10 Things I Know to be True

This year I am making an effort to write beside my students in class as often as I can. Thanks, Penny Kittle for showing me the importance of this idea. I want to share my writing with them, make my process visible, take their critiques, and join the community. In my poetry class of 11th and 12th graders, we started our year with list poems. I stole Sarah Kay’s idea of “10 Things I Know to be True” after we watched her wonderful Ted Talk. Here is the poem I wrote on the whiteboard in class. 

10 Things I Know to be True

1. Teaching is about welcoming each person into the room.
2. Yesterday, someone at this school thought this was my first year here.
He didn’t know my name.
3. Some teachers like to squash “trouble-makers” the first day.
They might be wiser than me.

4. When I drive to school in the morning, I often sit in my car until the song finishes.
5. I try not to break speed limits, but ONLY because I can’t afford a ticket.
6. A man once told me he will gladly pay $100 for his right to go 90.
7. He was never a “trouble-maker.”
I was.

8. I have no problem waiting for someone to merge in front of me. Letting them in. Good “car-ma”?
9. Teaching is about knowing what’s difficult and why, even if it’s easy for you.

10. Teaching is about letting them in.



Friday Reading Rainbow

A weekly round-up of what I’ve been reading, for interested parties 


The Fever Tree, by Jennifer McVeigh

Frances Irvine, set adrift by her father’s death and financial ruin, has two options. She can work as a free-labor nanny and housemaid for her poor, brash Irish aunt, or she can marry Edwin Matthews, a doctor working in South Africa, who has been desperate to marry Frances since she was a child. Accustomed to the finer things in life, Frances chooses the latter. On the way to marry a man she doesn’t love, she meets the charming yet cutthroat William Westbrook. Passion ensues, but Frances’s fate is yet to be determined. South Africa is, needless to say, not what she expected.

I rarely say no to a well-written, romantic work of historical fiction. If you like flawed protagonists, well Frances is about as flawed as you can get (she’s spoiled, unaware of her own privilege, racist, gullible, and selfish). The background of the book is intricately constructed and fascinating– diamond mining, smallpox epidemic, labor exploitation, and the wildlife of South Africa. I am especially interested in how Frances’s dawning awareness and appreciation of the natural world fosters her own self-knowledge. I do hope that she turns out to be redeemable, and that she finds a way to dig beyond superficiality.

Side note– in terms of racial issues, this isn’t the most radical book. It does show Frances questioning her assumptions, and there’s a strong contrast between the game hunter mentality of brutal William and the charitable Edwin. Certainly a “white savior” complex going on here, and problematic use of non-white people as background.

Find a copy at Indiebound


In honor of immigrant families, and in defense of DACA:

“Sympathy for foreign mothers” by Threa Almontasar.

The Book List

My 11th grade AP students will be doing independent reading this quarter, and I put together a book list for them. The goal was to find as many books as possible that would be challenging, engaging, and maybe even life-altering. I’ve read many of these titles, but others have been heartily recommended by people who love books. Thanks to all who contributed ideas! 


Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro

Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini

Atonement Ian McEwan

Kindred Octavia Butler

The Book of Unknown Americans Cristina Henriquez

Ways to Disappear Idra Novey

Like Water for Chocolate Laura Esquivel

The Bird Artist Howard Norman

A Prayer for Owen Meany John Irving

Last Night in Twisted River John Irving

The Things They Carried Tim O’Brien

We Were the Mulvaneys Joyce Carol Oates

The Bean Trees Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible Barbara Kingsolver

The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison

Home Toni Morrison

The Beet Queen Louise Erdrich

The Round House Louise Erdrich

A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole

The Weight of Blood Laura McHugh

The Mothers Brit Bennett

The Past Tessa Hadley

To the Bright Edge of the World Eowyn Ivey

The Bones of Paradise Jonis Agee

Snow Hunters Paul Yoon

Ruby Cynthia Bond

The Fishermen Chigozie Obioma

The Namesake Jhumpa Lahiri

The Glass Palace Amitav Ghosh

The Kitchen God’s Wife Amy Tan

Buddha in the Attic Julie Otsuka

Neverhome Laird Hunt

Gilead Marilynne Robinson

The Shipping News Annie Proulx

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant Anne Tyler

Playing in the Light Zoe Wicomb

Peace Like a River Leif Enger

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Jonathan Safran Foer

Let the Great World Spin Colum McCann

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao Junot Diaz

The Sparrow Mary Doria Russell

Oryx and Crake Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale Margaret Atwood

Station Eleven Emily St. John Mandel

The Summer We Got Free Mia McKenzie

The Dew Breaker Edwidge Danticat

White Oleander Janet Fitch

Burial Rites Hannah Kent

The Art of Fielding Chad Harbach

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay Michael Chabon

The Kitchen House Kathleen Grissom

Middlesex Jeffrey Eugenides

Half of a Yellow Sun Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Snow Falling on Cedars David Guterson

Homegoing Yaa Gyasi

The Sellout Paul Beatty

The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears Dinaw Mengestu

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents Julia Alvarez

All the Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr

The Steady Running of the Hour Justin Go


What do you think? What books should be added to this list? 

Sunday Sentence

The best sentence I’ve read this week, out of context and without commentary.

On the day of the conference, Leonie hissed: He ain’t stupid. Jojo, let’s go. And I winced at the way she used ain’t and the way she leaned in to the teacher without even knowing it, and the teacher blinked and stepped away from the latent violence coiled in Leonie’s arm, running from her shoulder down to her elbow and to her fist.

Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing 

I read an excerpt of this new novel after reading an interview with Jesmyn Ward .


The Narrator is the House

I think that in my new novel, the narrator is the house. It’s a story about two people, unsuited for each other and each with their own dramatic issues, who inherit a house together and have to deal with the fallout from the decisions of their respective relatives, who are now dead. I don’t want to favor either of the people over the other (and in fact this is a current struggle, because I keep switching between perspectives and I know I’ll need to sort it out later), so I think there has to be an outside view, and I think now, it’s the house.  I figured this out this morning because I was reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird guide to writing and she asked me if my narrator was interesting. Who is my narrator? I think it’s the house.

But I don’t want it to be the house in the sense of “Woah, it’s the house!” and I’ll tell you why. When I read Jazz in my Toni Morrison seminar in college, my Professor asked us a question that pissed me off. She was a fantastic professor, and she is a giant in her field and was very influential to my thinking on race, class, gender, and sexuality, and she was great every other day. But this day– oh no. She asked us, “who is the narrator?” and we, a stacked class of curious intellectuals, started discussing the qualities of the narrative voice. It was an interesting voice, we decided, musical and rhythmic as fitting the title, but also violent and harsh. We noted some interesting things that Morrison had done with her language. Our professor asked us once again, “so who is the narrator?” and we were stumped. Then she announced, “It’s the phonograph!!!” in such a gleeful tone that it was as if she had yelled “Surprise!” and we’d all jumped.

Well, I didn’t like that, Sam I Am, not one bit. I had read the book carefully, thoughtfully, taken some notes along the way. I considered myself prepared for discussion. Yet I had missed what was apparently the crucial piece of the puzzle. I had to then go back and question my own reading of the novel and wonder if there were obvious passages that had been supposed to lead me to this revelation. I am not a perfect reader, so it’s possible that I did miss something. As an English major, I was willing to do this questioning, but I think as a reader, I wanted the important parts of the book to be actually influential to my reading. I wanted to feel an awareness of how things were working.

I am revealing here another issue that I face in my writing. My day job as a high school English teacher is to analyze literature by reading it closely, and I find it nearly impossible to flick that monocle away from my face when I’m reading and rereading my own writing. This can be helpful, because asking myself “why did you write it this way?” is usually a good editing question (if I have a solid answer, I leave it be; if I don’t, it needs work). But I need to be feeling more than I’m analyzing when I am writing, and I think that trying to leave clues for future analysts is not the way to go. I need my readers to feel what I’m feeling.

The house might work as a narrator for my story because it takes place partially in the present and partially in the past, and the people from the past part are dead now, so they can’t exactly appear and narrate their story (it’s not that kind of book, people, and besides, I think ghost voices are so self-righteous). I need a way to see into all these different spaces and see everyone’s secrets.

I also realized, in the course of musing on all this, that I had already integrated this idea into my writing without knowing why. It felt fun to note that the cross-stitching on the kitchen door sampler isn’t perfect, but that the characters actually present in the room don’t notice it. It’s also nice to think that when the scene moves out from a conflicted scene in the kitchen to a contemplative scene on the back porch, it’s not just me creating contrast, but it’s the house talking to me and any future readers, taking us in hand and guiding us gently, kindly through the story. A household god of sorts, or a grandmother. I think that if I did this right, a reader might feel shepherded through the story, and that would be a great gift.

But I suppose if you don’t think it’s the house, then it’s not the house. You can decide.