Saturday, May 23, 2015

Not Your Average Backyard Shed

Outdoor living spaces usually encompass patios, kitchens, and lawns. But sheds?

The backyard shed is becoming more of an extended house and personal living space with the innovation of companies like Backyard Mama and Studio Shed. The phenemonon is featured in a great piece from Melissa Kossler Dutton where "Shed-sational spaces [are] ... outdoor buildings that go beyond storing tools to extending your home's options."

People looking to get more use out of their backyards are building or converting sheds for a variety of purposes. There are backyard pubs. "She sheds," when they're built by women. Home offices. Art or yoga studios. TV roomsStudio Shed in Louisville sells prefabricated structures to people who want more living space or to enhance their backyard, said Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski, the company's creative director. The buildings, which range in price from $7,500 to $20,000, offer flexibility and are less expensive than adding a room to the house, he said.
Jennifer and Eric Antonow added a shed to their Palo Alto, Calif., property because they can't afford a bigger house.

Friday, May 22, 2015

PARCC Needs to Drop the Second "C"

So, we all know that  "PARCC" - which recently voted to shorten its tests in time and limit it to only one testing window each year - stands for the "Partnership for Assessing Readiness for College & Career." And, that second "C" is really the problem. For, these tests, which along with the SmarterBalanced (buttery spread) program, are supposed to test readiness for college and career ... for students in grades 3 through 11. And, there is no logical way to argue that a standardized test that is basically bubbling in answers for math and reading passages (despite claims it's not a bubble test , or is better than previous bubble tests) can accurately predict and assess "readiness" for "careers." The reality is these tests are completely focused on narrow academic pursuits. They may assess readiness for university study in the same way the ACT and SAT do. But, these tests do not assess "readiness" for countless careers. From retail sales to cosmetology to skilled labor to contracting to culinary arts and other service industry professions, the reading of passages and explaining how to "solve for y" is not an valid measurement of "readiness."

So, drop the second "C," PARCC.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Don't Make Education Reform about Wages for College Degree Holders

It's not news that education reformers from Bill Gates to Arne Duncan are committed to sending more kids to college and producing more bachelor degree holders. A more educated population is never a bad idea, so this plan is tough to criticize. However, the problem is we're asking the wrong question and posing the wrong solution. In a recent report from the Pew Research Center, the findings focus on key reasons to go to college. But the data shows this is a wage issue at heart - an issue that didn't exist when the middle class was built in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. Pursuing college degrees simply for higher wages is not sound policy. And assuming that more college degree holders will improve quality of life and strength of the economy is flawed as well.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Novels that Reflect the 2000s

A history teacher at my school was recently looking for a book that "defines or represents the 2000s" the way that Gatsby does the 1920s.  In thinking about it, I considered a few that have been considered indicative of the times.  Notably the work of Jonathan Franzen has "bookended" the decade with The Corrections in 2000 and Freedom on 2012.  He would probably be the one most often credited with capturing the decade.

We could also mention the work of Tom Wolfe who captured the 1980s with Bonfire of the Vanities, 1990s with A Man in Full, and the 2000s with I am Charlotte Simmons in 2006 andBack to Blood in 2012.  Back to Blood is about immigration and Charlotte is about a college freshman whose eyes are opened by her experience at a college and world far more liberal than she.

From my own view, I think TC Boyle is a great contemporary writer, but I don't know if he captures the 2000s exactly.  One interesting work recently is a satire by Jess Walter called The Financial Lives of Poets, published in 2010.  It is considered to be the first book written about the effects of the crash of 2008.  And, of course, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the first to directly take on the 9/11 tragedy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Life as Metaphor

In an insightful column, New York Times, columnist David Brooks examines the significance of metaphor in our daily lives. As an English teacher, I couldn't agree more with his argument that "metaphors are central to our thought life." Our conscious understanding of the world is profoundly impacted by the way we use metaphor to understand the world. It molds our philosophy and perspective in life, and it impacts the way we live and work and play and vote and relate to each other. No one understands this better than George Lakoff whose book "Don't Think of an Elephant" has been a call to action for Democrats to take control of campaigns through the language they use. In many ways, it's about the metaphors.

Each year, I begin my AP Language and Composition class with a discussion of how they are expected to become "people on whom nothing is lost." Part of that task is understanding how people - including parents, teacher, marketers, and politicians - will always seek to manipulate others through language. Metaphor is one of the most effective ways to do this, and the example I use is the contrasting terms "estate tax" and "death tax." Both terms describe the taxes that are levied against inherited property. Long ago, the GOP under Newt Gingrich realized they could sway public opinion against the tax by shifting terminology from "estate" which the common associated with rich people to "death" which people associated with all people. A telling poll from 2004 revealed that 75% of Americans supported the "estate tax" whereas 75% of Americans opposed the "death tax." Clearly, words matter.

Often the language and metaphors we use to perceive a situation are quite separate from the reality of the issue. And when people are often given more direct information outside of the metaphors they have long used to perceive an issue, they feel enlightened and will even change their minds. As teachers, thus, the ability to understand the way metaphor functions in our perception of the world is perhaps one of the most important tasks we have as English teachers. It's not just about a great story or a grammar rule. The teaching of English must center on the use of language.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Kevin Liu Named 2015 Raytheon MATHCOUNTS National Champion

The best and brightest young American math minds met in Boston today for the Raytheon National MATHCounts competition.  While the mainstream media managed to completely ignore this incredible competition, there was coverage by the PR Newswire.

Kevin Liu, a 14-year-old eighth grader from Carmel Middle School in Carmel, Indiana, has earned the title of 2015 Raytheon MATHCOUNTS® National Champion after an intense, elite competition at the Sheraton Boston Hotel. This is the seventh year Raytheon (NYSE:  RTN) has served as the event's title sponsor, as part of a decade-long commitment to MATHCOUNTS and a larger effort to promote education in science, technology, engineering and math.
Liu won the final round of the 2015 Raytheon MATHCOUNTS National Competition by answering the question: "How many arithmetic progressions of six increasing terms include the terms 15 and 20?" He gave the correct answer, 15, in 17.9 seconds. As National Champion, Liu is the recipient of the $20,000 Donald G. Weinert College Scholarship and a trip to U.S. Space Camp.
It was an amazing display of lightening-quick mathematical problem solving, and it is the pinnacle of years of dedication for young men and women who commit to the study of math for the sheer love of computation and competition. For a country that is supposedly committed to improving academic achievement, especially in the area of STEM, it would be nice for a little more attention to the prowess of these young mathletes.  Sadly, the country - and media - are still strangely enamored of the Scripps National Spelling Bee while ignoring people with highly coveted math skills. The 2015 Championship for Kevin isn't online, but here's a look at the 2012 Finals:

Monday, May 4, 2015

Reading Makes Us Better

Of course, as English teachers we would love for all of our students to become "life-long lovers of reading."  In a perfect world, everyone would become as lost as we do in the pages of great fiction.  Yet, at this point we are kidding ourselves if we think that is a remote possibility.  Some people simply do not connect with reading novels the way others do.  However, in this STEM-oriented world of education reform, an argument must be made for the reading of literature; and there is a clear argument that "Reading Novels Makes Us Better Thinkers."

A group of Canadian scholars and researchers is supporting the cause of fiction by arguing that readers of fiction are more comfortable with ambiguity and less stressed about a need for closure.  Both these qualities pave the way for easier higher level thinking.  In fact, the "need for cognitive closure" creates less than optimum levels of of information process which in turn causes "decreased creativity and rationality."

Just what embattled English teachers need to hear.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Burke's Parlor Metaphor, and being "People on Whom Nothing is Lost"

As my students prepare for the AP Lang & Comp exam, here are some thoughts:

Like many teachers - especially English teachers - I do far more than teach my content. So much of my class, my students like to claim, is "not about English, but about life." Some people call that character education, others may call it shameless digressions into whatever I want to talk about. Either way, there is a method - and purpose to my madness - and it was best encapsulated by two great American writers and thinkers. Henry James once wrote about the need for a writer to be "a person on whom nothing is lost." That is a mantra in my classroom - especially AP Language and Composition where the ability to write open arguments is one of the class's raison d'etre. Basically, I am looking to guide and craft well-informed and astute young men and women who think a lot about a great deal of things ... and know what they "think about what they think." This is the essence of what Kenneth Burke in his Philosophy of the Literary From described in what has become known as "the parlor metaphor."

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

I was introduced to this via the College Board and former chief reader David Jolliffe who included the metaphor in publications for the yearly conferences. Jolliffe developed his ideas astutely in the helpful textbook Everyday Use.  The idea has been so helpful in getting my mind around AP Language because it perfectly encapsulates the Lang exam. There is, truly, a "discussion" going on in the pages in front of the students, and they must be able to "put in their oar" and then gracefully bow out. Of course, beyond the Lang exam, don't we always want our students to be well informed? Especially now, in a world saturated with content, isn't it appropriate for the education system to create "people on whom nothing is lost."

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Problem with "Studying" the Humanities

So, my students are getting ready for the AP Lang & Comp exam, and that reminded me of a piece of commentary on the problem with "studying literature." Certainly, Shakespeare and Dickens and Fitzgerald  and Steinbeck and Updike and Delillo and others did not create masterpieces of literature and great narratives so teenagers and college students would be "forced" to read them and answer mind-numbing questions of analysis. Yet, that's what the study of literature can actually do to the great works. It's a complaint of my students that I can certainly understand, and it can give me pause when I think about what I ask students to do. Lee Seigel asks a similar question is his piece "Who Ruined the Humanities" in the Saturday review section of the Wall Street Journal.  

Here's a sample of the kind absurdity in the study of humanities that he challenges:

Question: "Compare Homer's prolepsis to Shakespeare's ghosts and to Dante's premonitions, then contrast these with Ibsen's reversals, Chekhov's irresolution, and Kafka's absurdity in light of omniscient narrators in Jane Austen, narrative delay in Henry James, and free indirect speech in James Joyce." [time limit: one hour]


Sunday, April 26, 2015

13 Reasons to read Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Thirty Reasons Why, the New York Times bestseller and young adult novel by Jay Asher, uniquely addresses the issue of teen suicide through a suspenseful story of a young man who receives a mysterious set of tapes following the death of a classmate. Clay Jensen listens to the tapes to discover the voice of Hannah Baker, a girl he knew from school who had passed away. Hannah begins to narrate the story of her downward spiral into a state of depression and ultimately suicide. However, there is a twist. Hannah is exposing the story and the thirteen people who in some way "played a role" in her demise. This revelation shocks Clay - and of course the reader - and propels the action of the novel. Thirteen Reasons Why is an infinitely readable young adult novel that takes on the issue of suicide in a meaningful way.

Thirteen Reasons Why has resonated with both teen and adult readers because:

  1. The issue of teen suicide - and the social pressures that can often instigate it - is as prominent as ever, and one of the best ways to treat the issue is to initiate difficult conversations about the topic.
  2. Jay Asher writes with a readable and believable teen voice that engages the issue of teen angst and the confusion that both leads to and follows the suicide of a young person.
  3. The book is being made into a movie starring Selena Gomez
  4. The novel is written in a unique format with basically two narrators - the actual one and the girl on the tape whose story is being told.
  5. The suspenseful nature of the story - notably the reasons for Hannah's action, the gradual revealing of people and their roles, and Clay's unease over "his role - drive the story forward in a way that's difficult to put down.
  6. It doesn't descend (too much) into cliches about teen life - or teen voices
  7. There are layers of meaning and events that culminate in Hannah's death - a structure that lends understanding to the hardest thing to understand.
  8. It's not a flawless novel, and there is plenty to criticize as you discuss the novel.
  9. It doesn't trivialize its subject as far too many books and movies can.
  10. It's a heck of an achievement for a first novel.
  11. It's thoughtful without being preachy or pretentious
  12. I kind of wish I'd written it - and you probably will, too.
  13. Many of your students have read or are reading it, and you should, too.

And for a couple of other well written young adult novels that deal impressively with tough situations and do so in a voice and style that can even engage adults, you will definitely want to read:

The Fault in Our Stars - John Green

The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky

It's Kind of a Funny Thing - Ned Vizinni

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Affluenza in the English Classroom

"Through tatter'd clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr'd gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it."
Teachers of AP Lang & Comp certainly recognize this tidbit of wisdom from King Lear which appeared as an argumentative prompt years ago. The disparity between "wealth and justice" is a topic ripe for criticism, and it forms the heart of many literary works. It is significant in one of the great American novels, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.  The essence of the theme and conflict is the misguided belief that money can buy anything, even the past. In the novel, Daisy basically gets away with murder because of her wealth, and Fitzgerald reminds us that the Buchanans and wealthy elite are "were careless people, Tom and Daisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money of their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."
These days, that gap between wealth and justice is getting attention again with the story of Ethan Couch, a teenager who killed four people in a drunk driving accident, yet was inexplicably released from jail time after his high priced attorneys successfully argued the "Affluenza Defense." If there is anyone who "smashed things up," it's Ethan Couch, who was driving drunk at nearly three times the legal limit when he slammed into a group of people who were stopped by the side f the road. After his high priced attorney successfully argued that he needed rehabilitation, rather than jail time, and that he couldn't be held responsible because his privilege had shielded him from any responsibility in life. In essence, Couch's parents spoiled him so terribly that he never learned consequences for his actions and shouldn't be held accountable.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Scholarly Study of John Grisham

As an English teacher, I like to tell my students there are great writers and there are great storytellers. The work of a great writer will generally be considered literature and is worthy of study in the classroom. It's writing that matters, and it has more to it than character, setting, plot, and theme. There is generally a sophistication to the language and structure and layers of depth to the meaning. The work of a great storyteller may be immensely popular, and it will sell widely while engaging its audience. But it may never be worthy of study, it won't stick around for long, and it ultimately doesn't really matter. In this way I tell my students that Dickens and Austen and Fitzgerald and Salinger and Updike and even Franzen are great writers producing literature, while King and Clancy and Crichton and Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer are popular storytellers. In fact, I wrote more extensively years ago about the conundrum of the quality of Stephanie Meyer's writing.

So, what to do with John Grisham?

Clearly, John Grisham is a hugely popular writer of thrillers and crime fiction, and he would be the first to concede he is not a writer of great literature. Writing is a business for him, and he writes engaging stories to make money - and he makes lots of it. Grisham has been known to pull in $25-$30 million a year, and his net worth is approaching a quarter of a billion dollars. However, I once read an essay in a study of popular culture that identified John Grisham is the "Dickens of our time," for the richness of his characters and the portrayal of unique sub-strata of society. That certainly challenges the conventional wisdom of the time. However, there may be something to an elevated status for popular writers like Grisham, and that is the focus of John Grisham: A Critical Companion. The book is one in a series about popular fiction edited by Kathleen Gregory Klein of Southern Connecticut State University. Each book in the series begins with a biographical sketch, and then assembles a series of critical essays about the author and body of work. The Grisham series, written by Mary Beth Pringle of Wright State University just might convince you to re-evaluate the complexity and worthiness of John Grisham's work.

Certainly, if you are an English teacher who assigns research projects, you might want to check out the Critical Companion series from Greenwood Press.