In the Classroom: Build Community and Foster Identity

I have a pretty intense belief in the necessity of the educator to provide a safe and encouraging space. This may be no shock to you, but middle school and high school are not the best places for safely growing into who you are. There are expectations, fears, insecurities, on a terrifyingly magnified level. This is the main reason I start each semester, not with some clever icebreaker game, but a clear establishment of a simple, undeniable truth: you are a beautiful, adored creation. Do I say it that way, exactly? A lot of laws dictate that I can’t… but I want to establish up front, each kid has value, each kid is important, and we will respect one another with our words and our actions. More importantly, I back that up. In my class, you can probably get away with a few things… but speaking down to someone? Insulting them to make yourself feel better? If I hear even a whisper of that, we are in the hallway and talking about why we value someone, and what it means to build people up rather than pull down. So what’s a hands-on way I try to do this toward the end of the year?

Activity: Compliment Sheet

I actually stole this idea from Ms. Lobasso (now Mrs. Letts). She had us do these when I was a junior in high school, and it meant the world. I print off a sheet with the name of every student in class. I pass these out to my students and I ask them to write something nice, something genuine about every student on the sheet. When all of these papers are turned in, I type up all of the comments and print each person a list of the things their peers said about them (obviously, I make my own comment, too. When you have a class of 30, it’s easy to take out comments that are short or really don’t seem too thoughtful and still have a solid amount of compliments from peers). Here are the keys for making it work:

1. Your classroom must involve students working with each other often and in different groups. If they haven’t talked to teach other, obviously they won’t have something to say about them… Build community. Give your students opportunities to interact. This is exceptionally easy in creative writing, where I can facilitate student groups for a wide, wide variety of reasons.

2. Have at least one day where they sit in the order of their names. This will deflect most of the, “Wait who is so and so again?”

3. Frame it- Your thoughts on any activity matter. The way you describe it and the way you explain it matter. I try to explain the importance of what we say to each other. I explain that, often, I hear high schoolers say things that are more destructive than life-offering. I encourage them to take this chance to say the thing that will have a positive impact and may stave off whatever negative words a person has encountered that day.

4. Keep it anonymous. I make sure students know that the other students won’t know who said what.

5. Encourage people NOT to talk about physical features. Yes, I’m sure there hair IS nice… but encourage genuine reflection on why people are special and important.

6. Follow through. You’re going to have to type. A lot. But you can do it, because kids matter and sometimes a sheet of paper is enough for them to remember that they matter.

Feel free to comment, tweet, or email for questions about how to do this!

Comparing: The Darwin Elevator and Boneshaker

Immunes, and steampunk, and sci-fi… oh my!

I lucked out on my honeymoon reads and picked some amazing books. If you’re looking for new hard-hitting science fiction OR glorious steampunk to read… look no further. 

The Darwin Elevator by Jason M. Hough (who you can follow on Twitter here: )

Flash-forward to the 23rd century. The last city on Earth? Darwin, Australia (my money was on Cary, NC, but whatever). An alien plague has decimated the population, transforming the afflicted into zombies, referred to in the story as “subs”. However, the same aliens that delivered the plague also delivered refuge in the form of a space elevator that emits an aura to keep the disease at bay. The main character, Skyler Luiken, happens to carry a rare immunity to the disease. He and his crew are scavengers that conduct missions out beyond the aura’s edge, collecting resources for the ragged heap of humanity back in Darwin.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (who you can follow on Twitter here:

Flash-backward to the 1800’s. An Alaskan gold-rush brings wealth to the Pacific Northwest, but it also delivers calamity. Leviticus Blue creates the Boneshaker, a digging machine that creates chaos in downtown Seattle, releasing a horrible Blight that transforms the affected into walking “rotters”. The story takes place more than a decade later, as the widow of Levitics Blue and her son try to live life under the curse of their past. Ezekiel’s frustration with his father’s legacy eventually leads him into the Blight-ruined city, forcing Briar to follow after him. Inside the city? The walking dead, dangerous overlords, and a host of deeper, more hidden dangers await.

So, how do they compare?

1. First, in the use of the undead. Both authors have a great sense of what they want their undead creatures to be. In Boneshaker, Priest tends to use her rotters as an element of sheer terror. She does a wonderful job of building the horror of any scene through consistent descriptions and, I noticed, the noise the “rotters” make. It’s terrifying. In The Darwin Elevator, Hough definitely provides suspense and fear through his zombies, but there is the added mystery of the “SUBS” disease. Why did the aliens deliver this plague? And why is the Aura suddenly not protecting against it?

2. Steampunk vs. Science Fiction- I’ve always enjoyed science fiction, but am not a “hard” science fiction reader. Some of the mechanical descriptions of how a space station works… they sound… mechanical to me. Hough does a good job of enlivening his plot through some pretty cool futuristic devices, but I have to admit that STEAMPUNK took the cake for me. I’m not sure how far I’ve dipped my toes into the genre, but Priest really caught my intention with some clever inventions. And who can complain about zepplins crashing into Blight-infested streets?! 

3. Plot development is so crucial. So… the other book I read this week was a little book called Divergent. It may or may not be super popular right now, and I may or may not have watched the movie last night. Here’s the thing: Divergent does not really have a great plot. We have a front loaded book that spends about 300 pages on “initiation” (remember, the Hunger Games wrapped that section of the book up in about 30 or 40 pages) and then a gauntlet chase over the last 100 pages that, at points, doesn’t even allow us the proper time to mourn or celebrate or digest. The only reason I noticed this about Divergent? Because I read Boneshaker and The Darwin Elevator right before it. BOTH of these books do a wonderful job of leading us through suspense-filled action. Both books raise the stakes. Both books provide a certain building to a certain climax to a certain resolution. What I felt the Divergent lacked, both Priest and Hough pull off in a fantastic fashion.

So… what didn’t I like?

1. In The Darwin Elevator, I did notice that some of the important moments took place “off-stage” as it were. This may be a Hollywood, cinematic syndrome on my part… but some of the most impacting moments the narrator experiences are more of a “collateral damage” feel. He’s reacting to the damage report, and not always present in the moment of loss or pain.

2. RUSSELL BLACKFIELD – Which made him the perfect antagonist. Man, that guy is SUCH a tool.

3. In Boneshaker, I actually had a hard time connecting with Zeke. Priest does a wonderful job of making his character somewhat petulant. He complains quickly, he’s sort of the “annoying brother” at times… While it made sense for his character, and is sometimes a likeable thing to see faults in our protagonists, I found him hard to fully identify with. I LOVED Briar Wilkes though. She’s tough as nails, consistent, and really easy to get behind as a sympathetic character.


I strongly urge you to go out an pick up BOTH of these books. If you’re a TEACHER, I’d say that either of these could be added to your classroom library. Boneshaker might be a little more appropriate for the 9th-10th grade audience. I’d say that The Darwin Elevator includes a few scenes and words that may be a little too provocative, but I think the work as a whole covers up any possible complaint there. In matters of “appropriateness”, I tend to look at the protagonist as a model. Is Skyler Luiken someone that I’d want my students to act like? And there are several scenes, between him and authority figures, between him and women, that really make him distinctly worthy of that kind of role. Having a character like that should make it easy for students to dismiss the inappropriate thoughts of Russell Blackfield as… inappropriate.

Either way, happy reading!