Book Review: Lauren Oliver’s “Before I Fall”

Published 3/8/14 by:

Before I fall Cover

“There’s always going to be a person laughing and somebody getting laughed at. It happens every day, in every school, in every town in America – probably in the world, for all I know. the whole point of growing up is learning to stay on the laughing side.” (Oliver, 5)


You’re not going to like Samantha Kingston. Although she’s the protagonist in Lauren Oliver’s thought-provoking young adult novel “Before I Fall”, she’s difficult to root for. Why? Because she’s one of the “top four” most popular girls in her Connecticut high school, and the entire novel takes place on one day: February 12th, also known as “Cupid Day”. While some of you may remember Valentine’s Day in high school as a lonesome celebration that reminded you of how uncool you were, for Samantha Kingston and her BFFs, it’s the day where their peers become painfully aware of their popularity in a very visible way – by how many roses are sent to them. Perhaps you’re having flashbacks to “Mean Girls”, or perhaps you’re already turned off by the setting of this YA novel, but I can tell you this: “Before I Fall” will have you reconsidering most of the moves you made as a teenager, and maybe even some you’ve made as an adult.


On February 12th Samantha Kingston dies. This isn’t a spoiler because you’re made aware of this fact within the first page of the novel. What you soon find out is that Sam has to relive this day seven times, each time becoming more drastically different than the one before. This is where I, as a reader, became fascinated. There have been plenty of films, novels, shorts stories etc. that have tackled this idea of if you could relive one day how would you do it, what mistakes would you continue to make, and why? Lauren Oliver is making her mark on this existentialist’s dilemma by having her female protagonist, Sam, be a selfish, beautiful senior in high school, who continues to not get it right on her second, third, fourth and even fifth attempt at the same 24 hour period of time. This is a protagonist with flaws. Sam, as the narrator, makes the assertion that “Popularity’s a weird thing. You can’t really define it, and it’s not cool to talk about it, but you know it when you see it. Like a lazy eye, or porn.” (Oliver, 17)  Sam starts to question everything that she worked towards in terms of popularity, but she still makes lousy decisions time and time again. Some of those choices are a result of her being angry that she’s dead, while some of her choices become increasingly self-destructive and wild because, well, the consequence will never change.


As I plowed through this novel I considered what I was like at seventeen, and whether or not I would push the limits of what I could get away with, if I knew I was dead the next day no matter what. Would I unashamedly kiss the boy I always had a crush on? Would I go for cheap thrills like cheating on a test, skipping class, smoking in the school bathroom, or speeding recklessly? Would I become sentimental and incessantly tell my favorite people how much I love them, just to ensure they know before I am gone? I honestly don’t know. What I do know, is that as a seventeen-year-old I did not face the dilemmas or drama that Sam tackles in her seven tangos with February 12th, which made her moments of clarity and stupidity that much more compelling.


Book Grade: B+

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Book Review: Robyn Schneider’s “The Beginning of Everything”

Published 1/12/14 by:

Beginning of Everything Book Cover

My high school didn’t have a Prom King or Queen. We didn’t have a homecoming weekend, or a valedictorian, and we most certainly did not have a cafe that sold lattes on campus. These are all driving forces at Eastwood High where (protagonist and narrator) Ezra Faulkner has just begun his senior year. It never occurred to me that it was odd that my alma mater didn’t succumb to these traditions until I got to college. Then, for whatever inexplicable reason, I decided to covet said traditions. I retroactively wanted to know what all of those things would’ve been like, and who would’ve secured those heavily anticipated social statuses. I honestly couldn’t tell you who would’ve won Prom King in my class, because frankly, I don’t know what the criteria is, or who would’ve even bothered to vote. I can tell you this: Ezra Faulkner sounds like the kind of guy who would’ve won over everyone at my school, even after his accident.

Yes, Robyn Schneider’s “The Beginning of Everything” starts with beloved tennis prodigy Ezra Faulkner getting into a car accident that shatters his knee. The accident takes place immediately after he finds out his potential Prom Queen girlfriend, Charlotte, has been cheating on him. Thus ensues Ezra’s demise back into the group of brainy friends he had in middle school. He reluctantly joins the debate team, falls for a girl who quotes Foucault, and rekindles his best friendship with the eccentric, bow-tie toting Toby. The high school milestones and social class divisions were originally what sucked me into this novel.  What kept me reading was Ezra’s realization that his accident could be the catalyst for something great, perhaps something even better than the jock table, and tennis scholarships. Additionally, Ezra Faulkner’s likability (as a narrator) stems from his earnestness and wit. He can banter about beer pong, but his Volvo is nicknamed Voldemort. When he shows up without a costume to a Halloween party, people assume he’s dressed as a teenage vampire, because unbeknownst to him, his leather jacket and dirty hair are exuding that “look”. Essentially he’s a teenage boy trying to figure it out, and I appreciated that as a reader.

While some of the plot twists, and character development leave something to be desired, for the most part “The Beginning of Everything” offers an interesting (and hopeful) perspective for current teenagers. For those of us that are over the age of eighteen, “The Beginning of Everything” presents an opportunity to reminisce on the restrictiveness of high school, while allowing us to revel in first love, and other teenage debauchery.


Book Grade: B


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An Open Letter to Pop Music

Published 10/2/13 by:

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Dear Pop Music,

It’s been a while since we’ve connected, and while I miss you, I have some reservations about getting back in touch. I know you’re busy trying to “get lucky”, so allow me to recap our tattered history. My musical prowess, or my earliest memory of being keenly aware of music and its popularity dates back to the Spring of 1995, when I was in the fourth grade. I was really into Sheryl Crow at the time, and I coaxed my mom into buying me the 1995 Grammy nominee cassette tape because it featured not only Sheryl, but also Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” as well as All-4-One’s “I Swear”. This was basically a mix-tape of magic for me. The music was catchy, and my mom and I could listen to it in the car together without anyone getting embarrassed. I brought the tape into school one day, and my teacher let me play it on his boombox during snack. It was, perhaps, the most glorious, and simplest time of my life. The music showcased talent, and did not serve as a gimmick for anything or anyone. I’d be remiss to not mention that you showed up at the Grammys that year, in a big way, and you simultaneously were what was popular (and overplayed) on the radio. Pop music, you were representing well at the awards shows, and you were dictating with a classiness you no longer possess.

In fifth grade, you went from soft rock to alternative. Instead of singing about having fun, or feeling the love, I was singing about letting the girl cry (hat tip to Hootie) and if God was a slob like one of us. When one of my classmates showed up in a Smashing Pumpkins t-shirt on a Monday morning, I thought it was just absolutely brilliant. Honestly, I think it was the most impressed I’d been by a peer’s fashion in my young life. So Pop, you were doing your thing, and making adolescents of all shapes and sizes into irritable, emo, snarky human beings. We’ve never recovered, thanks to you, and I think you built some serious character in me as a result.

I now want to fast forward to 2013. I’m 28-years-old, and I teach sixth grade. If I had the time, I’d be the teach letting kids crank the tunes during snack. Although as I pondered that thought, Pop, I realized, I wouldn’t be able to let the kids listen to your stuff. What you embody now is over-sexed music with too many bleeps to count. You’re twerking, hungover, crude and bawdy. Dude, even your name, as a term – “Pop Music” has become a bit of a punchline. Adults are embarrassed to say that they like you as a genre. When adults do admit to loving “Last Friday Night” or make a YOLO reference, they quickly add in, “guilty pleasure”. That’s what your reputation has become: you make people feel guilty for liking you. You’ve definitely stopped winning Grammys. Don’t you miss being classy and adored by all? Aren’t you sick of being emulated by tweens, and tweens only?

I’m ready for you to make a comeback, Pop. I want you to be at the top of your game. I want to be able to sing along to songs with my students, and not be limited to the timeless, family-friendly Taylor Swift. So how can I be of assistance to you? Who handed you the Kool-Aid? It may take some time, but with the right backers, I think we could really re-image you. The question is: are you ready for a make-over?


Miss you terribly,



PS That chain letter you sent me last week was weird and I had to change my password on like, everything. No more, please.



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The Teen Dramedy: Is It Spectacular, Now?

Published 9/16/13 by:

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There has been a recent influx of teen dramedys (one of my favorite wombos), and I’m thrilled about it, but I’m also terrified. Teenagers have real problems, this much I know, and their issues span from basic insecurity to health problems, from mental problems to addiction and from family instability to academic instability. Teenagers have sorrow, and while some of it is directly related to popularity, some of it is a lifelong struggle that kids see as never-ending. There are three specific films that I’ve seen in the past year that identify, explore, poke, prod and make fun of many of these swirling dilemmas our current teenagers face. My main question is this: who is the audience for these movies? Please keep in mind that I saw all three of these at the cinema, and if I had to guess the average age of the theater attendees I would say 25-30 (myself included). Who are these films being made for? Are the folks who actually need to contemplate these scenarios and how to negotiate them able to see them? Should they see them? Perhaps parents are letting their teens see these films to spark conversation, but alternatively, and depressingly more realistic, I think they’re letting their kids see these films to avoid having the conversations themselves. It’s my hope that these films continue to be made because they’re important, and offer realistic instead of idealistic scenarios in the lives of American teenagers. Therein lies’s the rub: teens are one of the most lucrative demographics, so if they don’t start going to see these films, they’ll become extinct.


Film: The Spectacular Now

Currently: In theaters.

Premise: Sutter Keely (pictured above) is the big man on campus. Need beer at your party? He’s got you. Need dating advice? He’s all over it. Socially, he’s the man of the hour. He has a car, a job, and a mom who works the nightshift. However, it’s his senior year, he’s tanking most of his classes, and his dream girl has just dumped him because he “doesn’t take anything seriously”. Enter Aimee. She’s the girl next door that’s fending for herself. She’s got dreams that she’s willing to chase, and she becomes charmed as well as enamored by Sutter’s bigger than life personality. Can Aimee change Sutter’s perspective? Or will Sutter persuade Aimee that life’s a party?

Teenager Factors: Underage drinking, sex, drunk driving, absentee parents, lying, abandonment, college and academic failure.

Ending: Perplexing, but with potential

Taglines: “We’ll never be as young as we are right now.”



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Film: The Perks of Being a Wallflower (pictured above)

Currently: On DVD and BluRay

Premise: Charlie is starting his freshmen year of high school, and despite having insanely popular older siblings, he feels invisible. Well, apart from the bullying he endures. Charlie has suffered from very traumatic events for a 15-year-old. Actually, the events Charlie has encountered would set any person back, but doubly so for someone at such an impressionable age. Just when Charlie thought his countdown of days left in high school was too much to face, he meets vivacious, flamboyant Patrick and his whimsical, beautiful, step-sister Sam. They see Charlie as a fellow misfit and embrace him (and his earnest struggles) immediately. Charlie is soon with a fast crowd of seniors, and when his feelings for Sam start to crest, it all starts to crumble.

Teenager Factors: Underage drinking, drug usage, sex, homosexuality, suicidal thoughts, molestation, college, SATs, and domestic violence.

Ending: Dark with a twist of hopeful.

Taglines: “We accept the love we think we deserve.” “And in that moment, I swear, we were infinite.”


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Film: The Way, Way Back (pictured above)

Currently: Available for pre-order on DVD/BluRay. Release date: Oct. 22, 2013.

Premise: Sometimes your divorcee mom decides to start dating again. Sometimes that results in you being whisked away for the summer to a beach house in a town where you don’t know a soul. This is the scenario in which we meet Duncan. He’s socially outcast because he’s the new guy in a neighborhood predominantly comprised of adults looking to get sloshed and escape their realities. It isn’t until Duncan secretly gets a gig at the local water park that he meets some people that he can finally let loose with. As Duncan straddles difficult scenarios with his potential stepfather, he seeks more refuge from the motley crew manning the slides.

Teenager Factors: Affairs, underage drinking, lying, abandonment, and parental units dating.

Ending: Triumphant.

Taglines: “It’s like Spring Break for adults.”


So which of these films sounds worthwhile to you? Adults: do you want  to see these? Do you want your kids to see these? Kids: You don’t have to tell me. I already know you’re dying to see these. Wanting what you can’t have never really goes away, does it?

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Teach Your Children Well: Tackling “Coming of Age”

Published 8/4/13 by:

“Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.” 

-David Bowie

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“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

Stand By Me

There are many times per week, day, hour that I feel inadequate as a teacher. Sometimes it’s my own unpreparedness, often times it’s the limitations of how I can approach a topic. Frequently this inadequacy stems from how much time I can allot to something that requires a lengthier discussion or exploration. Since I began teaching middle school, the unit of study that leads me to this type of frustrating standstill which I encounter in my line of work, is a unit aptly titled “Coming of Age” or, “Growing Up Is Hard To Do”. Prior to teaching sixth grade, when I was previewing the six thematic units of study I would be teaching, this unit was the most appealing to me. What could be more appropriate than to discuss change, time marching on, responsibility, crushes, consequences and anything else that begins when you approach teenage-hood? What I quickly realized was that the coming of age unit I would be instructing would be a lot more “Full House” than “Modern Family”.  Thus my sense of inadequacy began.


In order to understand how I want to cultivate this unit, you need to know what I’ve covered, please see below:

WRITING: Narrative writing techniques, autobiographical writing, plot maps & their parts: rising action, falling action, climax, exposition, resolution, how to write an opening, how to use dialogue in writing.

TEXTS: “The Giver”, “Walk Two Moons”, “Al Capone Does My Shirts”, “Maniac Magee”, “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”, “The Wednesday Wars”, “Tangerine”

TOPICS OF DISCUSSION (developed from novels used): Homelessness, learning disabilities (specifically Autism), going against society and/or your family, war, absent parents, segregated communities, abandonment, reluctance, accepting differences – especially your own.


Looking at the list of things I teach during this unit makes me feel pretty groovy. We talk about some hard-hitting themes which can be both historic, and modern. The protagonists in all of the novels listed get entangled in a certain struggle, and in the midst of that struggle slowly cease to be children and rapidly become adults. It all fits together in a nice, lovely puzzle, that drives at important big picture issues, but does not address anything that could be deemed controversial. I want the controversy. I yearn for the controversy. The controversy is essentially what makes people define middle school as the most awkward part of their entire lives (that they can remember). The writing and reading techniques that are taught during this unit are completely appropriate, and I’m satisfied with what my students walk away with, however, the themes and discussions that we untangle could be so much more engaging and relevant to where they are in their young adulthoods. Most school districts, including my own, have to protect teachers (like me) from ourselves. This may sound strange, but it can get very dicey when topics are broached in the classroom that families think are inappropriate, or don’t align with their values. While I would argue that school is the type of safe environment for such topics to be introduced, and that as the world evolves, our kids need to know about society, it has become clear to me that a lot of folks aren’t ready to change with the times. This leads school administration to the protective part of their job in which they advise teachers like myself to toe the line very carefully. I’m getting better at toe-ing the line, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.


In a perfect world, here’s what I would add to this coming of age unit:

Discussion Topics- Heartbreak, first love, homosexuality, dealing with cliques and/or exclusivity, what to do when you outgrow your friends, what to do when your friends outgrow you, how to negotiate trends (specifically expensive ones), how to conduct yourself in public (especially in large groups, and what you’re wearing), helping others that are in tough situations, negotiating (in general), and how to be trustworthy.


Would these topics be easy to create unbiased, respectful conversations around? Absolutely not. Would I be able to keep my opinions to myself? Most likely, no. This is why I’m unable to tackle these ideas in my classroom. It’s my hope that maybe some parents in the universe read this and realize that they could take the lead on this and do the latter (and more fascinating) half of this unit. If my students (and I’m sure most middle schoolers would fit the mold as well) are already using Facebook, Instagram, Vine and Twitter, as well as watching shows like “The Kardashians” or “Pretty Little Liars” then they’re already being exposed to the stuff that I’m not allowed to touch. We (teachers) need parents to help us. The learning should extend beyond the walls of my classroom, and the conversations should be flowing in carpool, on the field, at dance rehearsal, at the dinner table etc. Seize the small moments, parental units! Middle school may be an awkward time, but it’s a crucial time. Help me do our work: teaching the children well – teaching them how to be great humans.

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