If you follow this blog, you've probably noticed by now that my friend Riley and I love to talk about all things books. We had a great time re-reading some of the Baby-Sitters' Club books from our childhood, and we decided we wanted to keep doing some type of online book chat together. So we've taken our weekly book chats to Instagram. Follow @rileyandjohannareadstuff to see what we’re reading, what we recommend, and how many times we can squeeze pictures of Winnie (Riley's pug) and Ra (my very sedate cat) into our book photos. I'll also be cross-posting some of our Instagram posts and conversations here.
Uh...better late than never? Riley and I talked about the Ann M. Martin classic Mary Anne Saves the Day and the Baby-Sitters' Club Club podcast about it a while ago...but somehow I never got around to posting our conversation. Huge apologies, team baby-sitter nostalgics. (That may not be a real word. But I like it, so it's staying.)
I'm not sure if Riley and I are going to keep this series going in this same fashion or change things up. We definitely had big dreams about hitting up the BSC Super Specials next. But life, the universe, and everything keep happening, and lately I've been cheating on Ann with Judy Blume. So we'll see.
This blog and website will likely be offline for a bit while they get some much-needed sprucing, but during that time Riley and I will reform our plans and maybe even catch up on Dawn Schafer's life. Watch this space, as they say.
I’m a teacher. I teach part-time in a community college and part-time in an elementary/middle school. This means I spend a lot of time practicing lockdown drills and watching safety videos. During our most recent video viewing, my college students decided the filing cabinet awkwardly placed in the middle of our classroom would be what they’d use to block to door should a shooter ever come through the school. Whenever someone in one of my classes says something like this, I imagine we’re all thinking the same thing: I know they’re joking, but let’s all make sure to remember that suggestion, okay?
Then another school shooting happens. And the next day we all look real hard at that filing cabinet in the corner of the room.
Every time another school shooting happens—and I can’t believe I even have to type out that phrase—people start talking about how teachers need to start carrying guns. But after the Florida shooting this past week, that suggestion seems to be coming up more than I’ve ever heard it before. Suddenly the whole internet wants me to bring my own AR-15 into my fifth grade reading class. I guess I’ll just keep it next to our copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
More than ever this sentiment—that I should be expected to arm myself in my own classrooms—is ratcheting up my blood pressure. I’ve written before about how I’m not anti-gun. Neither is my husband, an army vet and gun owner who now works in the same community college I do. Neither of us think the second amendment needs to be struck down. But both of us want reasonable gun control measures in place that would keep our students and our schools safe. Neither one of us understands why this country thinks that arming our teachers is somehow a better solution than keeping guns out of the hands of terrorists like the Parkland shooter. Neither of us understands why, instead, everyone want to talk about how teachers should carry semi-automatic weapons around with us while we try to teach things like Aristotelian appeals.
Here are just a few of the reasons my blood pressure is so high right now.
First. I am not a person you want carrying a loaded weapon around your children. I can spot a comma splice from a mile away, but I can barely tie my shoes without falling over. This plan likely won’t end well for any of us.
Second. There was an armed guard at Parkland. It didn’t make any difference. Every teacher in that school followed protocol and did everything right. They, like the rest of us teachers and students, have gone through hours of lockdown and shooter drills. They knew exactly what to do. But that shooter knew what their drills were, and like the terrorist that he was, he destroyed all their protocols and used them against his victims—because that’s what terrorists with deadly weapons do. That’s why we need to make it hard for terrorists to get access to deadly weapons.
Third. Don’t I get a say in this? You keep shouting about how I need to be armed and you’ve never even asked me if I want to be. I didn’t join the military or the police force, and neither of those decisions were by accident. And even my husband, who is trained in tactical maneuvers and very good with a weapon, wants nothing to do with bringing a gun into his classroom. YOU DIDN’T EVEN ASK US. Every day we go into classrooms and get paid basically in Monopoly money to potentially throw ourselves in front of your children should a shooter barge into a classroom—and a lot of us would probably do it in a heartbeat. But what the hell am I being asked to make that sacrifice for? What are you honestly asking me to die for here? My students and I are supposed to lay down our lives so that you can keep complete and total access to weapons that no hunter or sportsperson ever actually needs to own? So that you can pretend you have a means of fighting back against a government that has nuclear weapons? So that gun manufacturers can continue to disgustingly twist the second amendment in order to make as much money as possible? Or are you just asking us to sacrifice our lives so that you can keep your hobby?
Nope. Please stop asking me to die for that. Please stop asking my husband to die for that. Please stop asking my students to die for that.
Stop telling me I need a weapon in my classroom. I don’t. I need fellow Americans who care more about my students than they do about themselves and their gun collections. I need fellow Americans who will stop putting this problem onto me and put it back where it belongs: on the people in Washington, who are so bought and paid for by the NRA that they can’t even talk about gun violence without sounding like hostages. I need fellow Americans who aren’t so enchanted by gun manufacturers that they honestly think the solution here is putting a gun in the hands of an English teacher and asking her to train for days and weeks and months on how and when to use it as opposed to training on, I dunno, teaching reading.
And if you disagree with me, please don’t even comment on this article. I’m done with conversations on this topic, and I’m done with debate. I’m the one walking into my classroom every day, so I get the final say here. And you know what my answer is? NO. I will not arm myself in my classroom. And the day I’m forced to is the day I leave this profession for good.
You can find someone else to teach your kid how to read. I hope they’re willing to die for your love of that high-capacity magazine.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of pieces from parents expressing how frustrated they are with being “judged” by other parents and the parenting community at large. You know the essays: please just let me parent in the way that works best for me is usually the general gist. I find myself oddly drawn to these pieces. I nod a lot as I read them…which is slightly strange because I have no children. Just the one cat, and the only time I ever feel judged in my pet ownership is when he doesn’t behave himself at the vet. And even then they’re usually fairly understanding. So I’ve been trying to figure this out: why do I feel this kinship with parents who’ve decided to boycott the blogosphere?
Then I spent the past week watching teachers have arguments on Twitter and Facebook about whether or not Accelerated Reader is the best thing ever invented or the Destruction of Childhood Reading as we know it. The conversation has frequently gone something like this:
All teachers who use AR are doing terrible things to students. and it must be DESTROYED!
He/she is right! AR once attacked my dog and then peed in my Cheerios! Everyone who uses it should be judged on social media IMMEDIATELY.
Wait, I sort of like AR and my students tell me they love it and want me to keep using it…
GASP! How dare you like a teaching tool I have deemed unworthy! You are ruining children!
All of the sudden, it became quite clear why I find myself nodding along with those “don’t judge my parenting” articles.
I should note here that I actually have no super strong feelings for or against Accelerated Reader. I find AR to be like most teaching tools out there on the market: either incredibly useful or incredibly damaging depending on how it’s used and the context in which it’s used. As we teachers know best, no classroom and no two students are the same. One size rarely fits all, and what works well in one context can actually be a very poor teaching tool in another context.
Which brings up an important question: why are teachers jumping on the internet and telling each other all the things we’ve decided everyone else is during wrong? And full disclosure, I’m sure I’ve done this too. Probably somewhere on this blog, in fact. We teachers tend to be incredibly protective of our teaching practices. While this is often a good thing, it also can make us far more likely to vilely detest things we’ve had bad experiences with and to also be extremely protective of those tools we love.
But there’s danger in that type of thinking. Sometimes at night when I'm feeling particularly self-destructive I try to imagine what my first year of teaching would have been like if social media had been around in a big way back then. I usually come to one conclusion: thank goodness it wasn’t. Your first year of teaching is dangerous and scary and filled with self-doubt. Now imagine having several million voices screaming you’re doing this wrong every day and adding onto that self-doubt. These days I’m secure enough in my own teaching practice (mostly) to agree or disagree when someone tells me I’m doing something I shouldn’t be, but back then? I probably would have just been in tears every single night. Even more than I already was.
I appreciate that the teaching community is a place where people want to teach others and mentor and share ideas. That’s what makes our community strong. And we certainly shouldn’t be shy about expressing what’s worked and not worked for our students in the context of our classrooms. But when we start shouting down ideas, tools, and practices with the level of judgement I’ve seen this week? All we end up doing is sounding like those horrifying mom blogs everyone seems to have run away from.
Maybe we could just curb our language a bit. Rather than using 140 characters to say “AR is the worst thing ever and we all need to back away from it” we could say something like “I’ve found AR doesn’t build a love of reading; others with diff experiences?” Or instead of “Remember what a terrible teacher I was when I gave timed math tests” we could say “Here’s some research on neg effects of timed tests.” Or whatever fits into 140 characters that won’t terrify the brand-new teacher who is trying their darned best and has a lot of other people telling them why timed math tests are important.
If there’s one thing most teachers I know hate, it’s the idea that “research proven” is a real thing in education. Because we all know that what research shows in a public middle school in Woodland Park, CO is likely not the same thing research will show in a private middle school in New York City, New York. We generally dislike when companies and politicians shove “this is research proven” down our throats. So why do we do the same thing to each other? Just because it’s our own research doesn’t make context any less important.
To the parents out there: I applaud you for ignoring the judgement. I could never do what you do; I like sleep way too much. To the teachers out there who promote conversation and mentorship: I applaud and appreciate you. Let’s just try to tone down the judgement a notch. I’ll try to do my part.
In case all six of you blog readers were wondering when the heck Riley and I were going to get around to reading book 3 in our Baby-Sitters Club marathon, my apologies. We actually read and discussed the book weeks ago, but then I went to Europe and kind of forgot about Stacey while I was standing around in the Louvre.
Anyway, Stacey! She was great, the podcast was great, we continue to worship at the feet of Ann M. Martin. This despite the fact that we, like the BSC podcasters, have no idea why "don't call me late for dinner" is supposed to be a funny joke.
Some fun facts about this text discussion:
1. Riley kept detailed notes about her reading in a dedicated Baby-Sitters Club notebook. Meanwhile, since I was visiting my parents, I dug my old copy of the book out of their attic and admired the one note I took when I was nine: my name in the front cover.
2. This entire conversation happened while I was traveling on a bus from Vermont to Boston. I spent some serious time trying not to guffaw out loud. For the record, it's very difficult to guffaw in one's head.
3. "Jack, it can't always be about the patriarchy," is hands-out down the winning line from The Truth About Stacey podcast. No contest.
4. Naturally this conversation resulted in Riley and I taking "Which baby sitter are you?" quizzes. JOIN US. Here's the Buzzfeed quiz and here's the Zimbio quiz. We anxiously await your results.
Oh hey, we finally got around to book 2 in our epic re-read of all The Baby-Sitters Club books. And since I'm in Vermont visiting my parents, I dug out the actual dog-eared copy I first read circa 1991. Pictures below, of course.
A few things Riley and I discussed in our text message convo of this book and subsequent Baby-Sitters Club Club podcast:
-Small business ownership in the 7th grade
-Why X never equals the same thing twice
-Everything that is wrong with education in America
-The Claudia Kishi School for Kids Who Can't Find Adverbs Good
-The brilliance of Ann M. Martin (I suspect we will discuss this after reading every book)
-The brilliance of Janine Kishi
-The brilliance of The Baby-Sitters Club Club podcast
-Power struggles in seventh grade relationships of the 1990s era versus now
-My text messaging issues
-Root beer barrels
(P.S. I have zero idea why the first photo in this slideshow is so much smaller than all the rest. Zero. Sorry, team.)
It's the moment you've all been waiting for: Riley and I finally finished reading and texting incessantly about the book and BSCC podcast for Kristy's Great Idea.
Yes, that's right. We read the book. We listened to the Baby-Sitters Club Club podcast. We discussed important topics such as the patriarchy, post-modernism, and whether or not "save it" is a phrase in definite need of revival. We also briefly conversed regarding whether sheep are "in."
I doubt all our re-reading conversations will be this long or this involved. But hey, it was the first book of the series. We had a lot of ground to cover. Lots of nostalgia was involved.
And so, without further adieu, I give you: the first installment of Riley and Johanna Re-Read Stuff, via slideshow., Here's our entire text conversation as we re-read the first book of the seminal classic series The Baby-Sitters Club, listened to the aforementioned podcast, and then basically texted both the book and podcast to death.
I like to think Billy Collins would be proud.
(P.S. There may be just the occasional tweet in here that has nothing to do with The Baby-Sitters Club. I.e. "Episode five will change your life" is in regards to something else entirely. Sorry; I suck at photo editing.)
(P.P.S. Points to anyone else who also tagged "sheep are in" as the most important line of this book. )
(P.P.P.S Because we all remember that the BSC loved to use the multiple post-scripts. If any of you have thoughts on the slideshow format, lemme know. I'm sure not married to it. I'm not married to anyone or anything except Travis Parkhurst, and everything else, including a slideshow of text messages, is up for immediate dismissal should said dismissal be deemed appropriate.)
Revisiting The Baby-Sitters Club Series, a Seminal Classic
Let me tell you about my friend Riley. First thing you should know: it's totally her fault that right now you're looking at a picture of Kristy's Great Idea, the seminal classic that launched a series so infamous it is often spoken of in hushed and reverent tones. Yes, that's right. The Baby-Sitters Club series.
Riley and I share many obsessions: Suits, BookBub, puppies. But the obsession we probably spend the most time bonding over is our mutual love of children’s and YA lit. We both spend hours of our educator-lives talking about it. I write it. Riley reads it with a voracity that sometimes makes me wonder when she has time to eat. And we’re not picky: picture books, middle grade, YA every-genre-you-can-imagine. If it’s out there, one of us probably either has read it or wants to read it.
So when Riley sent me a link to The Baby Sitters Club Club podcast, it seemed immediately clear what she was going to suggest we do: re-read the series together while listening to the podcast for each book.
Yup. I was all over that idea like Claudia Kishi on a neon-colored fedora.
I don’t claim to be an expert on many things, but if there was one thing I knew during the course of my childhood, it was The Baby-Sitters Club series. I had the board game. The videos. (Little-known fact: there wasn’t just movies. There were also television-length episodes, which I owned on VHS.) I recently unearthed my collection of the first sixty-odd books, complete with Super Specials, whilst going through my parent’s attic. I made frequent Kid-Kits for the approximately zero baby-sitting jobs I was ever hired for. (Little-known fact: I sucked at baby-sitting. Kids made me nervous. But I sure did like reading about it.)
These are, truly, the books that made me a reader. Ann M. Martin was my gateway drug into much harder stuff: Morrison and Chaucer. Taking a trip down memory lane with my most beloved author of all time and her experiments with tween handwriting? I cannot wait.
And because it seems a given that Riley and I will spend a majority of this adventure texting each other back and forth with every weirdo thought we have while reading/listening, it only seems fair we share a window into our utterly bizarro book communications. So whenever we have a particularly fun or irreverent text convo about our BSC adventure, I’ll post it here for your book loving enjoyment. Consider this the birth of the Johanna and Riley Re-Read Stuff Sub-Blog.
(Are sub-blogs an actual thing? If not, I’d like credit for creating them.)
Feel free to follow along as we join the men (yes, you read that correctly: two dudes make this podcast) of The Baby-Sitters Club Club and text each other relentlessly about how many times Stacy’s blonde hair gets mentioned per book or why Kristy and Bart have such a hard time admitting their feelings for one another. I hear someone on the podcast has discovered themes of great religious significance in Dawn’s storyline. I anxiously await that revelation.
So here we go. Personally, I can’t wait for us to relive our childhoods while I try to figure out why I ever identified with Mary Anne.
Warning: this post has some very general spoilers for both my books and for Bill Konigsberg’s books Honestly Ben and Openly Straight. VERY general. You’re not going to find out who killed JFK or anything. But if you’re the type of person who hoped for Titanic to have a surprise ending, maybe stop reading here.
Warning #2: I’m in a rambly mood, and this blog post definitely shows it. I suspect Rafe’s writing teacher in Openly Straight would leave me some very critical feedback.
I’m having one of those writing weeks where I’m thinking a lot about endings. About when endings should be specific and when they should be vague. When they should be happy or sad or thrilling or cause great anger on the part of the reader. Endings are hard—in so many ways they define the message and purpose of a novel. What makes them even more complicated is that most our stories don’t have nice clean endings, no matter how unhappy or happy they are. So I spend a lot of time considering how I can be true to the reality of my characters’ lives and still tell the story I want to tell.
My solution? I spend a lot of time writing what I half-jokingly call happy-but-ambiguous endings. The happy-but-ambiguous ending is any story ending which leaves the character in a generally good place emotionally and physically but without definitive clarity that everything has “worked out” for them. It’s the kind of ending that leaves you, the reader, to write the details in your mind of what likely happens next, even though the story itself left you with no question that the character is going to be a-okay.
As a writer I have more than a small affection for the happy-but-ambiguous ending, and I’ve written several YA novels with endings that play in this ballpark. For me, these types of endings just feel more authentic. I’m writing about people’s lives, and the ends of the chapters in our lives rarely come with every problem wrapped up nicely or all questions answered. But I also tend to write more hopeful stories, so my novels also usually end on more optimistic notes—hence the happy-but-ambiguous tagline.
While I may love writing a good happy-but-ambiguous ending, more than one reviewer has expressed some dislike after hitting the last page in one of my novels. If you’ve read Thanks a Lot, John LeClair, you know that there’s a key detail I left very obviously unsaid at the end of the book…and not every reader on the planet was thrilled. That’s okay. I get it. Sometimes we read for escape, right? Sometimes we read because we’re looking to find one the happy little bows that isn’t tying things up nicely in our own lives. We want our characters to find the closure and clarity we’re desperately searching for.
Case in point: this past Sunday I was thinking about endings and reading Honestly Ben, Bill Konigsberg’s new companion to Openly Straight. First of all, if you haven’t read Honestly Ben or Openly Straight, I highly recommend both books. Konigsberg tackles so many important themes and questions in both, and the characters he creates are incredibly likeable. (Even the ones who are not always so likeable are quite likeable, if that makes sense.)
So there I was, moseying through Honestly Ben, and my Kindle was indicating I was near the end of the book. Already I could sense what was coming: the happy-but-ambiguous ending. All signs were pointing toward it. For one thing, I was too far into the book for all the various plots and subplots to be wrapped up perfectly. For another, Openly Straight also features a happy-but-ambiguous ending.
And yes, I am a lover of the happy-but-ambiguous ending. When I am writing them. But what happens when I read them? Let me tell you: I hit the last page of Honestly Ben, and it took all my strength not to either a) throw my poor Kindle at the wall or b) write Bill Konigsberg asking for a third book to be released immediately. I was left with a hundred question. What about the_____? How will Ben _____? Will Ben ____ now?
That’s the thing about human beings, I guess. We all know our stories are complex and dynamic and that happily ever afters only happen in fairy tales. But that doesn’t mean we ever stop wishing for those happily ever afters to appear.
I’m sure I’ll go on to write more happy-but-ambiguous endings, and I’ll always appreciate when great authors like Konigsberg do the same. I suppose the moral of the story is this: be grateful when the writers you love are realistic and honest, and never throw your Kindle at the wall.
What follows is a letter I recently wrote to my senators, Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, regarding the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. I'm sharing it because I've heard from other teachers that they also have concerns about this appointment. I hope all of us make our voices heard and ensure our senators know where we stand on this apopintment.
I'll also add here that I've been in touch with both Senator Bennet and Senator Gardner's offices OFTEN lately, and both staffs deserve some serious shout-outs. Everyone I've talked to has been nothing but respectful, kind, and open to my thoughts. For all the staffers who've answers my calls: thanks for respecting my voice whether you agree with me or not.
Dear Mr. Bennet and Mr. Gardner:
I hope you are both well. I am a teacher in southern Colorado, and I am writing to ask that you oppose the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.
I have worked as a teacher and administrator in various charter and traditional public schools for over a decade. I’ve watched as politician after politician has attempted to create a “one size fits all” solution which would magically correct all the failings of America’s public school system. I have watched while corporations and individuals have made billions of dollars on the back of various educational reforms. And now I watch as a woman with no experience in teaching, school administration, or educational policy—a woman who herself attended private schools—is gifted the job of Secretary of Education.
Sirs, if there is one thing teachers in this state and country are tired of, it’s being told what to do by individuals who have never spent a day in front of a classroom. Everyone in America seems to have an opinion as to how our schools should be fixed, and most of those people will never actually teach a lesson. Thats fine. Everyone's entitled to their opinion, and I enjoy hearing these opinions during workout classes and over holiday dinners. That does not mean I believe anyone with an opinion should be eligible to run the Department of Education. Please, put this appointment in any other context. Would you allow someone who has never been to medical school to become the Chief of Surgery in a hospital? Would you encourage someone who never attended law school or passed the bar to suddenly take a spot on the Supreme Court?
The appointment of Mrs. DeVos is an insult to every trained educator in this country. There is no nicer way to say it. For every single one of us who put time and effort into actually studying educational pedagogy or policy, for every single one of us who has spent years in front of classrooms perfecting our practices and continually improving them, this appointment is simply more proof that our time and expertise is not valued. Why bother to get an advanced degree in education? Why bother to do the work of actually teaching children? You can become the Secretary of Education of America just by being a billionaire with an opinion!
Our students deserve better. They deserve a Secretary of Education who has worked in schools and studied things such as the complexities of brain development and how poverty affects education. They deserve someone who has done more for American education than simply have opinions and put money behind them.
I ask that you both firmly oppose the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. I ask that you demand, for the students and teachers of Colorado, a candidate who is qualified to do this work and truly understands the myriad problems facing our public school system.
Thank you for your time,