Book donations!

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – As I was thinking about what to share with you this week I gave some deep thought to trashing John Bel Edwards and his tax-raising, money-grabbing administration of our state, and I also thought about listing the myriad reasons why Mitch Landrieu would be a terrible president of our country should he actually run (I think he will run, for the record), but instead I’ve decided to be more positive today and write about philanthropy and the generosity people have in their hearts.

I do a lot of writing on my own blog and in other places about my classroom and my students; it is no secret to anyone that I stand in strong opposition to Common Core which has stripped my sophomore English classroom of novels and implemented a 75% non-fiction reading curriculum.  I firmly believe that my students need to read novels, short stories, poetry, and plays.  They need to be able to get lost in the pages of a novel, to lose track of their world for a bit and vicariously experience the lives of Scout Finch, Daisy Buchanan, Harry Potter,  Ramona Quimby, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Meggie from Inkheart, or even Boy21.

In the spring of this year I polled my students about their reading habits and was dismayed to find that almost none of them had read a book for pleasure since elementary school.  They were very candid about their reading and their feelings about it.  Giving me some small hope, I also learned that many of them enjoyed reading in the past but as they advanced through school and they were channeled into more unpleasant reading chores, they turned against it.  I figured then that maybe I could reignite a love of reading in my students, despite the Common Core mandate that fiction is passé.

So to that end I began my campaign to build a classroom library.  I wrote about it (and my students’ responses) on this blog in May.  My goal was to accumulate 500 high-interest books, YA and classics, by the time school starts on August 6.

I’ve spend the summer painting bookshelves in my classroom and collecting books.  I’ve begged for books on this blog and my own and I’ve combed local thrift stores every week since May.  I now have nearly two hundred books for my library!  It’s not my goal of 500, but it’s not August 6, either.  I’m still going!

The kindness of strangers has overwhelmed me – literally.  I established an Amazon Wish List and people I don’t even know have sent books, many with the most supportive and kind notes included!   I’ve received both new and gently used books from the Wish List and people have boxed up books that would be of interest to teenagers from their own homes and sent to me.  It’s amazing!

As each book comes in, I cover the paperbacks with clear ConTact paper to protect them, log them into a database, and put a book pocket and checkout card in the back.  Book jackets for hardbacks are laminated.  I want these to last a long time.  The books that I’ve never read, I read.  I want to be able to “sell” these books to my kids so I have had to do a lot of catching up on YA fiction.  I’ve read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller who is the goddess of classroom libraries and Readicide by Kelly Gallagher.

Book donations are still trickling in and I hope that as school starts they will pick up again and I can reach my goal of 500 books.  I have a project on Donors Choose that I hope gets funded and I’ve written a couple of grants that I hope come through.

My point here is one of optimism.  I believe people are really good and really want to help when they see a need.  I’ve seen such generosity and philanthropy through this project that it really lifts my heart.  I spent much of last year angry about not being able to share fiction and reading with my students.  They are in tenth grade and naturally have little interest in an unvaried diet of Supreme Court decisions, presidential speeches, and scientific articles which comprise 75% of our curriculum.

This year, I’m excited about returning to my classroom and introducing them to new worlds!  An of course research shows that readers score better on tests which will make my administration happy.  I care less about tests than creating lifelong readers, but it is a necessary evil, and my students do get a sense of pride when they score well.

At any rate, I have about three more weeks of summer and more thrift shops to hit to reach my goal.  My Wish List is here if you’d like to send us a book.  But most of all, remember, people are really good and even though we see a lot of anger and negativity in the world these days, sometimes we need to look past that and find something positive to hold on to!

 

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport; she is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation (Oct/’18). Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25.

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – It has been about ten days since I launched my Classroom Library Project in an effort to build a new classroom library for the purpose of encouraging my high school students to fall in love with reading again, and in those ten days I have now received over 60 books donated from my Amazon Wish List.

That’s simply amazing to me.  It reaffirms my faith in humanity that people will donate to a project like this.

To recap, our state has adopted its own version of Common Core and is now fully invested in pushing this curriculum across the board.  As far as ELA goes, it has stripped complete novels from the syllabus with the explanation that “if students want to read the entire book they can do it on their own.”  Meanwhile, students are required to read non-fiction articles and complete endless graphic organizers analyzing claim, rhetoric, proofs, as well as endlessly annotating through one “close read” passage after another.  In one case we read the same twenty-one-page speech three times, each time looking for something new.  No wonder kids hate reading these days.

As these books from my Wish List have been coming into the classroom, my students curiously eyeball me as I open boxes and envelopes, log in the accompanying notes so I can send thank-you notes, enter each book into a data base, and then I stick a pocket and sign out card into the back of each book.  Each book jacket gets laminated for protection.  I read each new arrival if it is something I’ve never read before.  I want to be able to talk about these books with my students. My kids are watching these books stack up and I can literally see their brains start to fire up.  They’re anxious to start reading!

One of the books that arrived (an anonymous donation) was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.  I’ve seen a lot of buzz about this book on social media and now there is a movie coming out based on the book.  I’d never read it and in fact when I read the dust jacket my initial reaction was “ugh…another propaganda piece” because it is about a black teenager who gets shot by a white policeman.  The narrator of the book is a girl, his best friend, who was in the car when the incident occurred.

Despite my hesitation, the book has drawn me in and I can’t put it down.  I’ve already encouraged my students to check it out of their local library and read it and we have had long conversations about it.  The book never tries to preach one way or another, never bashes police officers, never takes sides; what it does though is open the door for dialogue. Reading gives us the opportunity to “rehearse” real life situations and talk about them, whatever the subject matter. The writing is engaging, and the characters are excellently drawn.  I can see a teenager picking this book up and not putting it down until the end, and that’s what I want to see.

I’m going to continue to build my little library over the summer through my Wish List and by combing thrift stores and garage sales.  I’ve also started a Donor’s Choose project to help get funding, and I’m applying for a couple of local grants.

I’ll teach the curriculum because it’s in my contract but I’ll bend over backwards to ensure that Common Core doesn’t kill the love of reading for my students.  If I have to work harder and spend more of my own money to do it, then so be it because I think it’s that important for kids to be readers and to love reading.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation (Oct. ‘18/LSU Press).  Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25.

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT — “What was the last book you read outside of school — something you read just for fun?  And if you don’t like to read, why not?”

That was my First Five for my grade 10 ELA students one day last week.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research this past year on literacy, curriculum, and how reading affects test scores.  It’s no secret that Louisiana has consistently placed near the very bottom of the list when it comes to reading scores as compared on a national level.

There are a lot of factors that go into those national scores, such as NAEP scores, and it’s not really accurate to say that all students in Louisiana are poor readers.  That is far from the case. But for clarity, in this post, I’m looking at those poor readers. Many of them come from low income families who don’t have books in the home or are products of families where nobody has had time to read aloud to the children very often.

As a parent of two avid readers, I was reading to both of my kids before they were even born.  As infants they were read to every single day.  They’ve never seen me not reading at least one book and our house has always been filled with books and magazines.  It’s just who I am.

But that’s not the case for many of my students.

Compounding the problem for these struggling readers is the Common Core curriculum in which students no longer read entire novels.  Common Core, at least as far as ELA courses, is terrible.  It’s killing the love of reading.  I’ve written about that rather extensively herehere, and here.  As teachers, in my district we have been told that if a student wants to read the entirety of a novel from which we are only teaching certain chapters, “they can read it on their own.”

Well, that’s okay for a strong reader, but I know a lot of struggling readers who will not be able to take on the elements in The Scarlet Letter without some help, nor would it be a book they would willingly pull off the library shelf.

Additionally, there is a difference between academic reading for class and simply reading for the pure fun of it.

What I want to be able to do is to create lifelong readers; I want my students to leave my class having read several books of their own choosing, about topics that they are interested in, and that they are excited about reading.

And since my official mandate is that they “can read on their own,” I’m going to start a classroom library.  Oh yes, we have a school library and it’s wonderful.  We have a librarian who orders books kids like to read and she listens to their requests and suggestions.  But I also think that a classroom library can supplement that. And a student that might not make an effort to go to the school library might just access a classroom library.

Having a library in the classroom sends a message of literacy and encourages reading to students.  If that library is filled with nice, interesting books, just waiting to be read, even better. I want my classroom library to be filled with books that my kids want to read and that are geared toward their interests and their lives.

In response to my First Five question above, about the last book you read, I got answers like this:

“I can’t remember the last book I read.  I hate staring at thousands of words and sitting still that long.  I hate reading!”

and this:

“I don’t know. I think it was a Goosebump book.  I don’t have time to read.”

and this:

“I love to read books and I used to read all the time.  I don’t really know why I don’t read any more.  You can learn so much when you read.”

That student is right.  Reading can drastically increase a child’s vocabulary.  That in itself will increase test scores, but this isn’t about test scores for me.

A lot of the responses indicated that they liked reading in lower grades but somehow just quit doing it.

I don’t want one more child to leave my room not having read a book.

So, I have a plan.  I’ve assembled an Amazon Wish List to start a classroom library and as this school year draws to a close, I am planning new things for next year.  If I can’t teach books in class, I’ll do it out of class; I’m a rebel like that sometimes.  I have plans to encourage students to read from my classroom library and to share what they’ve read with others.  If I need to use incentives to get this started, I will.  (A kid will read almost anything for a honey bun!)  I have shelving and I have a corner space ready to go. I’ve ordered book pockets and cards so I can check the books out to my kids.  It will be attractive and inviting.

I want this to be a fun experience; not like the old Accelerated Reader program where you had to read a book “on your level” with the proper color sticker on it and then take a ridiculous test on it to step your way up to a quota.  Research shows that this program is useless.  Kids that like to read will read anyway and kids that have to read to get an AR grade just learn to hate reading more.

I’ve started an Amazon Wish List and if you would like to help, you can go here, and order whatever you like and have it shipped straight to my classroom. Most selections are under ten dollars. I’ve already started assembling books on my own through thrift stores and through the library book sales and the college book fair.  What I need now are nice, new books that pull my kids into a love of reading!

The list is here.  It’s long and I’m constantly adding to it.  I posted it on my own blog a few days ago and already I’ve received thirty-one books!  It reaffirms for me not just the good in people but that people really do believe in kids and believe in education.  The notes that are coming with the books indicate that people are choosing books that meant something to them or their own children as readers.

I’m collecting these books all summer and when we go back to school in August, I hope to be able to offer a well-stocked classroom library full of engaging books of all levels and subject matter to my students.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport. She is the author of the upcoming Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation (LSU Press/Oct.’18).  Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25.

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – Every now and then I have to step back from politics, take a break from the insanity, and escape in a good novel. When I find a writer or a novel that’s really, really good, I like spread the word.

As a longtime fan of Michael Henry’s novels, I was thrilled to find his latest, Murder in the Grove, is now available on Amazon in Kindle format (the paperback should be available by the end of this week if you prefer).  Mr. Henry is a sort of local celebrity – he was a prosecutor in nearby Natchitoches parish where he practiced civil and criminal law, twelve of those years as District Attorney. His novels are a cross between John Grisham and Michael Connelly.  If you like either of those two guys, you’ll love Mr. Henry’s books.

Murder in the Grove is a very timely novel; retired prosecutor Willie Mitchell Banks has moved to Oxford, Mississippi where he is content to live quietly, sipping vodka tonics and playing golf at the local course with his weekly group until he is approached about looking into a cold case that involves the murder that occurred during the September 1962 Ole Miss riots when a black military veteran enrolled in Ole Miss.  Federal and state forces were embroiled in violent clashes with southern segregationists and in the end there were two dead and many injured.

It falls to Willie Mitchell to find out what happened to a young man who was killed that night but was not part of the official death toll because his body was not found until several days later and was not found on campus.  Blending actual history and entertaining fiction in this novel, Michael Henry gives us characters that are thoroughly realistic and human, dialogue that is sharp and witty, and a memorable plot that is tightly-woven and filled with surprises.

I’ve read the entire Willie Mitchell series as well as Mr. Henry’s stand-alone book, Finding Ishmael, and think this one may be his best yet. (For years, Three Bad Years was my favorite, but I think that’s changed, now). If you’ve never read his work, this novel can certainly stand alone, but it will leave you with a desire to go back and read all of the others.  The character of Willie Mitchell is beautifully drawn; he and his best friend, the fat banker Jimmy Gray, banter back and forth like only long-time friends can and with such wit and humor that you feel like you know these people.

Mr. Henry’s books present a view of the south that is not stereotypical and does not pit blacks against whites as Hollywood would have you believe is always the case. His plots and his characters are drawn from his real life experience in the south both in and out of the courtroom and are a joy to read. I can’t fathom why he isn’t selling more books than Grisham or Connelly but I think it’s probably just that he’s our best kept secret. Once he is “discovered” he will quickly join the ranks of acclaimed southern writers.

Check it out:  Murder in the Grove. Let me know what you think.

 

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – Our humble little burg has made national news; as it turns out, big government does not approve of the Little Free Library.

The little library controversy began (in Shreveport, at least), a couple of weeks ago when Ricky and Teresa Edgerton received a cease and desist order from the Metropolitan Planning Commission zoning division who advised that their Little Free Library was in violation of a zoning ordinance regarding commercial activity.  As most of us realize, of course, there is no “commerce” involved with a Little Free Library.

The premise of the Little Free Library is “take a book, leave a book.”  That’s all there is to it.  These units have popped up all over the country; some are “official” Little Free Libraries, and some are simply neighborhood driven.  Official Little Free Library owners are “stewards” who either pay a charter fee or purchase their unit from the Little Free Library organization.  You can do that, or you can just build one yourself or put an old newspaper box outside your house.  There is one near my house, for example: an old newspaper box refurbished, painted, and now serving as a neighborhood book swap.

Apparently someone complained about the Edgerton’s library and thus the MPC got involved.  Via The Shreveport Times:

MPC Board chairman Lea Desmarteau addressed the matter in a message posted to her Facebook page.

“Our current zoning ordinances are antiquated, therefore unfortunately lead to these types of situations. However, there is a silver lining. The MPC is in the process of a massive rewrite of these antiquated codes and ordinances,” she wrote. This has not been done since the 1950s, she said.

The MPC seems to be trying to work out the problem.  Meanwhile, the story went viral on Facebook and last week the controversy appeared in an L.A. Times article.  In Los Angeles a little library owner was told to remove his unit because it was “an obstruction.”

There was a zoning controversy in Kansas City last year.

Nebraska has wrestled with the issue.

So has Wisconsin.

And now Shreveport.

What in the world do these people have against free books?  And community building?  What mean-spirited person would complain about such a thing?

In Shreveport, the support for the library has been positive.  The Little Free Library Shreveport community has printed signs that say “I support The Little Free Library” which people are placing in their yards.  There’s a petition circulating to be presented to the Shreveport City Council this week which now has over 2,000 signatures.  The number of little libraries has increased significantly since the controversy.  The Shreveport Times posted an editorial:  “Why Pick on the Little Free Libraries?”

From what I can tell, these units are small, inoffensive, and usually kind of cute.  They encourage both kids and adults in neighborhoods to read and to share books.  They foster a sense of community in these neighborhoods.  I’ve never seen anything offensive in my local unit. So, what’s the problem?

Seems like a win-win to me.

 Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport

 

By:  Pat Austin

ishmaelSHREVEPORT — The summer reading season is almost upon us and it’s time to assemble your vacation reading stack.  If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to make a suggestion.  If you haven’t read Michael Henry’s books you need to add them to your list.

Author Michael Henry has his own wonderful style and a gift of the ability to create memorable ad quirky characters, but if you asked me to compare his writing to anyone on the market today I’d have to say he’s a cross between John Grisham and Michael Connelly.  Maybe some James Lee Burke, too.  His latest novel is reminiscent of John Ludlum or Dan Brown.  Well, with all that, let’s just say Mr. Henry has his own style which is reminiscent of some other really great authors!

Mr. Henry’s latest novel, Finding Ishmael, might be his best one yet.  I first started reading his books in 2010 with Three Bad Years (which remains my personal favorite) and I eagerly anticipated his next novel as soon as I finish reading one.  So far there have been seven!  (If you haven’t been reading him this means you have missed seven great novels!  There’s your summer reading right there!)

In Finding Ishmael we meet oilman Liam Connors who receives a mysterious letter from long lost fried Ike Palmer.  Ike, now in Jerusalem, says he has found an ancient document that will turn the political and religious landscape of the world upside down.  Ike, who says he’s had the document authenticated, needs Liam’s help to keep the document safe as he is under surveillance and, well, a little paranoid.  The document concerns Islam’s historic claim to the Promised Land through Ishmael, thus the title.  Of course Liam and his girlfriend Mimi get on a plane to see Ike although Mimi has some very real concerns.  Things unfold rapidly from there and that’s as much of the plot I will give you, but suffice to say, it’s an incredibly topical book right now and very intriguing.  Don’t start the book if you have something pressing to do because you won’t be able to put it down.

With Finding Ishmael, Mr. Henry deviates a bit from his first novels which are legal thrillers.  As a former DA in Natchitoches, Louisiana, Mr. Henry has the background for writing excellent courtroom drama.  He is also highly skilled in constructing dialogue and characters; many times I have found myself with the feeling that I know these characters personally.

Finding Ishmael is the first of Mr. Henry’s novels not set in the south; most of this novel takes place in Jerusalem and the characters are all well drawn and memorable.  Ike Palmer is as bizarre as any character you will find anywhere.  In Jerusalem, Liam is aided by an aide of Ike’s, Menachem, and the dialogue between Menachem and Liam is always engaging and often funny.  As the novel approaches its climax, the book is just impossible to put down.

While Mr. Henry has written six other books before and there are recurring characters in each, this novel can stand completely alone as it is the first that introduces Liam and Mimi.  The Willie Mitchell Banks series should probably be read in order, but that may just be my own particular fetish.

The subject matter of Mr. Henry’s latest book could not be more relevant to today’s headlines as the Middle East is in turmoil and our Secretary of State John Kerry continues to blunder and mismanage relations there.

I recommend starting with Finding Ishmael (because it’s so topical right now), and then go back to Three Bad Years and read through the rest.  Take it from an avid reader – you will not be sorry.  All the books are available either in paperback through Amazon or on Kindle.

Perfect summer reading!

 Pat Austin also blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport.