First, what is #vted Reads?
Big news, listeners! #vted Reads has spun off from The 21st Century Classroom and is now available as a podcast in its own right! To recap: in each episode, I sit down with a Vermont educator or author and we discuss one book we think is relevant to Vermont learners. Sometimes they’re education books, sometimes they’re from the popular press, and sometimes they’re books written for young adolescents. We hope you’ll find something to learn from in each episode.
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And now onto our episode.
Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads. We’re here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators. In this episode, I’m with Stacy Raphael, and we’re talking about the book Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt. This is one of my very favorite YA books of all time, and my students loved it too. Some of the themes we touch upon include students impacted by trauma, unintended bias by teachers in schools, books for reluctant readers, and cows. (Yes, cows!)
Thanks for joining me, Stacy. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Stacy: Hi, Jeanie. I’m a teacher at Champlain Valley Academy. It’s a small therapeutic school in Addison County, Vermont. And it’s my first year here. It’s my first year as a teacher. Prior to this, I actually was director of school programs at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. So my background, prior to becoming a middle and high school English teacher, was in arts education, arts integration. That’s a big part of what I bring to my teaching everyday: theater and creative approaches to literacy. I worked with teachers for years beforehand doing professional development in arts literacy. Now, I’m working with six students in my high school and they come from a variety of different high schools. And I love teaching stories like this to my students.
Stacy: It’s a story about a family who brings in a foster child.
His name is Joseph. The point of view of the story is told from the son of that family, and his name is Jack. They’re middle schoolers. I think Jack is younger than Joseph. It’s the story of integrating Joseph into their lives, into their town. Joseph comes from, as you can imagine, a complicated background.
What is learned pretty early on in the book is that Joseph, even as a middle schooler has already fathered a child.
The child’s name is Jupiter, and that’s where the title of the book comes from. It’s about Joseph trying to figure out where he fits in the world and Jack coming of age trying to understand what these differences between these two boys mean for him.
Jeanie: Right. It’s really powerful, I think, for the reader, you find out early on that Joseph has a daughter. He’s never met this daughter. He’s never had that the opportunity. He doesn’t know what’s happened to the mother, the young women that he’s had this relationship with. Jack has so much empathy and compassion for him even as he can’t imagine his life at all.
Stacy: Yes. It’s modeled really nicely, between Jack’s parents and Jack, this open, courageous, bold, honest way of grappling with all the complexities that Joseph brings to their lives.
You see through Jack a very mature narrator for his age certainly, as he observes Joseph unfurling throughout the story in a positive way. Unfurling, kind of opening, to becoming a member of this family. You see that so much as a ripple and I see a lot of ripples throughout this book in language and in themes, but you see this ripple of how he comes by that honestly, through the kind of relationship that his parents model.
Jeanie: It’s interesting that you see the ripple in the relationship with the parents. When you said that word ripple, I automatically thought about Joseph’s relationship with the cow. Do you want to explain a little bit about the cows?
Stacy: Milking is a big part of their lives, and, actually, I have thought a lot about his relationship with the cow. Her name is Rosie. And Rosie is such an important character in the book because she is a mirror. She intuits Joseph’s gentle soul, and they have this dance and this conversation. Often times Jack realizes he’s coming between the relationship and the love between this cow that Joseph learns how to milk. He learns how to be with her. He learns how to open up so that she can produce her milk. And I think about Rosie so much in juxtaposition to the vice principal in the school.
The ways that she comes with no prejudice, she just senses who he is and where he is as a person, versus the vice principal and so many of the other adults in this story, who bring so much prejudice and bias. She is so wise in that way.
Jeanie: Well, before we move on to the characters who can’t see Joseph for who he really is, I really want to spend a little more time with this cow.
Jeanie: I think you and I are both mothers, and we know how important touch, healthy, positive, warm touch can be to children.
For Joseph, he’s this middle school kid he’s, obviously, not going to let these parents hug him right away, these foster parents, but the cow becomes the source of that warmth, and that touch, and it settles him.
Stacy: A big theme throughout the book is when Joseph flinches when he feels unsafe, right. When something happens where he doesn’t feel safe in the space, he puts his back up against the wall, which is something you see really commonly with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People who’ve experienced some sort of traumatic injury. And so it’s very clear he hasn’t just come straight from his home.
— Tarrant Institute ~on summer hiatus~ (@innovativeEd) September 11, 2017
Joseph’s come through a system, the juvenile justice system. He’s got all these caseworkers. He comes with all of this back story.
Jeanie: Let’s share a little of that back story. If you could turn to page 2 and read a little bit about what Joseph’s coming from, just to give our listeners a sense of who Joseph is in the world.
“Two months ago, when Joseph was at Adams Lake Juvenile, a kid gave him something bad in the boys’ bathroom. He went into a stall and swallowed it.
After a long time, his teacher came looking for him.
When she found him, he screamed.
She said he’d better come out of that stall right now.
He screamed again.
She said he’d better come out of that stall right now unless he wanted more trouble.
So he did.
Then he tried to kill her.
They sent Joseph to Stone Mountain, even though he did what he did because the kid gave him something bad and he swallowed it. But that didn’t matter. They sent him to Stone Mountain anyway.
He won’t talk about what happened to him there. But since he left Stone Mountain, he won’t wear anything orange.
He won’t let anyone stand behind him.
He won’t let anyone touch him.
He won’t go into rooms that are too small.
And he won’t eat canned peaches.
“He’s not very big on meatloaf either,” said Mrs. Stroud, and she closed the State of Maine Department of Health and Human Services folder.
“He’ll eat my mother’s canned peaches,” I said.
Mrs. Stroud smiled. “We’ll see,” she said. Then she put her hand on mine. “Jack, your parents know this, and you should too. There’s something else about Joseph.”
“What?” I said.
“He has a daughter.”
Jeanie: I think what I really love about Jack’s family is that Jack knows from the beginning everything there is to know about Joseph, right. That there are no secrets.
There is no sense that Joseph has shame or should be ashamed of himself, but it’s okay to fully know who Joseph is. There is something so warm and receptive about that family so welcoming.
Stacy: Yeah,I really relate to the parents’ no-nonsense style. I really relate to that being a mom and having children who are curious and open and about the world. I remember this one time when my daughter was asking these questions, she must have been four, but she was asking these questions about, “Were women in jail too?” And I explained that, “Of course, men and women both ended up in jail for various reasons,” but we ended up in this conversation where we were close to the Chittenden Correctional Facilities, in the car while we were driving, and she asked if she could go see it. Much of that conversation was just being able to talk to her so matter of fact.
I see his parents doing a lot of that so that Jack doesn’t have to carry the fear of the unknown, but more a clear-eyed sense of being able to see people however they show up.
Jeanie: I think that’s what both you and I love about this book, but also that my students have loved about this book.
Gary Schmidt doesn’t treat Joseph like he is broken, like he is less whole because of the trauma he’s endured.
Stacy: Yes, in fact, he paints him in such an empathetic way. I mean it’s so easy to love Joseph. He’s gentle and resilient. He really does seem like he has come through so much, and he’s so clear in purpose. Which feels so surprising for someone his age that in some way Jupiter has given him that clarity or that ability, to understand exactly where he is in relationship to all the things that have happened to him in his life.
— Jeanie Phillips (@JPhillipsVT) May 30, 2017
Jeanie: Yes, not everybody sees in that way though?
Jeanie: When he goes to school is a time where he’s not viewed very kindly.
In fact, on pages 18 and 19 describes Joseph’s trip to school. Would you like to read that, you do that so beautifully?
At least in the classes he had with me, the teachers were careful around him. Not like they were afraid of him, exactly– they didn’t hear what he said in his sleep at night, how he’d holler, “Let go, you…” and then words I didn’t even know. Or how he’d start to cry and then he’d only say a name, and he’d say it like it was someone he’d do anything, anything to find. Maybe if the teachers had heard Joseph late at night, they might have been a little afraid of him.
But they were still careful. I guess it was enough that once, Joseph tried to kill his teacher. That would make a teacher wish Joseph wasn’t at Eastham Middle.
I’m really sure that’s what Mrs. Halloway thought whenever she looked at him.
Jeanie: That makes me think about how much our students read into our body language, to our intonation, that maybe we don’t even intend for them to pick up.
The ways in which we, as educators, are sending these really subtle signals to our students, and that students really interpret those whether it’s about them or about their peers.
Stacy: I see so much of my students in this book and any student really, that vulnerability. We’re there to advocate for those students. We’re there to believe that all of them have a full potential that they can aspire too.
Jeanie: What you’re making me think about right now is the principal I work with recently said, “If teachers don’t believe all students can learn, then they don’t belong here.” That idea that, if you don’t believe all students can learn, that shows up. I think I’m not sure these teachers don’t believe Joseph can learn, but there’s something they believe about him that’s showing up in their body language. It’s why what we believe about teaching and learning matters.
A1 Trauma informed teaching provides emotional supports so ALL students can learn- I like that it creates a safe learning environment for everyone #vted
— Tarrant Institute ~on summer hiatus~ (@innovativeEd) February 2, 2018
Stacy: One of the things I wanted to talk about, a little bit though, was about how often times it feels easy to extend that belief to a student or to a child. Like in this book, it feels so easy to extend for Joseph that he has this whole unwritten part of his life ahead of him, where it feels so hard to do that for his dad.
It feels so hard to do it for the adults who can’t make that leap as well for him. And I wonder about the message in the book about bias. How we also carry bias for the adults in the system who don’t support kids in that way, and what work needs to be done systemically.
Jeanie: We talked a little bit about how the teachers maybe have a slight bias against Joseph showing up.
Mr. Canton, the vice principal at the school, really takes a dislike to him. Do you want to share a passage where Mr. Canton is talking to Jack, Joseph’s foster brother?
Listen, Jackson,” he said. “I respect your parents. I really do. They’re trying to make a difference in the world, bringing kids like Joseph Brook into a normal family. But kids like Joseph Brook aren’t always normal, see? They act the way they do because their brains work differently. They don’t think like you and I think….”
Jeanie: How’s Jack feel about Mr. Canton after he says that?
Stacy: I think Jack sees Mr. Canton in an adversarial light, where he never had to before, right? Mr. Canton was always on his side and had no problems with him. Remember, as a vice principal his job is probably very centered around disciplinary action. Perhaps he’s come to have a really black and white view of the world and of kids who fall into one camp: the kind that comes to his office. And the kind that doesn’t.
It paints for Jack something he’s trying to put his thumb on, what is so different between me and Joseph?
Mr. Canton in some ways helps him down the path of seeing much less than you might think. He wants to drive a wedge between Joseph and Jack. He wants Jack to understand that he comes from different stock, that he comes from people who can do great things. Unlike this other kid, that he would prefer to not have in the school.
Jeanie: Mr. Canton even says to him at some point, “You were never in my office before. But now you are, and why is that?” He wants Jack to say, “Oh, I got in trouble because I’m hanging out with Joseph.”
Stacy: He wants Jack to see the clear path, and instead Jack, much to his credit, sees a more complicated picture about a world he hasn’t been exposed to and injustices that follow kids around in a different way than they have presented themselves to him. I love the way that Mr. Canton’s intended impact, or hoped-for influence he hopes to have on Jackson in some ways backfires. Helping Jack see clearly that not all adults are in your corner and that you really need to trust your own insights, your own wisdom, of who somebody is.
Jeanie: Jack reminds me of so many middle school students I’ve worked with who despise injustice.
Right, like it’s an age when you see life is supposed to be fair. You believe in fairness and equality, and then it’s not there. It really gets their dander up. In a good way.
It’s a powerful emotion for learning. Jack is powerfully motivated by the injustice he sees Joseph have to endure.
Stacy: Yeah. There’s a scene at which point someone’s trying to figure out if they are related, if they are brothers. I won’t give away any of the spoilers around it, but they say, “Oh, you’re not brothers?” He kind of stands up straight and he says, “No, but I’ve got his back.” I love the sense that he understands how you can stand with someone. How he can be an up-stander and how in a way that is family. I love how he understands the importance of that connection with Joseph.
Jeanie: He also doesn’t really take guff from Joseph, right? I mean a little bit.
Like Joseph always calls him Jackie, and he’s like, “Jack.” He’s not a pushover to Joseph. Yet Joseph also teaches him how to throw rocks at the church bell and make it ding, right? Teaches him really how to throw with accuracy. He teaches him, just as he’s helping out Joseph with the skills that he needs to succeed in school, there’s this other side. Or how to succeed with the cows, there’s this other side where Jack is a recipient of Joseph’s knowledge and understanding.
Stacy: Yeah, and I think that’s a theme all throughout. Everyone is growing in the story.
Everyone’s changing and everyone’s influencing each other. I also really love how that idea of being in someone’s orbit comes into play with that title. I love how yes, the reason that they’re all together is because a child was born, right?
The reason they are all here is all of the sequence of events that happened because Joseph became a father. So there’s that piece of the title, but there’s also just the sense that… all sorts of interstellar materials orbit around this thing. They’re all in orbit with each other. There is this gravity and this center and that they are in it together.
Jeanie: If we were to name the plot of this book, how would you summarize the basic plot without giving away the ending?
Stacy: I think Joseph’s in search of his daughter. But it’s also this one true pure thing. The thing that drives him is this idea that comes out of one true pure relationship with Maddie, with the mother of Jupiter. It’s this thing that cuts through all the chaff of everything else in his life that stands in stark contrast with what his father stood for, and what his relationship with his father might’ve looked like. Yes, it’s a planet, but it also feels like a guiding compass, a North Star.
Jeanie: For me that’s about love, and it reminds me that it’s also what we, all of us as humans, are in search of, is love and belonging, right? Our students are in search of that too. Sometimes they don’t know the best way to get that. Sometimes their misbehaviors are hiding what they are really after. Which is a sense of acceptance and belonging, and love.
We all want to be loved.
Stacy: That’s right. I was thinking, I love that this story comes from the point of view of Jack. How do you tell a story about someone who may not be trusting or rushing to tell you their life story? So the story comes in fits and spurts, and allows for a lot of spaciousness in the storytelling.
There’s a scene where the physical embodiment of ice-skating brings about the ability for Joseph to pour out a big piece of his story It’s so indelibly impressed in my mind, that scene. Because you understand that way that something you physically embody like that? When you experience such strong emotion like love or joy, or just pure connection with another person? How that could be reanimated for you when you experience it again in your body.
It’s a reminder that so many things are stored in our body, good and bad.
The trauma and also the love and the joy. That’s one of my favorite parts of the book, is getting out on the ice and the way that Gary Schmidt uses it as a way to do a flashback. Which is sort of a necessary need for the plot, to be able to get some of this kid’s back story when he’s so closed.
#FridayReads “The Body Keeps the Score” is such an exceptional, important book- I can’t recommend/praise it enough. It should be read by all, for the sake of posterity, especially in light of our current socio-emotional climate. pic.twitter.com/mK2vWlRIjs
— Annabelle Quezada (@annabelleqv) January 18, 2019
Jeanie: I read a lot of Gary Schmidt’s other young adult novels, and I’ve loved them. This one is really different than some of his other books. For example, Okay for Now is also a story about trauma. It’s a beautiful book. And it’s much longer. It’s got much more detail in it, and it’s centered around the work of Audubon, the bird prints, right, and this library. It has these bird prints as sort of this central element in the story. Then The Wednesday Wars, another Gary Schmidt young adult novel, has Shakespeare at the center actually.
This book is much subtler in that it has this love of reading and of books at the center.
Stacy: Oh. Well, one of the things I loved is one of the teachers.
One of the teachers goes through a transformation. She goes from having a bias against Joseph to having him sort of work his way into her heart.
This is the language arts teacher at the middle school. She saw that he was carrying around Thoreau’s Walden and she asked him about it and he explained he was actually reading it for a second time. She recommends another Thoreau book. I’ll start the quote here.
She asked him if he liked it and he said he’d already read it once and he was reading it again.
She asked if he had read her favorite Thoreau book, A Week on the Concorde and Merrimack Rivers?
And he said, ‘A week on the what?’
She took him to the library and they checked it out together.
You know how teachers are. If they get you to take out a book they love too, they are yours for life.
I loved that quote.
Jeanie: We are both smiling with joy at that quote because we do know how we are.
Stacy: We do.
One of my big goals in my English curriculum is to get books in the hands of my kids in their individualized reading that they don’t mind hunkering down to read.
Found on the student station this morning from a former homeroom student… Now that he’s in 8th grade, he says, “You were right. Books are good.” Then I loaned him Orbiting Jupiter…! 💕 pic.twitter.com/7IALQ70Meg
— Joy Kirr (@JoyKirr) October 15, 2018
It’s just so true. This is the part where I also just want to say that our public librarian, that’s where I checked out this book, Orbiting Jupiter, our public librarian here in Middlebury, Kathryn Laliberte is amazing. Our high school librarian, Angela Kugel is amazing.
They are always my first go to people. They’re on my speed dial when a kid finishes a book. Actually, a kid finished a book recently, Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down, and that had been recommended by Angela. He finished it and he said, “I haven’t finished a book since I was in second grade.” It was such a huge breakthrough, and he’s like, “Is there a sequel?”
Jeanie: We are going to talk more about books for reluctant readers.
I love that you shared that story. I love Jason Reynolds, and especially A Long Way Down. We are going to come back to that. But there are some books that are really important to Joseph in this book, and it starts with, he steals Jack’s copy of M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavia Nothing.
Jeanie: He’s reading it on the bus.
Stacy: He carts it around everywhere.
Jeanie: I think he gets the sequel.
Stacy: Yeah, and they are really complex texts too. Joseph is a voracious reader. That is a piece of it.
You have to wonder if some of his resilience comes from the fact that he is able to escape into all these worlds. That he is not illiterate. He is not apathetic. He is 100% tied into what are the stories that are held in these books. He’s a book lover.
Jeanie: The librarian in me couldn’t help wonder if Jackson’s family, the Hurd family, was named after Clement Hurd, who is the illustrator of Good Night Moon. Partly the name just clued that in for me. He’s a New England illustrator. I read Good Night Moon many times as a mother.
But partly I was reminded of it when Joseph would stand at the window in he and Jack’s shared bedroom every night. When Jack asked, Joseph said he was looking for Jupiter, the planet. There’s this good night ritual that has to do with Joseph standing in the cold, shivering on the hardwood floors in this chilly room before climbing in the bunk.
Stacy: That imagery is really strong too. But I would also say that there is a lyrical quality to Good Night Moon that I see in this book too. I feel like Gary Schmidt also does a lot of motifs or repetitions, or short spare sentences that come over and over again, and it is so calming to read this book. The way that he paces the language, the way that Jack talks is like a bedtime story in that way. It has that effect on me too, just in words. Beyond just the imagery and the looking up into the sky.
Jeanie: We’re doing in Vermont all this work around trauma-informed practice, and this feels like an opportunity to look at what trauma looks like when it shows up in a middle school.
I wonder about this book as a professional development read for teachers.
Stacy: Yeah. I’m taking a graduate level course with Dave Melnick right now on transforming trauma in trauma-informed schools. On the very first day we were together, he shared this slide of a shark fin above the water. Have you ever seen this?
He says when you see a kid who fits this sort of profile often times this is what people see. This is what those teachers who have this bias might see. The shark fin: danger, different, watch out, contain this kid. In this kind of post-Columbine world where when a kid doesn’t fit into the mold, they’re suspect.
Then the next slide, underneath the water is this goldfish. This like soft and willowy goldfish with a fin above the water. That has been my experience so much, is that these kids… we as a society have this stance about what a kid like Joseph means and where they should belong, and that at the bottom of it they are really just kids.
This book, every kid with trauma presents really differently and they are all individuals, but it certainly does try to tell the story of the whole kid.
Like you said earlier in the interview, Joseph comes with so many dimensions that get to be fleshed out through Jack’s eyes. That’s a gift to a teacher. If a teacher were to read this book and think about what does it look like for me to be there for every kid, and what if some of my kids are like Joseph? It’s even harder when they don’t love Walden. It’s harder when they can’t get engaged in the learning in that same way.
It sure helps to have a more empathetic stance for all of our kids.
Jeanie: Well, and to look below that, the surface of the water in your metaphor, to see what’s behind this pain or this anger.
Stacy: Yeah, and that’s a big piece. Not, “What’s wrong with this kid?” This is the classic trauma-informed, not what’s wrong with them, but I wonder what happened that is making them struggle in this way? It’s such a gift to get to see this story through Jack’s eyes.
Jeanie: I know from experience that reluctant readers — kids who don’t ordinarily read novels — love this book.
It feels alive and real for them.
You’ve mentioned Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down, which is a brilliant book that is reaching so many young people. Also, about a kid who’s lost his brother to violence, to gun violence, and is making some really hard decisions about that. The whole book takes place, Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down, the whole thing takes place in an elevator, and yet manages to be this alive, wonderful, powerful narrative.
Stacy: Yeah, it’s magical. It’s magical in its sort of, I don’t know, it’s very Dickensian. It’s very much like the ghosts of Christmas past and future. I mean the way that all these… the story happens to the protagonist in 60 seconds, 90 seconds. I think they have a time lapse for each floor? And so all of the stuff that happens can’t possibly happen in that time. So there’s that magical element that draws you in to how will he be changed on this journey.
It’s such a short journey from the top floor to the lobby. And it’s written in verse. That’s important to say. Not only is each chapter a floor, but it’s written in verse and so a student — my student in particular — gets to page 42 after a couple of days of reading and they are so surprised how fast it can flow.
There are so many novels in verse right now that are coming out for young adults.
It’s a whole kind of sub-genre of books. A lot of my students read the Ellen Hopkins’ books. But what I love about what can happen in verse books for kids is you can get in that figurative language, and the metaphors and the beautiful ideas in that poetic form.
honestly, ellen hopkins is my favorite author. pic.twitter.com/VDKyoREMw8
— jac❣️ (@jac_quellyn) January 19, 2019
I feel like I’m getting them to eat their vegetables and they don’t even know it.
Jeanie: One of my favorite books from last year is a novel in verse called The Poet X. Just a glorious book by a spoken word poet, Elizabeth Acevedo that I would recommend to anyone. But it’s true that verse carries so much layered meaning.
Stacy: There’s a great list that the librarian at Vergennes Union High School, Angela Kugel sent me from BookRiot.com where it has 100 of the best YA novels in verse. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, so many have come out recently, and there have been so many out there, but it’s a gray area. The reason I especially bring it up in the context of Orbiting Jupiter, which is not a book in verse, they share that same spare quality, the moving of the story so quickly. He does use a lot of shorter sentence structure and repetition, so it does have, like I said, about Good Night Moon, that lyrical quality. Book Riot has a great list of YA books if people are interested in diving more in. Poet X is on there.
More books for reluctant readers!
Jeanie: I also was thinking a lot about Jason Reynolds’ All American Boys, which he’s co-written. He’s written one voice, which is the voice of Rashad, who is sort of the victim of some police violence. He’s an African-American kid. Then there’s another voice that’s this white voice who witnessed it, and so that’s another book that’s really compelling for students in this moment right now. The story is told from two perspectives.
Stacy: That book is on my list as well. Another book that a student last year of mine read, and now I have another student reading, is How It Went Down. Have you read that one?
Jeanie: She’s a Vermont author. Kekla Magoon?
Stacy: Yeah. It was a follow-up to Long Way Down. He was having a hard time picking the next one, and he liked that they both had “down” in the title. Again, he wanted to read a lot more about gang violence and youth conflict, and that was something he was interested. So How It Went Down, again, it shifts perspective over and over among several characters, and so it’s complicated in that way tracking whose point of view you’re getting and how the story shifts over time around a single incident, a single shooting. That I would add to that list.
Jeanie: I’ve had some great luck with Carl Hiaasen’s books, especially with middle school readers who are reluctant readers. Books like Hoot or Flush or Chomp. They are funny. They are also tales about justice, but the justice is mostly about wildlife. Hoot for example, is about some endangered owls, and two kids who are going to do something to save these endangered owls. There’s a little bit of hilarity in them, a lot of adventure. They take place, all of them, in Florida and there’s just something really accessible about those books. Once kids have read one, they tend to go on and read the others.
Stacy: Yeah. I was reflecting that we didn’t have the sort of burgeoning YA books when I was in middle and high school that we have now, because I’m really old. But I was thinking about what drew me in? Because I read all the time from a young age. But I have to admit, I am a huge nonfiction fan. Even as a young kid I was reading biographies under my sheets at night of like US generals.
But when I was thinking to what was my fiction candy when I was in high school, it struck me that what I really loved was the Tom Robbins’ books. I had a certain generation of people who all agree with me, and we flew through all of his book Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas. It reminds me a little bit of when you are talking about Hoot and Flush and Chomp because he’s just so audacious.The plot is so jaw-dropping and it’s fun, and it feels like a romp.
So I had to drop in an old throwback because I was thinking what was my candy when I was in high school to read? So I did want to put in a Tom Robbins and see what came up for people. See if anyone agreed with me at all. All of his books. The people who read them would read through all of them, and you couldn’t get enough. That was my recollection and I wanted to put it in my list.
If you were to read this book with students, is there something particular you would do?
Stacy: Yes. First of all, this book is a mirror for maybe some of my kids who end up in my small school, in terms of experiences in life that are complicated and layered. One of the things I love is it gives you the opportunity to have a rich discussion around perspectives. How others’ perspectives can be so different about you. You as the protagonist. I was thinking about The Danger of the Single Story. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and her amazing TED Talk, The Danger of a Single-Story. Now that is really culturally embedded. She talks about growing up with only literature that reflected a white experience, and she’s from Nigeria. But it continues to go on that we experience the world through our own particular lens, and people also experience us that way.
So I would really be pushing my students to think about the fixed stance they have towards certain groups of people or particular individuals and imagine what would happen if we were to upset that system.
Maybe even have them do short writing exercises where they have to be an outsider in that person’s story. What would happen if we change the orbit? It’s so part of adolescence to be at the center of their own orbit, right? That’s what’s so different for Joseph. He’s not at the center. Although at one point in the book someone says,
“It’s different to love somebody for yourself versus love somebody for themselves.”
But still he has the sense of something outside of himself with his daughter, and I think it’s so healthy for our students to figure out ways to get out of their own orbit. This book offers that opportunity to have those conversations and to use creative writing to shift how there are multiple stories for everyone.
Jeanie: I love that. I think about how powerful that could be. Because on the surface Joseph just looks like a bad boy, and then you dig beneath. It reminds me of that quote, how does it go?
It’s hard to hate someone when you know their story.
Jeanie: Is that how it goes?
Stacy: Yeah. I think that we talk about the power of story to completely humanize us. That we can’t be a symbol for something. That we can’t turn other people into symbols of something that we either eschew or adore once we know their full complexity.
That living with ambiguity is a skill that I want to teach my students and my children, my own children.
One of my goals in parenting and in teaching is to show people all the gray area and let them live in that uncertainty because certainty is such a type of death. Certainty is when my red flags go up and say, “Why am I so certain? This can’t be.” So that going back to wonder, wondering about our students, wondering about the people that are the hardest to work with.
That is my challenge about adults in our work.
How can we stay open to people who have fixed ideas about our kids and how can we extend that wondering and that openness to the people who influence our students’ lives too?
Jeanie: That’s beautiful, thank you.
Stacy: Thank you for having me.
Jeanie: Thank you so much for coming and sharing your passion for Orbiting Jupiter and for students.
Stacy: It was a pleasure to be here. Thank you.
Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this has been an episode of #vted Reads talking about what Vermont’s educators and students are reading. Thank you to Stacy Raphael for appearing on the show and talking with me about Orbiting Jupiter. If you’re looking for a copy of Orbiting Jupiter, check your local library.
To find out more about #vted Reads, including past episodes, upcoming guests and books and a whole lot more, you can visit vtedreads.tarrantinstitute.org. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @vtedReads. This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.