Monday, June 26, 2017

5 Nifty Google Tricks for Your Classroom

I recently completed my Google Educator Level 1 certification. Our English department received a shared Chromebook cart last fall, and I am dedicating a large part of my summer to learning how to better use these fantastic tools that are now at our fingertips. Over the last year I’ve learned some pretty cool little Google tools tricks that I’d like to share with you. These are all tricks that you and your students can use right away, even if you don’t have access to G Suite for Education in your building. All you and your students need is a free Google account to get started.

Priority Inbox for Gmail

What is it? My email inbox is probably the biggest time suck of my school day. If your school corporation is anything like mine, you guys probably do 95% of your communication through email. Pretty much all in-house information, meeting reminders, parent contact, questions for teachers in other parts of the building, etc. all happen through email. My inbox gets out of control quickly. Fortunately, my school email is through Google, so this summer I was able to switch to Gmail’s priority inbox feature. It is working well so far; Gmail pays attention to the emails that I respond to, the emails I delete immediately, the emails I star, etc. and then it sorts them accordingly so the important emails show up at the top and everything else shows up at the bottom.

What’s it look like? Here’s what my inbox looks like now that I have priority inbox enabled.

You'll notice that I also like to email myself reminders and resources. Anybody else do that?

How do I do it? To switch to a priority inbox, choose the Gears icon and choose Settings

Click the Inbox tab, and then from the Inbox type dropdown, choose Priority Inbox. Change other settings as you desire.

Message Filters for Gmail

What is it? Another nifty trick Google offers to streamline your email experience is the option to filter your emails and set actions to them. If you have an issue with important emails getting lost in the mess or emails that you want to look at later without them cluttering your inbox, then this setting can save you a lot of trouble. You can filter through your emails using sets of criteria and then order those emails to be automatically deleted, filed, marked as important, and more.

How do I do it? Select an email that you want to use to establish a filter. For example, I’ve selected this email from Samuel French, a theatre publishing company. I like to read about the new plays they have in stock, but it isn’t something that is a priority for me, so I want to get rid of the Samuel French clutter from my inbox since they email me weekly. After you select an email, click the More button and choose Filter messages like these.

You will next see the filter box. Here you have the option of adding additional message filters. Click Create filter with this search.

You will now see list of actions you can apply to emails of this type. You can choose to have these emails automatically deleted (great for junk mail), you can apply a previously-created label (I will apply the theatre label to my Samuel French emails), mark emails as important, etc. After you’ve selected the actions, click Create filter and this action will be automatically applied to these types of emails.

Suggesting Mode

What is it? Students can collaborate on work in Google Docs through real-time editing, where everyone can edit a document at the same time. As one student makes a change in the document, another student can instantly see the change and who made that change. This is a great option for collaborative projects, but there might be times where you don’t want someone to have editing power and instead you just want them to be able to write suggestions. Peer or teacher feedback on student essays would be a great example of this. In Google Docs, you can switch to suggesting mode, so that edits to a document become suggestions and the creator of the original can choose to accept those changes or remove them.

What’s it look like? This is a student essay that I am editing in suggesting mode. You can see my edits marked in green, and the changes I have made pop up in boxes on the right side of the screen.

This is what that same essay looks like from the student creator’s point of view. She can see my suggested edits and has the option to accept the changes I made by clicking the check mark or rejecting my suggestions by clicking the x.

How do I do it? To switch to editing mode, simply choose the dropdown that says Editing in the top right corner of the screen and switch to Suggesting. You can also click the View tab, hover over Mode, and choose Suggesting. Note that only the editor needs to be in Suggesting mode; the creator does not need to be in suggesting mode to see the suggestions.

Direct Comments to Specific Users

What is it? If multiple students are collaborating on a project, you can direct comments directly towards certain students. They will receive notification that they have been tagged in a comment. As a bonus, you can assign a comment to a specific student and they will be required to mark it as done.

What’s it look like? This is a student essay that I have commented on. The blurred out email address and name tell me which student I have tagged in this comment.

This is the student’s view of that same comment. It shows that the comment has been assigned to the student and they can mark it as done.

How do I do it? Highlight the word or section of the document on which you would like to make a comment. The Add a comment button will pop up in the right margin of the document. Click that button.

To tag someone in the comment, type the + sign and then their email address. Additionally, if you want to assign the comment to that person, put a check in the Assign box.

Embedding Videos into Google Slides

What is it? Have you ever wanted to show your students a YouTube video without the distraction of the comments, sidebar video suggestions, and pop-up ads? You can very easily embed YouTube videos into a Google Slides presentation to get rid of all of those distractions. Plus, this is a great way to leave videos for substitute teachers. This particular slide deck was one I left for a substitute. It contains three different videos, so the sub did not have to worry about clicking on a bunch of links or trying to find the videos on their own. It was all there, ready to go. The sub just had to click present.

What’s it look like? This is what it looks like when you embed a video into a Google Slide. You can adjust the size of the video like you can any object. 

The full screen option is also still available when you embed a video in Google Slides.

How do I do it? In your Google Slides presentation, click Insert and Video.

You are presented with three options: Search, By URL, and Google Drive. If you already have the video saved elsewhere, just paste the URL link in or pull it from Google Drive. Or you can simply search for the video you want, as I have done here, click it, and hit the Select button.

These five little Google tricks are designed to help you manage your time, your work load, and your sanity. Hopefully these tips will make your life in the classroom a little bit easier!

Did you learn something today? Do me a favor and Pin the image below so other teachers can find this post!

Happy Summertime Planning!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Disrupting Thinking Book Review and Giveaway!

I received a copy of this book for free from Scholastic in exchange for sharing it with my readers. The opinions presented here are purely my own.

My son is two and a half and a voracious "reader." He isn't truly reading yet, but he already has an intense love of books. We read four or five books every night before bed. He requests things like "a hippopotamus book" or "a book about cows" or "dinosaur books" when we head into the library. He can often be found sitting among a pile of stuffed animals or perched atop a mountain of pillows with books scattered all around. He will read aloud to himself by either reciting portions of favorite books he has memorized or by just talking about what he sees on each page. I am thrilled we have successfully instilled a love of reading in him.

I do worry, though, because something is happening to so many kids as they grow up, and I don't want it to happen to him. By the time they reach their freshmen year of high school, they hate reading. One of the greatest frustrations for me as an English teacher and a book lover is when a student is an apathetic reader, meaning they no longer care to read at all. For these students, reading books has lost all meaning.

It is easy to see why our students are losing their love of reading. Reading has become a painful endeavor in the classroom; the standardized testing environment in which we are being forced to teach has managed to suck all of the fun out of reading as we dig and dig to find the answer and we dig deeper to find support for the answer. I imagine you could take any hobby that you love and then pick it apart incessantly until there's nothing left to love. That's what is happening to reading.

What is this product?
Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters calls into question several common English classroom practices, including reading for supporting evidence, classroom discussions that revolve around answering questions, and the whole-class novel. The premise presented by Beers and Probst is that "disruptive thinking" is the thought that something needs to be better. They provide anecdotes about various inventions and entrepreneurs and how these came about from disruptive thinking and two important questions:

1. What needs to change?
2. What assumptions make that change hard?

This book is ultimately about how we can change common classroom practices that lead to apathetic, frustrated student readers to instead make sure we are helping students become readers who are responsive, responsible, compassionate, and determined.

Beers and Probst say that, if we want to change something ineffective, we must be willing to:
  • Be brave.
  • Accept failure.
  • Be open.
  • Be connected.
  • Get uncomfortable.
This book, divided into three parts, is somewhat backwards designed. Part I focuses on the readers we ultimately want to create, the kind that are responsive, responsible, and compassionate. Part II is where Beers and Probst start getting practical, by offering a framework for building this kind of reader. Part III is where we get uncomfortable as the authors hold up a mirror to common classroom practices and show us how we are killing a love of reading.

The Good and the Bad
Far and away, the greatest takeaway from this book was the BHH (Book, Head, Heart) Framework. This framework encourages readers to think about what was in the book, what is in their heads, and what is in their hearts. Readers are able to respond to a text and provide support for their thoughts, but students are also given the opportunity to explore their own learning as they read and how the reading changes them in some way. The book mentions several other strategies that students can use while reading, but the BHH Framework is definitely the most useful.

Another thing I really liked about this book is the way the authors were able to take a topic (like the BHH Framework) and show how it can be applied across grade levels. I worried that this book would be heavily geared towards upper elementary, the age at which kids start reading to learn instead of learning to read, but I was pleasantly surprised. The authors even had the thoughtfulness to include feedback from college students. I think most of the ideas presented in the book could be applied to any grade level.

The biggest let-down of this book, for me, was the idealism of changing how we do reading in the classroom without truly taking into consideration the current educational climate. It is clear that Beers and Probst are really against all of this standardized testing (I mean, aren't we all?), but ultimately their call to action is a hard one to do. They want us to be brave and open and willing to accept failure, they want us to change the way we teach our readers, but at the same time I felt there was some disconnect between the authors and reality. I agree with them that focused silent reading is probably the best thing a child could do to improve their literacy, and I love the ideas about having students asking the questions instead of answering them... but those things are not as practical when so many teachers have an administration breathing down the backs of their necks trying to boost test scores. I wish that Beers and Probst would have offered some direction for implementing these reading strategies without completely tossing the test-based questions and requirements that we are forced to deal with.

Final Thought
Ultimately, I believe this book is worth any English teacher's time (although the $34.99 price tag is maybe a bit high for what it is). There are some great strategies to take back to your classroom, and the book does have a way of feeling inspirational.

Let's Have a Giveaway!
I have one brand-new copy of Disrupting Thinking ready for one lucky reader! Join the giveaway for your chance to win a copy for free!

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Happy Reading!

Sunday, June 11, 2017

2017-2018 Calendars Are Now Available

Hi Everyone!

Just a quick little post to let you know the 2017-2018 Sanity Saver calendars are available for your planning needs!

**UPDATE THIS YEAR: Since so many school corporations now either start in July or have professional development in July, the calendars are now set up for July 2017 - June 2018. I have also updated the Important Dates pages to reflect this change.

As always, the grayscale calendars are yours for free.

If colors make you happy, the colorful version of this calendar is available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store.

The Important Dates pages only come in color and are also available in the Teachers Pay Teachers store.

If you're a big fan of the calendars, help a girl out and share the love! Pin these images, share this post on Facebook, or just pass along where you got these bad boys when all the envious teachers are admiring your incredible organization skills.

Don't forget to check out all the other freebies to help you stay organized this year!

Happy Planning!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Problematic Literature Part 2: Exploring Problematic Literature in the Classroom

Before you continue reading, have you read Part I yet?

Again, I would like to forewarn you that there are spoilers ahead for the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why.

After I finished watching Thirteen Reasons Why on Netflix and had a few days to process my thoughts, I had a conversation with one of my freshmen classes about the show. I hadn’t planned on having the conversation, but they had been asking me pretty unrelentingly if I had finished the show yet. This was after the literature circles unit was over, so I had six students who had read the novel as part of the unit and another six or seven who had read it of their own volition. On that particular day, after they discovered that I had indeed finished it, a girl asked me if we could talk about it. I am all for setting plans aside for the teachable moment, so I agreed. Here was her question:

“Why are schools banning the show and the book and sending letters home about it and stuff?”

Her question was in response to a nearby school district’s letter home in which they strongly encouraged parents to be aware of the show, its contents, and that students might be watching it. This letter is not a novelty; a quick Google search showed me there were school districts in Indiana, Kentucky, Colorado, and New York, to name a few, who did this.

Her question, continued: “Like, I just don’t get what the big deal is. Why are so many people upset about this show?”

Before I even had an opportunity to open my mouth, hands shot up in the air. By this point in the year we had established a pretty strong protocol for sticky classroom discussions. The bouncing, hand-waving, Hermione-esque responses from so many in the classroom indicated they wanted in on this, so I let them take it over.

“It’s because of all the sex scenes.”

“But there’s no nudity!”

“That doesn’t matter; it was rape. Violent sexual acts get a mature rating.”

“It’s probably also the fact that you watch a girl cut open her wrists in a bathtub. It was really bloody and gross.”

“But still,” the original questioner persisted, “I don’t get it. We watch stuff worse than this all the time. How many of us have seen other rated R movies and our parents don’t care? Why is this show different?”

Why is this show different. An excellent question.

I polled the class and about 75% of the students (freshmen, mind you) had at least begun watching the series. Of that 75%, about 90% readily admitted that their parents did not know they were watching it. When I asked why that was, they all generally stated that they didn’t feel a need to tell their parents they were watching it. It wasn’t that they were being deceitful; they just did not see why they would need to talk to their parents about watching the show. They were taken aback that I even asked the question because none of them saw a problem with watching the show without their parents’ knowledge.

I asked them if they felt that the show accurately portrayed life as a high schooler in 2017 and they unanimously agreed that it was very real. None of them seemed to feel it was over dramatized in any way. They began regaling me with all kinds of stories and personal experiences – Snapchat stories showing students from other schools snorting cocaine, screenshots of cruel cyberbullying, friends who had tried to commit suicide because they couldn’t deal with the world they were living in.

The conversation I had with my students was enlightening and terrifying, and it confirmed three things for me.
1. While a work of fiction, Thirteen Reasons Why is a work of realistic fiction, which is why it is problematic (as discussed in Part I).
2. My kids in my classroom are just like Hannah, Clay, Jessica, Alex, and others in that they have a perspective on things and rarely take into consideration the perspectives of others (like parents or friends).
3. I have to keep introducing problematic literature to my students, and I must be vigilant in talking to them about these topics.

The conversation we had in class that day - a conversation that took the full forty-five minutes - was an important one. Among other things, we talked about the term “suspension of disbelief,” which is when an audience willingly chooses to believe the unbelievable and they are willing to sacrifice reality for the sake of enjoyment. Several students kept making the point that their parents know they watch horror movies (“and we saw that guy’s guts and there was way more blood!”) and movies with lots of sex scenes (“there was a lot of nudity in that movie!”) and no one made a big deal about that. While I was tempted to take the dark and dangerous path of judging someone else’s parenting choices, we instead talked about how the scenarios in those films required suspension of disbelief, that they were highly unrealistic.

And then a student was able to answer the original question.

“So the problem with Thirteen Reasons Why is that it’s too real, isn’t it?”

That, I agreed, was a big part of the issue.

Most of the kids in that particular class came from pretty healthy home lives and, to my knowledge, were of sound mind. So the idea that someone would think of killing themselves because they saw Hannah do it was borderline absurd to them. These students are fifteen years old. They lack perspective. They are unable to see why someone would do such a thing.

You and I know better; we know that this story is all too real and there is potential for it to get into the wrong hands. On last week’s post, Erin wrote a comment where she expressed her fears about this narrative, that it might incite a student to do the unthinkable. It is a fear I totally get, because I feel it too. I see the value in Thirteen Reasons Why, but I also see why this book and this show could be a problem. As I said to Erin, in my opinion that's the kind of fear that comes along with anything getting into the wrong hands at the wrong time. We hope that our children are not watching mature television shows and that our teenagers aren't drinking alcohol; both are things that can be safely consumed in moderation by a responsible adult, but can be harmful to the wrong "audience." I think problematic literature is kind of the same way. And, like mature film and alcohol, I’ve always been led to believe it is the job of the parents to watch their children, to be very involved in their lives, and to make sure they aren’t getting ahold of something that is going to hurt them. Then I became a teacher and I quickly realized that not everyone has parents like mine. Not all teens have that open line of communication with a parent or guardian. Heck, some of them have a “parent” who barely passes the requirements to be considered such. So, sometimes, it falls on the other responsible adults in that student’s life to help them with character education.

Problematic literature is incredibly valuable in a classroom full of teenagers. English and theatre are two of my greatest passions, and both of those things deal with the exploration of the human condition. Through stories, we are able to put ourselves in the position of another person, and we are able to learn about what it is like to be that person. Reading fiction develops empathy, and empathy is the cure to hatred.

So, how do I tackle problematic literature in my classroom? My method is not tried and true; it is new and ever-evolving. But here’s my protocol as it currently stands.

1. Before introducing any piece of literature - be it something canon like Romeo and Juliet that features murder, suicide, and implied sex; something historical like Night that depicts incredible violence towards Jewish people and thoughts of suicide; or something contemporary like Butter that features a kid who is planning who own suicide to the cheers of his peers - I make sure I am very clear with students what they can expect from the story. No secrets when it comes to something that could potentially be upsetting.

2. I give students an “out.” If they feel uncomfortable with a piece of literature or a discussion we are going to have in class, I have an alternative for them, something that still works thematically in some way without being as upsetting.

3. I front-load context. I educate students about what they are going to encounter. When we read Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, we have a large group discussion over what constitutes rape, sexual assault, and bullying. Before we read Night we discuss the violent crimes committed against Hitler’s Undesirables and I answer their questions with honesty and sensitivity. I teach context as often as I teach figurative language and plot devices.

4. I tell my students over and over, time and time again, that my door is always open. They are welcome to come by and talk to me about anything. They know that I will tell the guidance office if they tell me something that makes me concerned they will hurt themselves or others. And they take advantage of this invitation. Most of the time, the students who come in just need clarification about what they are reading or why something was included in a novel, or they just need help processing whatever they've read. Sometimes, students use this open-door policy because they recognize that they need help, and I’m the third-party adult in their life who said I would be there for them.

5. We talk a lot about what we read. Our literature units are very strongly discussion based. I work very hard at the beginning of the school year to build a classroom culture where everyone feels safe and free to express their thoughts. So once we have built that classroom community, we do a lot of talking and learning and exploring and thinking in a safe space.

Allow me to go back to Erin’s comment and my response for a second. This fear that Erin, parents, teachers, communities, and school corporations have expressed… it is unavoidable. It is reality. All we can do is provide support and encouragement and love to our students - to the victims and the perpetrators. We can put the right resources in their hands, we can put the right ideas in their heads, and we can pray.

Here is a list of other books I often recommend to students and for those of you who are interested in exploring books that are similar to Thirteen Reasons Why. All of the books I mention here are YA and, unlike Hannah Baker, the victim overcomes their circumstance in some way. These could potentially be great books for students who are victims or are struggling with mental illness (if monitored appropriately):
- It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini
- The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky
- What Happened to Lani Garver by Carol Plum-Ucci
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Butter by Erin Jade Lange
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Teachers, you do noble work, and you are not appreciated enough. Thank you for everything you do to support our students' growth, both as academics and as people.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Problematic Literature Part 1: The Value of Thirteen Reasons Why

If you take a look at my classroom bookshelf, one of the first things you’re bound to notice is my set of fifteen copies of Thirteen Reason Why by Jay Asher, front and center. They held up pretty well over the course of the year, considering that the set was handled by forty or fifty students this past school year. Thirteen Reasons Why sits on my shelves along with multiple copies of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Butter, Monster, and What Happened to Lani Garver. All of these pieces of young adult literature were a part of my diversity studyliterature circles this year, and all of these pieces are what many people would consider “problematic literature.”

It’s safe to say that I have a love of problematic literature.

Before I explain what I mean by that, please allow me to indulge in a slight digression. A former student of mine recently emailed me. Grace was a member of my first Honors English 9 class in my current school district. I put the book Thirteen Reasons Why in her hands freshman year. She even created a fabulous Book in a Bag project over the novel; her project is still sitting in my classroom five years later and it’s one of my favorite pieces of student work to showcase as a quality project. Grace is now an education major. The subject line of her email read “YA Lit + Illness Narratives.” In her email, she explained that she recently compiled a lesson unit that focused specifically on mental illness in YA lit. To quote Grace, “Thinking about not only the purpose of YA lit, but also the power of it raised a lot of questions then about the responsibility associated with writing (specifically to a potentially vulnerable audience) and what happens when the work is problematic at best.” She then explained that her work coincided timeline-wise with the release of Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why and all of the discussions that followed the series’ debut. In her email, Grace said, “When I first read 13RW, it was because you suggested it and I really enjoyed it (as much as one can enjoy a book about the aftermath of a suicide?). I hadn't read it since, but was eager to watch the Netflix series (oh gosh, it's really beautifully shot). But then it started to seem really problematic, not only with the graphic nature of certain scenes, but also with the storyline as a whole and the implications woven into it.” She said she then got to thinking about problematic literature and that type of literature still having usefulness when contextualized carefully. Ultimately, she asked if I would be willing to share my thoughts with her on Thirteen Reasons Why, problematic YA literature, and anything else connected to all this.

I’ve been sorting through my thoughts on the Netflix sensation since I first watched it. I was surprised at my emotional response to the show, and I was even more surprised by how it lived on in my head long after I had finished the final episode. I had been working on a blog post with my review of the show as a cathartic means of untangling my own feelings, but then Grace’s email brought up something else that I feel strongly about addressing too, and that is the way problematic literature can be used in the classroom.

Now would be a good time to warn you that there are spoilers for both the novel and Netflix series ahead.

Thirteen Reasons Why – both the novel and the Netflix series – pretty neatly falls into the category of “problematic literature” because of some highly controversial subject matter. Suicide, sexual assault, and bullying are thorny topics on their own, but these issues have been woven into a frightening narrative. An all-around-good-guy receives a box of cassette tapes – recorded by a girl who committed suicide a few weeks prior to the story’s primary timeline – that detail out the thirteen reasons why she killed herself. More specifically, she lays bare the thirteen people she feels are responsible for her death, and those thirteen people are the ones receiving the tapes. That’s where things get ugly – the Blame Game is highly offensive to many people. Hannah’s story (more so in the novel, I think, than in the Netflix series) is mostly one of blame, where she points fingers and tells people what they did or didn’t do that led her to taking her own life. It does seem problematic to show vulnerable teenagers this story of vengeance-after-death, right?

This is the point at which I have a problem with the term “problematic literature.”

Is Hannah’s story problematic? Is it controversial and complicated? Is she a flawed person for not taking responsibility for her own actions – namely her suicide – and instead putting the blame on others? Yes.

Is she really any more flawed, controversial, complicated, or problematic than the average real teenager? No.

Therefore, is it really this piece of literature that is “problematic” or does it go much deeper than that? I think the primary argument for Thirteen Reasons Why being problematic literature is there are Bad People living in a Bad World and Bad Things happen. And honestly, how is this any different from reality? It isn’t the story that’s the problem. The problem is that the story hits too close to home. It is society that is problematic. Thirteen Reasons Why accurately portrays teenagers and the world they live in to serve as a cautionary tale directed at society at large.

Let’s look at the world in which Hannah Baker’s story takes place. For the purpose of this article, I am going to focus specifically on the setting created for the Netflix series, which really only differs in that the book was published in 2007 and the Netflix series aired in 2017. There is a ten-year advancement in time and technology, which is critical in understanding the arguments I am going to make here.

Crestmont is the archetypal small American city – one high school, one movie theatre, one park, a handful of local hangouts, and family-owned businesses slowly being run off by big chain companies. It is a community where kids – mostly middle class, with a smattering of families at the extreme ends of the spectrum – have grown up together, where move-ins like Hannah are a bit of a novelty, and where life gets pretty boring unless you make your own fun. That’s the first problem with Thirteen Reasons Why – Crestmont looks really familiar to a lot of people. It looks like home. So the idea that some truly horrific things – things like all-star school athletes raping drunk teenagers, texting provocative pictures out to the whole school, slitting wrists in bathtubs – could be happening right under our noses makes the adult audience squirm uncomfortably.

The fact of the matter is that this stuff is actually happening in the Crestmonts of America. Look at Steubenville. Look at Maryville. Look at Houston. The situations that play out in Thirteen Reasons Why are all too familiar to teenagers in 2017. They are living it every single day. In a discussion I had with my freshmen, those who had watched the show unanimously agreed that the portrayal of social media, high school parties, and the rumor mill are on point. Let me remind you that I work in a rural high school in Indiana. If it’s happening here, it’s happening everywhere.

The other element of Thirteen Reasons Why that is so unnerving for the audience is the characterization. In the novel, the reader is subject to what is called an “unreliable narrator,” a narrator whose credibility has been seriously compromised. It would be safe to call Hannah an unreliable narrator. In the novel, we only get Hannah’s side of each story (with the exception of Clay’s added commentary). We can’t entirely trust her as a narrator because her credibility has been compromised – she clearly suffers from depression and anxiety at the least, and the fact that she is a human being telling a highly emotional and personal story takes away her integrity. I’m not calling Hannah a liar; I am saying we are only getting part of the story. And again, isn’t this reality? Aren’t we all the unreliable narrators of our stories? You need only look at our social media feeds and photos to see that we are; we tell our stories and paint our lives the way we want them to be seen, for better or for worse. Thirteen Reasons Why is hotly criticized for its hopelessness – it often seems to the audience that Hannah really does not do anything at all to help herself out. But is that the story in Hannah’s mind? Hannah thinks that by reaching out to Mr. Porter, she is taking the necessary steps to get help, although she refuses to meet him halfway or to be vulnerable enough to let him into her mind. Hannah’s parents are rarely mentioned in the context of the novel, often leaving the reader to wonder why she did not reach out to them for help. The Netflix series helps us out here; we see Hannah’s parents as kind, loving, involved, and mired in financial problems. Hannah becomes witness to her parents’ struggle and feels like a burden, a feeling that we can all relate to. The audience can see that Hannah’s parents would have rushed to her aid in half a second if they had known the depths of her struggle, but Hannah couldn’t see that. In that way, another bit of criticism of the show – the total uselessness of the adults in Hannah’s life – is explained. Teenagers often perceive the adults in their lives as useless in their struggles.

One of the things about the Netflix series that I actually liked better than the novel was the thoughtful characterization and the rich backstory provided for the majority of the characters. In the novel, we only get Hannah’s portrayal of each character, and of course they are shown in a bad light. It’s her story, after all. The show, however, does a great job of showing how multi-faceted people are. With the exception of Bryce (who, it is worth mentioning, does not see himself as a bad guy at all), none of the characters are all bad. They either have a redeeming quality or a painful backstory that helps the audience “get it.” Much like real people, fictional characters can be good, bad, or somewhere in between. They can be horribly flawed, they can lie, they can be one-sided, they can knowingly and unknowingly hurt another person, and they can have a skewed perspective on things. I’m not criticizing Jay Asher’s choices, by the way; rather, I am praising the show creators for putting so much thought into these other people, for realizing that real people are not two-dimensional. The characters are relatable. I have encountered all of these kids in my own classroom: Justin, who tries to hide his horrifying home life behind a jock persona; Jessica, who doesn’t know how to cope with her tragedies so she turns to substance abuse; Courtney, who is embarrassed and afraid of who she is, so she leads a double-life.

If you accept my proposal that Thirteen Reasons Why is problematic fiction because it is realistic fiction, the next logical question is, “What’s the point?” What is the point in holding up this mirror to our teenagers and our society? What is the point in “glorifying suicide” by showing that justice can be achieved after death and that “taking your life is a tragic, but highly effective, way of returning the favor and making [the people who hurt you] feel horrible”

It is my belief that Thirteen Reasons Why is written at a cautionary tale, and I don’t think the intended audience is teenagers who are suicidal, suffering from mental health problems, or survivors of assault.

It’s the rest of us. This narrative is for the rest of us, to warn us about the consequences of our actions and our inaction.

So many people believe that the producers of Thirteen Reasons Why were irresponsible because they did not offer solutions to Hannah’s problems or resources during the show for viewers who may be struggling like Hannah or the other teens in the story. To a certain extent, I understand that frustration, but I don’t necessarily think it was irresponsible. I think that those kids were not the target audience for this show. I felt like Netflix made this pretty clear with the show’s TV-MA rating, the content warning before two of the episodes, and the links to suicide prevention resources in the documentary following the series. My only criticisms would be that they should have provided a full-show content warning prior to watching the first episode, and they should have used stronger language in the present warnings. 

Ultimately, though, Thirteen Reasons Why is not a show for rape victims, anyone suffering from mental illness, or people with suicidal tendencies. It is not a story meant to inspire hope or to make someone who is low feel like things will get better. I believe this narrative addresses something different. It addresses modern American society and the way we treat people. It is an investigation of how we behave towards others. It makes us think about the way we monitor people with suicidal tendencies. It makes us examine the kind of pressure we are putting on teenagers. It makes us reconsider sending that text message or writing that post. It forces us to watch the ugly domino effect that our words and actions can have, the disastrous result as a person collapses in on herself. This show is not an easy show to watch. It holds up a magnifying glass to our minor human transgressions that cause others pain, and it puts a powerful spotlight on the greater atrocities people commit and what it feels like to be told to simply "get over it."

I sincerely believe a lot of good has come from the release of this show. It is a painfully honest representation of what teens are dealing with in 2017. The show’s portrayal of technology use, in particular, is alarmingly accurate. Most importantly, this show has started conversation that is long overdue. According to the CDC, suicide is one of the five leading causes of death among people ages 12-19, and it is something we ignore because it is horribly uncomfortable to face. The world is so bad for our teenagers that they would rather die than live in it, yet we won’t talk about it. Do I believe that a person is ultimately responsible for their choice to commit suicide? Absolutely yes. But I think society is not doing these kids any favors by ignoring the issue. I think a lot of people can agree that Thirteen Reasons Why – the novel and the show – has caused them to stop and think about the words they say or the things they do. I think that’s the point: to raise awareness of society’s actions and how we are driving young people to do the unthinkable.

Who should not be watching this show? In my opinion, anyone who is (mentally) younger than thirteen or fourteen years old has no business watching this show, or at the very least watching it unsupervised. Honestly, I feel that anyone under the age of 17 should watch it with supervision or at least with the knowledge that there is a supportive adult nearby to talk to them if they have questions. 

Who should be watching this show? Parents of teenagers should absolutely watch this show. Parents (hopefully) know their kids well enough to know if this is a show their child can handle. If a parent were to ask me if the show is suitable for their child, I would encourage them to watch it (in its entirety... too many people are judging the show off of the first episode or two) and then decide. For what it's worth, I'm also of the opinion that secondary teachers should be watching this show too, especially for the Mr. Porter storyline. When a teacher is successful in building a good relationship with students, there will be students who reach out for help in their time of need. We need to be prepared for those types of conversations, and we need to be careful with what we say and how we respond to these cries for help.

There is tremendous value in Thirteen Reason Why, which is why it is on the shelves in my classroom. This novel does not fit all audience's needs, but it does serve a particular purpose: to warn us about the repercussions of our words and behavior.

So onto the next question: how do we approach problematic literature in the classroom?

Check out Problematic Literature Part 2: Exploring Problematic Literature in the Classroom.