Love Letter to America

Dear America,

Love can save us.  Trust me, I know.

My childhood was not a lovely one.  I was the youngest, and therefore the most helpless, child of a very broken family.  Alcoholism, domestic violence, and several types of abuse were some of the secrets we kept (or thought we kept) hidden within our household. When life was not a place of fear and terror, it was a place of shame and doubt.  Love saved me. One of the first times that I confronted love was in the book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig.  I know it seems silly that a book about a donkey and a little red marble could show me what love looks like.  It was Sylvester’s parents who got through to me. They grieved when their adored son, Sylvester, couldn’t be found.  I realized that love could look like grieving.  My next encounter with love was the Frances books by Russell Hoban.  Frances was lovable, though she was sometimes stubborn, selfish, and childish. Frances had wise caring people in her life who helped her grow and change. I learned that love is not abrasive and that love can transform.

I watched my dad encounter love in the Alcoholics Anonymous book (the Big Book) as he read accounts of other recovering alcoholics sharing their experience, strength, and hope. Yes, I ended up reading the whole book cover-to-cover, too.  I was watching it transform my father, so I just had to read it.  I knew there was good stuff in there!

Book by book, chapter by chapter, page by page, I have been transformed as I have encountered love in books.  I have realized that I am not alone. I have realized that my shortcomings don’t have to be permanent.  I have learned that people are resilient, and I can be too.   I learned that there is hope.  Since then, I have tried to share this love with others.  I like helping my students and friends find the right book. The book that will speak to their hearts.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic when I stumbled upon Donalyn Miller’s words that put voice to what I was trying to do with books.  On page 9 of The Book Whisperer, Donalyn explains how she and her husband have use books to express themselves and their hearts to each other with “Books are our love letter (or apologies) passed between us, adding a layer of conversation beyond our spoken words.”

For over a week, I have been beyond words. I know that to heal, to move forward, I need to use my voice, but there is too much to articulate.  I also know that I need to love. Fearlessly.  So, America, I want to express my love for you.  Here is my love letter to you in the form of books.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson


Even when it seems that the world (or in Melinda’s case, the entire high school) is against you, and you are hurting alone, find your safe place, your safe person, and speak.

Staying Fat For Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher


Sometimes the best way to help a friend is to listen to what she is not saying.


Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes


When a friend encourages you to be yourself, your toughest critic might finally accept you as you are, even if your toughest critic is your own father.


Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins


Wait, do you really expect me to tell you a tiny little thing about each book on this list?  Just read this one!  Trust me!

One For the Murphys by Lynda Mullay Hunt


Even those of us who feel we are undeserving of love, are indeed loved.


Love the Baby by Steven Layne


Jealousy can cause hatred, but seeing another’s vulnerability and humanity can sometimes be what we need to help us love.

If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson


“If you plant a seed of kindness, in almost no time at all, the fruits of kindness will grow and grow and grow.”


Ghost by Jason Reynolds


Sometimes love looks like a bald, chipped-tooth, taxi-driving coach who pushes you to be better.


Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling


Love, especially sacrificial love, trumps everything no matter how terrifying, dark, and powerful a certain force may appear to be.


A Perfect Season for Dreaming/Un Tiempo Perfecto Para Soñar by Benjamin Alire Sáenz


Find someone you trust and share your dreams.

My Secret Camera: Life in the Lodz Ghetto by Frank Dabba Smith, with photographs by Mendel Grossman


Even in the worst of times, connecting with others, laughter, and love helps us persevere.

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson


Pay attention to how you treat others, and remember that even small amounts of kindness can ripple outward and change the world.


America, this is a teeny tiny list, and there are countless books that will remind you who you are to the world, and who the world should be to you.  These are just a few that I have on my coffee table right now, reminding me that there is hope. Start with one of these, or choose another book, but read, love, transform, and be transformed.

Julie Hoffman





Shout Out to Teachers

I was recently at a beginning-of-the-school-year-pep-assembly-for-teachers. I believe that the premise was to speak to teachers about how they make a difference, and encourage them to embrace the many, many challenges that will be faced this school year. What I noticed, however, was a small group of teachers being recognized. A handful of students were mentioned: those who earned a perfect ACT score, those about to attend a particular university, and some who were the National Merit Scholars. Teachers of those particular students were asked to stand up and “Claim those scores.” It was nice, but something very important was missing. Ninety percent, or more, of the teachers in the district were still sitting. Was there really a difference in the quality of teacher between those standing and those sitting? I doubt it! Questions started firing off in my head “What about the students who earned a 35 on the ACT? What about the other universities? What about the teacher who dedicates her day to students who struggle?

As I thought, I started reflecting on some of the teaching that I see every day in the building where I teach. My school has a “Life Skills” class. Not one student in that classroom will be earning a perfect score on the ACT, nor will any of them attend an Ivy League school for college. In spite of this, the life skills teacher knows the value of each student in her room. She teaches them to read and write, she teaches them grooming skills, she teaches them how to ask for what they need. She teaches them how to shop at the grocery store. When her students are ready to move on to high school, she has a party, decorates her classroom with that particular school’s colors, and gifts the child with spirit wear so that he/she knows about the high school before they ever step in the door. She too deserves applause.

We have a speech teacher who recently visited Alaska. When she returned, she taught her students about the Iditarod. These students (who will not be earning a perfect score on the ACT) were using maps of Alaska to trace the routes. Students were reading fiction and informational text about the the great sled race, the dogs, and the mushers. They learned about the mushers, and kept track of them through the news and on-line. All the while, students were making improvements with their own speech through these valuable lessons. This teacher deserves applause.

We have a science teacher who works with students who are struggling readers. These students will not be attending an Ivy League school. However, their science teacher places exciting books about science topics on their desks, and these students look through the books when they come into the room everyday. Without realizing they are doing so, these students are being exposed to high-quality expository text that they would never choose for themselves. Applause for this instructor?

We have a math teacher who works with kids in an inclusion class (probably not going to ace the ACT). In spite of this, she stays late to tutor students who are struggling. She teaches, she explains, she shows, she draws, she lets students use math manipulatives. She tries to prepare each student individually by using a variety of methods. She lets students practice, provides reteaching, and lets them try again, always conscious that learning is a process. Her students may not earn a 36 on the ACT, but they will be prepared to do well. That’s high-quality teaching for all students. Give her applause.

I watched a teacher interact with an angry student. This student had been labeled with a behavior disorder, already had a track-record-of-trouble, and was about to make a series of choices that would have added much more to his record. The teacher stepped up, stayed calm, and started asking questions of the young man. After several minutes, it was obvious that they had a relationship with trust and respect. The student was given responsibility for his next actions, and was given choices. It was obvious that he had grown quite a bit, and that the teacher had spent many months helping the student to learn how to be upset without creating more issues for himself. That deserves applause.

So, if you are a teacher, you are worth so much more than the name of the university that your students may eventually attend. You might have students that planned to drop out of school by 16. Maybe something you said or did helped that student to stay committed to earning a high school diploma. That is praise-worthy! You might have students who don’t know what they are interested in, but you help them figure that out. That deserves applause. You might have a student who was content with handing in passable work until they had you as a teacher. You may have taught that student that it is worth taking on a challenge, even when it is difficult. You may have convinced a student that even if they can’t be the star of the basketball team, that they can run and be fit that way. You may have taught a student that life isn’t about being perfect, or getting a perfect score, but that it is about serving others, finding your interests, working hard, and being the best individual you can be. That, teachers, is praiseworthy. Claim that!!!