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Dear Nic Stone

While standing on the stage in the Cullen Performance Hall, wearing a stunning technicolor outfit, Nic Stone asked the rapt audience to turn to page 152 in her debut novel, Dear Martin. Sitting four rows back from the front, I eagerly turned to the page to see which brilliant line from the novel she wanted us to read. It was this one:

“You can’t change how other people think and act, but you’re in full control of you.”

Dear Martin, Nic Stone

This quote that I already had underlined in my own copy of the novel. This quote that sums up exactly what I try to instill in my 8th grade students every day. This quote that I myself often fail to remember.

This was only a small part of the brilliance that made up the University of Houston College of Education‘s 2019 First Lecture. I am immensely glad that I attended this year.

Nic Stone speaking at the University of Houston College of Education 2019 First Lecture

In the past, I’ve always skipped the First Lecture event. As a masters student previously, and as an adjunct instructor now, I had the opportunity to go in previous years. However, since it coincides with the start of the school year, I’ve always put my career first and attend my school’s back-to-school workshops, meetings, and planning. But when I received an email back in June that informed me that this year’s speaker would be Nic Stone, I knew I couldn’t miss this one, so I used one of my (precious) sick days, leaving my precious kiddos in the capable hands of a substitute on the first Friday of the school year, to attend. #worthit

Within the first few minutes of her lecture, I knew I’d made the right decision. Ms. Stone talked about herself as a student, and it was like a knife to my heart when she said, “I loved reading… until 6th grade” (paraphrased). I am the English department chair on a 6th through 8th grade campus, and I felt the full weight of her words. Students in elementary school read for fun. They read exciting picture books and funny short chapter books, and they love them. And then they come to us in middle school and we cram “literature” down their throats and they read a bunch of stories written by and for old dead white men. And it only gets worse in high school.

Now of course, this is an overgeneralization, but that doesn’t take away the truth of it. I’ve discussed this on this blog before, and I’ll keep discussing it until the day I myself become nothing more than a story. Our curriculum across the country too often turns students who love reading into students who hate reading. And even worse, it keeps students who never loved reading from ever having the chance to discover a love of books.

Ms. Stone talked about how African American people were portrayed in the texts she was reading in class. If there were any characters who looked like her, they were set far in the past. She said that she didn’t believe she could be a writer because she didn’t see anyone like her publishing books. She said that she started to regain her love of reading when she chose to read Divergent by Veronica Roth because, as she said, “Divergent was the first series I read where the black character lived all the way to the end.” She needed contemporary stories about people like her and by people like her. All of our students need contemporary stories about people like them, by people like them.

The State of Texas has taken a huge step toward fixing this, in my opinion (and of course, there will always be people who disagree). With the brand new Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) that are taking effect from kindergarten through 8th grade this year, and 9th through 12th grade next year, a new focus is being put on students reading self-selected texts.

Nic Stone during a Q&A portion of the First Lecture event

For the first two weeks of school (I’m sorry, I need to pause here because holy crap, we’re already two weeks into the school year and it’s still August and this is why I’m writing this post more than a week after the event instead of right after like I meant to and holy crap my lesson plans that I haven’t started are due tomorrow and… deep breath… deep breath… I got this), anyway, for the first two weeks of school, one of our instructional focuses was making personal connections to the texts we read. On Monday, I asked my students to write for ten minutes (thank you, Kelly Gallagher for the 10 minutes per day writing idea; it’s going so well and I’ll probably write another post about it sometime this semester) describing any connection they could make to the three texts we’d read the week before. The first two texts were different but had a similar theme revolving around bullying in middle school. The first was from the textbook and the second from our curriculum guide. But the third text was Ghost by Jason Reynolds. I’ll detail what I’m doing with that novel in a different post, but we’d read the first two chapters at that point.

Honestly, I expected students to make a connection to the accounts of bullying in the first two texts, and I wasn’t wrong. A lot of students, especially my girls, wrote about their own experiences with bullying, whether it was their feelings as the bullying victim or the regret they feel about their own acts of bullying in the past.

But I also had a lot of students write about how they related to Castle Cranshaw, aka Ghost. I was blown away by the connections they made to this young African American boy whose father was in jail because he shot at Ghost and his mom, who has anger issues, who gets in trouble at school, who wants to play basketball, who can’t stand a kid showing off at a track practice and decides to put him in his place.

So many of my students are seeing themselves in that book.

Which bring me back to Nic Stone and Dear Martin. I hope to read Dear Martin with my classes at some point this year, maybe after we finish Ghost. In the meantime, I’ve book talked it to the entire 8th grade when the 8th grade English teachers participated in a rotation of book talks. I watched the faces of the students as they listened to me read from Justyce’s first letter to Martin. I’ve already had students check out my copies of the novel, including the one that Ms. Stone signed for me. There is no feeling like having a kid run up to you, book in hand, before the school day has even started to say, “I’m loving this book. Thank you for letting me read it.”

Me with the amazing Nic Stone

If I’m being honest, I wish my students didn’t relate to this book. I wish a book that starts with an intelligent young man trying to do a good deed and consequently being thrown to the ground in handcuffs wasn’t a book that my students could see themselves in. But as Justyce says, “If I can be forced to sit on the concrete in too-tight handcuffs when I’ve done nothing wrong, it’s clear… things aren’t as equal as folks say they are.” As long as my students need these books, I’ll provide them.

Me barely keeping my cool while Nic Stone signed my book

When I had the opportunity to meet Nic Stone and get my copy of Dear Martin signed after her lecture, I freaked out. I am not cool in the face of meeting people that I consider in any way famous (I lost the entire English language upon meeting one of my favorite Alley Theatre actors after a performance a few weeks ago – I am not cool). But I held it together, and I thanked her for writing the books that my students need. And she signed my book with “Hell yes, 8th grade!”

Nic Stone signed my book and wrote “Hell yes, 8th grade!”

I have to give a shoutout here to my district. As we were adopting these new TEKS and the new textbooks to go along with them, I was able to collaborate on a novel selection committee to choose a set of 140-160 new novels for every teacher’s classroom library. At our first meeting, the first thing we did was discuss what types of books we needed, and that entire discussion focused on all types of diversity. We all thought about the minds in our classrooms and what they needed to read, and we worked hard to make sure that there were books that students could truly relate to in each of our classrooms. As a result, Dear Martin is one of the books now in every 8th grade English classroom in the district. I am proud to work for a district that put so much emphasis on this.

When I started writing this, I truly intended to talk about more. I took notes on my phone throughout the whole lecture, silently hoping it wouldn’t look like I was texting, and what I’ve discussed here is only a small portion of what she said. As an aspiring writer, I hung on her every word about writing, about ICU storytelling – Inform, Connect, Uplift. She talked about how first drafts are supposed to suck, and her own process for writing that includes detailed planning and outlining before a single word is written. Every word she said was magic and she was funny on top it, but I just don’t have the time or space here to get into it all. Just know that if you ever get the opportunity to see or hear Nic Stone speak, jump on that opportunity. It’s not one to pass up.

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