  He's making connections to his own experience.  He's learning new vocabulary, background knowledge, syntax, and comprehension skills.

And you know what else?  The relationship is there.  Trust.  We have had several conversations this week about books, about what he is reading, and about school.  It's the most rewarding thing in the world.

It's why I teach.


And y'all - I think I'm going to need more books!  Here's the wish list if you want to send us something!  ;)

I am so excited about what this year will bring and about how much my students are going to grow!