The Power of the Book Talk

Image result for tasting the skyMy students are in the process of selecting books for their new book club groups.  The Power of the Human Spirit unit examines characters, real or imagined, who must overcome tremendous challenges through courage and perseverance. Our eighth grade CLT developed a comprehensive, annotated book list for students to guide them in their decision making.  Many of the books on our list I have read, others I have not. One unfamiliar book, Tasting the Sky by Ibtisam Barakat, is a memoir about a Palestinian girl living through the Six-Day War of 1967 and its aftermath. The book jacket is drab and the image of a child is fuzzy and out of focus and quite literally made me question whether or not to even keep it in my classroom library.  

Lucky for me, one of my fabulous English colleagues, who clearly is less superficial than me, read the memoir and loved the illuminating and powerful story.  She knew her students would find Barakat’s memoir equally moving, so she selected a particularly harrowing and heart-pounding moment early in the book to read aloud from to her students.  Then, my colleague does what all amazing co-workers do, she shared the book, her book talk and offered advice on how to sell it to my students with me.

In a nutshell, this is the excerpt she directed me to read (paraphrased):

The scene begins with the first Israeli bomb attacks on Barakat’s home just as she and her father are returning from their village.  They hurry into the house and warn the rest of the family to turn the lights off and quietly move to the trench in their backyard to hideout. Other villagers begin running past the trench, fleeing the impending doom of a ground attack. Barakat’s family decides, they too, must flee, but when her family takes off running with the rush of people, little 3 ½ year-old Ibtisam is tying her one shoe she was able to slip on her foot.  When she looks up for her brothers and parents, everyone is gone. 

My students are immediately hooked.  

“I want to read Tasting the Sky, Ms. Juengst.”  

“Can I take the book home this weekend to read?”

And from one of my most reluctant readers, “I think I’d like to read that book for my book club.”

The power of the book talk creates an urgency to read.  Sometimes the urgency even becomes competitive and students must negotiate to determine the reading order when book copies are limited.  Fortunately for our eighth graders, my middle school owns many copies of Tasting the Sky so no book emergency for now.  


Natural Phenomena

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I’m not a very religious person, but I am quite spiritual. If there is a higher power, I believe it is rooted in the energy and cycles of nature. Just as authors use weather events to establish mood and foreshadowing in their narratives, I “read” nature for signs of deeper meaning.

Take the night my grandfather died.  I was sound asleep in my bed when I woke around midnight to a powerful gust of wind that blew through my open window. It was so strong, it detached my curtains, carried them halfway across my room, and deposited them in a billowy pile on my floor. No storm followed.  No lightning. No heavy rains. The intense rush of air was merely an isolated event.

The next morning, my dad called to tell me my grandpa had died in his sleep.  We cried and briefly discussed the circumstances of his death. After I asked how my mom and Grandma were fairing, he mentioned the approximate time of Grandpa’s death. Midnight.  Even though I lived hundreds of miles away from my grandpa, I believe his spirit was responsible for the freakish blast of wind that blew through my room that night. He came to say goodbye to me.

Imagine my concern today when at 4:30 p.m., foreboding skies appear in the east. Soon winds gust to 50 miles per hour. Heavy rains ensue, blowing sideways and then transitioning to hail.  The storm blows out quickly. What remains are high winds and colder temperatures.

I watch the wild scene play out from inside a local eatery. The gods are trying to tell me something. A late March storm like this is unusual and extreme.

A prickle of worry develops.  What fates await.

The Joy List

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The guys who produce the Minimalist podcast also write a regular blogpost.  One recent blog I read stressed the importance of creating a “I Must (daily) List.”  They included topics like read, write, be grateful, show compassion, eat healthy, and so on.

Here is my twist on the Minimalist blogspot list:

What brings me JOY

Dancing with my sister in dive bars

Educational conferences, like NCTE and ALAN

Down vests–navy from Uniqlo

       Saucony running shoes, size 7.5

Dinners with family that go late into the night

Seat heaters cranked up to 5 on cold mornings

Little gold earrings, the smaller the better

Afternoon reading sprawled on the couch

Whole milk lattes from Swing’s Coffee

Ultimate (Frisbee) weekend tournaments

Athleta leggings and soft tees

Twelve-year-old Frye harness boots

Green smoothies: kale, spinach, mango, ginger

Memories with Grandma

Memories with Grandpa     

Long runs in D.C., M Street to the Monuments

“I love you’s”

 Pink Lady apples, sliced thinly   

Cable knit winter hatspom pom on top     

And Whole Foods

honey roasted,

freshly ground

peanut butter.


Mic Drop Wednesday

A long forgotten, black swing dress

paired with cozy brown tights

and my favorite suede boots

sets the tone for the day: upbeat.


After the perfect blow dry

I grab my stuff and head to the car.

No rain yet.


the sun streaks pink in the east.


I scoot out onto the main road

and drive without interruption.

No red lights,

flashing school buses,

or ped crossings to slow me down.


The freeway merge

is all about acceleration.


I’m in the flow

when the opening riff of

“American Girl” begins.


I turn the volume to max

and sing:

Well she was an American girl

raised on promises.

She couldn’t help thinkin’ that there

was a little more to life

somewhere else.”


A string of “best songs ever”

continues through my commute

ending with Peter Gabriel

serenading me

into my parking space.


Student spirits are positive

throughout the day, too.

There is excitement for our next unit,

but reading remains

at the heart of our lesson,

a community of readers

lost in their fictional worlds.


(phone ringing)


“There is a large box of books

a parent dropped off for you in the office.”

(Seriously, can this day get any better?!)


The faculty meeting is cancelled,

two extra hours of planning gained.


A final check of emails reveals

Not one, but two

parent notes of former students,

sharing high school successes

and thanking me for my support.


By the time I head back

to the parking lot

my walk is more of a swagger,

Gratitude and satisfaction wrap

around my core like a cashmere throw.


I press the car ignition

and settle in for the drive home.

An old Feist melody plays

One, two, three, four

Tell me that you love me more.”

…and I’m out!

The Process Is the Miracle

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Words string together

in my mind creating

chunks of meaning

and patterns of rhythm .


Thoughts flow through my shoulder

and down my arm,

a powerful rush 

of storm water racing

through cement drain pipes

ending in the tributary

of my hand.


Fingers and thumb pinch

the hexagon pencil

and guide the tip along the

lined notebook page.

Graphite lines,

curves, and dots

form letters

into words,

shaping phrases

from left to right.


Images emerge:

a young girl nestles into

her mother’s lap;

a cat curls up

on the tufted sofa;

the August sun sinks

like a fireball

into the horizon.


Writing immortalizes

my ephemeral thoughts,

a permanent imprint

of my voice,

like the fossil

of an ancient creature

long gone



Button and Larry

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When Ivy spots her new best friends, Button and Larry round the corner with their “mom,” Jane,  she paws the glass door and whimpers. She continues to cry, running back and forth from the door to me pleading to go outside to greet her pals.

Button is a Maltese or a Maltese-mix breed, a little white fluff ball who prances on tippy-toes near Jane’s side.  Button is kind and respectful; she rarely uses her sharp, trill voice to speak. Instead, she greets Ivy with soft squeaks and tail wags.  

Larry is a handsome long legged, black prince, a cross between a labrador and a Great Dane. Despite his size, Ivy finds his laid back demeanor inviting; she traces the yard next to Larry, shoulder to shoulder, mouths agape, noses pressed to the earth.

The image of Button and Larry is a study in contrasting analogies: salt to pepper, pebble to boulder, curly to straight. Despite these physical differences, Button and Larry are gentle, friendly and patient pups. They bring out the best in Ivy.

Jane is Ivy’s favorite though. She endures Ivy’s slobbery kisses, hugs and lean-ins. She praises Ivy in a sweet, sing-song tone and scratches Ivy behind her ears. Eventually Ivy bounds off to play with Larry and nuzzle with Button.  

Ivy doesn’t make friends easily.  She is fearful of many dogs, especially larger breeds, so I’m thankful Jane takes the time to invite us out to play each night.  Friendships can be extremely meaningful, even for our canine friends.

A Lesson about Love

I grew up in a house filled with love, but early on in my childhood, I learned not all kids experience the same unconditional love that I was given. In elementary school, I played with two friends in my neighborhood.  We spent the night at each others’ houses and shared our hopes and dreams about our futures.

My future always seemed brighter in comparison.

Dawn was the youngest of three.  Whenever I spent the night at her house we had to finish all of her Saturday morning chores before the fun could begin.  We would dust, polish and vacuum an already dirt free, smudge free home. Her strict parents attended an evangelical church and spoke of the importance of living by God’s word.  Dawn’s middle brother stood in direct contrast to his parents. He was rarely at home and a trouble-maker at school according to Dawn. He didn’t wear a short buzz cut like his dad’s, but preferred to keep his curly locks long and unruly.  The pristine main living quarters contrasted her brother’s pigpen room which smelled like feces and looked like a wild animal had torn through its contents.

Dawn shared her bedroom with her oldest sister whose twin bed matched Dawn’s except not a single wrinkle appeared on her sister’s lace trimmed bedspread.  Her sixteen year old sister hadn’t been home in over a year. Dawn talked about missing her whom she suspected had runaway to live with a boy. A boy her parents forbade her to date.

Elaine, my other close neighborhood friend, was funny and creative.  Her father was equally as strict as Dawn’s and her mother never left a dirty cup or plate unwashed in the sink.  Elaine’s house was kept meticulously clean. Like Dawn, Elaine was the youngest. Her four siblings’ portraits, two boys and two girls, hung along with hers on the living room wall in a long line. I only knew Elaine’s sisters who still lived at home. She rarely mentioned her two older brothers by name; their whereabouts was never discussed. I never felt comfortable asking about why her brothers didn’t live at home. Years later I heard rumors that the boys had been removed from the family and placed in foster homes.

In general, love felt absent from Dawn’s and Elaine’s homes. A black hole of darkness hung over their families, and within its vortex, painful family secrets spun ’round and ’round. Maybe love was there, buried under memories of lost children, and the broken families expressed a limited more conditional love through the adherence of  strict rules and cleanliness.

My parents didn’t worry too much about keeping an exceptionally clean house; nor did they worry about whether we went to church or not. Instead my parents spent quality time with my sister and me.  They established healthy family routines which included eating dinner together, attending school events, sharing bedtime stories, and so on.  My mom and dad never wavered in their support of my hopes and dreams.  And while I’ve lost track of Elaine and Dawn over the years, I look back on our childhood friendships with great fondness. What ultimately separated Dawn and Elaine’s destinies from my own were the families we were born into.

Unconditional love of a child makes all the difference in the world.