Learn How to Scrawl: A Book Review

Click here to read reviews on Amazon!

Welcome to the first book review from Lessons Learned! From time to time, we need a brain break, a way to escape the facts of our life by exploring fiction. Books can be a great way to learn some lessons while relaxing. My first recommendation is Scrawl by Mark Shulman. Before you raise your eyebrows, or close the blog, let me prove how a book marketed to tweens and teens has a few lessons for all of us to learn.

From Cover to Cover

As we read the first line in the novel, we read the first journal entry of Tod’s detention journal: “Think about a pair of glasses for a second.” 230 pages later, Tod’s journal ends with an exchange between himself and the guidance counselor who has been reading and commenting in his journal for the 5 weeks he was in detention: ” ‘Was that all that kept us from getting kicked out of school?’ And you smiled back at me. ‘Yes.’ ” What we learned between the first and last pages, is how we all judge without knowing, watch without seeing, and speak without listening.

  • Who? The book is formatted as a journal written by Tod, a bully, who is serving detention under the supervision of Mrs. Woodrow, a guidance counselor. But, the more you read, the more you question what you know about bullies. For example, Tod explains his environment to Mrs. Woodrow by explaining, “Every neighborhood downtown has its own violent Neanderthal troglodyte hell-raisers” (8). He also plays euchre at lunch with his friends. Euchre, not poker. And, helps his blind lab partner. Questioning your facts on bullies, yet?
  • What? Punishment. The journal is a punishment for getting caught. (You don’t learn what he got caught doing until the near-last page…and I’m not spoiling that for you.) Tod’s friends are outside completing their more typical, juvenile delinquent punishment of picking up trash under the supervision of the head custodian. But, who hasn’t inflicted punishments upon themselves? True story: my mother accidentally ran a red light. (It was one of those that is only for a small strip mall.) When I pointed this out to her, she literally pulled HERSELF over! This is not a serious example, but it is a serious issue. Instead of listening to me, listen to Tod: “The more important you treat yourself, the more you’re worth” (41).
  • When? Let me be a typical therapist, here, and answer a question with a question: Which events in your life mark the difference between then and now? There are the usual markers in life, births, deaths, weddings, and graduations. Traditionally, developmental psychologist have stopped there. But, since late in the first decade of the new millennium, we are starting to understand that the life span has markers in adulthood, too. We see Tod accidentally enter the spelling bee only to come in second when a teacher cheats, and we question what we know about bullies. We admire the large statue created by Luz, and we question what we know about the goth/artist. How long does it take, how old do we have to be, for stereotypes to be broken? Changed?
  • Where? The longer you read Scrawl, the more it reminds me of a house of mirrors where each turn reveals a different, exaggerated version of yourself and surprises you each time. You realize that Tod is more complex than the school bully. You see what he is like at home, a not-surprisingly poor house where he wears layers of clothes to sleep in order to combat the lack of insulation in his “bedroom.” Tod surprises us in the auditorium as he becomes a reluctant accomplice in creating the costumes for the original play written by the stereotypical school freak. In detention, Tod writes much more than is required and is more honest than is expected.  reflection.
  • Why? It is surprising that, as a therapist, I loathe this question word. After reading Scrawl, are we supposed to long for after school specials? Do the readers labeled as bullies feel vindicated? Do we donate more to the Salvation Army in case a ne’er-do-gooder needs to help a friend? Sure, why not. Or, maybe we just needed some perspective on how far we have come. Or, maybe we just needed a way to talk to our children about how to treat others.

…And How?

How do you take the lessons learned from Scrawl and use them to make yourself stronger? First, let go of the memories of high school that have flooded you for 238 pages. Second, make an impromptu book club with your kids (ages 10 and up are fine) to discuss how they feel about the characters and if anything is similar in their lives. Third, it’s never to late to start a journal. It is infinitely more healthy to get any thought or feeling out than to “suck it up.” Last, start now to be who you want to be regardless of who you were then or who others think you are now. Like scrawling, life can be messy, unconventional, and unpredictable. Enjoy!

Keeping Kittens in a Box

All this month we are talking about education. Teachers, parents and students all need to prepare for going back to school. Before you skip a blog, keep this in mind: I have successfully survived your child’s lack of focus, need for attention, urge to get under my skin, and hormonal roller coaster while providing direct instruction covertly covering dozens of educational standards. Multiplied by anywhere from 20 to 41 kids just like him. Not only did I survive, I managed accolades for me and high test scores for them. There is a reason I was nicknamed “Big Mama”; my students were my kids.

In 1983, I was in Mrs. Cullen’s second grade class. I have two district memories from that year that helped shape the more than thirty years that came next. First, I had a really hard time memorizing my multiplication tables. learning mathThat chart of 144 boxes loomed over me, taunting me, from its daunting position on the front bulletin board. I learned then math and I were going to be frenemies. Second, at the end of the year, Mrs. Cullen gifted me two or three old teacher’s editions. I had no idea why she bestowed those heavy, paperback books with the correct responses typed in bright blue upon me. Could she have seen something in my seven year old soul that showed a kindred spirit for teaching?

It took 13 years to get my own teacher’s editions. It was also almost that same amount of time that I cultivated a program of classroom management that helped bookend my career with awards. Year one: a fight nearly broke out in my junior English class of 41 students. Two teenagers, allegedly from rival gangs, turned angry words into physical posturing. My desks were loudly pushed aside to accommodate the theater in the round growing around the now standing conflict. I was so appalled at their behavior, I shamed them into sitting back down after apologizing to me for unruly behavior in “my house.” That year I was honored in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. 

Fast forward to year 15: my classroom of seventh graders volunteered to work through lunch (it was a two-hour class broken up by a 40 minute lunch) in exchange for finishing our read aloud book, Notes From the Midnight Driver. In fact, these kids would negotiate any terms to be rewarded with a moving debate or a spoken word video. I called them my “magic class” for too many reasons to list and too much sentimentality to explain. That year I was honored by the New Teacher Project as an Honor Roll recipient of the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice.

The Five P’s of Classroom Management 

I know, it doesn’t sound exciting or movie-worthy to brag about my talents for classroom management. These skills, however, are invaluable to success in the classroom (and can be easily translated to less conflict at home).

  • Placement: Before the students even step foot in your room, you need to be strategic. Consider what supplies the students will need daily, and make sure they are all within steps of each other. Some of the best time-wasters are the need to get paper, the dictionary, a textbook, or sharpen a pencil. Students wind up walking all over the room socializing with friends and distracting you from the lesson. My students, literally, could not walk more than five feet into my room without getting every supply for the day, regardless of the lesson plan. (See my Class map.)

You also need to be able to place yourself anywhere in the room when teaching. There used to be a saying that “effective teachers teach from the back of the room.” I would amend that by saying that effective teachers can teach from any part of the room. The students should be able to track you like a kitten with a laser light.

  • Policy: The district and school set their policies for behavior. But, you need to set your own policies that establish the culture of your room. This is not a collaborative process. You are the boss, the CEO, or, as I used to say, the queen of the fiefdom. If you set up class rules WITH the students, they are correct in thinking they can negotiate those rules at any given time. Bye, bye, school year! Your policies should be detailed extensions of the school’s student handbook. The goal is to keep any discipline issues in your room, managed by you. Sending a student to administration (unless safety is an issue) is sending your authority out with them.
  • Procedure: You will have a successful year if, within the first 3-4 days of school, you have cultivated a classroom of drones. Mindless, automated academic machines. Practice these tasks like fire drills using those fun, first day of school exercises everyone does. Then, fight the stress and anxiety of “wasting” that time by not jumping in on the litany of standards you have to cover for the year. I need you to trust me that the speed with which you are able to deliver effective instruction will increase exponentially when you don’t have to add instructions every day about how to turn in work or put away books.
  • Power (here is where they psychology peeks back in): It is the job of any child to test their boundaries. It is the mistake of most adults to stymy those efforts. Lean in, like a car skidding in snow. (I make no apologies to anyone who has lived a lifetime void of driving in hazardous weather.) The students I taught, from grades 6 through 12, were all feeling good about themselves after negotiating stage 4 of Erikson’s developmental model. Add to that some cultural blunders that led to children feeling entitled to everything and getting a say in their rearing. Now you have a generation of teachers struggling to embrace their power without feeling like they are robbing their beloved students of voice and choice. Rest assured, the boundaries you put up are just what students need to feel safe enough to challenge themselves to the academic rigors of your room.
  • Personalization (not you..them!): Here is a great activity for first day fun that teaches you a lot about the culture of your kids. Yes, they are getting up around the room and talking to everyone. They are gathering valuable intel for you! You will be able to discover which kids are interested in sports, astrology, pop culture, etc. which means you can tailor activities and re-teach lessons that students didn’t master. IMG_4915

Also, your classroom should be decorated for the students’ comfort and success, not yours. If you must bring in some touches of home, link it to your academic journey. I had a small cork board behind my desk with my (ancient) certificates from French Honor Society and National Honor Society next to my varsity letter for volleyball. Don’t give your students a reason to think they “know” you. That is the first sign you are slip-and-sliding into a year of discipline issues.

Spark Notes Summary

I have done my best to condense my full-day workshop into some key ideas to help get your year started right. box of kittensThe truth is, you are creating a home, a little box in which you and your students will to achieve greatness. You have to be clear and consistent within those four walls. Not just with the kids…with yourself. Students, like animals, can sense fear and lack of self-confidence from miles away. If that happens, those kittens are crawling out of the box, lost until the start of the next school year.

Next week, we have a guest blogger, LiveNLearn’s Cyra Sadowl! As a birthday present to me, she is taking over the blog for a week. Get ready for new insights, and the same brand of humor.