Book Snap #113: The Anthropocene Reviewed

My last post was a year ago. That seems likely, and also sort of sad. It was a long, drawn-out, painful year.

We went back to school hopeful: cheeks shining from summer’s kiss– masks firmly affixed over mouth and nose. It paled in comparison to the promise of the new year: a jumble of in-person learning, quarantines, lock-downs, sickness, and even a strike. My desire to read dwindled in lock step with my depleted energy and my To Be Read pile lay dormant and dust-covered. (1 star).

I, optomisitically, agreed to participate in a book relay hosted by our district literacy leads, but more often had to pass the novel onward at deadline before making it completely to the end. I repeatedly fell in bed exhausted after reading Isaac his bedtime stories, (I could review and recommend a multitude of Gordon Korman’s novels for fourth-graders!) neglecting the books calling to me from my own night stand. However, one of the books offered in the relay was John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed. I just purchased a copy, because, like many of the relay titles, I didn’t get to finish before the deadline. But what I did read, I loved! And thinking about it again inspired me to write this post, a year since my last.

When it first arrived in school mail, I had been setting my students up to write reviews of their own. We had been exploring all kinds of mentor texts: we read reviews of songs and albums; video games; movies and TV shows; sports plays; and books. This has always been one of my favourite pieces to write with my students. Two reviews that remain my past-all-time-favourites include one that analysed Matthew McConaughey’s performance in Dazed and Confused. The essay begins with the perfect hook: All right, all right, all right. And second, the review of Steph Curry’s basketball acumen where I first discovered what a G.O.A.T was; and the criteria with which to evalute one. Green cracked open yet another realm of choice and I couldn’t have been more excited to share these ideas with my students.

I had noticed the title in passing (it remained on best-seller lists and was promininetly displayed in many book-selling venues), and wondered: “what the heck is an Anthropocene?” Green explains: “The Anthropocene is a proposed term for the current geological age, in which humans have profoundly shaped and reshaped the planet and its biodiversity” (p.6). Green imparts that having been employed for several years at Booklist, reviewing hundreds of books, he became well-versed in the style and format of a review (they specifically hold a tight word count of 175 words or less.) He then started to notice that “everyone had become a reviewer, and everything had become a subject for review” (p.7). Indeed. I often seek out reviews of: restaurants (hello, Yelp!); vacation ideas and accommodations (hmmm, TripAdvisor?)… A small gripe: 1 star for the review in the Fodor’s guide of Japan (print edition from forever ago when I was there) that recommended (and convinced my genki companion and I) to “slide down” the volcanic ash of Mt. Fuji, which turned out to be terrible, awful, dreadful advice. But I digress. Of course, Facebook and Twitter have become platforms for all kinds of verciferous reviews — of products, services, businesses, opinions, politics, behaviour– everyone is a reviewer and everything is a subject for review!

Green walks through what he knew and what he discovered about review writing, which was powerful in helping my students create strong reviews themselves. When he reviewed books, “I” was never in the review: How many times have students also been told to use this disinterested observer stance? Too many. And the result is wooden writing. It was his wife who {thoughtfully} surmised: “…in the Anthropocene, there are no disinterested observers; there are only particpants… when people write reviews, they are really writing a kind of memoir— here’s what my expereince was eating at this restaurant or getting my hair cut at this barbershop” (p.8). And so, amidst a global pandemic, Green wrote about songs, comets, scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers, Diet Dr. Pepper, teddy bears, air-conditioning, the Internet, sunsets, CNN, whispering, Kentucky Bluegrass, Googling strangers, and so much more of what the anthropocene has to offer. Each essay embodies Green’s quirky vibe, lots of thoughtful details and compelling support, and a final 5-star rating. I highly reccommend you listen to my favourite essay (from what I have had the opportunity to read so far), “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” on John Green’s podcast: The Anthropocene Reviewed; my students and I read this together to inspire our writing. They wrote thoughtful and passionate reviews on all kinds of artifacts from the anthropocene, including: soccer shoes, french fries, napping, roadtrip-playlists, movie scenes, and more!

I offer you my own Anthropocene-inspired reviews using the tight Booklist word count! (A fun quick write exercise for students (or playful writers) too):

This Morning. I was fully prepared to do Teddy’s morning walk: I had a podcast cued up and earbuds charged; a tank top and joggers, left conveniently, on the floor next to my bed– ready to wear collection. But, Teddy-the-adorable-fluffy-personal-trainer is in high demand! He trotted off with Ben before I could get my feet on the floor. Awake, and rested, and presented with new possibilities for the morning, I hopped on my yoga mat. Delicious stretch! Deep, centering breaths. Letting (more) go. Enjoyed a hot coffee with my Starbucks Almond and Oat Non-Diary Caramel Macchiato Liquid Coffee Enhancer (that name is so gob smackingly pretentious, but it’s so delicious!). Got the Wordle in three tries: impressive! Overall, I’d give this morning a solid 4 and half stars (for the missed the walk in the woods!)

Beach vacation. Sand flats, flip-flops, tide is high, salt water, time off, barefoot. Northumberland Strait, lobster rolls, read and fetch, Tomohawks, bonfires, freckles. Marshmallows, peaceful place, reading books, swimming. Breathe the air! Sea glass, local brews (Tatabrew & Leo), poker-face, Isaac’s omlettes, hose your feet, Jerk chicken, tired doggy, lighthouse! Birthday lunch, old friends, haskap berries, sweet earth, doodle duo. Beach vacay? 5 stars! (Writer’s craft move: all evidence, unexplained: A list of what makes a perfect 5!)

Walks with Teddy. It has been scorching lately– 39 degrees Celcius (literally, in the shade.) That calls for a leisurely walk through the woods so as not to overheat Teddy (or me, for that matter), but he is only minimally slowed by heat. Slow walks are for flip-flops instead of sneakers– I like barefoot, or as close to it, as much as possible, all summer. I listen to a podcast (Arm Chair Expert is my clear favourite), moving slowly and feeling part of the conversation. I breathe more deeply; inhaling fresh air, earth, flowers. When coaxed to (finally) slow down, Teddy gets busy sniffing it all in too! Walking with Ted is always 5 stars, although accumulated evidence may vary by season, weather, or location.

Lunch with a special friend. I needed to connect with someone special in person yesterday, because texting doesn’t give hugs, and sometimes you really need them, and I have really missed hugging, and it was truly lovely. The day sizzled but we were cool ladies in sundresses (love an excuse to get a little more dressed up on a summer day!) the waitress complimented us as we arrived. We had a nice umbrella-ed table at The Lighthouse, with a view of the Wolastoq, enjoyed a Tickle Fight and savoured every last morsel of lunch; watermelon salad and flatbreads. We shared recommendations for documentaries to watch and podcasts to listen to. We connected, we talked, we hugged. A blistering hot 5 stars.

Book Snap #100

Title: Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage

Author: Myron Dueck

Date Read: Spring 2021

Two snaps.

This was a professional read, obviously. It led me to enter Dueck’s Twitter contest by tweeting a photo of myself and Teddy with the book. We won!

Dueck skillfully delivers on topics that resonate with how I teach. Just as the title says: giving students a say is essential in empowering, engaging, and also in communicating student learning. I also strongly believe that in order to accurately report on a student’s learning, they must be a part of the conversation; they know how they learn; who they are, their strengths and areas for growth; and what they have learned: that’s essential information in student-centered pedagogy and essential insight into accurately assessing a student’s learning. It offers a necessary piece of triangulation evidence: conversations, amongst teacher observations and student generated products. Triangulation means using more than one method to collect data on the same topic. Giving students a say ensures the validity of the assessment: who knows more about their own learning than the learner?

Myron Dueck is also the author of Grading Smarter Not Harder which I also resonated with and loved. Dueck still teaches in British Columbia. He can be found on Twitter.

"If assessment means "to sit beside," we need to stop figuratively placing the learning outcomes on the table between us and our students, informing them of what's right and what's wrong, and instead slide our chair around to the same side of the table to facilitate a conversation. Assessment would then become a process by which we collectively strategize and codesign how we will best approach, evaluate, and report on the learning objectives. Students would ideally be able to demonstrate understanding over a period of time, drawing on examples and discussing challenges and what's been learned from these experiences. Just imagine the transformational potential if learning were to truly become a partnership between the teacher and the learner." (Dueck, Giving Students a Say). 

Book Snap #80

Title: Kids These Days: A Game Plan for (Re)Connecting with Those We Teach, Lead & Love

Author: Jodi Carrington PhD

Date Read: April 1, 2020

Two snaps.

This was a staff book club pick– and a real winner! When we came together (on Zoom) to discuss it — it had our unanimous praise.

If you have not heard of Dr. Jodi Carrington, you are in for a treat. Carrington hails from Alberta, bringing a classic Canadian-girl charm and warm kindness to her philosophy and approach to child psychology. A mom to her own three “babes”, Carrington proposes that the most integral step in helping kids who experience grief and trauma is to assist the people who hold them– their parents, educators, and counsellors.

She speaks with a humbling reverence for teachers and the challenging work they do in assisting all of the kids in their care. Above and beyond all else, she posits that it is connection that we all crave– and that many of the kids we serve are terribly disconnected. There was a time when families lived close to and with extended family. They weren’t so distracted and busy– there was connection. In fact, she writes: “… every time you hear yourself say, that kid is attention seeking or lying,” try to replace that phrase with, that kid is “connection seeking,” and see what happens” (p.63).

In teaching, in parenting, in coaching– in any capacity in which we look to help kids learn and become better at something; our job, first and foremost, must be to develop a relationship with the person we want to teach. Kids do not learn from people they think don’t like them. I have taught for over 20 years, and I know nothing to be more true. Teaching is about relationships. I think that is why online teaching during a pandemic is so difficult; we miss out on the face-to-face interactions that help us to form strong relationships. In fact, Carrington outlines five keys to (re)connecting with people in our life; and one of those keys is eye contact. She writes, “I talk to educators about doing this every day so they can connect with their students: Meet your students in the morning and greet them with their name and notice if they give you their eyes. The ones who do make contact easily concern me far less than the ones who don’t” (p.122). What I wouldn’t do to be in the hallway to check in with my students right now!

Another key to reconnection is to “get down on their level.” She says that meeting someone face to face is where the magic lies. I know this all too well from parenting. (Have you ever seen a mom kneeling in front of a toddler in the candy aisle? Turns out she knows her stuff. Been there. Done that.) She writes: “Being on the same level as the other person allows for easier access to their eyes. It slows you down too because you’re consciously thinking about creating an optimal environment.” She notes that fear based techniques certainly have their proponents and do garner some success in times of significant distress; you can threaten or inflict pain and likely get a response– but where do these approaches leave the relationship? Without a relationship, you cannot teach. And I love this, “When compliance from people we love or teach is predicated on what they stand to lose, they will never be motivated by respect. They will be motivated by fear. And fear is very different from respect” (28). You don’t learn to get better or to self-regulate when you are fearful of the person holding you.

When kids are dysregulated (or have “flipped their lids”) they are in a primitive state of fight, flight or freeze— and they need us, the adult, to offer them soothing connection. Carrington explains the Circle of Security, and our job as regualtor is: “Always be bigger, stronger, kinder and wiser. Whenever possible follow a need. Whenever necessary, take charge” (p.48). Which means, she says, “when your kid is losing their freaking mind, you need to dig deep into the core of yourself and figure it out with them” (p. 49).

Carrington describes so many of the kids we meet in our work: regular lid-flippers; Caillou kids; Flat Stanley kids; attention-seeking; manipulative liars (you need to read her book to get her great descriptions of each of them)… but, as she says, “these babes all have the exact same needs. How they pull for us to meet those needs makes all the difference” (p.71). Carrington is on the mark throughout this book. She spoke to me as a teacher, as a parent, and as a leader in my school. Carrington’s experience as a child psychologist allows her to build narratives around each of these kids, suggesting strategies to repair and rebuild relationships. You will see many of the kids you have taught, or coached, or cared for– and you will understand them better. And, hopefully, after reading her book, be in a better place to help them in the future.

She even seemed to narrow in on my own marriage. She explains that “[We] often tell people what to do, rather than showing them. We say to kids, “That’s not a good choice” or “Just calm down!” Here’s the thing: Never in the history of telling someone to “calm down” has “calm down” ever worked. Telling someone how to behave is never, ever, as powerful and transformative as showing them what you want from them. Think about the last time your partner told you to “Just calm down!” How effective was that? What was your response? The hope, when we yell or hiss “Calm down!” at someone we love is they will, indeed, calm down. The hope is they might even look at us and say, “Oh you’re right babe, I didn’t realize that I was losing my mind. You always know just how to get me to calm down. I’m just so glad that I married you” (p.29). If, like Carrington, you can agree that never in the history of my spouse telling me to “calm down” (or “relax!”) has “calm down” ever worked, then why do we keep trying to make it so, with everyone, including kids, all the time?

Really, Jodi says it best: “The kids are the least of our worries. Seriously. If that sounds blasphemous in a book for concerned parents and educators (and anyone, really, who worries about “kids these days”), then I am so glad you’re here. If you own a kid, work with a kid, or love a kid, you will find something inspiring in these pages” (XIX). She is not wrong. If you care about the kids these days… read Jodi Carrington’s book!

You can also find Jodi on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram. She does great Facebook Live chats (usually over a glass of wine…) dropping the occasional f-bomb(which I also kind of love) as she wades through the weeds of raising, loving and connecting with kids.

Book Snap #54

Title: Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities

Author: John Warner

Date Read: July 10, 2019

Two Snaps

This title drew me in– it tackles a problem I have wrestled with myself as an English Language Arts teacher. Discussion of the book had a lot of traction on Twitter amongst many people in my personal learning network. I had to read it.

Warner, a college writing professor, posits that much of the writing we ask students to do are simply imitations of writing. Writing is a skill. It is also a process that allows us to think and to respond to the world at large. It is a struggle, and it is difficult. But, as Warner argues: “[We] should also operate under the assumption that every student needs to prepare for the long haul of life as a writer because in truth, these days, everyone is a writer” (139).

The crux of Warner’s thesis is that the greatest barriers in the way of building better student writers are systemic. These include ingrained practices like the misguided fixation on grades– which intensify poor student mental health, add intense stress, provoke anxiety and heighten depression; a panoptic surveillance of student academics and behaviour realized in unrealistic “real-time data” portals; the standardization of testing that favours memorization and regurgitation; educational fads and misuses of technology.

For so long, school has been about performance divorced from learning; so it’s difficult to find value in anything other than an A.

Warner. p.41

He offers a thorough examination of these and other disincentives that manufacture an unappealing atmosphere, a grind– a place where teenagers, especially, are bound to affirm, “school sucks.” Devoid of curiosity and engagement, personal autonomy and motivation… is it any wonder that students don’t risk and experiment to build their skill as writers?

Warner contends that writing makes us better and more contented humans. Through writing, we can develop a capacity for empathy. It is an essential skill for our students because it enables them to act with more personal agency. And so, he devotes the last half of the book to providing examples of valuable writing experiences and approaches to help writers develop their skill– while still tackling further systemic barriers in a new framework.

Like many of the writers tackling educational issues I care about, Warner maintains that grades are antithetical to learning. He had me at hello on that one. He further claims that they are also demotivating, unfair, and maddeningly imprecise. They fail to reflect what a student has actually learned and they incentivize cheating and plagiarism. He, likewise, advocates for grading practices that emphasize self-reflection and agency. I thank all of my colleagues in the English department who have conspired with me on our own journey tackling this very issue. I hope this book validates your hard work.

Moreover, writing is a process, not a product. It takes patience and time. Let’s take the time.

Students who feel accepted and empowered, who are given a voice in their community that is heard and respected, are more engaged with school, more committed to learning, and more giving of themselves to those they are surrounded by.

Warner, p.240

Read Warner’s essay: “Kill the 5 Paragraph Essay.”

Book Snap #53

Title: Grading Smarter Not Harder: Assessment Strategies that Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn

Author: Myron Dueck

Date Read: July 7, 2019

Two Snaps

I was lucky to have attended a conference in which Myron Dueck was the keynote speaker. He is funny, energetic, and engaging, but most importantly, he cares about finding ways to engage students in their learning and finding assessment practices that fairly assess student knowledge and understanding.

Grades are a nebulous hangover of generations of teachers advancing the ways in which they had school done to them. For the most part, grading has served primarily to sort and rank students. Furthermore, schools have trained students to be grade-focused rather than learning-focused (Dueck, 101). The book outlines the common beliefs and misconceptions about grading practices while offering solutions and four key lessons: 1. By grading smarter, teachers can reduce their workloads; 2. we would do well to think more like coaches– looking for things we can do to move to the next level of performance– in effect, assessment of learning; 3. learning is more important than grades; and 4. relationships are crucial.

Dueck walks teachers through five key issues in re-thinking their pedagogy and assessment: grading, homework, unit plans, retesting and creativity.

As far as grading goes, Dueck asks teachers to think more carefully about the use of punitive grading; like zeroes and late penalties. Most importantly, he argues, despite the fact that these penalties rarely modify behaviour– the accuracy of the grading data is also compromised. We are now assessing behaviour, not the student’s ability to meet a learning target.

On a four point scale, where “A” = 4, “B” = 3, and so on, the zero is accurate, because the difference between the A, B, C, D and F are all equal– one point. But assigning a zero on a 100-point scale is a math error; it implies a 60-point difference between the D and the F, while the other differences are typically about 10 points. It makes missing a single assignment the “academic death penalty.” It’s not just unfair — it is not mathematically accurate.

(from Doug Reeves, 2010, p.11)

Dueck also tackles the issue of homework. Specifically: “…assignments designed to serve as a follow-up or practice usually designed to yield identical answers from every student.” (p.44) Many teachers rely on assigning homework because they believe that they are instilling a work ethic in today’s youth; the problem with this well-intended argument is that attaching a grade to homework inevitably leads to grading completion rather than understanding.

He provides excellent suggestions on unit planning, and how it is beneficial for both organizing teaching and learning. Unit plans offer students road maps to focus on where they are in their own learning. He wisely suggests that students also be provided with samples of what excellence looks like as they work to complete products of their own. He models key questions to help teachers make their own quality unit plans, while offering samples to lead the way.

He devotes his fourth chapter to retesting. In nearly every other area of the real world, he says, we embrace and celebrate mastery through repeated effort– so what are tests and exams meant to emulate? Testing can only give us information on a single moment in time, which can be affected by variables totally unrelated to the learning targets.

I was most impressed with how Dueck focuses throughout the book on the multitude of variables that affect learners and why a re-thinking of our practices are crucial. These include but are not limited to: socio-economic status; learning disabilities; chronic stress and anxiety; drug use and abuse; violence in the home; and a lack of nutritious food. It is evident that Dueck’s motivation is not simply about making grading easier for teachers, but rather has arisen from a place of caring deeply about the students he serves.

His final chapter focuses on creativity which he contends is: required to solve problems; needed in a world that rewards the unique; and helps students to develop autonomy.

The human condition is based on connection and socialization. As a species, we’ve been storytellers since long before the advent of the written word. We draw meaning from interaction more so than from homework or lectures (Geary, 2011). Research confirms that when people are spurred on by curiosity, they learn more (Engel, 2013), and when intrigue and surprise are added to the mix, they remember more (Engel, 2013; Garner, Brown, Sanders, & Menke, 1992).

(Dueck, p.121)

Educators, most especially in high school, would do well to spend some time with Dueck, and allow him to guide them through an examination of their own teaching and grading practices. He offers current research; rich examples and detailed work samples; and a multitude of personal story sidebars that reveal his benevolence for his students and his desire to create a classroom where they are met with success.

Book Snap #39:

Title: Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning

Author: John Spencer

Date read: December 29, 2018.

Two Snaps.

A great reminder about allowing students choice about how and what they learn. A great refresher and way to infuse second semester with a little extra excitement! Looking forward to John Spencer visiting teachers in our district very soon too!

Book Snap #18:

Title: 180 Days: Two Teachers and the Quest to Engage and Empower Adolescents

Author: Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle

Date Read: July 16, 2018.
Two Snaps.
The rock stars of English Language Arts teaching bring it in spades. This professional read had me very excited about planning for next year’s teaching! I was excited to discuss it with my English team this year too! A constant companion throughout the year as I reflected on good teaching and thoughtful planning.