Category Archives: book geek

The Alice Light Bulb Moment

Yesterday, I posted an entry on the Blue Door in which I said that I was too busy to blog about some things, and one of the things I was too busy to blog about was the fact that in every single class I ran on Thursday, I was able to pull off  what I call “Helen Keller” or “light bulb” moments; that glorious few seconds when a kid leaps from “I don’t get it” to “OH!  NOW I see!!”  I live for these moments, and the fact that I was able to execute the same one in all three of my core English classes was kind of a record for me.  I needed to share.

The entirety of CHS is reading Alice in Wonderland.  Several of the kids have read it before (and a number of them are familiar with bits of the story through various film interpretations), but none of them has analyzed it yet; they’ve read it for the surface stuff, but really haven’t taken the time to really think about all the weird shit that happens in the novel.  I had suspected that the kids were blowing through the book without really getting what they were reading, and I suspected that they were missing some of the funny stuff, so I decided to point something out to them to see if I was correct.

At the very outset of the story, Alice impulsively follows a waistcoated white rabbit down his hole and finds herself falling for what feels like forever; she has time to observe the walls around her and to investigate an empty jar of orange marmalade, and then she starts thinking about how she’s going to apply this experience to her life when she returns to it (though she doesn’t really give a thought as to how she’s going to get out of her predicament; her impulsivity is something which serves as a constant through the novel).  She thinks to herself:

“After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down-stairs! How brave they’ll all think me at home! Why, I wouldn’t say anything about it, even if I fell off the top of the house!” (which was very likely true.)

I read that passage aloud and asked the kids to really think about what was being said here, both by Alice and by our narrator (who, it turns out, has a flair for snark).  They read it, and read it again, and really didn’t see anything much to it.   Just when they started thinking that I was seeing something that wasn’t really there (“because English teachers do that all the time, you know; they try to find something deep and meaningful in everything!”), one girl gasped and her eyes got HUGE and I pointed at her and said “SHHHHH!  Let them work it out for a little longer!”

Of course, this got them all riled up; they HATE it when one of them is in on a joke that they don’t get, so they went back to the passage and tried to will themselves to figure it out.  One by one, a few more kids got the joke, and when about five of them were bouncing in their seats wanting to explain it to all the other kids, I pointed back to the first girl and said “GO!”

“YOU GUYS!” she said, “The narrator is telling us that she wouldn’t say anything if she fell off the top of the house because she’d be, like, DEAD!  She LITERALLY wouldn’t say anything about it because she’s be a smear on the sidewalk!”

Yes, my lovely; that’s it exactly.

That scene played out, in almost exactly that way, in all three of my classes.  It was awesome.  My hope is that this little exercise will inspire my babies to read more carefully, and with an eye toward the snarky and ironic.  We shall see if my hope is well-founded.

I love my job.


Filed under analysis, book geek, fun, funniness, great writing, Helen Keller Moment, I can't make this shit up..., I love my job, Literature, little bits of nothingness, reading, success!, Teaching, the good ones

Ten Things Tuesday *Edited*

It’s Banned Books Week.  Here are ten books, which have been banned or challenged, that have shown up in Mrs. Chili’s classes.
*Edited to include some commentary. When I posted this, I was in a hurry and didn’t have time to elaborate…*

1.  Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

I haven’t actually read this in its entirety yet, but I know for sure I’ve read a good portion of it in excerpts.  It’s on my freshman syllabus; I expect we’ll get to it around January or February.

2. Separate Peace by John Knowles

Also on the freshman syllabus.  I read this one in high school and remember not really loving it that much.  I plan to revisit it before we read it, though, with my far more mature and trained eye to see what I make of it this time around.  I’m planning on pairing this with a viewing of Dead Poets Society; those two works should make for some really interesting coming-of-age discussions.

3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I love this novel.  I taught it to my juniors and seniors last year (after having read it only a month beforehand).  While I can hazard a guess as to why some of the other books on this list have been banned or challenged, I can say with some pretty confident certainty that several religious groups found this one objectionable; it imagines a Puritan-like dystopia in which fertile women are used as surrogates for powerful men.

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I can’t begin to tell you how important this book is in my curriculum.  Again, my freshmen are getting this book, and I’ll likely pair it with The Book Thief (I did this last year to great effect).  There is such richness to be mined from this unassuming little book, and I think that a lot of people will tell you that this novel was pivotal for them; I know it was for me, both as a reader and a teacher.

5. Native Son by Richard Wright

I taught this just before Handmaid last year, and I have to tell you that the entire unit was one long string of out-of-the-park home runs.  This novel is SUCH a contradiction.  It is a technically easy read; there are no complex vocabulary words and nothing mechanical that would keep even the most novice reader from getting through the pages.  The concepts that the book deals in, though, deliver non-stop sucker punches to those willing to dig – no, make that scratch – below the surface of the plot.  We could have talked about this novel for WEEKS longer than I scheduled time for, and the students referred back to this work as a touchstone for almost everything we read after that.  Like Mockingbird, Native Son is a foundational piece in my curriculum, and I can’t imagine that ever changing.

6. Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally

This one was a bit of a cheat.  I don’t actually teach the novel; I teach the film.  Honestly, I don’t think that the book is terribly well written, and I feel like the style of the prose detracts from the vital message of the story.  Speilberg’s film, by contrast, reaches into your chest from the first frame and doesn’t let go until LONG after the final credits have rolled.

7. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

To be honest with you, I’m not sure that I’ve actually read this novel.  I want to say I have, but I can’t, at the moment, call to memory exactly what it was about.  Regardless, it’s on my junior syllabus, and I’m eager to get to it (or get to it again, as the case may be).  I have a deep and abiding respect for Toni Morrison, and I’m looking forward to the conversations this novel is sure to generate in my class.

8. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

This is our all-school read.  Everyone should have the novel by next Tuesday, when we start reading as a community.  Each of my three core classes has voted to defer the next novel in their reading list in favor of focusing on Alice for the month of October.  Like Huck Finn, this is a novel I’ve never read from cover to cover… yet.  I know the story well enough from the numerous excerpts I’ve read (and interpretations I’ve seen) to feel pretty comfortable teaching it.

9. The Giver by Lois Lowry

A teeny-tiny little wisp of a book – seriously; you could probably read it in one good pre-bedtime stretch – but it packs a pretty heavy philosophical punch.  My freshmen are finishing their final wrestling with this novel this week.  So far, we’ve managed to discuss the ethics of “release,” we’ve rooted around the idea that a dystopian novel critiques the present (and what Lowry was critiquing in this work), and we’ve chased down the reasons why human beings seem unable to deal with a perfect society; each of the kids commented that the novel was “creepy” because it was “too perfect,” and one boy (Goddess LOVE him!) brought up the scene in the Matrix where Agent Smith comments that their first attempt at the program failed because it was too good; there was no want or conflict, and the humans couldn’t handle it.  “Whole crops were lost,” he said.  The students had a GREAT time with that.

10. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. Rowling

I’m relatively certain that all the Harry Potter novels have been banned or challenged at one point or another.  This one is on the Film and Lit syllabus because, even though each of the novels deals with the theme of coming of age (Harry comes of age incrementally in each of the works), I really do think this one is where he (and his friends) turns the proverbial corner.  While my students are a little daunted by the thickness of the tome (and I’m a little insecure about teaching the middle book in a long series), I’m desperately looking forward to this unit; I can’t wait to see how the kids re-approach a work they read as kids (and think they know).

Happy Tuesday, Everyone!


Filed under book geek, great writing, lesson planning, politics

Ten Things Tuesday

Ten things we’re working with in my classes this year:

1. My film and lit class is watching Willow as I write this.

2.  The Secret Life of Bees, both the novel and the film; Goddess, but I love that story.

3.  The Giver.  My freshmen start this novel tomorrow.

4.  Frankenstein.  My seniors start reading this today.  I’m thinking about showing them a couple of film versions, to boot.  I so love this novel.

5.  Something Wicked This Way Comes.  I’ve never read this, but I’ve always wanted to.  One of the cool things about my job is that I get to decide what we read, so I get to pick stuff both that I love and that I’ve always wanted to read.

6.  Atonement.  I finished reading this about a week ago, and I’m eager to read it with my seniors.

7.  The Client.  My film kids are going to read and watch this.  I can’t wait.

8.  The Book Thief.  Another of my most favorite books.  I’m dying to read this again.

9.  The Empire of the Sun.  Another film class film.

10.  Night.  I’ve read this about a dozen times, but I’ve never taught it.  My freshman get it this year, and I’m eager to see what they do with it.


Filed under book geek, Dream Course, film as literature, fun, I love my job, lesson planning, reading, Teaching

One Down…

… and I don’t know how many more to go, but it’s all good…

This was a great (though short) week. We managed to get through two rounds of orientation on Monday (one for the incoming kids and one for the returning ones) and started classes on Tuesday. With a couple of notable exceptions, everything went beautifully.

I’ve got an awesome bunch of kids. I’m delighted to have back some of my favorites from my previous classes, and I’m excited to have some kids that I met during lunches and common times in my classes for the first time. I’ve also got a bunch of brand-new freshmen (and a couple of never-been-to-CHS-before juniors) that I’m already starting to love. Really; in three days, I’ve developed quite an affinity for a number of them (though I’m not sure that they quite know what to do with me yet…).

On the downside, I’ve got some real issues with how the board is handling the operation of the school. While I understand that we need someone to see the big picture and take the long view (while we’re in the trenches dealing with the minutiae), I want to point out that the minutiae is often very, very important to the day-to-day running of a school.

Example? We ran out of copier paper on day two. DAY TWO, People. Last year, I made some noise and got a bit of hardware installed on our photocopier that would turn the sheets we fed into the thing to PDFs, which we could then email to ourselves and post on our websites so the kids could access much of our material paperless. Great idea, right? Well, only HALF the work got done; the hardware got installed in short order, so the printer is ready to make PDFs, but the software isn’t working so she can’t get them out of her brain – it is still not possible to email the files out of the printer, so the whole scheme is essentially useless. We’ve got the business machine people pointing to the cable company as the problem, and the cable company pointing to the business machine people, and I’m standing in the middle unable to do my job because I’ve got no books, no paper, and no way to get PDFs to the kids. So. Not. Cool.

I’m choosing to look at the positive, though. I’m back doing the work that I love. I’m working with top-notch people who take their jobs as seriously as I do mine. I’ve got great, funny kids. I’m excited about some of the work I’ve got planned. I’ve been saying for a while now that I’ve got a really good feeling about this year, and that good feeling hasn’t let up yet. I hope it’s the same for you.


Filed under book geek, colleagues, concerns, failure, frustrations, I love my job, I've got this kid...., really?!, Teaching, the good ones, The Job, winging it

Summer Reading

I always loved the idea of summer reading programs, even though I didn’t participate in them as a student (don’t give me any crap, either; I was working full time by the time I was a sophomore in high school, so I didn’t exactly have time to lug a book to the beach, you know what I mean?).  Reading is one of the major activities of my summer as an adult, though.  I love all the lists that come out, I can’t wait for my public radio to do their annual summer reading show (it aired today, but I was away from a radio, so I’ll listen to it tomorrow when it gets posted on their website), and I end up with a “my eyes are bigger than my tummy” situation in that my stack of books is often way out of proportion with the actual time I have during the summer to read them, but I don’t care.  Summer, for me, means ice cream, salads, the Cape, the lake, and books – lots and lots of books.

For our first annual book list, I’ve taken the easy out and hit up the American Library Association’s banned books list as a starting point, though I’m telling students that they can read any novel they like.  I’m thinking that, since I’m asking the kids to write a full-blown essay for every book they read*, I should give them some sort of incentive for doing the work.  I’m thinking of giving each summer reader a few “pink paper” passes; while I’m not willing to let them blow off a major essay, I would be okay with their skipping a reading response or two.  What do you think?


Why read?  It’s a lot of work, after all, this reading stuff.  It requires a lot of effort on our part; we have to take the time, we have to participate in the actual act of reading, we have to think and question and remember.  It’s so much easier to watch T.V., where we can just sit back and let ourselves be entertained; the sets are designed for us, the lighting is carefully manipulated to convey a particular tone, and actors tell us exactly what we need to know.

Reading, though, engages us in ways that other media can not.  Reading asks us to hear voices in our heads that are not our own, to see places we’ve never been, and to partake in experiences we otherwise wouldn’t have.  Reading lets us travel in time and space, gives us insight into how others think and live, and asks us to be a part of the story.  Reading opens our imaginative and intellectual doors.

Below is the first annual CHS Summer Reading List.  The theme for this inaugural list is “banned books” and celebrates the right to read.  This list is taken in part from the American Library Association’s Banned and/or Challenged Books (  Students may look online for other reading choices from the ALA, or they may read another novel of their choice; please don’t feel limited to this list:

The Great Gatsby; F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Catcher in the Rye; JD Salinger

The Grapes of Wrath; John Steinbeck

To Kill a Mockingbird; Harper Lee

The Color Purple; Alice Walker

Ulysses; James Joyce

Beloved; Toni Morrison

The Lord of the Flies; William Golding

1984: George Orwell

Their Eyes Were Watching God; Zora Neale Hurston

Of Mice and Men: John Steinbeck

As I Lay Dying; William Faulkner

Native Son; Richard Wright

The Lord of the Rings; JRR Tolkein

Students who read should write a brief summary of the novel(s), which should include a short description of the plot, personality sketches of major characters, the tone of the work (i.e., what message does the reader think the author was trying to convey?) and an explanation of the novel’s major theme.  Along with this summary, students should include a 3-5 paragraph personal response in which they address a) whether the story (or the themes in it) reminded them of anything – a personal experience, a film, another novel, a poem, etc. and, if so, how the two experiences are similar, and b) what stood out for the reader – where did the story provoke the most emotion?  Where did the reader see the story’s “turning point”?  Which character changed the most, and why?  These should be printed in plain, 12-point font on white paper and turned in during the first English class of the term.

Students who choose to participate in CHS’s summer reading may earn credit in their core English classes based on their summer work; students should consult with their individual English teachers to determine how credit will be given.  If a novel crosses the curriculum, students may be able to earn credit in other courses (math, history, science, etc.) as well; check with your teachers.

If you have any questions about the summer reading program, or you would like a personalized book suggestion, feel free to email Mrs. Chili at any time.  Happy Reading!


*understand that this in no way constitutes an expectation on my part that anyone’s going to actually READ.  I’m hopeful, but only a little…


Filed under book geek, critical thinking, Extra-curricular Activities, I love my job, lesson planning, reading

Credit Recovery


I’m trying to put together an 8 week credit recovery program for the students who failed junior English this term, and I’m bumping up into a serious creative wall.

I want for the program to be largely self-directed; that is, I only want to meet with the kids once a week and have them do the rest of the work on their own.  I also want for it to be substantial; I’m resisting the urge to reign in the material because, well, if they couldn’t handle what I gave them in small doses every day for 15 weeks, what makes me think they can handle a lot on their own in 8, right?  The point is that they COULD handle the work, they just chose not to and besides, the point here is for them to prove that they’re ready for senior level English; one of the main themes of that class is moving toward independent, self-directed work.

I’ve got the first week knocked; they’re going to write a personal literacy narrative in which they relate how a literacy has helped to shape how they read, write, think, or behave.  It’s an assignment I do with pretty much every writing class I teach; what I want for the students to understand is that reading and writing are intimately connected and not, as so many of them think of the experiences, discrete activities.  I can point to any number of books that have been instrumental to shaping how I view myself and my place in the world, and I want for my students to be self-aware enough to understand where their influences come from.

After that, though?  I’m stumped.  I can’t decide if I want to continue the theme of social justice that we were working on over the semester (though I am leaning heavily in that direction) or if I want to branch into something completely different – adventure literature, say, or biography.  I can’t land on whether I want to teach one book in-depth, or work from a collection of short novels, stories, and film.  Further, I can’t decide if I should make the summer term all about critical analysis, or if I should make it a straight writing craft course (though, to be honest, I’m likely going to keep pushing the critical analysis, as that’s going to be the primary objective in senior English in September).

I’ve got a stack of potential books on my desk; A Long Way Gone; Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Beloved by Toni Morrison (or possibly Song of Solomon), The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and American Gods by Neil Gaiman are all in the running, as is The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (because my plan is to work that book with juniors next year, and these students, if they complete the summer session successfully, will enter September as seniors, so they won’t have to work the book twice).  I’ve not read the Beah or Gaiman books yet, and it’s been a very long time since I’ve read Conrad or Morrison, so I will have to work those right along with the kids, but I’m not opposed to that.

What do you think?  How would YOU go about building a summer school term that had a heavy independent study feel to it?  Thoughts?  Suggestions?  Please?


Filed under book geek, critical thinking, failure, frustrations, I've got this kid...., lesson planning, Literature, reading, self-analysis, Teaching, The Job, winging it, writing, Yikes!

Coming of Age

The theme for next year’s curriculum is “coming of age.”  CHS is entering its fifth full year, we’re re-imagining our vision and purpose, and the director of the school is dying to stage a production of Alice in Wonderland, so we settled on the theme of personal growth to inform our curriculum choices for the next school year.

I’m asking you, dear readers, which novels, short stories, plays, poems, and films you’d recommend for the theme for my core English courses.  Keep in mind that I’m designing classes for all four levels – freshmen to seniors – and that I’m invested in a wide variety of genres.  Also keep in mind that we’ll likely read Alice in Wonderland as a school community, so that’s already in the plan.

In 10 minutes of brainstorming, I’ve come up with:

The Book Thief     To Kill a Mockingbird     The Secret Life of Bees   Atonement  Speak    The Perks of Being a Wallflower    The Diary of Anne Frank   Siddhartha     Frankenstein

What would YOU want to read (or what would you want your child to read) in this theme?

Aaaannnd, GO!


Filed under book geek, great writing, I love my job, lesson planning, Literature, Questions, reading, Teaching