Author Archives: tonyvarrato

About tonyvarrato

I teach, write YA novels, take random pictures, and tell bad jokes.

Top Student Novel Picks for 2016

When my district switched our classroom websites to Blackboard, I lost years of student book recommendations.

So as one of the last assignments, I asked my ninth graders to pick their favorite independent novel from this year and write one sentence why they liked it. So you can stock your classroom libraries for next year, the top vote-getters with unedited rationales follow.

The Wake series by Lisa McMann–“It was a good book with a good plot.”

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak– “I liked it because it made you think about who it could be.”

Denton Little’s Death Date by Lance Rubin — “It made you think, and it was hilarious.”

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher– “It had a lot of suspense and I liked how the girl had recorder everything before she died.”

Paper Towns by John Green– “The concept was different and the plot never gets boring. And it’s very popular.”

Ones that I couldn’t believe didn’t make the list but were continuously checked out of my classroom library–

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo– Magic, adventure, a heist, romantic undercurrents, mystery. Fans of Eragon, Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, etc.  will devour this.

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby–Mystery, fantasy, kidnapping, identity, and a cool twist. After the students left, the teachers took my copies and are passing them around for the summer.

Snitch, Street Pharm, and Takedown by Allison Van Diepen–Three different books about drugs, gangs, and things like that. My reluctant readers especially eat these up and then pass them to their friends. By far, my most stolen books. And in my world, that’s the highest form of praise.

There you go. Read a couple this summer. Stock your library. I think I’ll try this again next year but require two sentences for the rationale, since these turned out so vague. I’m adding new books to my September book talk but keeping these popular ones, so I’m interested to see what makes the list next year.

Ciao. Happy reading.

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2016 Summer Reading Stack

books 2016

I’ve got some traveling planned, so I amped up this year’s stack to 13 including one I didn’t get to last summer because of reasons. Summer is short, so my action figures may need to help me speed read. I try to mix up the list between classic, YA, novels, and teacher stuff.

First up: The Meursault Investigation— Kamel Daoud (A sequel of sorts to The Stranger)

…followed by, in no particular reading order–

No Exit–Jean-Paul Sartre

Hell Hole–Gina Damico

Choke–Chuck Palahniuk

The Girl with All the Gifts–M.R. Carey (a student recommended this one)

The Sun Also Rises–Ernest Hemmingway

Bite Me–Christopher Moore

The Drowning Girl –Caitlin R Kiernan

Gone–Michael Grant (I feel bad I haven’t read this yet)

You–Caroline Kepnes

Ditch That Textbook–Matt Miller

The Sculptor–Scott McCloud (graphic novel)

Illuminae–Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

 

Follow on goodreads to get reviews all summer long.


Teaching Shakespeare 400 Years After

Last week a local station broadcast a segment where I was interviewed about teaching Shakespeare.

http://www.wboc.com/clip/11853746/shakespeare-no-more

Clearly, my entire rationale and unit plan couldn’t fit into those 2+ minutes that made it on air. And that was not what that audience wanted anyway.

Current philosophies and time constraints suggest eliminating Bill’s works or scaling them down to just a couple monologues.  However, teaching at least one of his entire plays at some point in each high school can benefit students for several reasons.

  • The number of literary techniques you can introduce/analyze in one work is amazing.  Plot structure, poetry devices, characterization, all the ironies and metaphors… They’re all there. In one unit you can incorporate a ridiculous amount of literary stuff that you’re going to teach anyway.
  • And certainly as a root of modern storytelling, the Bard’s stories allow you to tie ins to most modern movies and books.

But there is way more that makes kids use those higher order thinking skills you are evaluated on.

  • There’s all that ambiguity that forces kids to figure out things for themselves. Is Hamlet’s ghost real?  Is it always real? Is it a good ghost or a demon? I don’t know. Make the students need to decide.
  • Text complexity. It’s harder to read than modern works. We called it “decoding, in the video” but edu-lingo calls it increasing lexile level. Students learn to read hard things by reading hard things. And reading English form 400 years ago is like learning a foreign language.
  • College readiness. When I do presentations on reaching reluctant readers, inevitably there’s a college professor in the crowd who asks me about increasing text endurance. Some professors blame high school teachers for not preparing/requiring students to read long, difficult pieces. Shakespeare fits that bill nicely.

If you want to hook the kids and keep your own sanity, try a couple of these things that work in my room.

  • Vary how they read.  Do some individually, some as a class, some in pairs or groups. Give them big questions to answer.  Witches in stories like Macbeth always give cryptic answers to the protagonist’s questions. Quote the answers and explain how they could go badly. Think of questions they the kids have to work together to figure out.
  • Show them the video as you go. Or be a rebel and show different scenes played out in different films. (Romeo and Juliet’s options are: classic, modern, singing, zombies, and gnomes.) Then ask what is different in the movies versus the text. And why? Why do directors cut Paris’s death? Doesn’t that mess up the symmetry Shakespeare set up? Hamlet is so long, nearly every director slices large chunks.  Ask the students why.
  • Acting.  There’s no time to act out the whole play.  That would kill a whole marking period.  Give groups important scenes of 100 lines or so. You will need to do some prep here counting characters and choosing where to start scenes.  Give them one period (we have 90-minute classes) to plan: assign and practice lines, block out where to, add actions, make props…whatever. For added difficulty, some groups may have more parts than actors, so they’ll need to figure  out how to solve that problem. After they perform, they have to summarize scene to audience and explain why the scene was important to the story or theme or character or whatever you like.
  • Show them Thug Notes if you dare.

So, what I should’ve said in the interview was this: Teaching Shakespeare just to teach Shakespeare is sorta pointless and a waste of time.  But using him as a vehicle to teach students things you need to cover anyway is going to benefit both you and the students.

I welcome your comments and suggestions. I love getting new ideas.


Summer of 2015 Reading Stack

books 2015

Since teaching requires so much essay reading and prep reading—which here means rereading Crime and Punishment or Purple Hibiscus for the 15th time before I teach it again–I rarely get to read for fun until Summer. So, with the school year mostly wrapped, it’s time to start this year’s stack that I’ve been building all year.

The Infinite Sea–Yancey  (Fifth Wave part II)

Trigger Warning–Gaiman

The Girl on the Train–Hawkins (Mother-in-law recommended this one)

The Marbury Lens–Smith (student rec)

The Alex Crow–Smith (different Smith)

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls–Sedaris (teacher rec)

The Drowning Girl–Kiernan

Song of Solomon–Morrison  (My classic of the summer)

I am the Messenger–Zusak (Kinda embarrassed I haven’t read this yet)

I always shoot for 10 books and have only selected nine so far, so I’ve got one space left to fill. I’ll probably scour Amazon and Goodreads for recommendations. …unless…

Do you have a suggestion? I’m looking especially for new YA–within the last year. I tend to like more actiony types, but I’m adventurous. Whatcha got?


Student Choice Creates Readers

With a nearby school district wrestling with censorship issues, I thought now would be a good time to share a recent letter from a parent.

 personal library letter

Instead of blanket reading policies, educators and parents should focus on fitting an individual book to an individual reader. We cannot encourage a reluctant reader to read if the book does not appeal to him any more than you can make me like math by forcing me do a worksheet of logarithms.

Sometimes the right book is about ponies and rainbows, and sometimes that book is going to be about drug dealers and f-bombs, as was the case in the book referenced in the letter above. One book does not fit all, no matter how cool the book. So if our goal is to engage kids, we will want to encourage them to buy in. Getting them to choose the book they want to read is an excellent start.

My classroom library is stocked with books I think kids will like. Then I take it one step further and do book talks during the year. I pop a few covers on a PowerPoint and give a 15-second overview of the books. Yep. I turn into a book salesman. And kids scramble for the books when I’m finished.  Then I encourage parents to look at the books their kids choose.

Clearly, all classrooms cannot accomplish all their goals with reading anarchy where every kids reads exclusively whatever they want. There are Common Core goals, and Lexile levels, text complexity, classroom novels, thematic selections and a slew of whatever other things we have to incorporate into our plans on a daily basis.

However, if a goal is to get kids to want to read, we need to create opportunities for them to select things books which interest them.


Writing with Synchronicity

I don’t use this space to do many book reviews; I do that mostly over on Goodreads. However, I found a section of David Wilcock’s The Synchronicity Key that could be especially interesting for all the writers out there. Though I just read his book this week, I see clearly that the successful stories I have written have followed the patterns Wilcock explains, while the ones that didn’t follow these patterns are still living in the arid wasteland of my hard drive, visited only by the stray tumbleweed. If synchronicity or writing interests you, it might be worth your while to pick up a copy.

Wilcock’s main point in this section is that people/readers/viewers expect certain things because our brains are hardwired similarly (Synchronicity, you know). So we crave similar elements in our entertainment no matter the genre or subject matter.

Plot structure: Wilcock explains how all stories are versions of the Hero’s Journey which we credit to Homer and teach our students in lit classes. The most outrageous of ideas can work if the author uses not necessarily a lock-step pattern but a definite structure similar to the classic hero’s.

Time structure: If your book is a 120 page book, the plot should break into three significant acts where the first would last for 30 pages, the second for 60 pages, and the final act 30 pages.

Character structure: People expect to find certain types of characters (archetypes) in order to connect with the story. And synchronicity is all about interconnectedness. The audience has an innate desire to find the character’s flaws so they can “transfer (their) identity into that character.” If this transfer doesn’t happen, the rest of the story falls apart. When it does happen, the audience is ready for the ride.

Do books and screen plays break these rules and still become successful? Sure. Is there way more to writing than this? Absolutely. Are all three of these ideas shocking revelations? Probably not. Wilcox is showing that since people are collectively interested in stories told with these elements, a writer can reach a wider audience by telling the story in this manner. It’s worth some time to ensure your story connects with your audience.


Writing Lessons from a Chinese Festival

I went to a Chinese festival this week because I’ve never been to one.  It wasn’t big, but it was inspiring.

chinese fest 

Not inspiring in the I-want-to-learn-the-dragon-dance kinda way, but in the story fodder way.

  • I saw a man with eyebrows long and pointy enough to form scale-model curling Maui waves over each eye to the point that his vision was partly obscured.
  • I met several women who were visibly shocked to have a door opened for them.
  • Among the traditional dancing, singing, tai chi, and guzheng demonstrations, I witnessed an excellent Mexican dancing troupe.

chinese fest now with more mexican dances 

A step (which here means: an hour-and-a-half drive) out of my normal routine led me to think about characterization and story.  First, physical traits should be unique.  Second, people will react when their ingrained expectations are challenged in even the smallest of ways. And third, sometimes random, cool things happen that enhance the experience. Here, the juxtaposition of the Machete dance with stomping, whooping, and rhythmic clanging machetes highlighted the nearly silent Chinese dancing. What seemed kinda out-of-place, made the overall presentation more powerful.

Step out of your routine this week, writing friends.  Notice new things and use them for inspiration.