Book Snap #121

Title: It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching

Author: Tom Rademacher

Date Read: January 13, 2023

Two snaps.

Snapshot of the book

Teaching is a career that suits me– I love the creativity required to plan lessons; I love working with kids, talking to them, helping them, laughing with them; I love the unpredictability of days. I love it. But, it certainly is not easy.

It’s a tough paradox to explain to new teachers: Rademacher offers this: “Crappy job, great career.” (42) He divides up his ‘love-letter’ into five parts: Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer, Again. There is a cyclical and predicatable cadence to a school year and his book imitates that pattern. It begins in Summer, where he sets up how we prepare mentally and physically for a school year. This section also offers interview tips, as well as how to get along with the grown ups in your school (great advice!)

Fall offers warnings on how to start with kids: from being careful about how we talk about them and with them; and many personal stories to illustrate the importance of understanding the difference between fear and control in a classroom. It is a true skill to find the balance between controlling an environment full of kids and being friends with them. He writes: “It makes sense when you feel like things are going wrong to resort to fear and anger, but the problem isn’t that you yell at a kid now: the problem is that in ten years you’re going to be really good at it” (p.88). Trust me, that’s not anything you want to be good at. Teaching requires conflict: we have to push kids to try hard things, we need them to test their boundaries, to do things that they don’t always want to do– that comes with being somewhere in the middle: “What you really want as a teacher is for students to respect you, and real respect doesn’t come from who yells the loudest or who sits backwards in a chair and talks about how all other teachers are lame. Respect comes less from anything you will say, and more from how often you listen, really listen, to your students. When you can tune your ear right, they’ll tell you exactly what they need from you.” (p.90)

The section entitled Winter takes up topics like how to work with technology (like the Internet!)– some teachers and schools want to create tech-free zones (something that is not a thing anywhere else in student’s lives) to protect the way they have always taught. Currently many teachers are worried about the capabilities of ChatGPT for the same reason. As a profession, we must be better than that. Our students deserve better too. We have to acknowledge the landscape and context we teach in. Rademacher offers his simple maxim: ” I’ve taken to instuting a new policy in the work involved in my classes. A policy, or a rule, or… I suppose most accurately, a question: Can Google do this?” (p.99). The Internet is a tool that students can access, like those pocket calculators we were warned about. If they have this tool, it is up to us, as teachers, to go deeper and connect to real world problems; not to be defensive that they have found the answers to our worksheets online. He also tackles white priviledge, terrible advice, and helping kids advocate for change.

Spring focuses on giving student voice and choice a place in the classroom; how to handle it when bad things happen; and fighting the urge to quit. He ends in SummerAgain, where he once again can see the value and joy in teaching: kids.

Rademacher may not be for everyone: he does swear, and he can feel a little full of himself at times: but I think he is pretty transparent and honest (refreshingly so) about who he is; the mistakes he has made, the success he has had, and the insights he has drawn in his decade as a teacher. For me, his advice would be some of the same I would offer a begining teacher after close to 25 years of doing it myself: remember that kids are humans– with thoughts, feelings, emotions, and an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex: You are the adult in the room: do no harm and be kind. The learning will follow.

Snapshot of the book in my classroom/ my life

Rademacher includes a helpful quiz (albeit tongue in cheek). It made me laugh, but it also resonates. There are always times when a teacher does not feel like a great teacher. Heck, sometimes (especially during a pandemic) we may not even feel like a good teacher. It’s really easy to be pretty hard on yourself and think you are a terrible teacher.

Rademacher includes this diagnostic for teachers to determine if they are in fact terrible teachers. As a teacher mentor, I think I’ll keep a copy handy for self-assessment and reflection.

SO YOU THINK YOU’RE A TERRIBLE TEACHER: THE TEST

(Check all that apply. You can check more than one.)

CATEGORY ONE

__ I don’t care about teaching.

__I don’t care about students.

__ I like making people feel bad, especially young people.

__I’m thinking about going in to Administration.

CATEGORY TWO

__ I care about teaching.

__ I care about students.

__ I try hard.

__I mess up, then try to figure out why.

__I try to be interesting.

__I try not to let myself feel too important.

__I take breaks.

__I apologise.

__Sometimes, I wake up at three in the morning and I can’t go to sleep because I’m thinking about some awful thing I said or some hurtful thing a student said, and I think about what I could do the next day to make it better in some way.

__I have fun.

__I may carry grudges, but I try not to act like it.

__I know at least three decent jokes.

__I’m pretty smart.

__I will go see student performances, even if it’s choir or a musical.

__I do no harm.

__I do some harm, but I feel bad about it, and then try to fix it.

__I try to keep things relevant, even when they aren’t.

__I see school through students’ eyes sometimes.

__I reflect.

__I’m honest.

__I’m respectful.

__I’m trustful.

__I’m realistic.

So are you a terrible teacher? Tally up your score and find out.

CATEGORY ONE: If you have checked any items in this category, you suck. Go do something else. Okay, fine, if you only checked the fourth but not the other three, be an administrator. Whatever.

CATEGORY TWO: Did you check the first two? Great. You’re set. Three’s not bad either. The rest of the things will probably help but are wildly biased toward my own brand of teaching.

TEACHING IS JUST REALLY HARD. You are working as hard as you think you are. You are holding yourslef to an impossible and essential standard of success and you should keep doing that, but you should know that you’re successful on levels you don’t always see or know. Sometimes you will feel like you suck, and sometimes you legitimately will.

Do you care? You’ll be fine. Do you care a lot? You’ll probably be great. (p.93-94).

Book Snap #120

Title: What We Both Know

Author: Fawn Parker

Date Read: January 6, 2023

One and half snaps.

Snapshot of the book

Books as gifts are always delightful, providing a sort of innocuous blind-date excitement. Took this gem along as a roadtrip companion and I really enjoyed it. I was delighted to discover that Fawn Parker is a Canadian writer who splits her time in homes in both Toronto and my city, Fredericton.

Parker tells the story of Hillary Greene : a thirty-something urbanite who leaves her apartment in Toronto and her job at the university (a job she admits to acquiring through nepotism: they rather wanted her famous father to stay on, but upon his retirement the job dutifully became hers)– to live instead in her childhood home, caring for her father as his dementia requires. Besides boiling eggs to his liking, taking him to the market, or to his childhood home for a peculiar visit; she must also write his memoir. A tell-all he’s promised his publisher but cannot write himself. Hillary must sift through his scrambled notes; revisit her own experiences of her parent’s marriage and divorce; and unravel her sister’s suicide to decode how to tell his story– and whose version of it.

The author begins with the following note to readers: this book includes depections of animal death, child abuse (emotional and sexual), self-harm and suicide.

Snapshot of the book in my classroom

I might offer the first paragraph as a Writer’s Notebook passage study, it is such an odd opening, but the explicit detail about how exacting her father is in the tasks she must complete for him is also part of her character building.

The egg is boiled until firm. Rubbery outside and chalky in the middle, a moment before it might form a dark silvery ring around the yolk. The yolk will be removed, a soft almost-sphere, the white disgarded. The egg is boiled on high heat for ten minutes, removed, placed on a paper towel, cooled. A crack is made against the counter, the shell chipped away into the damp paper towel which is bunched then placed in the trash. (p.1)

The passage not only creates a keen sense of sight imagery around the egg; but also is a type of process-writing: a description of steps to follow that could easily be played with in our writer’s notebook. Steps are described, the writer doesn’t offer a numbered list as we are used to, but instead makes clear in prose the order and precise actions of each step. Even the nost mundnae task can be written about playfully and with skill.

Snapshot of the book in my life

When Hillary has to take a meeting with her father’s publisher to update on his progress on his memoir (which she is in fact writing, not him), she tells him:

“I only worry I will regret what I write,” I say.

“When a person does something they regret it’s because they don’t know who they are,” he says. (p.163).

As I age, I am getting more sure of who I am, what’s truly important to me, and what I value. It is a wonderful gift. Knowing who you are will hugely improve your life.

Book Snap #119

Title: Dopamine: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence

Author: Anna Lembke, M.D.

Date Read: November 25, 2022

One snap.

Snapshot of the book

One of my favourtite podcasts is Armchair Expert. Dax Shepard, and his co-host Monica Padman, interviewed Stanford professor and psychologist Anna Lembke, and Dax made reference to Lembke’s book in many, many, subsequent interviews; so many that I was compelled to check it out. The premise is pretty straightforward: we live in a society full of intense stimuli– drugs, food, gambling, shopping, texting, Instagramming…many of which are also conveniently administered via the hypodermic needle of our own smartphones– a portable device full of digital dopamine— and we are out of balance.

Dopamine ia a neurotransmitter in the human brain involved in reward processing. High dopamine subsatnces trigger the release of dopamine in our brain’s reward pathway. Our brain processes pleasure and pain both in the same place: like opposite sides of a teeter-totter than needs to stay in balance. When you experience a craving (more chocolate, a cigarette, to double-down)– that moment of wanting is your brain’s pleasure balance tipped to the side of pain. Too much pleasure leads to pain.

Lembke uses the stories of several of her own patients to illustrate how she worked with them through their addictions to find a healthy balance. She even cops to her own addiction to soft porn novels. It was a good read, but not a great read. I feel like Dax led me astray, and he doesn’t do that often.

Snapshot of the book in my classroom

I could see using Chapter Two: “Running From Pain” alongside Neal and Jarod Schusterman’s fiction novel, Roxy. This chapter covers the ways in which the paradigm that some amount of pain is healthy (boosting immune and cardiovascular response and expiditing healing) has shifted to a massive prescribing of feel-good pills. In addition to widespread use of antidepressants, perscriptions for stimulants (Adderall, Ritalin) have doubled, including in children younger than five years old. Prescriptions for sedatives (Xanax, Klonopin, Valium) are also on the rise, perhaps to compensate for all the stimulants taken. In 2012, enough Opiods were prescribed for every American to have their own bottle of pills. Beyond our running from pain- we can’t stand even minor discomfort and so we are constantly seeking to distract ourselves from the present, constantly needing to be entertained (hello, Smartphone). This non-fiction reading would give students relevant background to make sense of the drugs presented as characters in Roxy.

Snapshot of the book in my life

Water, exercise, and fresh air– is my go to prescription for much of what ails me. Lembke backs me up: “…the evidence is is indisputable: Exercise has a more profound and sustained positive effect on mood, anxiety, cogniton, energy, and sleep than any pill I can prescribe.” (p.152). Take your dog for walk. Leave your stress on a yoga mat. And drink lots of water.

Book Snap #118

Title: The Winners

Author: Fredrik Backman

Date Read: November 18, 2022

Two Snaps!

I love all of the books by Swedish-author Fredrik Backman, and this one, the third in the Beartown trilogy, is absolutely no exception. (You can see my book snap reviews of the two others in the trilogy: Bear Town and Us Against You in these links.) HBO has also produced a TV series called Beartown based on the novel.

Trigger warning: there are themes of sexual violence that run throughout the trilogy.

Beartown is a tiny town in the woods where hockey reigns supreme. It is the focal point of the rivalry with the neighboring town of Hed and the reason that people with everything in common just can’t get along.

Benji and Kevin were best friends and teammates, but when Kevin rapes Maya Andersson, the Beartown Hockey General Manager’s daughter, it is too much for both Maya and Benji to bear. After two years away, we take up their stories upon their return home.

A terrible storm tears through the forest and puts the residents of Hed and Beartown together in a series of events that will see them test the price of their loyalties, examine their prejudices, and rethink what it all means.

“We will be stuck in the nightmare forever. We are a people who tell stories, who try to use stories to put what we have experienced into some sort of context, to explain what we have been fighting about in the hope that it will excuse what we have done. But stories reveal both the very best of us and the very worst, and can one ever outweigh the other? Are our triumphs greater than our mistakes? What are we responsible for? What are we guilty of? Can we look ourselves in the mirror tomorrow? Can we look each other in the eye?”

Join Fredrik Backman in Beartown. Because truly, it is the same everywhere: almost everyone loves too much, hates too easily, and forgives too little. “But most people want the same: to live in peace, to let your heart beat a little more slowly when night comes, to earn a bit of money to support the ones you love.”

Book Snap #116

Title: Roxy

Authors: Neal and Jarrod Shusterman

Date Read: August 3, 2022

Two Snaps!

There are four stories woven into the Shusterman’s brilliantly conceived novel, Roxy. Brother and sister, Isaac and Ivy Ramey, are accompanied as narrators by two anthropomorphized drugs: Roxy (OxyContin) and Addison (Adderall). The siblings recount their experiences with prescription drugs while Roxy and Addison unfold the tales of themselves and their party-going friends who frequent an exclusive club that pits them in a competition to get their ‘plus-one’ into the VIP Lounge.

I very much loved this book, and contend that it is essential reading for teens. North Americans are in the torment of an opioid crisis. Among people aged 12 or older in 2020, 3.3 percent (or 9.3 million people) misused prescription opioids in the past year and opioids were involved in 68,630 overdose deaths in 2020 (74.8% of all drug overdose deaths).1 Until recently, the term “drug use” typically referred to illegal substances like cocaine, heroin or crystal meth. Today’s teens are more likely to get hooked on prescription medication, especially painkillers. Most often teens receive opioid prescriptions after dental procedures and sports injuries. Similarly, adolescent abuse of Ritalin and Adderall is largely driven by the belief that these drugs can improve academic performance. This is more urban myth than reality; it is true that stimulants will heighten energy and focus in the short-term, but after the brain adjusts to the presence of such drugs, these effects are weakened and become more elusive.2

This pervasive problem is addressed in both the dedication: “For those in the throes of addiction, may you find the strength to fight off the demons who pose as gods“; and in the authors’ opening note that reads in part: “It is our hope that everyone who reads Roxy will leave the story with a clearer understanding of how insidious, seductive, and dangerous these drugs can be.”

Isaac and Ivy have relatable teen lives and plausible experiences that lead them to be prescribed opioids. Isaac receives Roxy (OxyContin) after a painful soccer injury, and Ivy takes Addison (Adderall) to help her focus on increasing her failing grades so she can graduate on time. With a popular post-modern nod, we begin at the end: “They tag your toe with the last name on your ID, and your first initial: Ramey, I.”(4) and then flash back through time unravelling how this pivotal moment came to be. Who dies: Isaac or Ivy?

Roxy introduces herself with confident self awareness : “I am so hot right now. And everyone knows it. It’s like I own the world. It has no choice but to yield to my gravity” (16). You enter the party with her, where: “Al greets [you] at the door, a glass of champagne in each hand… Al’s older than the rest of us,” Roxy amiably explains, “been around longer, but he carries his age well” (16). At the bar, you can catch a glimpse of Addison: “He’s dressed in a conspicuous style, like he belongs to a yacht club that his father owns. All prestige and privilege” (17). Also spotted: Molly, Mary Jane, Rita, and the Coke brothers, Charlie and Dusty. Each of them act predictably, like the drugs to which their names nod, and readers get a multi-sensory tour of how they work. For example,  we find Addison sitting at a piano recital with his older sister, Rita, comparatively ordinary next to their cousins: Crys, and the twins, in their “white silk suits and flashy jewelry, lounging in a private booth like they own the world, making the party come to them” (33) they instead, calm kids, help them focus– play the piano flawlessly, or as Rita points to her own ward in the audience, sit still through a performance.

The book is awash in delightful craft moves. There are six character-titled “interludes”, each matched with their molecular formulas (you can Google them– they are hyper-linked in this post for your convenience) and explore further the chemical literature of the National Library of Medicine‘s entries for each compound: Mary Jane (C21H30O2); Dusty & Charlie (C17H21NO4); Lucy (C20H25N3O); Phineas (C17H19NO3); Vic (C18H21NO3) and Hyde (CH2O). On their own, they provide poignant personified snapshots of marijuana and it’s legalization and medical use; cocaine, who boasts of his long historical significance, including once being the key ingredient in Coca-Cola (until replaced by caffeine); the powerful taunting of an acid trip; morphine as the Prince of Palliative Care, vicodin (Roxy’s brother) and even formaldehyde, the final drug used, when the character is embalmed for their funeral.

The chapter headings are a form of cryptic poetry, readers find new words using just some of the letters of a longer word or phrase. Like: Naloxone (alone); Roxy Can’t Contain Herself (oxycontin); or Psychopharmacologisticexpialidocious (malicious). Hyde’s final interlude is written as a poem, straying from the story-telling of the others, and has within it a well-known verse. Not a book for Audible.

This is a must-have title for the shelves of high school teachers and for parents who want to start conversations with their young adult readers at home.

1 Centers for Disease Control and PreventionNational Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 2022

2The Right Step | A Promises Behavioral Health Company | Drug Addiction Treatment Centers Texas, 2022