Monday, April 25, 2016

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys.

“War is catastrophe. It breaks families in irretrievable pieces. But those who are gone are not necessarily lost.”

I have been anticipating Sepetys' newest book since I finished Out of the Easy a couple of years ago. I find Sepetys to be a phenomenal historical fiction writer, as she manages to find topics that are known, but unknown. First, in Between Shades of Gray, she focused on the Soviet work camps and relocations that took place during and after World War II, then in Out of the Easy, on life in a brothel in New Orleans around the 1950s, and here, in Salt to the Sea, on the massive Operation Hannibal, an ill-fated attempt by Germany to evacuate citizens from the eastern front as the Soviet Red Army closed in on Berlin.

I love that Sepetys chooses time periods that we're familiar with, but focuses on topics that we might now know about. Truthfully, I knew little about Operation Hannibal before reading this title. I know I learned a little about it in a college history course, but as it is absent from most common history books, it's not something I would have come across recently. Basically, Operation Hannibal occurred as the Red Army began pushing the eastern front back toward Germany in early 1945. The German government, in fear of what Stalin's army was doing to its citizens, ordered a late evacuation of anyone with German descent. Some citizens escaped back into Germany on foot or by train, but there was also a massive operation to use remaining ships and transport German citizens that way (much faster, but also more dangerous).

The book does involve this process, but it is so much deeper than a simple book about a failed sea evacuation. Instead, Sepetys weaves together a gruesome depiction of what war does to everyday people. The novel switches perspective every chapter between 4 young adults as they all converge on the ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, in an attempt to evacuate. Each of the 4 come from a different country and a different background, but all see the ship and evacuation as a beacon of hope-for different reasons. On their journey, we learn what has happened to them over the course of the war-who they once were, who they lost, and what their hopes might be.

And as the ship is hit by enemy torpedoes, we see what happens to those hopes and dreams...

What struck me most about the novel is that yet again, Sepetys manages to capture the realities and horrors of war. And in particular, on the horrors of the Red Army. I feel as though little is taught here in the States about what exactly was going on in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and what the state of eastern Europe was like during the last few years of the war. Stalin committed the same atrocities as Hitler, and did things that are often unmentioned in our history books. For example, I know book talks in length about the horrors of the Holocaust, etc, but only a brief mention is given to Stalin's own work camps. We know the names of Auschwitz, etc, but can you easily name a Soviet camp? I know I probably can't without looking it up for reference.

I love that Sepetys does this-that she captures historical timeframes in a new light and makes you question what you know. I mean, after all, Stalin was our ally in World War that why little is taught about what his army did? I don't know. But it makes me curious and wanting to know more.

In any case, this is a fabulous book that discusses a naval tragedy talked about seldom. It's beautifully written, and the characters are well-developed throughout. If you're looking for a great piece of historical fiction, I highly recommend this one.

“What had human beings become? Did war make us evil or just activate an evil already lurking within us?” 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books Every High Schooler Should Read.

Hi everyone!

It's been quite some time since I've participated in a Top Ten Tuesday (or blogged....but that's another story), but I loved this week's "Top Ten Books Every ____________ Should Read."

As a high school English/history teacher, I am forced to teach books to my students. Sometimes, I totally see the merit in the books we are required to teach. And sometimes...I think there are so many others worth our time. So, here is my list of books that I think high school students should read. Please note-this is based on my own experiences as a high school teacher and knowing what the majority of our students love. Most of these books ARE taught in my building in varying classes...and some are not. And, this is just my top ten. There are quite a few books I have VERY strong opinions about that are not on this list. ;)

In no particular order...

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: I think this is the quintessential book that all high school students should read-and most do. Lee's masterpiece is a part of our ninth grade curriculum (one of the many reasons I wish I taught that course), and the students usually love it. It's very much a book about losing your childlike innocence and it definitely brings up adult topics. I think that for ninth graders, who are struggling with that very thing, this book speaks to them in a way that many cannot.

2. Othello by William Shakespeare: If I had to pick just one title by Shakespeare for high schoolers to read, it would definitely be Othello, not the overdone Romeo and Juliet. Personally, I think that today's high schoolers can handle the darker and more mature themes found in Othello, and it offers much more textual complexity than the other. Sadly, Othello is not a part of my Shakespeare class curriculum, as it is taught in a senior English class, but I do think it is one every high schooler should read.

3. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: Our district teaches the much shorter Steinbeck novella, Of Mice and Men to our sophomores, and while that has some similarities to The Grapes of Wrath (the Great Depression, migrant workers, etc), it pales in comparison to this tome. And while we talk about the loss of the American Dream when reading Of Mice and Men, it pales in comparison. I also think that The Grapes of Wrath captures what it means to be an American more than many other texts that are often taught in high school.

4. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: Although I have only read this title once, I was struck by how much it could potentially teach a high schooler. As we all know, many high schoolers struggle with identity, appearance, and the perception of themselves by others on a daily basis. I think this book teaches, not in an overly preachy way, to value yourself for what you truly are.

5. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien: This was a title that I thankfully did read in high school (as a free choice read in an honors English class), and I do think it's a necessity for all high school students. It is one thing to teach about the horrors of war-the futility of fighting for something without a real purpose, and the dangers that faced very young men and women. O'Brien manages to capture all of this in many of his works, but this is an incredibly raw account of Vietnam. I think that for many of today's high schoolers...well, they have a jaded view of war. I think this is an eye-opening and necessary read.

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Hand's down, The Great Gatsby is my favorite book to teach. I love pulling apart the beautiful language and discussing the prosperity and excess of the Jazz Age with my sophomores. They love the vapid nature of Jordan and Daisy, and the hopeless love between Gatsby and Daisy. They also love the ending...and the lessons that life, even with the best laid plans and all the dreams in the world, sometimes has a mind of its own. And for my kids, they need that lesson.

7. A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn: Every summer, my fellow AP U.S. History teacher and myself assign portions of A People's History as summer homework to get the kids ready for the year. We've modified the assignment every year, but the book remains constant. What I love about Zinn's take on U.S. history is the alternate viewpoint. All textbooks are biased, and none more so than U.S. History textbooks. This challenges our students to think beyond what they already know and introduces them to historical perspective. I love this title, and have already decided to integrate it more into my curriculum next school year.

(I also wanted to mention that Lies My Teacher Told Me comes in a close second to this title. I have my students read the intro to that book on the first day of school to get them thinking-I highly suggest it as well).

8. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: Competing with Moby-Dick, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is THE American novel. Sadly, it is not a novel that is currently taught in our district, and it is the subject of frequent challenges across the country. However, I think it's an incredibly important book for every high schooler to read-it truly encapsulates an era of our country that we shouldn't be proud of. And that is the single most important reason why it should be taught.

9. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls: Many of the students in my district come from fairly wealthy backgrounds. Many of them have been sheltered from the outside world as they live in the "bubble" of our city. That's why I'm glad the district added this title to our twelfth grade curriculum a few years ago. This memoir strikes a chord where many others do not. As a memoir, students have to accept that these things actually happened to Jeannette Walls and her family. It opens their eyes in a way that other book "horrors" cannot.

10. The Odyssey by Homer: I cannot leave any list about favorite books or high school reads without the addition of my favorite epic. Since Homer was pretty much the beginning of literature as we know it, The Odyssey is also pretty key to any student's literary education. Odysseus and Telemachus face many challenges and battles on their separate quests, but they face them down and succeed. I think that level of determination and hope is important for high schoolers to experience.

There you have it-my top ten. I did leave off quite a few titles that I also think are important, but these just claimed the top spots. What would you have on your list? Let me know below.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

"I Have Been" April 2016.

We're not going to talk about the fact that I haven't posted since early January. In short-work has been insane, I feel into a huge reading slump (didn't pick up a book, other than those I taught, for three months), and I went through a bit of deep depression. I'm starting to feel like myself and while this next month is going to be insane, I really need to start setting aside some time for myself. Here's a baby step.

This is a little questionaire I like to do from time to time. :) Enjoy!

I have been:

Comments on essays. We're about a month away from the AP U.S. History test, so I need to make sure my kids are prepared and ready for the test...which includes a lot of essays. This means I'm writing quite a bit trying to help them out. 

I just finished White Walls by Judy Batalion the other night. It was an interesting memoir about hoarding, mother-daughter relationships, and how much our parents influence our personalities-great read. I did pull Ruta Sepetys' Salt to the Sea off the shelf last night, but haven't started it yet (probably tonight).
I'm still a huge Spotify fan. My current favorite playlist is Women of Pop, but I also mix it up with some others. 
We just watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens last night (with our BB-8), but I've returned to my DVDs of I Love Lucy as background noise while I grade. We also watch a few episodes of either Bob's Burgers or Archer before bed every night. I've also got quite a few shows queued up for the summer. :) 
At all my piles of grading. And my kitties, who have loved having me home this week on Spring Break. :) Our apartment also needs to be cleaned a bit, but I'm probably going to put that off until tomorrow. 
It has been a couple of years since I taught the last portion of U.S. History (In a mid-year shuffle last school year, my section of APUSH was taken away), so I'm relearning some of that content. It's made for a lot more prepwork the last couple of months!
Better than I was earlier this morning. I had a headache last night, and while I took some excedrin before bed, I woke up at 3 with an all out migraine. It has finally gone away a bit (still have a headache). Truthfully, I haven't had a migraine that extreme in a LONG time, so it has me a little uneasy. I hope I don't get another one!
Getting through the rest of April and early May. Not only is the AP test coming up, I also have my evaluation to get through, and the next two stages of my National Board Certification. I have a portfolio to put together and a content test to schedule and take. But if I can get through the next month, that's a lot of stress off my shoulders. :)
For a better work/home balance. It's still something I struggle with. :/
My makeup obsession. Ha! I've always loved makeup, but over the last 2-3 years, it's become a very big creative outlet (as my blogging has gone down??). It's just something I enjoy and playing around with color and methods has been fun. :)