Caged Warrior by Alan Lawrence Sitomer

Caged-WarriorMcCutcheon Daniels, an up-and-coming underground MMA fighter, wants a shot at the MMA title, but he must first make his way through a series of older and tougher opponents before that can happen.  His father, a former boxer, introduced him to the world of MMA, but his father uses him as nothing more than an ATM to fund his drinking and gambling habits.  McCutcheon’s mother mysteriously disappeared years ago, and the only true person he truly feels any responsibility for is his younger sister.

I don’t follow MMA and I don’t watch boxing, but I found this novel gripping, albeit bordering on inappropriate for upper middle school readers.  Amazon places it in the grade 7-12 range. McCutcheon is a good guy.  He works hard in school, cares for his sister, leads a disciplined life, and sees MMA as a way to escape his impoverished upbringing.  However, he’s faced at every turn by his maniacal father, who plays a demented opposing personality.  His father will stop at nothing to secure a title shot and huge payday, the majority of which he’ll blow on booze, women, and gambling.

Alan Lawrence Sitomer has written a young adult novel focused on the seamy underbelly of a sport, mixed martial arts, that has capture the fancy of many young adults, yet he does not glorify the sport.  Boxing was once said to be the path for many poor minorities to escape the inner city.  MMA appears to have assumed that mantel.


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Do as They Say, Not as We Teach

Reading is one of those things that you can’t only instruct.  You  have to let students muddy the water and grapple with purpose, themes, issues, conflicts, characterization, and any other elements an author uses to bring the confounding elements of life to the table.  Today in class, our discussion took us to a place that some observers might have thought was off-track.  After presenting students with Larry Fondatation’s short story Deportation at Breakfast, I warmed them that this would be a reading experience like no other.  The characters, at least from my perspective, are static; the conflict is tied up in the issue Fondation presents readers, meaning it’s neither internal or external; and students must avoid the pitfall of judging this story by its two-page length.

The literary fiction short stories we’ve read this year fall into three categories.  The first category, what we’ll call category one stories, present readers with pretty explicit conflicts and lessons.  In fact, category one lessons are often tied to epiphanies experienced by the protagonist.  My readers are quite comfortable looking for internal dialogue beginning with “It was then that I realized…”  Category two stories are more implicit.  Category two stories demand readers to isolate the turning point, or climax, and infer the lesson learned by the protagonist.  They have aha moments, but these moments occur between the lines.  Both category one and category two stories are defined by their dynamic characters.  On the other hand, category three stories like Deportation at Breakfast may contain static characters, may be devoid of more traditional story elements like the aha moment, and may lean more heavily on social commentary.  Category three stories beg the reader to contemplate an issue the author is struggling with.

Some might think that Fondataion’s story presents our insensitivity toward others, the contentedly-oblivious nature of humans, or our numb response to immigration.  These are heady issues, the type authors of category three stories want us to read, go away from, and return to multiple times.  And, while the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) appears to embrace this style of close reading, the tests used to assess how the CCSS are being taught do not.  Students are not allowed to leave the text and return to it with a fresh set of eyes (and a different perspective) during PARCC testing. Only so much time is devoted to each test, so the “real” reading reading strategies we implore students to utilize are impossible on standardized tests.  The clock is ticking.

Education is known for its cruel ironies and oxymoronic stances.  We teach kids how to read, we provide them with strategies, and we allow for reading time in class.  Our hope is that like sleep for babies, reading begets reading.  We encourage students to take a break from complicated pieces of text and return to them later with a fresh set of eyes because that’s what we adults have found to be the best way to see all facets of a story, a problem, an article.  But what we preach can’t always be practiced, leading to the confusion of today’s students, who, through our instructional practices, demands, and assessments, have come to falsely understand that a challenging piece of literature can be read, analyzed, mastered, and written about in the span of 50 minutes.  This is really what we are intentionally or unintentionally teaching our children.  And it’s harming them.

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I’m Back!

For some strange reason, my Blogger account was lost.  Kennedy’s wonderful and talented LRC Assistant, Sue Altman, sent me an email wondering where my blog had gone.  Sue is one of my loyal readers (and proof readers), so when she can’t find my blog, I know somethings very, very wrong.  When I attempted to log on, I couldn’t find my blog either.  Lost are all of the books I’ve reviewed since Heart of a Shepard.  Looks like I have some work ahead of me this summer.  The loss of my blog has actually been a good thing, though.  With greater importance placed on PARCC testing, curriculum development, and standardized testing in general, I have lost touch with why I began blogging.  I blog so I can write.  After all, I’m a writing teacher, and writing teachers should practice what they preach.  Therefore, I plan to make this blog more than just a book review site for a handful of people to read.  I would like to…actually practice what I preach.

Writing is another way of thinking; it’s a way to express one’s feelings during times of great uncertainty; it’s a means by which to work through important issues in a very public way; it’s the ultimate risk – putting thoughts to words and publishing them for all to see.  Writing is so many things that our students never actually experience because so many of them are indoctrinated to believe the five-paragraph essay is the be-all-end-all and every topic should have three supporting points, whether the third is valid or not.

From this point forward, I will attempt to recreate the book review blog entries I previously posted, but lost, on Blogger. I will also attempt to put forth my observations of education, our new environment of compassionate data gathering, and how it can all be done while preparing eighth graders for career and college readiness.  After all, aren’t 14-year-olds quite taken with their prospects for college and how ready they will be for the unknown career that awaits?

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Frustrated…But Hopeful

It’s predictable.  This time of the year frustrates me.  Midterms have gone out, and most have been returned.   Students have eased into the natural rhythm of seventh grade; most appear to be enjoying themselves.  So what, might you ask, is so frustrating?  Reading, for some, has dropped off.  But I’m hopeful it will turn around.  I teach middle school, after all, and sometimes all we have to operate on is hope.

The word just should never precede the word reading.  For instance, students sometimes enter my room and ask, “Mr. K-C, are we going to just read today?”  I know what they mean.  In translation, they are asking if I can forget the day’s mini-lesson and grant them 41 minutes of uninterrupted reading time, rather than the 25-30 minutes they normally receive.  They don’t mean anything by using the word just.  They don’t yet have an appreciation of the connotation it conveys.  Students want to read in class.  Even the most reluctant readers will confront a book when there is nothing else distracting them.  The only thing I need to do when working with a reluctant reader is make a good recommendation.  Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will make them laugh, but it will also make them feel emotions they’ve never experienced before in a book.  Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted will tempt them with a romance between Tyler, the protagonist, and Bethany, his foil.  Or, they fall in love with Suzanne Collins female protagonist, Katnis, as she struggles for survival in The Hunger Games.

I’m not frustrated with what students do in class.  But as I said earlier, it’s easy for a reader in class because there are so few distractions.  However, outside of class, I’m sure you can understand, is a different story.  In the last week or so, I’ve heard, “I had too much homework to read last night.”  I’ve also heard, “I didn’t get home from (insert activity) in time to read.”  Students don’t view reading as homework, which I guess is ok with me; reading as homework has a bad connotation.  I want them to view reading as an intelligent, engaging and worthwhile practice.  Some, unfortunately have reduced their 20 minutes of reading per night as an option, something that can be missed if other “more important” activities monopolize the time.  Reading is being sacrificed.  But there are solutions.

My sons have been indoctrinated to pick up a book any time they get in the car.  In fact, our minivan is sort of a mobile library.  They also eat while reading.  I guess I could say they read while eating, but we sometimes have to say, “You better start eating or else you’ll be late for school.”  We also read together as a family.  This is not to say we avoid television.  We watch plenty of television.  We often read together at night, before bed, either from our own books or from a book we’ve all chosen to hear read aloud.  Reading has become habitual in my house.  But it didn’t become this way by chance.  My wife and I had to model our expectations, just like I model my expectations for students in class.  Kids are smart.  They are less likely to read at home when reading is not valued.  Yes, you may value reading, but adolescents don’t want to hear your values without seeing them in action.  At least this is what they tell me almost every day in class.  So, I write with them and I read with them.  I can’t be the equivalent of the boss who tells his charges to do something while he goes off and does something else. 

I know I’m sounding preachy.  Part of me doesn’t want to sound this way, but another part of me is planted firmly on a soapbox from which I refuse to be pushed off.  Readers can’t be made in school alone.  They must be nurtured.  This nurturing must occur in all aspects of their lives.  Help me.  I’m hopeful we can work together – me in my classroom and you at home – to model for and create critical readers.


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Heart of a Shepherd by Rosanne Parry

My wife constantly chides me over my fascination with father-son stories in young adult literature and movies.  They just get to me.  I’m not a Disneyfied happy ending type of person.  I loved that Mockingjay ended with a flawed, scarred Katnis.  But my childhood has left me yearning for happy father-son endings, so I typically gush over these types of books.  That’s it.  She still gives me grief.  🙂  Rosanne Parry’s Heart of a Shepherd is one of these books, and I can’t stop recommending it to students.

Ignatius Alderman, or Brother as he’s known to everyone, wants nothing more than to figure out what he’s meant for.  He lives on a ranch in the rural Northwest, and he’s taken on a boatload of responsibilities for someone at the tender age of 12.  His father has been shipped out to Iraq with his reserve unit, his older brothers are either away at college or high school, and his elderly grandparents are hearty souls, but they just aren’t up to the rigors ranching presents.  So Brother takes on his share and more.  Along the way, he does extra chores, studies, yearns for his father, wishes his mother, an artist, hadn’t run off to Rome, keeps in touch with his brothers, and watches over a bunch of new flock sheep.  He’s been warned not to get too attached to them, but Brother just can’t resist.  He has the heart of a shepherd. 

There are certainly more obstacles Brother faces while holding down the fort with his grandparents, but to tell you would ruin the story.  It’s a beautifully-written story.  It left me wishing for more.  Rosanne Parry has a way with words that makes reading effortless.  Her style is simple, much like Markus Zusak (The Book Thief, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, and I Am the Messenger); her short sentences carry enough imagery to make my seventh graders recognize it.  That’s no small feat.  Truthfully, her writing has allowed me to show students that simple and varied declarative sentences are a strong base from which to tell a story.  I hope they listen because she is a spectacular model.  Heart of a Shepherd is on the Rebecca Caudill list.  It’s my favorite so far.  It will take a great one to change my mind.

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Powerless by Matthew Cody

Matthew Cody’s Powerless explores a question we middle school teacher have been grappling with forever.  What happens to children when they turn 13?  In Cody’s new book, they lose their super powers and become normal teens, just like the rest of us.  But I think the commentary in the book goes well beyond what pre-teen and early-teen readers might suspect. 

Daniel recently moved to Nobles Green, Pennsylvania with his parents and younger brother to take care of his ailing grandmother.  He knows no one, but doesn’t seem to sweat the fact that he’ll start a new middle year in just a matter of days.  One day, while playing outside, his little brother rushes into the street after a ball; Mollie, the same age as Daniel, whisks his brother from the street just before he would have been crushed by a passing care.  In fact, Daniel is barely able to see her move, so he feels like he might have misinterpreted what happened.  When he confronts Mollie, she acts as though she doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  But she does. 

Daniel manages to get himself into a few more precarious situations that require the assistance of Nobles Green’s finest pre-teen super heroes.  Very soon they realize they must let Daniel in on their secret, even though he has no special powers to speak of.  His arrival in town is more a gift than a burden to the supers, though.  These young super heroes are on a quest to figure out why they lose their powers smack dab on their 13th birthdays.  And, since they will all be turning 13 soon, Daniel will play a key role in the discover.  Any time supers attempt to stay with another super on the eve of his or her 13th birthday, they also lose their powers.  Since Daniel has no super powers, he can sleep over, keep vigil, and potentially figure out what goes on.  You see, the super turning 13 has no memory of his or her super powers, and due to the this amnesia, loses contact with the group.  Daniel is the lynch pin in a movement to help them extend their powers beyond the age of 13.

The book leaves us with some appropriate questions to ponder.  For all practical purposes, teens feel powerless.  They crave the independence they perceive adults to enjoy, but they are stymied at every turn.  But they are saddled with not being old enough to do many of the things adults do, while taking on very adult-looking physiques and many of the urges that come with adulthood.  Daniel begins feeling these urges for Mollie, and you get the sense that she feels the same way, not that either of them know what to do or how to talk about it.  They are powerless to act because they don’t  yet have the skills or abilities to do so.

The book could also be about sucking the power of childhood away from kids when they hit the ripe, old age of 13.  Ok, maybe the number is just a random one, chosen by the author it is the age most kids think about as the entry point to pseudo-adulthood.  We do call 13-year-olds “young adults.”  Maybe Cody is trying to say that by immersing this age group in many of the events and conundrums our generation faced at a much older age, we are taking away the power of childhood.  I don’t know.  As an adult, that’s what I thought of while I read the book.  I would be interested to hear your takes on the book.  Let me know.

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Filed under family illness, grandparents, K-C, Klein-Collins, loss of innocence, Mr. K-C, Mr. K-C's blog, science fiction, Uncategorized, young adult fiction, young adult literature, young adult literture

Missing in Action by Dean Hughes

After Jay’s father’s ship is torpedoed by the Japanese, Jay and his mother must come to grips with the fact that he’s missing in action, and, in all likelihood, he’s dead.  As a result, Jay and his mother move back to the small Utah town where she grew up.  Life in this small town is a bit different from the comparatively large city of Salt Lake, where Jay has lived most of his life.  He misses his father and worries that she is moving on and accepting his death.  She tells Jay to hold out hope, but her demeanor and actions say something else.  But his mother needs support, a job, and a different way of life, hence the move to her home town.   Jay, however, holds on to an idyllic image of his father. 

Complicating matters, Jay is part Navajo, triggering the nickname “Chief” from his new friends.  He’s unsettled by the nickname, but he doesn’t know how to stop it.  He’s new to town and doesn’t want to make waves.  He grudgingly accepts the nickname as a link to his father.  Jay’s new hometown also  happens to be located near a Japanese internment camp.  Through working on his grandfather’s farm, Jay gets to know Ken, a Japanese-American teen who wants nothing more than to enter the war and fight for America.  This conflicts with what Jay knows about the Japanese.  A Japanese boat torpedoed his father’s ship, the town is suspicious of all Japanese, and Ken comes on strong, practically bragging about how he’ll become a war hero when he enters the war.  Ken has something to prove. 

Jay can’t quite deal with his mother’s attitude.  When he comes home to find her talking with one of her former high school boyfriends, Jay decides he must take matters into his own hands.  He’s caught between supporting his mother and accepting their fate or holding on to his father’s memories. 

Dean Hughes is a masterful storyteller whose backdrops, most recently, have involved war time.  Missing in Action, along with Soldier Boys and Search and Destroy, are some of the best young adult novel recommendations I can make to those who are interested in stories revolving around war.  Because they don’t glorify war, Hughes presents sobering accounts of World War II and Vietnam.  He specializes in stories of inner conflict and themes that are highly relatable.  I hope he continues churning them out.

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