Textbooks, Cont.

The creator of this fabulous, fact-filled super graphic on textbooks vs. e-books asked me to have a look at the chart about textbooks since I’ve weighed in on the subject previously. I’m not surprised by any of the statistics quoted.  I think the data reinforces the point I’ve been trying to make that textbooks and printed media are crucial learning tools the students and the teacher needs.

Through some public private partnerships, textbook makers need to create the type of books that have the assignments clearly written right in the books. The teacher should be able to modify the lessons, but the lessons should already by written out, I think. It’s not a matter of the federal government imposing some curriculum on the schools. That is not the way to see at all. It’s about ensuring that there is a solid curriculum in place, that is knowledge based, content rich and sequential, so that grades aren’t repeating the same topics year after year. We’ve gotten very disorganized with this move to do everything online. There are some great resources on the Web. PBS Teachers does incredible work integrating current events and lesson plans. That is an incredible and free resource. But even an excellent resource such as PBS can’t replace a literature anthology, a history book, or a science textbook.  It’s nonsense to assume we would have classrooms without them. I realize budgets are tight, but that is an absolute essential in my mind. There will be teachers who have a lot of their own activities they want to share with the class, but there needs to be a solid framework in place and I think the traditional textbook is the proper media toward that end.

E-Textbooks Infographic

Madame Butterfly

Katy Perry opened the American Music Awards this year in full Kimono, emerging from behind a rice paper screen and crushing PC whiners with a well-turned foot.  A beautiful spectacle of costume, choreography, and set design elevated the proceedings from trashy awards orgy to something resembling opera. No sloppy strip dance, no desperate groping for attention; rather, the magnificent embodiment of the feminine divine in its most becoming form.

Ms. Perry was performing the song, “Unconditionally,” from her luminous new album Prism.  The song conveys a God-like love; infinite, accepting, and unconditionally loving. “Come just as you are to me… Know that you are worthy. I’ll take your bad days with your good. Walk through the storm I would. I do it all because I love you.”  This is more than mere romantic love, this is love on a higher level. On both  the album cover and in the video for “Unconditional,” Ms. Perry wears cross-shaped earrings, underscoring the spiritual, Christian-themed elements on Prism.

She doesn’t shy away from showing us the depths of pain she experienced in the aftermath of a ruinous relationship. In “Grace of God” we see her, on the bathroom floor, exhausted, defeated, possibly suicidal.  She nearly falls into the abyss, but manages to pull herself up off the mat. “By the Grace of God – There was no other way- I picked myself back up- I knew I had to stay- I put one foot in front of the other- And I looked in the mirror- And decided to stay. Wasn’t gonna let love take me out that way.”  She is a wounded healer, one who has taken a painful emotional journey and returned with an inspiring message of hope and encouragement.

Perry explores similar themes in one of the strongest songs on Prism, “Love Me.” She sings of losing herself and then building herself up again, stronger than before. “I lost myself in fear of losing you… I lost my own identity. But now, I don’t negotiate with insecurities… I found I had to love myself the way I wanted you to love me.” She isn’t pleading for someone else’s love. She’s going to give herself what she tried to wrestle from another. “No more second guessing. No, there’s no more questioning. I’ll be the one defining who I’m gonna be.” Here is a woman who has body slammed her own insecurities and defeated self-doubt. She believes in herself and needs no one else to do that for her.

In “Roar,” the empowerment anthem which opens the album, we see the strong and secure Katy, ready to knock-out her opponent. She may have taken some hits in the early rounds, but she is not going down. This is a fight she will win. At this year’s Video Music Awards, beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, Perry performed the song in a boxing ring, with boxing trunks, knee-high sports socks and a small posse of back-up dancers. With her strong, athletic body, and sharp, deliberate moves, she is entirely believable as a boxer, a fighter, a champion. This is no waif, no lady in waiting. This is a woman in control of her situation, her mind, her body and her destiny.

The music video for “Roar” puts this champion in the jungle. A small-engine plane has crashed in the jungle and a torn and tattered Katy tries to make her way. Abandoned by her self-absorbed cabin mate, she has to find a way to survive, and she does. No more passive victim, she takes control, and develops self-sufficiency and confidence. She unleashes her inner tiger and takes the title as Queen of the Jungle.

Now, for a really good time, play Track 3,”Birthday.” This tongue-in-cheek dance-pop track  is an effervescent celebration of sensuality. Funny, sexy references fill the air like confetti: cake, champagne, birthday suits and big balloons. “I hope you brought a healthy appetite,” she flirts. “You’re never going to be unsatisfied.” The whole song is filled to the brim with vitality, humor and warmth.  You may just drop everything and dance when you hear this song.  Also great for housecleaning, working out, etc., etc.

“Legendary Lovers” brings us to a lower, even sexier register. Here we are on the steamy banks of the riverside.  Lotus blooming, third eye open, your aura, my mantra, energy…where were we?  Oh yes, by the river. Blood orange sun, silver moon.  “Say my name like a scripture. Keep my heart beating like a drum.” It’s hot. It’s heavy. It’s spiritual. We hear rhythmic chanting, tribal drumming and the jingle jangle of a belly dancer, seducing us, being seduced.

“Spiritual” continues is this sultry territory. “Lay me down at your altar, baby… Your electric lips have got me speaking in tongues…. Found a Nirvana finally.” Spiritual transcendence and carnal desire, together at last, and getting along so swimmingly.

On “Dark Horse,” the seduction takes a more sinister turn. Here the beat seems to hypnotize, to entrance, to lure us toward danger. Rapper Juicy J steps in to warn, “She’s a beast. I call her Karma. She’ll eat your heart out, like Jeffrey Dahmer.” It could be an unhealthy relationship he’s referring to, or perhaps an addictive drug. Either way, this is dark, destructive stuff. The lid on that basket is best kept shut.

But even at the bottom of Pandora’s Box of horrors, there is hope. And it is this message of hope and love that comes through loud and crystal clear throughout Prism.  On the wonderful “Double Rainbow,” you can feel your limbs stretched across the sky like gummy candy. Beside you, upholding and reflecting you, is another neon-candy rainbow. Two brilliant beams of light, side by side. BFF’s swelled to the size of mountains, linked together as if in a pose from Yoga for Giants. Two spirits connected, by covenant, forever. “And wherever you go, so will I,” she sings- a heart-catching, tear-making, perfect phrase for love.

Ms.Perry sings in a voice that could be your own,  your best friend, a lover or even God. There is a universality to these songs that capture human experience in a way that everyone can relate. She fills arenas with adoring fans the world over. Clearly there is something in her and her music that people of all cultures respond to.  (One of many reasons accusations of “cultural appropriation” hold little sway with this listener.) Katy Perry represents the best of Pop Music. Music that has the power to touch something inside of everyone. Music that makes you want to dance. Music that makes you feel good.

Prism is a thoroughly listenable collection of songs that will leave you renewed and uplifted. Pop this CD into your car and a dull slog through traffic becomes a joy ride. It is as though Queen Katy, from her pink cotton candy cloud, rains down her magical, sexy pixie dust upon you, brightening your day, your mood, even your outlook on life. The marvelous musical production has been mixed for maximum enjoyment. Every riff  has been thoroughly finessed to release each song’s sweet essence, a delicious nectar you’ll want to taste every day.

Re-Inventing the Wheel

The re-inventing the wheel phenomenon just plagues our schools and no where is that more apparent than in the area of curriculum. When talking about what 2nd or 3rd grade students should study in school, as a parent, I want to be able to know there is a trusted core curriculum is in place. As a former teacher, I know this is hardly the case. My experience was that most veteran teachers had invented or assembled their own units and lesson plans and they varied wildly in terms of  meaningful substance. I wasn’t satisfied with the type of lessons my co-teachers came up with, nor was I satisfied with what I came up with on my own.

I contacted a curriculum company in the Bay Area, Teacher’s Curriculum Institute that make the History Alive! program and they gave me some of their old units which they were revising. Their materials were a godsend. The units came with well annotated slides and clearly written lesson plans which led us through interactive activities based on actual historical events. Their suggestions and supports made teaching a pleasure. With these good, time tested lesson plans I could soar as a teacher. Without them, I will admit, it was a continuous struggle.

Some teachers may appreciate the “freedom” of writing their own lessons and selecting their own reading materials, and do an excellent job of it, but I was always uneasy that there wasn’t more of a catechism of information, if you will, for me to teach. I hope it isn’t the case that our individualized culture has made it impossible for us to agree on a clear body of knowledge for our kids to master.

The Common Core really is a noble undertaking in that it establishes a common standard. Many of the standards identify things that good classrooms are already accomplishing. One thing that may sound like a departure from the traditional language arts class is the inclusion of “informational text.”  It might sound off-puttingly technical, but it really just means articles about the real world, such as current events.

I can’t think of a better source of real world information than a local or national newspaper. I’d love to see stacks of papers in middle school and high school classrooms, or an online version, if that is preferred. The quality of the writing provides a great model for students and the articles will be full of specifics the students can research and investigate. If there is an unfamiliar word, then that is something students can search online, building that important base of knowledge.In one classroom I worked in, we received a stack of newspapers every day. My students, high school drop-outs returning to finish credits and earn their diplomas, loved reading about local issues and national issues. These things were relevant and meaningful to them.

Scholastic News magazines are another excellent source of “informational text.”   Scholastic does a great job with their news  magazines. They also produce magazines about science  and art and civics. These magazines are perfect for students and they perfectly meet that “informational text” requirement. The magazines give the students something specific to do. There are questions for them to answer and for the class to discuss.

Rather than have each teacher individually search the web for interesting articles and come up with their own activities around those materials, some of which may not fit in with any recognized course of study, I’d wish they’d have a class set of Scholastic news magazines, a local or national paper, with well-developed, well-designed lesson plans attached to them, available to every teacher. Those lesson plans should be flexible and adaptable but they really ought to be in place, at least as a reference, for teachers, students and parents to use.

The Common Core

An editorial in the New York Times this morning advocates that states move forward with implementing the Common Core learning standards.  A majority of states have already adopted these standards, which is a surprising and welcome development in our overly-politicized, polarized educational climate. It’s good to see that the states can come together and agree on some common goals.

The Common Core does accomplish something great. It specifies the important skills that we all want our students to develop so that they are prepared for college level work. Students need to be able to analyze text in greater depth and to write about complex issues by citing sources, evaluating evidence and making and refuting arguments. The Common Core asks students to do all that and more, and we should all applaud these new, rigorous standards.

What the Common Core is missing, though, is a clear outline of course *content* for any grade or subject. The middle school social studies standards, for example, list no dates, no countries, no specific events or developments in the history of civilization. There is nothing like the “Table of Contents” you would find in a traditional textbook anywhere in the Common Core. Individual states and districts, schools and teachers are left to determine course content on their own. Without a common syllabus, a grade-by-grade list of specific concepts, or anything in the way of a common base of knowledge,  it is hard to see how the Common Core fulfills the promise of its name.

It is confounding that our current discussion around educational issues seems to conflate two very different  words- “curriculum” and “standards.” They are often used interchangeably, as they are in the New York Times editorial, but they aren’t exactly the same thing and we should be clear about the difference. “Standards” refer to the quality of the students’ work in those subjects. “Curriculum” is the actual course content and learning materials and activities around that content. The Common Core does a terrific job outlining “standards” but does not offer anything in the way of “curriculum.”  That is a *huge* missing piece that schools will have to fill in for themselves.

“The East” at South By Southwest

statesign

The 2013 SXSW film festival had its dramatic conclusion with “The East,” at the beautiful Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas a few weeks ago. The historic playhouse was packed with eager festival goers and giddy fans, at the ready with their cameras to snap a pic of Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard, the film’s stars, who were in attendance.

“The East” takes as its subject a group of anarchists who live in a fire-ravaged mansion with their charismatic leader, played by Mr. Skarsgard.  The group scavenges for food as a deliberate statement against capitalism and waste. They also perform acts of criminal mischief against unscrupulous corporations in a series of carefully planned “jams.”

Creative powerhouses Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij wrote the script after living with a group of freegan anarchists one summer. Based on some of the scenes in the movie, you shudder to think how much of this could be based on their actual experience.

Mr. Batmanglij  directed the film.  Marling played the lead role, setting a great example for other actors: If you don’t like the parts you are getting, why not write your own?

Ms. Marling plays an undercover agent who leaves behind her polished, professional persona to descend into a grungy underworld where she survives by her wits and top-flight skill set. She gains the group’s trust by completing a series of harrowing tasks. She performs surgery (of a sort) on a dying deer, and later, a human.

She submits to the group’s strange rituals. One involves everyone wearing straight jackets to dinner. Another is a glorified version of “Spin-the-Bottle.” It was hard to watch them take themselves so seriously as they performed these odd and  embarrassing  rituals. I thought they came across as sort of pathetic and ridiculous. So, when the agent begins to cross over into full sympathy with the group, I was left with nobody to root for.

The  cult leader, we learn,  was once wealthy from an inheritance.  He became disillusioned when people treated him differently because of his money. Cue the world’s smallest violin! (If there was more to his renunciation of society, I missed it.) He fails to make the case for why he should have rejected his enormous fortune in favor of a life of feral living. Has he never heard of philanthropy? There are creative solutions to the problem of having too much money, I imagine. Homelessness seems an odd choice given the possibilities.

I had an allergic reaction to Ellen Page’s character who abandons her education at an Ivy League school to join this group of anarchists. You want to tell her, “Do you have any idea how many people would kill for an Ivy League education?” But she throws it away to run with a group of phlegm and filth encrusted street urchins. It doesn’t add up. You suspect drugs, psychological frailty, brain damage.

During one of the group’s guerrilla actions, Ellen Page’s character confronts her father, a high ranking energy executive, about his company’s evil business practices. She despises her father, for personal reasons only hinted at. She ends up drugging him and knocking him out, at which point the group moves in to kidnap him. When he comes to, they force him into a lake where the company has been dumping toxic waste. The message is, corporations act like bullies and thugs, so why shouldn’t we? It doesn’t really seem like a mature emotional response to the world, but it is dramatic and makes for a relatively lively movie. I  worry, though, about the message it sends. I’d hate to think some teenager out there is saying, “Yeah, why bother to do the hard work of learning the political process, or being otherwise civically engaged, when you could act like a juvenile delinquent instead?”

“The East” reminded me of T.C. Boyle’s fantastic global warming and eco-activism farce, “A Friend of The Earth.”  There is a series of escalating actions by the radical activists in that book which culminate with members of the group setting fire to a forest.  The trees had been replanted by the lumber company after they had clear-cut it and it lacked the bio-diversity of the old-growth forest.   I’m deeply troubled by our ongoing plundering of natural resources and unrestrained pollution, but even I can see how insane it is to set fire to a forest as a way of making a statement about deforestation. The book showed how unchecked,  self-righteous anger can easily veer into absurdity.

Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” offers another unforgettable example of the archetype of the bright, well educated young person who rejects their own family and its financial success in favor of radical,  violent political activism. In that story, the daughter lives on the lam, like a stray dog, in a lean-to by the freeway.   She bombs the community post office, in an act of protest, (of what, I don’t remember)  consigning herself to a fugitive life.  Though she is on the run from the police for her treasonous act of murder, she wears a  medical mask so that she does not accidentally breathe in (and potentially harm) any living micro-organisms, as her “religion” dictates. We see, in all these works, the way a strong moral instinct, unmoored and unchecked, can go horribly awry.

The anarchists of “The East,” clearly believe themselves to be defenders of the innocent and punishers of the mighty. But it is hard to trust them or take them seriously when they live as they do. They hate their families, they hate capitalism, they hate commerce. They reject wealth, they reject industry, they reject medicine, they reject society and civilization. They embrace vengeance and violence. Where does such a world view lead? It’s hard to see a positive outcome with that sort of social orientation.

The final montage in “The East” offers a mere glimpse of where a more balanced, less destructive social consciousness might lead, but it isn’t fleshed-out enough to offer a compelling vision. Overall, the film left me unsettled, which is perhaps the point, to get people talking and arguing about these unresolved issues.

All in all, “The East,” is a fascinating, confounding, irritating, and mostly entertaining movie that I have not been able to get out of my head in the weeks since encountering it. I’ll be curious to see what others think about it once it has its official opening.

The Blonde Stays in the Picture

Not since Six Feet Under and Big Love has there been a show I’ve loved as much as HBO’s Enlightened. Right now there’s a campaign to get the show renewed. Its fate hangs in the balance as we speak, and so I felt compelled to say a few words on its behalf. Bottom line: I NEED another season. I need more time to study the fascinating female lead, Laura Dern. What an actress! She delivers a bravura performance in her portrayal of the passionately principled Amy Jellicoe. Dern brings incredible emotional intensity and expressiveness to the screen. She is a such a fine actress, and always has been (See: Smooth Talk, Wild at Heart, Citizen Ruth and many, many more) but this series really gives her the space to do her thing and it’s something to see.

One thing I appreciate about this show is its nice stylistic sheen. The soothing music by Mark Mothersbough washes over you like high quality conditioner through the hair. The panning shots of skyscrapers against blue skies, and the geometric beauty of office parks make impressive visual statements. There’s a great aesthetic throughout. The framing, the lighting, set design- all of it is top notch. Now,these are just ordinary, everyday settings we’re talking about here: home, office, parking lot, street. This isn’t a recreation of a Tudor palace. But the scenes are shot with so much thought and care that you see these familiar places from a new, illuminating angle.

Laura Dern is the standout and the star on the show, but her cast mates are also very good.  Her boss, Dougie, played by Timm Sharp, provides wonderful comic relief as her ridiculous, blustery boss. Amy’s mother, Helen, played by Laura Dern’s real life mother Diane Ladd, is subtle and devastating in the muted blows she levels on Amy. You know, stray comments on her hair, her ex, things like that. Mike White, who writes all the episodes, also stars as Amy’s co-worker and collaborator in crime. Writing AND acting. I could almost hate someone so talented, but I’ve learned to turn those type of thoughts over to a higher power and I leave it at that.

Durmot Mulroney is good as Jeff, a shaggy, muckraking reporter at the L.A. Times. The show takes a nice crack at this whole social media/print news intersection. That’s a rich vein to mine.  Would love to see where that could go in another season. To catch you up in case you haven’t been following along, Jeff and Amy are working together on a bombshell story that could bring down elected officials, corporate heads and the company itself. This is the kind of story Jeff has been waiting his whole Noam Chomsky- reading life for. Amy wants to stick it to the company that has mistreated her too long. I wouldn’t say her motives are necessarily “enlightened” but they are understandable considering everything she’s been through. Digging up the corruption at her work is the opportunity in front of her, and she’s throwing herself into it, but I want more for this character. I want her  fly far from that office basement. I want her to start her own Fortune 500 company. I want her to get her own place!  I want a Season 3!

Now, you know you’re in deep with a show when you begin developing strong opinions about the characters’ sex lives. I must be far gone because I do NOT think Amy and her journalist friend should have slept together. The sex scene felt like a dissipation rather than a celebration of their combined energies. There was more evident intimacy between the two of them during their conversation about Jeff’s divorce. They were really connecting there. But you could tell from the look on Amy’s face during sex that she wasn’t really into it, and I don’t like to see that. I think they should have waited.  Anyway, we definitely need another season to work out this situation. Clearly, there are some complicated issues in play, and there is just no way tomorrow night’s episode is going to be sufficient to put them to rest.

The ever-adorable Luke Wilson makes a spicy turn as Amy’s ex-husband, Levi. In the most recent episode, he comes back from rehab and tells Amy he wants to try again with her. You can imagine how tempting it would be for her to fall back into life with Levi. Now that he is clean, maybe they can make it work. But now she’s torn between the two guys. I could make the case for either one of them, but the fact is, these are important life decisions which can not and should not be made in a half hour episode. Another season is the only satisfactory outcome here.

There is so much Amy could do with her life and I really want to see her explore those options. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see her take meetings with the movers and shakers in the environmental movement? She could give her own speeches at fundraisers. Or start a non-profit organization. She could do anything! I want to see her succeed. Succeed BIG.

I’d also love to hear more specifics about her spiritual quest. How did she arrive at her philosophy of life? Who are her influences? Next season, and, let me repeat, I certainly hope there IS a next season, I’d like to see more of a focus on all of that. The show is called, “Enlightened,” after all. So, how does one become enlightened? What does that mean? I want her reading list. I want to know what psychic hotlines she’s hooked up with. I’m taking notes.

The fact is, I’m devoted to these characters. If HBO doesn’t renew the show, I don’t know, it’ll be like a bad break-up, with lots of unfinished business that haunts me for the rest of my life. Why go there?  I really think the show could be very inspirational to a large audience. We need MORE examples of brave people empowering themselves to make positive changes in the world, not less. If it’s canceled, that will be like that bitchy lady in the board room will have won, and that’s not a good message to send to the country at this time. Enlightened is all about the little guy getting his. America needs a show like that. Let this series live! Watch it in its entirety and ask HBO to renew!  Thank you!

Dance, Dance, Revolution

One of my favorite memories from teaching  middle school was seeing my 7th grade class perform in a swing dance competition. I was blown away.  These little, punky kids, who gave me such a hard time in our language arts class, turned out to be incredible dancers. They could lift each other up and swing each other from side to side and upside down. These young teens, with their heaving, awkward bodies which could barely fit into their little desks in my class were suddenly channeling all their physical and mental energy in this really positive, productive way.  I admire the P.E. teacher who was able to teach the kids so well. Great things are possible, she showed, even with 7th graders, when you have a clear goal, good instruction, and lots of practice.

When I was a student in high school, we were lucky to have an dynamo of a theater director who produced  big musicals, every year, with big casts and lots of choreographed partner dancing.  For the musical, Anything Goes! we did a big tap dance number, in unison, on an elaborate, multi-leveled set. Actors, dancers, stage crew, and orchestra all played their part in putting together the spectacular show. Feeling the stage vibrate with our pounding feet was something I’ll never forget.  (I don’t know how well the audience liked it, but for the performers it was a transcendent experience.)

I still have anxiety dreams that I’ve forgotten the steps, or a line, or my costume; those early theater experiences lodged themselves deep into my developing consciousness, it seems. It was scary to perform in front of a big audience and there was lots of anxiety about whether we would be able to pull off the feat. But we did pull it off, mostly because of the heroic efforts of our director, but also because we kids rose to the occasion and stretched our capabilities as far as we could,  and accomplished what seemed at moments all but impossible.

For some kids, music and/or dance might be the one thing they really love that keeps them coming to school. I was always taken with my students who would spin out raps and rhymes in all their spare time. They were a little too fame-obsessed for their own good, thinking, as too many do, that an American Idol appearance or a recording contract was in their immediate future, but they did have a creative spark which I respected and tried my best to nurture. Still, I wish I had done more to channel those creative impulses into a big production such as a musical or dance off or rap off or something. Maybe in the future I’ll get another chance to do something like that.

Long Live the Textbook

I watched the Michelle Rhee documentary on Frontline and wanted to get down a few thoughts. My first impression is of an incredibly strong, driven, focused leader. Rhee has courage, determination and grit.  This woman has got it going on.  Real badass and incredible role model of female leadership.

I think it’s a mistake to put too much focus on one individual leader, though. By sticking her neck out so far like that, Rhee has become a lightning rod for all the frustrations people feel about the state of our schools. It becomes this issue of are you for her or against her, and that’s not really helpful. It encourages a war-like mentality.  Everyone becomes overly reactive and defensive and that can become a real obstacle to constructive problem solving.

If I’d been in Rhee’s position,  I would have taken things from a different angle. Rather than focus so specifically on firing teachers and principals, I would have focused on implementing a high quality curriculum. I feel strongly that we shouldn’t put the burden of curricular design solely on the teacher. The notion that students should design their own curriculum is even worse.  It is well-intentioned, but absurd. Imagine middle school students designing their own algebra textbooks. You can’t expect anything but wildly uneven results with such an approach, though I sympathize with the underlying theory that students should actively construct knowledge. Yes, but let’s not lose our heads here.

textbook

Teachers, students and parents should be provided with a coherent curriculum that is aligned with the tests. Give everybody a textbook with all the material laid out plain as day. Everybody- administrators, teachers, parents and students need to be on the same page and the textbook makes that possible.

I will never forget my superintendent telling me that he did not believe in using a textbook in the classroom. He thought it was better if the teachers pieced together our lessons from multiple sources. The result for me was  a nightly scramble to come up with material for our 90 minute language arts core. Some days were inspired. I’d find reading material, and make reams of copies (the amount of photocopies you need in order to make up for the lack of textbook is staggering.) I liked using newspaper and magazine articles and I’d write questions to go with them, but often it wasn’t enough to keep the students busy for the whole period. And when students don’t have something concrete to do, they act out.

We spent a tremendous amount of time learning a reading process the district had put its faith in, where students read in teams. I found it very hard to manage. Too noisy, too hard to focus, too easy for students to get distracted. Yes, it was “interactive.” Interactivity is the holy grail of progressive education. But having lived it, I’m not at all convinced that is the best way for kids to read and learn. I think classrooms would benefit from more quiet, independent work time.

Toward the end of the year, I had the chance to pilot a textbook the district was considering for adoption. (Even though the superintendent felt it was bad pedagogy to use a textbook, he was still required to have one on hand.) For the two weeks that I used the language arts textbook, designed by Holt, the clouds opened. The reading material was well presented. Review questions, project ideas, it was all right there. My students were busy and engaged. I had good material to work from and helpful prompts to lead discussion. I feel like my strengths as a presenter really came through when I had that curricular support. My students thrived with that consistent, clear curriculum in front of them. Alas, the district adopted another textbook which weighed a ton, had tiny print, no pictures and was needlessly convoluted. Poor design. Bad decision.

In my fantasy scenario, there would be a well-stocked teacher supply room in every school with multiple sets of books to choose from. I know, fantasy. But it is a matter of priorities. As expensive as the books may be, they certainly aren’t any more expensive than rooms full of computers, which is the current spending trend.

This is not to say that I’m against computers in education. Gamification is a trend ripe for broad implementation. One of the most remarkable things I’ve ever observed in education was watching my son learn all his states, and their locations because of an app called Stack the States. When he was four years old, he could identify every state, by shape and location. I’ll admit, he could put those states in place faster than I could. The potential for learning in this format is tremendous. Games that allow kids to feel successful as they learn really work. Of course, the reverse is also true.  I downloaded the National Geographic app recently. The content is good, but the game interface is discouraging. A wrong answer earns a harsh, “Not even close!” Good games encourage you to keep trying until you get it right. With this game, you hit a dead end when you make a mistake.  Learning should not be a demoralizing process. If it is, all those awful defense mechanisms get triggered, and we’re back where we started.  The gamification trend is so cool because it makes use of the brain’s reward circuits. If a game doesn’t do that, it defeats the purpose.

Certainly, there are a ton of exciting developments with technology and education and I say let’s make good use of them.  But let’s not abandon that trusty old war-horse, the textbook, in our zeal for revolution and reform. The old ways are good too.

Pop (T)art- A Look At Katy Perry’s Music Videos

With her team of collaborators, including fashion and set designers, Katy Perry has pushed the medium of music video forward, demonstrating the limitless possibilities of the form. Perry’s videos show us what can be accomplished when unfettered imagination, a big budget, and painstaking craftsmanship come together.

Step inside Perry’s 2010 music video extravaganza, California Gurls, and enter a psychedelic landscape of marshmallow frosting fields, peppermint stick forests and cotton candy skies. The children’s boardgame Candyland has sprung to life in sparkling, sun-drenched California. Perry is a vision in a bejeweled ballerina’s dress, her tutu a shimmering ruffle of fabric. She’s Willy Wonka, Dorothy of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland all swirled up in a soft-serve cone. Sprinkle on a little Betty Page and Gidget.  Put a big burlesque cherry (or two) on top. Invite Snoop Dogg to add his distinctive flavor. Now dive in. With each visual and musical reference, Perry invites us to revel in this sensual embodiment of our shared cultural history.

A gingerbread Walk of Fame, staggered with sugar-dusted stars,  criss-crosses the game board. But the Hollywood myth bumps into the gritty reality of the place as Perry, playing the wide-eyed starlet, runs into a gang of belligerent gummy bears. Growing up in Southern California, my friends and I would laugh, wickedly, imagining the disappointed faces of world travelers arriving in Hollywood to find what a cesspool the place really is. But the myth is much more fun, and Perry runs with that, while letting us in on the fact that her knowledge goes beyond the fantasy of California Dreamin’.

Perry was raised by two evangelical ministers and like many other accomplished singers, grew up performing in church. Her background in gospel music is evident in moments of transcendent, spiritual power such as those in the richly symbolic video, Wide Awake. Here she travels through a dark labyrinth, eats of the forbidden fruit and feels the walls close in on her. But she conjures a light from within and pushes the walls back with supernatural power. Light shoots out of her chest and into the sky. Similar imagery is put to effective use in her video, Firework

In another scene, Katy enters a garden overflowing with flowers. Awaiting her is Prince Charming, atop a white unicorn. Katy almost falls for his corny guise, but she sees through his lies and sends him flying through the bushes with a satisfying punch.

She defeats all the fakers and takers and her own demons, and rises again, onto the stage, in her spinning peppermint candy dress, a healthy, integrated woman in touch with her inner child, warrior, princess, and sex goddess. She’s independent, in control, and on top of the world.

One of Perry’s most striking qualities is her ability to embody so many different characters. In Last Friday Night, a delirious send-up of 1980’s teenage party movies, Katy plays the nerd. With a little help from her friend, Rebecca Black, she transforms into a mini dress-wearing bombshell. Debbie Gibson and Corey Feldman make cameos as her parents. Kenny G plays on the roof.

Even with the all-star celebrity cast and well-tooled production behind her, it’s Perry’s off-the-wall acting that steals the show. She throws herself head first into comedic parody, playing her part with zany abandon. Her performance is intentionally ridiculous, yet executed to perfection, along with every other aspect of the production.

It is hard for me to choose a favorite among Katy Perry’s videos, but Hot n Cold could be a contender. The scene opens on Katy and a young, rather dumb looking groom standing before pew after pew of witnesses.The groom’s throat catches just as he’s about to say, “I do,” and Katy shakes her head at this punk who can’t make up his mind. She and her bridesmaids go after him, a mini-army of jilted lovers with mascara-stained cheeks. They look a little like Michael Jackson’s pack of zombies in Thriller with their torn dresses and choreography formations.  You can also see Madonna’s influence in the street dance numbers. Think of the dance scenes in Borderline or Hung Up. My favorite visual reference in this video is Perry’s dress, which is a near-exact replica of the fabulous frock on the cover of Roxy Music’s eponymous album.

In Perry’s behind-the-scenes concert movie, Part of Me, you get a sense of the enormous production apparatus behind her, and it becomes evident that Perry is a job creator, wealth-generator, and CEO. I find it inspiring that one woman’s voice could launch the entire enterprise. And it comforts me to see an artist whose work I love, creating a  product that doesn’t involve destroying the earth or killing people. In my mind, that alone is cause for celebration.

Perry is not  without her detractors. Old-school cultural critic, Camille Paglia has criticized Perry and her cohort of young pop stars, going so far as to accuse the entertainers of “ruining” women for failing to embody a worthy image of womanhood. Paglia takes Perry to task for the “overt raunch” of her lyrics. It is true, Perry drops a couple of F-bombs, but so do I, so I can’t judge her for that. Perry makes some sexual references in her lyrics, but the references are likely to sail over the heads of any too-impressionable minds. The fact that she fills arenas with young concertgoers proves the point that parents, who you’d imagine are buying the tickets, aren’t too scandalized by her lyrics or deportment. And they shouldn’t be. Perry’s energizing music and jaw dropping style have come together in an over-the-top pop confection that all but the scroogiest of scrooges will find irresistible.  Katy Perry is, to borrow a line, a walking candy store and her millions of fans want more.

Winter’s Bone

Speed kills. But first, it corrodes the mind, body, soul, the family and community. Winter’s Bone gives us a nearly lethal dose of life among the methed-out zombies who’d eat their young alive. This is a portrait of warped, violent criminals, ruined by addiction to a chemical substance that transforms men into monsters and women into used and useless husks.

Ree Dolly, the courageous heroine at the center of the story, summons a strength beyond her years to meet the crushing challenge before her. At 16, she is the head of the family. Her mother has lost her mind. Her father is a crank cooking fugitive from justice. She is left to handle the care of her mother and two little brothers alone. Her father has put their house up for bail money. Missing his upcoming court appearance will cost the whole family their home. They’d be forced to live outside, in a cave, like animals.

Ree goes on a quest to find her father to bring him back, dead or alive. Along her journey she experiences unbelievable brutality at the hands of the elders she implores to help her find her father. Everyone tells her not to ask.  Among these crank cookers and sellers and users there is one big no-no. If you get caught, you can’t narc. If you do, you’ll pay with your life. That is the one iron clad commandment among these interlocking clans.

Ree’s dad has broken this covenant, and condemned his little family in the process. But Ree proves her mettle, standing strong and tough in the face of extreme violence, paying the debt for her father’s sin.

Winter’s Bone has a few glimmers of hope. A cousin saves the family from starvation with a meaty bone of venison. An uncle comes to bat at a critical moment. Her best friend Gail is a good person. But beyond the few torch bearers of goodness, you get the sense that we’re looking at a band of demons in a slice of hell, where humanity has been poisoned by a chemical dependency of the very worst sort.

Daniel Woodrell does write beautifully of the bitter-cold, winter-blasted landscape of the Ozarks. The sound of combat boots on ice. The thermodynamics of icy exhalations. The images Woodrell teases from the land blurs the line between poetry and prose. It’s a short book, but you take it slow, as you would a poem. Winter’s Bone is a poetic testament to the destructive power of a very bad drug, and the triumphant power of perseverance, goodness and love.

Are You My Mother? By Alison Bechdel

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel portrays, in graphic novel format, the author’s attempt to come to terms with her fraught relationship with her mother.

We see mother and daughter, in the present, through phone calls and visits, and in the past, through flashback scenes from the author’s childhood.  She describes a game of pretend she remembers playing with her mother.  The little girl would pretend that her legs stopped working and her mother would play along, offering her an imaginary leg brace. She remembers the game very fondly and credits those moments with igniting her power of imagination and inspiring her writing career. Those are sweet memories, and you sense that there are more of them, buried under the resentment and hurt.

There’s no way around it, the mother is too blunt. She is forever hurting her daughter’s feelings with insensitive remarks. There is a telling scene where the daughter mentions the critic, Daniel Mendhelson, and the mother says, “Isn’t that the person who beat you out for that award?” The author captures the scene beautifully. I could see her slumped, rumpled body on the page and feel the mother’s pointed jabbing physically register in my own body.

The mother herself had artistic ambition, at one time, but she put it aside when she had children. Maybe that is the reason she is so stingy with the praise the author seems to long for, and never get. You can’t really blame the mom, though.  She’s tough, which is how she’s survived. The daughter is a lot more sensitive and easily wounded. That isn’t anybody’s fault, necessarily, it is just how it is. Mother and daughter love each other, but their personalities are so different. Still, you have to credit the two of them for trying. They talk every single day on the phone.

The author mentions feeling like she is parent to her mother, which when I read that, a little alarm went off inside me that said,  “Alert! Boilerplate psychobabble.” I can’t stand that sort of thing. Listen, there are interdependencies in all families. Modern therapy wants to pathologize those interdependencies. Modern therapy wants to blame your parent for whatever is wrong with you. But that is absolutely a losing game, in my opinion.

I do admire the way the author made an intellectual commitment to the analytic process, reading lots of books on theory and including several passages from her reading in the story. But the theories she describes, on Object-Relations, and others, though titillating, are hard to take seriously as any kind of natural law. The author seems to be reading these psychology models as though she were uncovering great truths. As a jaded psych major, I’m inclined to dismiss most of it as made up fluff. But I could look past the fluffiness if the process didn’t wind up being such an all-consuming, never ending project. There’s a two-page layout that shows the author in her therapist’s office and you can see a tree outside the window as it buds, flowers and drops its leaves through the seasons. Month after month, she keeps coming back for more, but toward what end?

The emotional world of the author seems mostly unchanged throughout the book. She’s stuck in a limbo state. Her mother exerts a tremendous power over her and she can’t seem to get a handle on that. She is fixated on this frustrating and unsatisfying relationship even to the detriment of her romantic relationships. She mentions the bouts of OCD that have troubled her since she was little. It seems almost like the fixation on her mom could be a manifestation of those obsessive patterns. Of course, we can all get stuck like that, obsessing over a relationship. Parents, exes, enemies. The brain can get stuck processing a troubled relationship over and over. Whether years of therapy is the answer, or pharmacalogical intervention,  hard, repeated exercise, or some artistic creation, the important thing is to get over the emotional hurdle.

In the end, she does have a breakthrough, she feels that she has been gotten out from under the oppressive, angsty weight of the relationship with her mom.  And when she gets there, you want to say, “Good! Now its time to move on.” (A message we all need to hear, myself very much included.)

In spite of the limited scope of the book, I still found it fascinating. I’m a big noobie to the graphic novel genre, but what I’ve seen of Alison Bechdel’s work, in this and in her earlier work Fun Home, I find mesmerizing. The graphic novel is such a great medium. There is so much it can do, and seemingly no realm, however esoteric or ethereal, that is beyond its reach.

The Group by Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy’s The Group is a book I think every college student in the country should read.  But I can’t make such a recommendation in good conscience without a confession and an apology. I have to admit, my mother gave me this book when I was a teenager and I didn’t give it a look.  I didn’t believe, at the time, that a group of girls from another eon would mean anything to me and so I said, “Thanks,” (for never understanding what I really needed, Mom!) and I put the book aside, forever. That was a serious gift and I’m sorry I was so unable to appreciate it at the time.

For my birthday this year my mother, still making her heroic efforts to help me make good reading choices,  gave me a gift certificate to my favorite book store here in Austin, Half Price Books. For a song,  I found a well-loved paperback copy of this stone cold classic. I read it eagerly, in long satisfying chunks. What a jewel. From the first page I was enchanted. Traveling with this group of young women as they take their place in the world makes for a very rich reading experience. This group of girls is refreshingly civic-minded, with a deep sense of duty, responsibility and integrity.

Work is of great importance to these young women. Whether they need the income or not, they begin their working lives as though it is their patriotic duty to step up and make a difference in their chosen field. One of the girls pursues a career in publishing. She reads manuscripts and writes short reviews. She’s ambitious and crafty. How can she get more books from her publisher? How can she forge a real opportunity for herself in the business? Her first job, despite her talent and diligence, ends with a patronizing pat on the head and the advice to get married. She’s chastened, but determined, and in fact finds a much better job almost immediately.

Her love life, cruelly, takes a less fortunate turn. She throws a nice party for her friends, to introduce them to her boyfriend, whom she hopes is on the verge of proposing to her. It’s evening, the guests have gone home and she’s ready for her beau to take her to dinner and pop the question, when she encounters, instead, the horrifying experience of date rape. She had no way of knowing this guy could do such a thing. McCarthy, without being gratuitous in her presentation about these facts of life, doesn’t hold back either in presenting the type of dangerous, treacherous experiences women have endured, throughout time.

In a bone chilling episode,  one of the girls is involuntarily committed by her husband. The man enlists the authorities, and has her locked up without telling her that is what he is doing. There is element of psychological torture and abuse here, as the husband leaves her in this limbo where, under duress and scared to death, she must prove her sanity. But she is already ensnared in the mental hospital bureaucracy and held under lock and key. It’s quite a scene to watch her try to maintain her composure in the midst of her incarceration. She can’t get too upset with the staff at the hospital or they’ll think she really is crazy and she has to show them she’s not. It is a very scary episode.   In a sickening scene the husband returns to the hospital, at his leisure, to sign the papers to let her go.

McCarthy segments this book in these exquisitely rendered chapters that, while interconnected, read almost as short stories. Each chapter focuses on a specific girl and how she navigates a particular passage. It’s a lovely device which illustrates the many facets of a women’s journey through life.  It is almost like listening to an album, with each chapter a different song, with its own deeply resonant chord, its own climax and heartrending conclusion.

It’s a very juicy book. I had to laugh when I started it, because you are not very far into this thing when there is a major sex scene. One of the girls meets someone who instantly seduces her. It’s a thrilling thing for her. Unfortunately, the guy wants to sleep with lots of women and he doesn’t want her to get attached, and naturally she does, leading to some heartbreak and humiliation.  But she gets engaged to someone else soon after. Just as she is about to marry, she breaks down in front of her mother, and admits she’s still hung up on this other guy. The mom actually encourages her to call the wedding off and go be with the guy she is still pining for.  It was a fascinating clash of moral reasoning. Mother and daughter both felt they knew the right course of action. The mother advocated the follow your heart way of life while the daughter, having graduated in the midst of the Great Depression, has a less romantic world view.  It took tremendous courage I thought, to stand up to her mother and to do what she thought was right, giving her loyalty to her soon to be husband, and not some cad on the side, as much as she liked him. If her heart is cleaved, well that’s the price she pays for getting swept up so fast in a casual affair.

Polly’s saga was, for me, the most moving of the whole group. She goes to work as a nurse and gets involved with a man who is divorcing his wife. He has a five-year-old child he goes to see once a week. He’s invited her to come on one of their outings together, but Polly feels it wouldn’t be right to have a relationship with the child until they are married. Over time, she becomes very jealous of the child and the ex-wife. She gets so upset she admits to “mentally slaying” them. When they break up, the girl is crushed, but she goes on stoically. She simply swears off love for all time.

Polly ends up living with her father, who suffers from manic-depression. But she can’t make enough to support them both. She tries to take a loan, but she sees the interest rate and knows there is something immoral about the transaction. She thinks about selling her crafts, to make extra money, but by doing the math she can see it could never really make a significant profit for her. Finally, she resorts to selling her blood. While she’s reclined on the gurney, needle in arm and growing fainter by the minute, one of the doctors she works with walks in. They have a deep, soul baring conversation. She tells him she’s been wounded in love. She confesses the burden of caring for her father. She tells the young doctor she plans never to have children for fear of passing on the “thin blood” of her line. The doctor, smiles, touching the bandage at her arm. He tells her he loves her and wants to marry. He’ll help her to take care of her father, at home. More grateful than dreamy-eyed-in-love, she agrees to marry and they go off to City Hall.  And to her surprise, live happily ever after.

One of the most interesting characters in this book is Norine, who is a Vassar grad like the others, but sits on the periphery of their group. She is a terrific foil. At a party she’s caught in a compromising position with a married friend. Norine tries to explain herself. For one thing, she tells the friend who has walked in on them, that her own husband doesn’t sleep with her. Asked if her conscience wasn’t bothered by sleeping with the married friend, she says that having a mistress is good for a man and that it helps him perform better with his wife.  Ever the anthropologist, Norine tells her friend that in other societies the arrangement is taken for granted.

Eventually, Norine leaves her husband and marries a very rich banker and has a child. Norine takes an approach to parenting that causes the  others to raise their eyebrows yet again. She sleeps beside her baby and uses a primitive hip sling. She advocates feeding on demand. It was remarkable, really, to see the ways that her parenting style had so much in common with the modern craze known as Attachment Parenting. And it was very interesting to see the way that the style clashed with the other mothers’ well informed, “scientifically proven” methods that were supposedly better. McCarthy perfectly captures the way modern, educated parents over-think the mechanics of raising children. For instance, there is an entire chapter devoted to breastfeeding. It makes for very tedious reading, I thought, but it captures the sort of mind-numbing effect that obsessing over feeding and sleep schedules can have. The scene also reflects the way society: husbands, doctors, nurses, mothers, friends all have such an opinion on how this childcare thing should be done. Just the idea that such a personal experience would be turned into a public, even political debate is absurd, and yet it is the reality, then as it is now.

The book ends on a dark note. The U.S. is on the verge of entering WWII. One of the friends has died, possibly of suicide. Not everyone survives their coming of age. But even with its dark shades, The Group is a glowing document of women asserting their finely hewn characters in the world- of work, love, family. The girls will inspire you with their example of living life with great energy, purpose, intelligence, warmth and passion.

A Hologram for the King

A Hologram for the King is a useful object with which to gently knock the heads of those who like to flap on about the demise of the physical book.  This book is so beautiful, in terms of its physical design, that it stands as a definitive, classy, counter-argument to the E-books-Are- the-Future-Crowd. The cover looks like embossed leather, but has a metallic sheen. You almost expect to find a secret lever under the cover that activates an actual hologram. The publishing house McSweeney’s, founded by the author, Dave Eggers, has given us a striking object which earns its place on your bookshelf.

A Hologram for the King is basically a business trip drama, such as the movies Lost in Translation and Up in the Air. Alan, 54, divorced and deeply in debt, travels to Saudi Arabia to give a demonstration of his company’s holographic telecommunications line. He and his team wait day after day for a meeting that keeps getting postponed in a seemingly endless loop. Jet lagged and disoriented,  the IT team lounges in a modular tent, the Arabian version of a conference center. The space is huge and empty as a locker. An outsized, alienating architecture. I saw the influence of J.G.Ballard in Eggers’ evocation of a totally man-made, denuded environment.

A Hologram reminded me of Philip Roth’s great novel of industrial history, American Pastoral. Where Roth used women’s gloves as an example of the decline of American industry, Eggers uses bicycles. Alan was once was an executive of Schwinn bicycles. He played a key role in getting the company to relocate its factories, more than once, causing terrible disruptions to the company operations. Schwinn, which Eggers notes that he researched for this book, can stand in for almost any American company whose cost-cutting and outsourcing were its undoing.

In one of the most incisive scenes in the book, Alan argues with his bank about a loan to start a new business. His credit rating, perfect for decades, has been permanently marred due to a Banana Republic credit card he applied for to get a small discount at the register. (Can you even complete a transaction in any mall across America without being asked if you’d like to open a credit card with the store?) He thought he’d closed the card out, but a small transactional fee remained unpaid and the bill was sent to collections. It’s a good example of the ways that regular consumers get screwed over by credit card companies. Who can keep up with the Byzantine terms of agreement for these evil little cards? I was pleased to see this wretched facet of our bank-based economy skewered with such precision in a contemporary novel. Hearing Alan try to reason with the bank employee was a painful reminder of  my own maddening relations with banks and other bureaucratic darlings such as health insurance companies. The people on the phone with whom Alan tries to reason are powerless to help him. They are all cogs in a rapacious, profit-seeking structure. “The age of machines holding dominion over man had come. This was the downfall of a nation and the triumph of systems designed to thwart all human contact, human reason, personal discretion and decision making.”

It’s a near-dystopian vision, with only a very small allowance of hope made for family and the faintest possibility of love.  A Hologram for the King kept me reading up to the end, in part, I think, because I enjoyed handling the craftily designed thing itself.  I jotted down notes along the margins and attached post-its to the pages. Occasionally the notes veered toward the frustrated, “Dull dialogue!” “Bad sex award!” But those are the criticisms of a fully engaged reader, reading a  fully engaging book.

 

Post Script: The New York Times Book Review interviewed the author and he had really smart things to say about reading and writing. Bottom line: Encourage, encourage, encourage. Save the criticism for later. Save the old classics for later, too. Great advice for teachers! Get kids hooked on reading, THEN hit them with the hard stuff. It doesn’t really work the other way around. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/books/review/dave-eggers-by-the-book.html

Texas City, 1947

Texas City, 1947 is the name of the searing, classic noir short story by James Lee Burke. It is also the nexus of one of the worst industrial accidents in American history. Nearly 600 people died and thousands more were maimed when two ships carrying ammonium nitrate collided off the Texas coast, flattening homes and producing huge clouds of smoke which asphyxiated the townspeople who came to see what had happened.  This catastrophe blows a hole through the fictional family at the heart of the story. The incident also serves as a symbol for the way the family, because of inter-personal conflicts, implodes before our eyes. The mother and father are like giant ships dangerously laden with explosive material. One bad move and it all blows up, leaving the survivors to scratch out a deformed existence, among the ruins.

Along the Gulf, big families and low-wage jobs keep people in a stagnant, perpetual state of poverty even in this so-called boom town. The mother works all day in a beer garden, and when she comes home there are no chicken nuggets to pop in the microwave. Feeding the kids means catching a bird in the yard and chopping its head off. The story opens with the mother, still in her bar maid uniform, holding a bloody, feathery mess,  surrounded by the writhing, flopping carcasses of half-dead chickens all around her. It’s hot, she’s tired and people at work have been talking- about her husband, and the crazy lady he’s been running around with. When the father finally comes home, later than he should have, with his shirt hanging out of his back pocket, it sets off a chemical chain reaction, that  engulfs them all.

Macho pride is, as always, a key ingredient in the recipe for destruction. His wife confronts him about his adultery, the kids within earshot, and his warped moral code holds that he must strike her to affirm his dominance and defend his honor, though it is he who has dishonored himself and the family. According to this chauvinistic world view, better he destroy the mother than humble himself and admit his fault. Better he destroy his children, by harming the mother, than suffer the indignity of being yelled at for his stupid and selfish crimes.  Later that night, the mother drives her car off a bridge and dies.

This is the classic fairy tale template. With the mother dead, and the father away at work, an “evil-stepmother” comes to take her place. She is a prostitute, or she was one at any rate, and she shuffles around the house in  curlers and a sweat stained blouse, carrying an overflowing ashtray of lipstick-smudged butts.  She makes the children work as slaves, punishing and humiliating them for minor transgressions. The little boy, from whose perspective the story is told, begs his father to make her leave. But she is the only one to take care of the kids while he is at work on the oil rig and he tells his son the kids must  look to her as their mother now. In a memorable image, he describes his heartsickness as the feeling of swarming mosquitoes, feeding on his heart, slowly draining it of blood.

Longing for a protector, the boy begins to project his fantasies of the perfect mother onto his fifth-grade teacher, a nun. She is nicer than the other sisters at school. She respects them as individuals, not as subjects in a petty kingdom. She picks up on the neglect and abuse the boy and his siblings are suffering and calls the step-mother, who tells the nun to sod off.  Finally, a social worker makes a visit to the house. The social worker falls under the step-mother’s seductive spell, and he fails to detect, or act on, the abusive situation in front of him.

When the boy becomes too ill to attend school, Sister walks  miles from her convent to his home, and back again, to bring him his books and lessons. This is one of many acts of heroism she performs. The father has placed a lucky charm, meant to ward off the evil spirits, according to Creole tradition, around the boy’s neck. When the nun finds this amulet, she is furious. She can’t abide this dangerous superstition. The boy needs a doctor, not a lucky charm, for God’s sake.  I thought it was so interesting and refreshing to see the nun defending  the role of science over superstition in this story. She is a grounded, reality-based figure with zero tolerance for nonsense. This passage was a wonderful reminder to me of the Catholic mission to care for the sick.

The boy, ever more in love with this surrogate mother, “built like a fire hydrant” with “silver thread” on her lip, notices a chink in her normally imperturbable edifice. It comes to light that her brother, an alcoholic, has killed a child from behind the wheel of his car. Sister misses days, then weeks of school. A newspaper article circulates around town, with the shocking news that Sister had helped her fugitive brother hide. The boy is understandably terrified of losing her, and when she returns, he asks her, desperately, if they are going to put her away. Much about her moral character is revealed when she says, with grave disgust, that the police aren’t interested in her, and that her brother will be spared, “Not because he is a sick man, but because the child he killed was Negro.”

When the Texas City port explosion occurs, and the father fails to come home, it is assumed he is one of the many workers killed, burned beyond recognition. The children are left alone, with the increasingly violent and unstable step-mother, and the children consider the possibility of killing her. In an echo of the explosion, they set fire to the room where she is passed out drunk.

The heroic nun, inhabiting a moral space outside the bounds of law, rushes in, again, to protect the children, doing what she feels she must do, and what she alone can do. She covers the kids’ criminal tracks, sweeping up the spent matches and putting the presiding sheriff in his place, wielding her moral saber, at great risk to herself, to protect the children from the arm of the law that would destroy them.

Such interesting timing that I picked up this story about this heroic nun, at the exact moment my blood is boiling over the recent religious/political battle over contraception in the Catholic Church. Every thing in my body and mind just revolts at the sight of powerful religious leaders passing laws, both doctrinal and legislative, that aim to control women’s sexuality and reproduction. It bothers me so deeply, that I’ve renounced, in my heart, the church which has been, in the past, a safe harbor for my wandering spirit. Seeing the religious leadership affirm such a controlling, paternalistic and anti-scientific position has resulted in my complete estrangement from this institution. The idea that a cloistered, closeted, celibate bishop, or even worse, a political candidate, would somehow be in a position to proclaim the purpose of sex to me and other women of childbearing age should be laughably absurd on the face of it, were it not for the very real power these men wield over the lives of millions, or should I say, billions.

But this story reminds me, in my disillusionment, to look for the agents of mercy, working behind the scenes of the official, corrupt, gold-encrusted edifice of the church;  the selfless many who work, under the radar, with the world as it is, on the front lines, and not in some la-la land divorced from reality atop a ludicrous throne. I’d like to think that even in a Catholic run hospital, there are those who would defy official doctrine, to provide the poor, whom they are bound to serve, with the means to take control of their own reproduction, in situations in which very little else may be under their control. I’ll try to hold on to the vision of this sister warrior, as a counterpoint to the recent, grotesque display of male dominance in our religious and political power houses. Amen.

A Few of My Favorite Picture Books

Maurice Sendak, that lovable curmudgeon,  tells us in an interview with Stephen Colbert that most children’s books are, “abysmal.” It is a scathing assessment, but not an unwarranted one. He tips his hat to Dr.Seuss and to the Curious George books, but beyond that has nothing good to say about the state of children’s literature.  There are times I find myself in agreement with this bleak view.   However, as we all know from our diligent reading of modern parenting books, positive reinforcement works best in eliciting good behavior. In that spirit of positivity I’ve compiled a list of what I think are some of the best children’s books that stand up to repeated readings and the test of time. They offer, I think, a great example of what books for young children can accomplish.
Over in the Ocean In a Coral Reef by Marianne Berkes with illustrations by Jeanette Canyon is one of the most remarkable books in our entire collection. Written in verse and sung to the tune of Over in the Meadow, this is a book to hook the young reader into text.   Nothing captures the attention of young children like music, especially singing, by a teacher, caregiver or parent.  No wonder nursery rhymes have persisted through the generations. Long before brain imaging could pinpoint the specific neural pathways music blazes in our brains, mothers sang to their children to transmit the structure and pattern of language. Children’s books which utilize this basic, ancient learning mechanism do the budding reader a great service.
What distinguishes Over in the Ocean, in addition to the catchy rhyming verse, is the phenomenal artwork. Polymer clay, in the hands of artist Jeannette Canyon, conveys texture, color and shape in ways that no other material can.  Water is rendered in swirling, bubbling patterns of green and blue. Ms. Canyon uses a food processor to create the rocky, pebbly surface of the coral reef.  Other pieces are pressed using shells, creating interesting, realistic textures. A giant mother octopus sprawls across the page, revealing hundreds of intricately shaded and patterned suction cups. Her offspring squirts a cloud of jet black ink. All in polymer clay!
This book is the product of meticulous effort, and close observation of marine life. The reader gets a lesson in science, language and (very early) math. There are several more titles, by this author/illustrator team and others in this excellent series by Dawn Publications, a terrific resource for nature based books including the environmental education classic, Sharing Nature with Children, by Joseph Cornell.

I’ll Teach My Dog 100 Words, by Michael Firth is a perfect book for teaching reading. The book is filled with short phrases and accompanying illustrations by Go Dog Go! author/illustrator P.D. Eastman. The illustrations aid the beginning reader, helping bridge the gap between struggle and success. The narrator issues short commands to his (adorable) doggie, such as, “Cut the grass! Comb your hair! Wag your tail and shake a leg!”  The dog demonstrates each command, assisting the young reader and giving a boost of confidence.  I remember seeing a big leap in my son’s reading fluency with this book. If  I had the power to do so, I would put a copy of this book in every preschool and  kindergarten classroom in the country. This is the kind of book a child could pick up on their own and teach themselves to read. Originally published in 1973, I’ll Teach My Dog 100 Words has appeared more recently as a board book in a slightly shortened format.  Nearly every title in the  Bright and Early  series is top notch, but this one stands out as a particularly good.

Maybe You Should Fly a Jet! Maybe You Should Be a Vet! by Theo. LeSieg, the sometime pen name of Theodore Geisel, AKA Dr.Seuss is an awesome early reader. The Seussian words and phrases combined with winning illustrations by Michael Smollin match up clearly and succinctly, giving beginning readers enough clues so that they can grasp the words with ease. Even more importantly, the book lists a ton of fun jobs kids might want to pursue someday. “Would you like to be an actor? Would you like to run a tractor? Like to drive a taxicab? Or run a big computer lab?” I’ve read this book aloud in classrooms and kids get really excited thinking about different jobs they would like to do. They all want to do everything.

He Bear, She Bear
, by Stan and Jan Berenstain shares the same concept. “You could be a doctor, make folks well. Teach kids how to add and spell.” Little bears might, “fix a clock, paint a door, build a house, have a store.” These are useful words that convey lots of meaning. Concrete actions and words help children make sense of reading and their world.  The non-sexist tone of the story encourages all kinds of active careers for boys and girls and it holds up very well to this day, almost 40 years after publication.
Each of these books makes use of children’s natural affinity for rhythm and rhyme.  I notice that many newly published children’s books abandon structured, rhyming prose and take a more free-form approach to language. It’s the equivalent of tossing the kid in the deep end of the pool and hoping for the best.  In terms of the concepts and ideas in many recent books, the abstract takes precedence over the concrete and specific.  Rather than focus our attention on experiences to which children can relate and aspire, newer, trendier books try to impress us with the cleverness of the author. Often the book is laden with odd jokes aimed over the heads of the kids at the parents. The sniggering collusion between author and parent is not the highest ideal to which children’s literature should aim. It ought to be about helping children understand themselves, their world, and above all words, which are the key to unlocking a lifetime of learning. It is hard to believe that many new books for children have no words. For that unfortunate trend, appropriately, I have no words.