17 Reasons I Hate List Posts

Number 13 Will Shock You!

It’s borderline epidemic. I’ll be at my desk, minding my own business while minding everyone else’s business on Facebook, when BAM! It grabs me.

The list.

10 Disney Movies Your Kids Should Avoid
22 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Were Vegan
99 Ways to Make $1,000,000 While Sitting on Your Couch

The ever-present clickbait soon drags me down into that dark rabbit hole of internet time-sucking. I admit it: Many a list has trapped me with its claws. So what’s my issue with the increasingly popular article format? Hold on—I’ve got a few.

1. I feel swindled.

Hoodwinked. Double-crossed. Downright duped. I’m halfway through “101 of Our All-Time Favorite Cat Memes” when I realize that my productive workday has transformed into a gallery of indignant felines. What happened? How’d I get here?

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2. Lists encourage my indecision.

Why can’t we have just one Best New Restaurant to Try This Summer? Too many lists and pretty soon I only drink beer in sample flights and want to know if extra cheese can go on a quarter of my pizza instead of the full half.

3. They insult my reading ability.

I can skim for relevant keywords without your bold title text, thank you very much.

4. The burdens are unnecessary.

Why do I need to worry about “where they are now” for all 25 women of The Bachelor Season 1? I didn’t want to know where they were then.

5. Actual burdens seem unnecessary.

My brain automatically categorizes “12 Ways Global Climate Change Will Affect Your Children” alongside “15 Foods You Didn’t Know You Could Microwave.” Oops.

6. The organization never makes sense.

This probably should have been my first point.

7. Random advertisements pop up in the middle.

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8. It’s hard to be original.

As Solomon said, there are no new life hacks under the sun.

9. They’re rarely controversial.

I prefer highly charged, one-sided political rants that I can post to Facebook without actually reading them. Really, nobody ever leaves amped-up five-paragraph responses to list posts. “9 Reasons You Should Start a Protest” just doesn’t fan the flames.

10. Talented authors sell themselves out.

Dear list writer: We both know you could create Pulitzer-worthy journalistic exposés, but we also both know your freelance blogging career is better launched through “23 Superfoods That Won’t Break Your Budget.” Fine literature, I grieve for thee.

11. I’m ashamed of how much Netflix I watch.

You want the truth? I clicked on “50 Shows To Binge This Weekend” because I wanted to. Because I can’t sleep without it. Because nothing in my life has been the same since Sherlock. Now go away.

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12. Those photo galleries where I have to hit the next arrow each time instead of just scrolling down and then a whole new window opens just because I clicked on something.

I can’t even.

14. I don’t trust lists.

“4 Fantasy Quarterbacks to Start This Week and 3 You Should Sit” all but guarantees I’ll start the wrong guy. But if I don’t click on it now, I’ll always wonder…

15. I like the idea more than the thing itself.

A post like “15 Ways To Improve Your Concentration” sounds good until I realize that I actually have to do stuff. Breathing exercises? I think I’ll just move on to “35 Workout Routines to Finally Burn That Belly Fat.”

16. They’re always way too long.

When I’m saying tl;dr to a list post, you know I’ve got attention-span problems. By the time I get to the bottom, I don’t even have the energy to troll the comments.

17. I still have hope for our world.

Stand up, dear reader! Raise your voice! We are more than just sponges to absorb whatever random bullet points these internet marketers decide to drop in front of us. Am I wrong to yearn for quality over quantity, knowledge over gossip, and cultivated discourse over mere stimulus injection? We must fight for meaningful content!

By the way, any good documentaries on Netflix?

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The Best Books for Middle School

Finding engaging, age-appropriate reading material for middle schoolers can be hard.

As a middle school English teacher, I often receive questions about finding the best books for middle schoolers. Parents want reading material that’s challenging, educational, and suitable for young minds; students want books that are interesting, relatable, and entertaining enough to finish. In an ongoing project, I’ve asked teachers and students to contribute to this list of the best books for middle school. Whether it’s for a class book report or some fun summer reading, scroll down to find twentieth-century classics, contemporary hits, and a few you’ve never heard of in all genres. I keep it updated, so let me know if there are titles you think should be added to the list.

Best Books for Middle Schoolers:

Low Fantasy (Magic/Myth in the Real World)

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Percy Jackson & The Olympians series by Rick Riordan
The Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood & Co. series by Jonathan Stroud
City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Doll Bones by Holly Black
Hex Hall by Rachel Hawkins
The Michael Vey series by Richard Paul Evans
The Diviners by Libba Bray
The Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke
The Midnighters trilogy by Scott Westerfeld
Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

High Fantasy (Set in Alternate World)

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
Redwall series by Brian Jacques
The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini
The Harper Hall trilogy by Anne McCaffrey
Dragon Run by Patrick Matthews
The Five Kingdoms series by Brandon Mull
The Divergent trilogy by Veronica Roth
The Everworld series by K.A. Applegate
The Selection series by Kiera Cass
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
The Wings of Fire series by Tui T. Sutherland

Science Fiction

The Maze Runner series by James Dashner
The Infinity Ring series by James Dashner
Dissonance by Erica O’Rourke
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
Virals by Kathy Reichs
Maximum Ride series by James Patterson
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Things Not Seen by Andrew Clements
Burning Midnight by Will McIntosh
I am Number Four by Pittacus Lore
The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Historical

The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Book Thief 
by Markus Zusak
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson
Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Mystery / Thriller

When you Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddox
Stolen Children by Peg Kehret
Dead Girls Don’t Lie by Jennifer Shaw Wolf
Do You Know the Monkey Man by Dori Hillestad Butler
The Compound by S.A. Bodeen
The Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz
Need by Joelle Charbonneau
The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson

Literary

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Holes by Louis Sachar
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Eleven by Tom Rogers
Long Division by Kiese Laymon
The Big Nate series by Lincoln Peirce

Biography / Nonfiction (YA Editions)

I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson
Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah
No Summit Out of Sight by Jordan Romero
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
March [graphic novel] by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky
The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose
The Duel: The Parallel Lives of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr by Judith St. George
Black Pioneers of Science and Invention by Louis Haber
Mud, Sweat, and Tears by Bear Grylls
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Classics – Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams 
The Giver
 by Lois Lowry
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

Classics – Historical and Literary

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The Hardy Boys series by various authors as Franklin W. Dixon
The Nancy Drew Mystery stories by various authors as Carolyn Keene
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

100+ titles for The Best Books for Middle School
Know any novels that I should add? Contact me to add them to the list!

Modern Mayflowers: Global Immigration

aka Where Are You Really From?

I remember watching the 2012 London Olympics and seeing one of my favorite athletes, Mo Farah of Great Britain, capture historic gold medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m. In a conversation later that week, someone asked me if I knew where Mo was really from, with a let’s-be-technically-correct sort of voice, the kind people use to explain that tomatoes are actually fruits. I had a suspicion where this was going, but I felt stumped all the same. Farah grew up in London (where his father was born), only ever competed on British teams, and has a decidedly British accent, so…Britain?

No, the person informed me. Mo Farah was born in Somalia and moved when he was a little kid. So, he’s not really British. Britain was only trying to claim him for the London games. (This isn’t just one person’s bias, by the way—the Spanish runner Fabián Roncero infamously argued that Farah’s European records should all contain asterisks.) I was born in Ohio but grew up in Michigan and went to Michigan schools, so should my high school track times have asterisks? Of course not. While I’m guessing that for most of my readers I’m preaching to the choir here, unfortunately, this kind of ethnic prejudice is alarmingly common. Sometimes, it starts with a simple misconception.

For one, some terms that many people use synonymously actually hold different meanings.

Nationality denotes a person’s affiliation to a particular country, most often through citizenship or another designated status (e.g. US Nationals). It’s a little complicated because not all nations have international recognition as states, and different countries have different requirements for citizenship, but in short, nationality means nation in a legal, official sense.

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is a much wider, looser term that can refer to any number of shared cultural traits, including language, heritage, or religion. Race refers to socially constructed groupings of physical characteristics that can (and do) belong to people of multiple ethnicities. Hispanic is an ethnicity containing people of many races; black could refer to a racial or ethnic identity depending on the context.

So why does this matter? With an increasingly global economy and international events like the Syrian refugee crisis, immigration and resettlement are worldwide realities. While the USA has long prided itself on being “a nation of immigrants,” its foreign-born population is relatively small compared to others. As many as 46 million people living in the US were not born there, but foreign-born numbers in nations such as Canada and Austrailia are even higher by percentage (Pew Research Center). In 2016, citizens from a whopping 143 different countries applied for asylum in the European Union, with Germany receiving the most applications (Eurostat). People have been migrating for all of human history, but it may be happening now more than ever. As first-generation nationals become second- and third-generation and cultures assimilate, narrow definitions of what a person must look like, sound like, and act like to be “from” a particular country must go out the window. Ethnicity entered the English language less than a hundred years ago, and while it’s served us in some ways, it’s also supplied obstacles to those holding multiethnic identities—by some arguments, that’s most of us.

In the coming decades, we’ll debate what it means to be German or Swedish or American with fascinating research studies and dissertations. Essays and artwork will display the beautiful, bewildering intersections of human experience. Starting right now, though, we must teach our current and future generations that people who look different can be from the same places. Nationality belongs to the whole nation, not just the ones who came first.

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In Search of Fairness

When the World Doesn’t Add Up

Educators and activists love to say, “Fair is not equal.” Susie gets extra time on her test but Johnny doesn’t. Sorry, Johnny, but Susie has a documented learning disability and needs this accommodation to level the playing field. So, it makes sense that “fair is not equal.” A quick Google search of the phrase results in a plethora of teacher blogs, advocacy pages, editorials, political fact-checks, and delightful cartoons showing short people finding ways to grow taller.

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This is why we have those extendable-pole fruit pickers, right? Or maybe the guy on the left could have just grabbed enough apples for everyone and avoided the whole issue, but, hey, this way each person gets to pick his own. Problem solved.

The danger, however, comes in oversimplifying the harsh realities of inequality. A trite suggestion that we all just stand on boxes until everyone sees eye to eye doesn’t exactly satisfy most economic and social disparities. The top 1% of the world owns half its wealth. People of color are overrepresented in prisons and underrepresented at top universities. Something tells me the stack of boxes to fix that one will be higher than three.

Interestingly, as a kid, my household exalted fairness. Video games had to involve taking turns. Every new toy had to be shared. If our family of four had a dozen cookies, our sacred covenant assigned three apiece. There was no first-come-first-served; if I wanted a fourth cookie, I had to obtain the rights to it through a complicated ritual of dinner-table bartering. In my rural, middle-class hometown, I’d never heard the term white privilege, but perhaps here was the finest instance of it. I grew up believing the world can and should be fair. Elsewhere in America, millions of people already knew the reality. I could list hundreds of examples to prove it, but I suppose this is one of those universal truths we don’t need to demonstrate. Anyone with half a brain and an ounce of honesty knows the world is not fair.

Really, though, this is where I get stuck. Privilege and opportunity are gifts that I have in some areas and advantages that I lack in others. Some of these gaps can close with hard work or change of circumstance while many cannot. There’s this version of me who wants to fix the system, to shatter ceilings and tear down walls, to find the exact right amount of boxes for us all to pick apples. At the same time, there’s this other version of me who calls himself the realist and thinks I should just be thankful for the apples I already have. Let others mind their own harvests. Then the blame-shifter: Not my orchard—I didn’t plant the tree. Then the deep thinker: What if not everybody wants apples?

Before I go too far with the metaphor, I need to stop and think about the goal. Are privileged people just trying to make others more like them? The implication of saying “fair is not equal” is that some other strategy would be “equal.” Yet maybe it also means that the goal of fairness is not equality, at least, not in the sense of uniformity or fitting a mold. Fair is seeing diversity, valuing difference, making college accessible but appreciating that there’s more than one road to reach a destination and more than one reason to go there in the first place. Fair is encouragement, means, possibilities. We don’t all have to grow the exact same tree, but we should all be able to garden.

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Image credit: Botelho, Rick. Equality doesn’t mean equity. Digital image. What’s Most Unfair about US Healthcare? LinkedIn.com, 02 June 2016. Web. 31 May 2017.

Stereotype vs. Archetype

And Why They Both Matter

Today’s topic for writers and students of writing: proper use of the archetype. The reluctant hero. The wise magician. The power-hungry villain. Yes, we know them.

Archetype: A typical and recurring example used as a model from which to build a character. Readers quickly recognize archetypes, allowing authors to provide context and backstory for their characters in only a few words. I say power-hungry villain, and readers think, “Oh yes, I know him!”

Not to be confused are stereotypes, or the widely held and oversimplified ideas of certain people. The power-hungry villain, yes, but not all villains want to take over the world. (Cue The Dark Knight: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”)

Whenever I’m in an airport, I people-watch. Duty-free shoppers, low-battery outlet hunters, those efficient types who power walk on the moving sidewalk. Sleepless individuals zombified at the terminal, trapped in layover purgatory. Their clothing, facial expressions, juicy snippets of conversation. Hemingway said, “If a writer stops observing he is finished.” Everyone there has a story, and I try to figure it out.

For example, the woman by herself toting a purse the size of her carry-on, Kindle and neck pillow already out, is on her way to visit her parents. She bought the chips and bottled water at the snack stand; she’s comfortable, bored, and makes the trip a few times each year. Suit jacket guy is some kind of consultant making twice as much as me. It’s the end of the week, so I’m guessing he’s on his way back instead of on his way out. That family of four with kids glued to iPads, Frozen backpacks, and ziplock bags of Goldfish is going to Disney World—too easy, that one.

Anyway, to my point: Writers are detectives, deducing the logical, likely, and mundane aspects of a situation. After all, good characters are grounded in reality so that the inevitable twist in the plot comes with a willing suspension of disbelief. Certain universalities of the human experience tie readers to a story and allow literature to speak its transcendent truths. Readers understand the rebellious teen, the loathsome stepmother, the insightful mentor. Archetypes provide a framework, a proper syntax for the writer and reader to communicate. Conflict needs archetypes—the average office employee has no appeal until he becomes the workaholic father or the guy with a dead-end job lacking love or adventure. Readers know these starting points; they understand and relate to these problems.

Stereotypes, on the other hand, shut down a story instead of open it up. While archetypes provide background information to enrich a character, stereotypes limit and flatten them. The rebellious teen starts out okay until readers realize that their spike-wearing, punk-rock-loving, high-school-failing, parent-disobeying heroine is, well, just a stereotypical rebellious teen. Without anything fresh or unexpected, the story implodes. The characters are two-dimensional; the plot is no longer one to care about. Clever use of archetypes says, “Look, readers, you already know the beginning. Now keep going and find out where this adventure will take you.” Careless use of stereotypes says, “Look, readers, you already know the ending. So why bother?”

Back at the airport, my archetypes help me make sense of what I’m seeing. If I needed to know which gate is boarding a flight to Orlando, I’d do well to ask the Disney World family. Stereotypes, however, end the story prematurely. Assuming that the traveling consultant is an arrogant know-it-all? Well, I might miss out on a stimulating conversation aboard the plane. Real people are three-dimensional with story and complexity, and real characters ought to follow.

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Finding My Limit

Or, Why I Like Calculus

The speed of light in a vacuum is approximately 300,000,000 meters per second, meaning that photons from the surface of the Sun take roughly eight minutes to reach planet Earth. That’s a long time or a short time depending on one’s understanding of distances between celestial bodies, but it matters that it’s eight minutes and not seven. Nothing can hurry the sunlight; it’s going as fast as it can, and, still, it takes eight minutes.

There’s an epic moment in the movie Without Limits, the 1998 biopic of great American runner Steve Prefontaine. Bill Bowerman, Pre’s coach, shouts at him, “Be thankful for your limits, Pre. They’re about as limitless as they get in this life.” Pursuit of greatness can quickly turn into obsession: Pre once held the American record at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000m on the outdoor track, and still he wanted more. There’s something so tantalizing about a record. It taunts a man to go just a little bit faster, to push just a little bit harder.

In 1954, Roger Bannister recorded the first sub-four-minute mile. As of this writing, the current men’s record is 3:43.13 by retired Moroccan runner Hicham El Guerrouj. Most experts would agree that a sub-three-minute mile is beyond human capability, but what about 3:42? Or 3:41? Following Bannister’s achievement, the world record dropped every few years, but El Guerrouj’s mark has stood since 1999. Perhaps sociocultural factors have lessened the global interest in distance running, perhaps elite athletes no longer carry that singular focus, or perhaps the world has already seen the fastest a human being will ever run 5,280 feet. Another decade will provide a hint; another century may tell for sure. It makes for an exhilarating thought experiment: Is mankind still reaching its greatest potential, or has the moment already passed?

Considering this question, it makes sense why I liked calculus in school. The mathematical study of limits, the convergence of graphs and patterns toward a single asymptote they will never cross—I saw my life in numbers. One of my middle school teachers told the class, “Boys, when your wife asks what’s the happiest day of your life, the correct answer is the day of your wedding. Maybe until your first child is born, then you can say that.” Not a lot to hope for once the kids are out of the house, is there? Maybe joy approaches a limit until a man’s wedding day but has a line it never crosses. Maybe my athletic prowess peaked in college, or maybe I’ll work out more in my fifties. Maybe my health has already reached its upper limit; hopefully my finances are a long way off.

This kind of talk depresses most readers, and it probably should. There’s a natural limitation to human effort: We are born invincible and gradually learn the truth. The child’s hand on the stove, the teen’s first broken heart, bad news at the doctor’s, a pink slip at the job. Paul writes of the thorn in his flesh, the one to which the Lord said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). So there is grace in limitation; God’s power goes beyond the asymptote.

I try to imagine a shape with no boundaries, and suddenly I’m thankful for my limits. I, too, have definition; I too am named. Light takes eight minutes to arrive here from the sun, and it’s well worth the journey. True power comes when I approach my limits.

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An Open Letter to My Students

From Your English Teacher

Dear students,

Some distressing news has come to my attention, and I must address it immediately. Apparently a rumor is now circulating our school community that I am, in fact, a “cool” teacher. I assure you—and those of you who’ve known my bad jokes and insistence that we always finish the lesson will heartily agree—that nothing could be further from the truth. Allow me to set the record straight: I may be friendly, but I am not your friend.

You see, friends will invite you to parties, show sympathy when you’re sick, and accept your shy moments when you don’t want to share. They will forgive your dumb decisions and random class outbursts; they will supply you with answers on the homework you forgot about and shrug it off when you turn it in late. A good friend will help you, rescue you, or perhaps even lie for you to get you out of trouble.

I will not.

No, I will ignore your headaches and stomachaches and call on you anyway. Keep your hands down and your heads on your desks—I will call on you anyway. Save your “I don’t know” unless you want to add yet. I will demand your respect for me and for others; I will require your effort on every assignment. Oh, and when you misbehave and I speak to your parents, I will throw you under the bus every time. Count on it.

Such harshness, however, is not without reason. I’m a little ahead of you in life, and that gives me some perspective. I need more from you than you currently give, and, trust me, you need it too. You might think you’ll be okay as long as you do your best—maybe someone has even told you that—but you won’t be. The problem with do your best, dear students, is that you have no idea what it means.

Right now, you think your best is just showing up on time and following directions. As long as you’re ahead of some peers, there’s nothing to worry about. You think your best is a five-paragraph essay, double spaced with a flashy title and word choices like mirthful and astute. You say your best is a 5/5 on participation, and you’re pleased with an A on your vocab quiz. Your best is meeting the standards; your best is fitting the mold.

It’s not.

Your best, my students, means taking a risk; your best goes beyond the horizon. My job is to push you when you’d rather be pulled. My job is to stoke the fire of your ideas that don’t quite fit on the page, to give you voice beyond the expected response, to help you read with questions and speak with answers, to develop in you a hunger for knowledge that a lifetime of learning could never satisfy. When someday you graduate from one challenge and move on to the next, when you create with your gifts and serve with your talents, when you make your marks on the world and see what still can be and not just what is, that is your best. Then I will have done my job.

I set the bar higher than you’d set if for yourselves because I know one day you’ll jump without it, and I want you to soar. So yes, you must use complete sentences, and no, we are not watching a movie today. I am the uncool teacher because you are more valuable than you know and more capable than you believe.

So ignore the rumors because yes, you do have homework.

Sincerely,

-Mr. Leonard

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