Best Listener

A few weekends ago, while cheering on the 3rd grade Knights basketball team, my mother pointed my attention toward incoming fans. “That’s your first soccer coach over there.”  I squinted; both he and my eyes have grown much older since my days playing for the Wookies.

Baton Rouge soccer was in its infancy when I started playing. Not only was I was the only girl on the team, I was one of the few playing at all.  I loved the game (still true) even though I wasn’t a very good player (also still true).  I’m not all that competitive, and truth be told, I’m kind of scared of the ball.  So it shouldn’t come as much surprise that when it came time to hand out end-of-year awards, mine was this:  Best Listener.

Which, once you get past the implied lack of athleticism, is actually a pretty awesome award for a kid to win.  Listening is an important job skill, tied to effective leadership and healthy relationships.

After catching up briefly Coach Teeple, I found myself wondering if I’d even be in the running for Best Listener today.  Like my fear of the ball, this isn’t something I readily admit:  Sometimes, I find myself fake listening, zoning out during conversation.  I know I can do better.

If it feels like I’m having a harder time paying attention, I’m not alone.  Adults’ attention spans have declined by a third in the last six years, down from 12 seconds to 8.

We’ve got a huge listening problem, but we can do better, starting with the ones who need our attention the most:  our kids.  Below are 5 tips for prioritizing good listening at home.

Designate a time to listen to each of your children.

Children learn by observing our behavior.  When we are inattentive, scrolling through social media feed or thinking about what we’ll cook for supper, they pick up on our disinterest.  Worse, they learn to mimic these behaviors.  Acknowledge distractions when they are present (“I’m having a hard time paying attention.  Let me finish my task so I can really listen.”) so that kids start identifying potential listening barriers themselves and learning how to push past them.

The majority of our communication is nonverbal. Make sure you “listen” to body language and facial expressions along with your child’s words.  Ask follow up questions.  In short, make this chunk of time all about your child.


Cook (or do something else) together.

If you have a middle schooler, I have no doubt that you laughed your way through that first tip.  Sometimes it seems like nonverbal communication makes up 100% of what they say.

How was school?  

*Eye roll*

What are you up to these days?  


As a middle school teacher, I can reassure you that kids do, indeed, talk.  Just not to you, and certainly not on command.  Sometimes it seems like the more interest you show, the less willing they are to reward you with information.  I’ve got a 14-year-old;  I know your pain.

One of the best ways to get an adolescent talking is to do things with them.  Cooking’s great because, hey, you were probably planning on eating anyway, and plus, you’ve got a structure for your conversation.  But your common interest doesn’t have to be so practical.  Love the outdoors?  Go explore.  Music fan?  Have your kid teach you why Spotify is superior to your current music platform (Truth!).  


Take a quiet walk.

When we talk about listening in my study skills class, we start with Julian Treasure’s TED talk.  In it, he explores why we’re losing our ability to listen and what we might do to remedy that loss.  My favorite of his tips is to listen for “channels” of sound.  

Take a walk with your child, paying particular attention to all the sounds you can hear.  Bird calls?  Laughter?  Crunching leaves?  How many sounds are you hearing all at once?  Can you trace each sound to its source?

Listening for channels of sound is fun to do in all kinds of environments: coffee shops, traffic, grocery stores.  Point out sounds you find particularly satisfying.  Compare which ones work your last nerves.


Play games.

There are all kinds of language-based board games out there that require us to listen. Apples to Apples, Scattergories, and Outburst both have versions for younger players.  

My favorite, 20 Questions, doesn’t require any equipment at all, yet has carried us through many bored moments waiting for appointment to begin.  Make the rules as easy or as complicated as they need to be to make it fun.


 Read aloud.

You didn’t think you’d get out of this without hearing about the power of books, did you?  Reading out loud to your child is amazing for vocabulary development.  If you ask good questions (Why do you think the character did that?  What would you do in this situation?) you’re building analytical reasoning and empathy, too.  

As my daughter entered adolescence, I’m telling you, there were days she didn’t want to speak to me, even non-verbally.  Frankly, there were days I didn’t particularly enjoy being around her, either.  Those days happen; they just do.  But no matter how bad things were, she and I could both count on our reading time right before bed.  Because what’s stronger than anger?  Imagination.  Books allowed us to escape whatever conflict we’d had with each other and focus on the magic of Harry Potter, the strength of Katniss Everdeen, the allure of vampire boyfriends.

As children do, she outgrew those stories, so now we read side-by-side, comparing notes when it’s time for bed.  


In that noisy gymnasium, Coach Teeple told me about his children and his children’s children.  I’m grateful, of course, for his introducing me to the beautiful game, but even more so for his recognition of the gift of listening.


2017 Reading Resolutions

Once again, it’s that wildly optimistic time of year in which we resolve to cultivate healthy habits: practice mindfulness, organize the junk drawer, take up running.

Our reading lives warrant some goal-setting, too.  Challenges and lists circulate on social media, focusing on volume (check out the Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge), keeping current ( “The 10 Best Books of 2016” according to the New York Times), or literary quality (Lifehack’s “25 Incredible Novels You Must Read at Least Once before You Die”).

As I guide students in setting reading goals, I share my own.  This year, I’ll be taking on the challenge issued by Gene Luen Yang, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature: Reading without Walls.  I love its simplicity; just choose one book in each of three categories.

Gene Luen Yang and I talk graphic novels.

Read about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you. 

Reading literary fiction helps us to understand others, to be more empathetic.  When we encounter characters wildly different from us in a book, the anxiety we might feel about the interaction in real life evaporates.  This explains why 6th graders reading R.J. Palacio’s Wonder can imagine what it might be like to have Auggie Pullman’s severe facial deformities without carrying the same sadness he does.  It’s why I root so hard for Aristotle in Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.  I’m (obviously) not a hispanic teenager, but I relate to Aristotle on many levels. Reading about characters who are different from us allows us to identify what’s universal about our humanity.

Read a book written in a format you don’t normally read.

If you haven’t read graphic novels, think of this new experience like adjusting to the latest version of Facebook.  It may look weird at first, and sure, the features may have been moved around a bit, but often there are unexpected benefits, too.  Graphic novels cover the spectrum from light-hearted chick lit to explorations of cultural identity.  For a thought-provoking graphic novel, check out Yang’s American Born Chinese or My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf. 

There’s been an absolute explosion in Young Adult narratives written in verse.  My classes devoured The Crossover and Booked, leaving us all eager for more from Kwame Alexander.  As soon as I heard Chris Crowe talking about the structure of his latest novel (all written in haiku, with one syllable for each soldier’s death in the Vietnam War), I knew I had to get my hands on Death Coming up a Hill.  This format reads quickly but fosters deep questioning.  Poetry, after all, is often as much about what isn’t on the page as what is.

Another kind of fresh story-telling popular in YA literature right now is the use of multiple narrators.  If you read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins, you already appreciate how the back-and-forth can build suspense, but it also helps readers practice empathy when they step outside an event and examine it from different angles.   All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely is an especially powerful read for communities (like my own) wrestling with police brutality and social justice.

Read about a topic you don’t already know about.

The world is a vast and curious place, and non-fiction reading allows us to explore it without the constraints of time or budgets.  If, like me, you’ve accused non-fiction of being dry, look for compelling stories like Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly or writers known for narrative style such as Malcolm Gladwell or Erik Larson.

As you finish your three Reading without Walls choices, tell other readers!  Post a picture of the book cover (include yourself if you’re so inclined) and share it on social media with the hashtag #ReadingWithoutWalls.  While you’re at it, tweet me at @marthastickle.  I’d love to know what walls you’re breaking down in 2017.

The Myth of the Muse

cropped-musas.jpgO for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
—William Shakespeare, Henry V

One of the things I love about exploring Greek and Roman mythology with 6th graders is discussing its lasting influence in our culture today. One such remnant is an artist’s reliance on a creative muse, an enduring notion that true inspiration only followed a visit from one of  nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne.

For a long time, I bought into this idea myself, both as a writer and as a teacher, that there was magic involved in creative writing. Either the muse came or she didn’t, and it was her visit that made the difference between good and great story telling. Thanks to several opportunities I’ve had to learn from children’s and Young Adult authors, the muse has become a myth, and a dangerous one at that.

Lauren Tarshis, author of the popular I Survived series and a vice president at Scholastic, visited our school last week in order to research South Louisiana’s recent 1,000 year flood. She met with some of our students and shared this: you don’t need a special gift to be a writer. “The gift is being able to work hard, write a terrible book, and keep going.”

Planting seeds.

The first time I encountered this truth, that writing was enormous work rather than magic, was in a workshop with Walter Dean Myers. He started the morning by drawing out his formula on chart paper. With each stroke of his Sharpie, I felt a sharp pain in my reader’s soul. A formula? The grandaddy of YA lit uses a formula? This is like learning Santa relies on Amazon Prime. After my disillusionment dulled, I thought about the implications of this new truth. Absent the muse, I could be a Writer. And so could any of my students. Even the ones who weren’t in love with writing.

A recurring message I hear from celebrated authors is that as children, they never would have expected to become professional writers. “I was the least likely in my school to grow up to be a writer,” explains Tarshis. “I was 100% certain it was impossible.” Throughout much of her schooling, she held tightly to a secret: she couldn’t read. In fact, it wasn’t until the 10th grade that she finished an entire book on her own.

Gene Luen Yang, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and award-winning graphic novelist, nearly abandoned his passion because he’d been advised he’d never get a girlfriend if he kept up his infatuation with comics. He used the money he would have spent on comic books to buy a blue jean jacket (which, lucky for us, didn’t end up being the chick magnet he’d hoped for).

Gene Luen Yang with yours truly at the East Baton Rouge Public Library

Matt de la Pena began his Newbery acceptance speech with his surprise about becoming an author. “Growing up, I never could’ve imagined anything like this. Me and books? Reading? Nah, man, I was a working-class kid. A half-Mexican hoop head. I spent all my afterschool hours playing ball down at the local pickup spot off Birmingham. I dreamed of pretty girls and finger rolls over outstretched hands.”

Even students who define themselves as writers face an uphill climb in claiming their writer’s identity. Coe Booth, author of Tyrell and Kinda Like Brothers, wrote constantly as a kid. So much so that she’d get in trouble for writing in school. When she tells this part of her history, there’s still confusion on her face. How could one get in trouble for writing? At school? Consequently, she didn’t view writing as a legitimate career choice until adulthood.

Just once, she wished aloud, a teacher could have encouraged her. Could have seen and acknowledged the hard work she was doing. Addressing a group of educators, she begged us to look out for those kids, those quirky ones, the ones writing subversively. Ask them about their writing, she said. Encourage them.

At Booth’s urging, I started asking kids about their personal writing as we’d confer about some academic piece they were working on. I’d whisper, “And do you like to write?” They’d look surprised, like I’d discovered their secret identity. Yes, they’d nod, I write stories. I write poems. I write comic books.

We decided to start a writing club. At our meetings, we update each other on projects, play with language, and laugh a lot. The biggest surprise? The students who show up are not necessarily the kids earning top marks for their school writing. They aren’t the ones who talk my ear off during English class. I’d never have known about their writing ambitions if I hadn’t thought to ask.

We need these voices, now more than ever. In today’s climate of division and fear, we need the next Matt de la Pena to remind us that even where there is dirt, there is beauty. We need the next Gene Luen Yang to help us think about our own cultural identity. The people of Louisiana need the next Lauren Tarshis, who tells stories of people’s resilience, even in the face of great tragedies.

As teachers, the greatest thing we can do to help students discover their voices is to reframe the myth. Is there a muse? Maybe so, but she’s the child of hard work and persistence.

Rebuilding Classroom Libraries


I’ve been teaching middle school English for over 20 years and like other veteran educators have seen movements start, end, get repackaged, and begin again with renewed vigor.  One of the things I know for sure: nothing beats recreational reading.

It’s one thing to know this and another to know and apply classroom practices fostering a genuine love of books.  Having a robust classroom library is a must, not a luxury.  Yes, I’m lucky to be in a school with a fantastic library.  Even luckier to have a supportive, energetic librarian.  But having books right there to put in the hands of a reader at the right moment?  That’s where the magic happens.

The magic of hearing a girl tell me after reading Linda Sue Park‘s A Single Shard, “This book was so great.  I’ve never read about a character from Korea like me.”  The magic of having self-professed haters of books arguing over who gets to read Kwame Alexander‘s Booked first.  The magic of reshelving a book that didn’t work and pulling three or four others that just might.

It’s taken me years to build my classroom library, and I’ve used all the tricks other teachers do: Scholastic warehouse sales and bonus points, donations from students at the end of the year, pitches to our parents’ organization for funding.  My library takes constant maintenance, too.  Every year’s students are different.  Last year, my readers could not get enough graphic novels.  This year, realistic fiction reigns king.  Even though Kiera Cass‘s Selection was replaced mid-way through last year, it’s time to replace it again.  Loved books show their wear quickly, evidence that having these books makes a difference.

Chances are, I don’t need to sell you on the value of reading.  We know wide reading improves vocabulary and test scores and all sorts of other great academic things.  What we also know is that reading quality fiction improves students’ empathy (a subject for a future post).  Reading makes people better.

In Ascension Parish, where I began my teaching career, classroom libraries are about to serve an even more elevated function.  Three flooded schools will make a new home for themselves in the River Parish Community College.  Because they will not have a library, teachers will be completely reliant on their classroom collections.

In my home parish, Brookstown Middle School took on 5 feet of water.  15 teachers lost their classroom libraries.  Their 300 students will join those at Scotlandville Middle School, and along with flexibility and patience, those students and teachers will need books.  They need Matt de la Pena and Jacqueline Woodson, Laurie Halse Anderson and Sharon Flake.  They need voices that mirror their experiences, voices that give them windows into a world beyond their own.

For this to happen, they need you.  Please consider shopping from the Amazon Wish Lists included on this site.  Librarians are ready to accept donations, and teachers are gearing up for the new challenges that await.

Amazon Wish List for Ascension Parish Schools

Amazon Wish List for Brookstown Middle School