Some Friends Have Asked For Summer Reading Recommendations

In the past couple of weeks, several people have asked for book recommendations; I just found the time to write these down. Here goes:

book cover

A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra — I learned so much about Chechnya (1996-20014) through this impressive story and these compelling characters, and the writing is brilliant; I found myself copying down many lines I just needed to save somewhere.

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer — great writing, great story set in pre/during WWII.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr — just lovely language and characters, plot builds with such authority — WWII as well.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Goff — a husband and wife’s stories, lots of Greek tragedy here with great writing.

A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin — the compelling, tragic life of a mathematical genius.

When Breathe Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi — nonfiction, stunning writing about facing death.

She Weeps Each Time You’re Born by Quan Barry — haunting, gorgeous writing about past and present Vietnam.

The Nightingale by Krisin Hannah — strong story of two sisters in France during WWII.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri — I’ll read anything by her J — the story of two brothers, one who straddles life in India and the US.

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris — probably no one will love this book more than I — she’s the nonpareil of grammar; I wrote her, and she responded!

Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin — nonfiction, Nobles grad who writes with power and humor about changing her life.

All That is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon — a gripping fictional account of characters surviving the Chernobyl disaster.

Euphoria by Lily King — Lily taught at Nobles and is a warm, lovely person, and she is a fine writer. This book is loosely based on Margaret Mead’s fascinating life, love, and work in New Guinea. Great writing. Also try Father of the Rain by Lily — so powerful!

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill — this feels like poetry; it’s beautiful, heart-breaking, funny, and moving about marriage, mothering, forgiving, and being an artist — all written in compelling, vignette-ish pieces.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout — I love this writer, and this book is about writing, too. A mother-daughter unveiling as well.

And here are five of my absolute favorites written up for an article in the Nobles Bulletin years ago with this title:

“Five Books I Wish I Hadn’t Already Read So That I Could Read Them For the First Time Again”

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss is a clever, moving novel. I definitely like this kind of book where the story unwraps slowly and mysteriously through different voices, in this case: Alma, a precocious 14 year-old; Bird, her ten-year old brother, and Leo, a retired locksmith (I love the symbolism of his being a locksmith – there is so much that must be unlocked…). You have to be comfortable with not knowing exactly what is going on all of the time, but if you stick with it, this novel delivers so much haunting beauty and knowledge of love. And the writing is just perfect.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is a tragic, detailed saga that pulled me into India and made me have to travel there. After I finished this novel, I was sitting next to Ben and said, “You have to read this book so we can talk about it.” He did. (He’s quite obedient) He loved it, too, and we decided to go to India to see if we could create a travel and service experience for Nobles students. We did. Five groups have gone to India since our first look-see excursion. Four years ago I began teaching a senior elective on Contemporary Literature of India. All triggered by this novel…

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese is set in Ethiopia and unravels a complex, entertaining story of intersected lives, some from Ethiopia, others from India, America, and England. There is a lot to love about this novel. There’s the Ethiopian history and political events, the intricate surgical detail (Verghese is a surgeon as well as a fine writer), and the imaginative plot. The writing is just exquisite, and the characters so interesting. I have a thing about twins in literature or plays; the twin boys in this story add such richness and complexity. I loved this book.

Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Berniéres is flat out fine story telling, unearthing a poignant love story. There are parts I had to copy in my journal, so much truth was in his words. Maybe it was so engaging because I read it first when Ben and I were on a six-month sabbatical traveling around the world with our children. I had time to read each morning when I woke up which is a luxury for me. I had the whole day to think about and remember strong images and particularly truthful passages.

The Republic of Love by Carol Shields is at times funny, detailed, and always engaging – another love story. (I’ve read every book she’s written. I wrote Carol Shields after finishing her book, Unless, as I’d heard it was her last because of a cancer diagnosis. She wrote me back a lovely hand-written card that I treasure.) This quirky love tale unveils Shields’ ability to write with such authentic voices for her characters. (The Stone Diaries, for which Shields received the Pulitzer, highlights this finesse with voice as well.) The book brims with details and has a plot that surprises and pleases, unrolling through alternating chapters from the two protagonists, Fay and Tom.



Two New Things: Reading & Writing

  1. It’s strange to feel slightly giddy at the loss of my Kindle. It sits in the seat back pocket of 17B or in the hands of someone new. I’ve called American Airlines’ lost & found and talked to a real person, but no one has turned in my purple covered Kindle, and I am smiling having just returned from my favorite bookstore, the New England Mobile Book Fair (a place Abby, David, and I used to frequent for hours, all of us sitting or sprawled in the narrow aisles on a rainy day) with a stack of real books. I am happy with the covers. I am happy with their heft. Happy soaring, Kindle!

books on chair


  1. I am also slightly scared and excited about the coming of May. I have been selected to be poet for Tupelo Press’s 30/30 Project. Each day of May I will be posting a poem on their webpage, along with eight other poets. Even though I have created a pretty consistent discipline of writing at least two hours every day, I certainly don’t throw my unpublished work out there. But I’m eager to push myself as a writer while raising money for Tupelo Press. If you want to support this endeavor, click here.

30:30 Project

Happy reading and writing to you, too!

Still thinking about teaching…the walls around us

paint chips

At Home Depot, I am always drawn to the paint department. I like the small color swaths on cardstock, often snagging several to use in something my students and I will be making at some time. These little rectangles of several hues of one color are magnetic to me, and the names – graceful sea, highland breeze, mighty Aphrodite – I love them. That might be my perfect job, making up those names… I’m sure not everyone is drawn to color the way I am, but a lot of us are, our students included.

If you are fortunate to have your own classroom, make it something students want to enter. That means color. That means images. That means music. That means warmth. It’s your little house in the school, and you want to be a good host.

There’s a lot of research about what colors evoke in humans, most of it done by retail marketers. Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, FedEx, et al, want your business and have paid real money to find out what colors will attract you. We can definitely learn from advertising because let’s face it, as educators we’re trying to sell stuff to our students, be it grammar, good literature, the quadratic formula, or declensions of verbs in any language. It behooves you to create a space that fosters and encourages that learning. Without much effort or expense you can ensure more assimilation of information and a more engaged group of kids.

Here’s the basic 411 on what colors can conjure in humans – of course different cultures and personal experience can change the effect, but for the most part these colors seem to have archetypal resonance:

Blue – calmness, creativity, strength, truth, sadness

Green – vitality, youth, safety, fertility, wealth

Red – happiness, love, anger, danger

Yellow – grace, prosperity, cowardice, joy

White – purity, innocence, death

Black – power, evil, elegance, mystery

Orange – energy, warmth, demanding attention

Purple – spirituality, royalty, wisdom, arrogance

Brown – stability, reliability, endurance.

Though most colors have conflicting connotations, the positive one often prevails – think Coke ©. Their red is about happiness and fun, not danger. Also, the urgency of a red stop sign works into the psychology of using red as a marketing device – buy this now! It’s not surprising UPS chose brown to anchor its company: brown trucks, brown uniforms all send the message we are dependable; we will get your package to where you want it no matter what; we endure. Starbucks’s greenness conveys growth, wealth, and goodness.

Blues and purples became the colors of my classroom for the last several years. I just happen to love these colors and what they can convey. Choose colors you like; use the research of retail marketers – work at making conscious decisions in your classroom so that kids enjoy the space and find an environment conducive to learning.

I’m not suggesting that everyone can put in a work order (lucky you who can!) and have walls painted before school starts or for you to spend an inordinate amount of money on gallons of lavender paint, but you can create an engaging, safe, and welcoming room with a deft use of paper, posters, and some paint. (Several websites offer free posters to teachers like:,,

Images send messages, explicit and subtle. I feel strongly that I want every kid to feel included and welcomed in my classroom. I work hard to have photographs of Asian, African American, Latino, White, young, old, disabled, gay, and transgender people on the walls and in the material I use: PowerPoint presentations, books, and handouts. Faces like themselves on the walls say to kids, I belong here.

Think about a room you love in your home now or in a previous abode. What appeals to you about it? Would your students like it? If so, work hard to recreate something about it in your classroom. For me it was color (blues and purples), some comfortable couches in the back of the room for independent reading or small group work (found at yard sales), images of diverse faces, inspirational quotations (like Prejudice rarely survives experience.), and space to display student work. This last piece may seem more appropriate for elementary school, but I found that my seventh through twelfth grade students enjoyed seeing their own and their peers’ work as well. Think about the walls in your classroom as advertising. Advertising works. A daily wash-over of images (that are inclusive), color, and words that motivate and affirm good values has potency. Empty walls in a classroom are a missed opportunity.

Even if you move to different classrooms for your several sections in a middle or high school, you can still share a space with colleagues and discuss how to decorate or split up the space in a way all of you feel meets your respective needs and desires.

Once you have worked on your classroom, ask yourself, Would I like to enter this room? Would I feel comfortable, inspired, and included?

Creating a welcoming space through color, images, and words helps to eliminate fear. Know that you have kids who have experienced fear in school; commit to subjugating that destructive emotion. Fear may be the biggest impediment to learning. Given the ‘fight or flight’ response humans have to fear, we know if students are afraid, their ability to reason and think is silenced in favor of survival. Fear quells risk-taking, too. Anything we can do in our classrooms to eliminate fear will enhance the performance and confidence of our students.

Writing Away

So I retired early from a job I love – teaching English in a warm, potent, and energizing community. I needed to follow a passion – writing. No matter how many summers (and there were thirty-seven) I tried to focus on writing, I just couldn’t dig deeply enough without the end of August springing out of nowhere too soon. I left something I loved and knew for something I love that is quite unknown. It’s a scary leap.

When I was all of eighteen, I remember calling my parents from the phone closet (it was bigger than a booth – I was lying on my back with my feet up the side) on the fourth floor of Maine Hall at Bowdoin College. I had been at college for about two months and hadn’t found a home.

“I think I’d like to leave, go to the house in South Stafford and write poetry,” I said.

Silence. I can only imagine what my parents were thinking or miming to each other on two different phones.

“You know, Sally, you’d have a lot more experiences to write about if you stayed,” my dad finally said.

He was right. And my life happened with a lot of experiences: finishing college, teaching, graduate school, more teaching, marrying, having two kids, more teaching – a life brimming with very little time to write. When the opportunity emerged to retire early at sixty, I felt a magnetic pull to do something I’d had an urge to do forty-two years before – go to Vermont and write poems. And so I have. Three months in I am questioning that decision (some things never change…). I’m just not feeling like the writer I want to be. I’ve sent work out – nothing published yet. In my poetry class, I’m feeling like the worst poet at the table. It’s a general feeling of a lack of confidence. I’m compelled to write and have disciplined myself to do it every day for at least two hours, but what if I suck?

It’s Sunday morning – I’m in Vermont. I’m gathering a batch of recent pieces to find one I’m willing to take to slaughter for Tuesday’s three hour workshop. I really don’t know which of the six poems in front of me is the least worst.

I decide to call my sister.

“Could I come over and show you some of my poems? I know you don’t like or read poetry much, but I know you’ll be honest.”

Sitting with Julia, reading my words aloud to her and having her note places that resonated, places that failed to touch, and places she wanted more was so helpful.

“All I want in this new chapter of being a writer is a little speck of affirmation, a meager yes – that’s all I really need. I know I’ll keep writing – it’s something I must do, I love to do, but I guess I need a little back,” I told her. “Thanks so much for helping me.”

On the way back up to our house, I felt renewed, lucky to have my sister so close. Some of my words worked with her.

As I turned into our driveway, I stopped at the mailbox – mail gets delivered late on Saturdays, and neither Ben nor I had checked.

And there it was. Another speck of yes. In a manila envelope were two certificates for awards two of my poems had won. These weren’t first place certificates. No. Third place (tie) and honorable mention. And a check for five dollars. Yes, five dollars. I couldn’t stop smiling. I still can’t stop smiling. I asked and I received – beautiful, wonderful affirmation. I’m still smiling – so thankful. Writing away.


Becoming a teacher…

In June of 1977 I sat in a donut shop on Main Street in Brunswick, Maine, circling possible jobs in the classified section of the newspaper with a red pen, like this one:

             Assistant teacher needed in contained classroom for disaffected students. BA degree. No teacher certification necessary. Apply: Mt. Ararat School, Topsham.

I had just graduated from college, and I needed a job. This was well before the world of internships and knowing where you were going – the world my own kids zoomed into. Though I never thought about teaching as a vocation before seeing this little square of print or knew what I might be getting into with the word disaffected, I applied because I needed a job.

I certainly had had some fine teachers in my eighteen years of education, several memorable. Mrs. Stewart, my kindergarten teacher at Westfield Friends School, somehow made me love words. I can return so quickly to her classroom, see and touch my black wordbook with wide-lined white pages – those lists I’d learned to spell. I remember her calling me up to her desk as she did to each of us at some point in the week during the quiet hum and darkness of rest time. I pulled myself off the sturdy blue canvas cot to share with her the new chunk of words I could spell: day, say, way, clay, nay. I found the power in patterns and rhyming early; poetry pulled me even then.

Ms. Beck cried in front of us when President Kennedy was shot and killed. Young and eager, she touched me with her involvement in my little world. “Do you have a special thing for Larry?” she asked. She must have seen how excited I was to be going to speech class with him. She smiled, knew about third grade crushes, knew to speak softly about them.

In high school there was Mr. Boehmler, who unearthed a passion in me for chemistry. My myriad test tube shatterings never fazed him. I loved it all – the equations that seemed like puzzles, the heating on Bunsen burners and mixing, and his dry humor.

College gave me Professor Geoghegan, who sparked a desire to major in religion – he was such a force in the classroom behind a podium. I loved his booming voice about routinized charisma and his astute statements like, Buddhism is more of a psychology than a religion. He’d walk in the lecture hall, take off his suit coat, drape it over a chair, reveal his signature suspenders, and start with a bang.

But even though I had experienced real magic in the classroom, I never entertained becoming a teacher until I simply needed a job, and an assistant teaching job was available.

Thirty-seven years later I feel so fortunate to have backed into a vocation I grew to love. The first two years were a crucible that I barely passed. However, in the third year I landed in what seemed a utopia, which led to the past thirty-five years of feeling lucky to be doing something so rewarding.

Found Photos

For those of you who have read this blog of just writing, thank you. In my new iteration of writer-tutor-volunteer, I so appreciate your reading my work. But here’s something more visual; some photographs that were lost in our iPad storage snafu have magically re-emerged on Ben’s phone and are now safely ensconced in my iPhoto albums. I hope you enjoy a bit of the majesty of Tibet (its beauty, spirituality, & yaks) and Xi’an (the nearly unfathomable terracotta soldiers and a bike ride on top of the city wall) from our trip ~



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Thanks for looking!

Love Whom You Teach

I ran out of my classroom, into the parking lot, and threw a satchel of markers, colored paper, and stickers in the back seat. I had exactly an hour and a half before I had to be back to teach my senior elective on poetry. I was headed to Mitchell Elementary School to my daughter’s fourth grade class to be a “guest lecturer” on poetry.

Two months before at Back-to-School night I had whimsically signed up on a list that was circulating the room titled “Possible Parent Activities”. There was a place for your name (under “Guest lecturer”) and your “expertise”. There were already four names, each with an expertise – photography, making pancakes, hand sewing, calligraphy so far –when it came around to me.

Young, energetic Miss Newman had called me later that week to schedule a forty-minute slot with Abby’s class to share my “expertise” in poetry. Thankfully, our schools were within five miles of each other, and I could zoom over in between my classes.

When I walked into Abby’s classroom of twenty-five smiling faces, Abby leaped out of her chair to hug me. Miss Newman introduced me to the class, and I began a lesson on cinquains, a very teachable, fun poetry form. For the remaining time that I was there, questions, bodies, and laughter swarmed as kids were creating their own cinquains with assorted art supplies.

All I remember thinking while I was with this animated bustle of kids for forty minutes was, How does she do this all day? Seventh and twelfth graders I get. Nine year olds seemed like whirling dervishes to me – a full school day with them? I couldn’t imagine it.

How do you know which age group works for you?

My husband has only taught juniors and seniors in high school – history electives on challenging but important topics like genocide and the Vietnam War. He has tough, compelling discussions every day. One fall semester he had to take over an eighth grade civics class for a colleague.

“How do you work with middle school kids – they’re nuts – they’re all over the place!” he said when he came home that night.

It’s true. You either love middle school students as a teacher, or you don’t. It’s an energy, humor thing for me. I like their teetering on adulthood but still with some part of them planted in childhood – that endearing earnestness I love.

I remember chaperoning a weekend ski trip of both middle and high school students. One of the staff from the motel we were staying at found a small plastic bag of marijuana in the lounge area only our group was using for meals, TV, and card playing while we weren’t on the mountain. That night we convened the whole group of fifteen kids.

“Someone from the motel has notified us of something that we have to address. One or more of you has broken a community rule and has jeopardized our taking these kinds of trips, and we want you to come forward to talk with us privately at some point this evening about what you did.”

We left it vague and wanted the student who had brought the drugs to feel the guilt of taking advantage of this kind of a fun trip.

At the end of the meeting as people were starting to watch TV and play cards, a middle school boy sidled up to me.

“Miss Dickenson, umm, I’m sorry, but Teddy and I were jumping on our beds last night.”

I had to bite my lip not to smile when I responded, “Thanks for letting me know, Dan – please no more jumping on the beds.”

How perfect. How sweet. It’s exactly why I love middle school kids.

I also love seniors. Ironically, in their last year in high school, kids seem to regain some of the lack of inhibition and unadulterated joy I witness in the seventh grade. It’s almost like the too-cool-for-school sense of the previous four years can be shed now that they have one foot out of the door. I have been teaching seventh and twelfth grades for many years because I love the energy each group brings to class.

I hope Miss Newman is still creating magic with fourth graders. I was so impressed with her unflappability and her obvious delight and love for nine year olds. I remember feeling so lucky that Abby had her as a teacher as I was driving back to kids I knew and understood.

As a teacher it’s vital to find the age and grade level that make you the best teacher. You’ll know when the age works because it’s where you feel most yourself, where you find joy and comfort and inspiration.

Thinking about teaching…perhaps my most important lesson

Wednesday, June 21st , 1978, remains a day of transformation for me. It was the last day of school for the students of my first year of being an assistant teacher. I walked out to a virtually empty, expansive parking lot. I had a box of my personal things in my arms – folders, stapler, pens, books – knowing somewhere inside that I wasn’t coming back the next year even though Sam, the head teacher and my good friend, was trying to convince me otherwise. As I neared my light blue VW bug, I knew that something was wrong.

Picture a car covered in smashed eggs, dripping down windows and doors; mushed watermelon allover the windshield with the rinds tucked on top of windshield wipers, and seen through the back window: my tennis racquet shattered, strings limp and misshapen on the back seat.

As I opened the door to put the box next to the ruined racquet, I remember biting my lip, refusing to give into tears there. It was quite likely that the kids who had ruined my car and racquet were in the woods waiting for the thrill of my crumpling into a heap of sadness. I would not give them that satisfaction.

I waited until I was a mile down the road from the school parking lot to pull over and cry. Something happened as I was parked there as it often does when you are in depths of darkness. Somehow I found strength in me I didn’t know I had.

Feeling something new and quite powerful, I called Ronnie’s mother when I got home (this was well before cell phones), a parent I had come to know well and who lived close to the school.

“Please go look in your refrigerator to see if you are missing any eggs.”

When she came back on the phone with a yes, I asked, “Is Ronnie there?


“With others?”

“Yes – Scott, Chuck, and Steve.”

“Keep them there; I am coming over right now with a ruined car that they are going to clean, and I want $80 for the tennis racquet that they smashed.”

I drove over to Ronnie’s house, and the three boys were on the curb with buckets and sponges.

“That was cruel, mean, and wrong what you three did to my car. Let’s go – clean this car like it’s never been cleaned before,” I said.

I left an hour later with eighty dollars, a sparkling car, a stronger voice, and my integrity.

That entire year had been a trial – one that I really didn’t pass until that moment. I was scared and panicked most of the time I was in the room with these fifteen seventh grade students who had been corralled in one contained classroom because they were deemed by other classroom teachers as too disruptive to be with others. Each had some experience with the local police as well. Basically, I was ineffective at garnering any authority. Sam, the head teacher, was an ex-Navy, 6’3” bundle of positive energy – he had control of them. When he left the classroom in my unable hands for even minutes to copy something or make a phone call, we were always in or teetering on pandemonium. Two particularly tough kids, Ronnie and Roxy, had sensed my vast vulnerabilities and made my life in the classroom a version of hell – where I was completely not in control. And then there was Chuck, who always deflated the tires in my VW bug at my home in the cover of night (an unfortunate neighbor to have in Cundy’s Harbor) so he’d have entertainment as he’d see me filling up the tires with my bike pump on his way to school in his father’s pick-up. I was bad at my job, and I was having no fun. In fact there were a lot of tears.

But that moment of utter failure and sadness at the end of a very difficult year released potency I had needed to excavate. Kids needed fair, clear consequences, and I needed to feel that I was following my moral compass. Bad behavior needs immediate, appropriate response. Honestly, I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize these important truths as a leader. My post-college idealism and optimism were too ingrained perhaps. Certainly, I had never had any training in how to manage a group of kids, especially a challenging group of kids. I just didn’t know the importance of setting clear rules, having fair consequences, and the magnitude of being comfortable with being unpopular. Once I realized the importance of integrity over popularity, I was on solid footing as a teacher.

And I decided to stay another year. The next year with these kids was not easy. Once after a field trip to a fish farm, I had to get all of the kids who drove with me to sit in my locked car for twenty minutes with the windows rolled up until one of them told me where he had hidden the dead fish – it was behind the speaker panel in the back seat. Who brings a screwdriver on field trips?

However, I started to be myself, laugh with the students, and was sort of able to control this unwieldy, disruptive group most of the time. When one said, Fuck you, I didn’t unravel. I had a plan, didn’t mind being disliked, and learned not to take things so personally. These kids needed to lash out; so much had gone wrong in their lives. When they weren’t angry and I was being clear and consistent, we learned about having fun together.

Starting to be a writer (-ish)

When I was starting to be a teacher the summer after graduating from college, I felt quite unmoored. Not only had I never really wanted to be a teacher, never taken education courses that were about teaching, never been in a classroom, but also I was starting my foray into a world I grew to love with a very challenging demographic: “disaffected” middle school kids – more on that in a later post.

Now as I am in the summer before starting my new career as a writer, I am feeling similarly unprepared for what this life will be like. Ben and I are spending a great deal of our time in Vermont before September when he will be once again immersed in all things Nobles, and I will enter life as writer/tutor/volunteer/who-knows-what.

These next few months will be about figuring that out and enjoying the lucky life we lead in Vermont.

Here’s what Ben does a lot (cuts down branches, small trees, and weed whacks stuff):



Here’s what we see from our deck (Ben’s office) sometimes:



I like what Flannery O’Connor said so succinctly, “I write to discover what I know.” The writing in this space may be a way for me to figure out where I go as a writer, what I know.

But as a good friend and fine art teacher told me, remember to add images…