Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book Review and Thinking About Teaching 'The Thing Around Your Neck' by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Our 9th grade team's search for a 9th grade world literature novel by a woman was a tough one, filled with many great writers who didn't quite match what we were looking for, namely, something that wasn't too depressing (sorry, Edwidge), long (my apologies, Isabel and Arundhati), "adult" (Jamaica, your awesome Lucy has too many sex scenes), or  dull (and your Annie John is too slow).

We eventually decided on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of short stories dealing with cultural conflicts and differing perspectives, just like we wanted from whichever text we chose to teach. I was happy this weekend during my first draft reading to discover it was a quick read and quite a page-turner; I read the first story at around 11 p.m. on Friday and had it finished by Saturday night at that time (and somehow squeezed in a hike over Sugarloaf Mountain, dinner out, and a baseball game in there as well). I don't know if I've finished a 223-page book in a 24-hour time span before.

Overall, it's a good read, replete with several of the same themes that she developed further in Americanah (a book I taught last year to Seniors and will do so again this upcoming spring). Indeed, I thought several of the stories would feel better as novels, particularly the collection's last one. However, of the dozen stories here, most will be strong reads for 9th graders, and get them thinking about the wider world. I'm also looking forward to teaching a collection of short stories, which will feel different than teaching a novel. I've actually never done it before, but am doing it twice this year (the other being Tim Winton's The Turning). In both cases, we likely won't teach every short story (in particular, "Imitation" and "On Monday of Last Week" from this collection are both a bit "adult"), but being able to study several small works of one writer should lead to synthesis of ideas across stories, something we hope happens across the year but a collection like this allows us to do it in smaller scale.

I'm set to write the unit in a few days, but we've sketched out the major assessments and focuses: basically, students will be linking the theme of any two stories together in an essay. We'll do plenty of other things as well, examining perspective and certainly watching Adichie's The Danger of the Single Story TED Talk.

Here are my 1st draft reading and summaries of the dozen stories:

"Cell One": The 1st person narrator's brother is the real star of "Cell One"; it is his journey this story depicts as he awakens from his petty crime and playboy lifestyle after spending a few weeks, unjustly, in jail, where he sees an old man getting beat. I'm guessing this one takes place in the late 1990s, during the Abacha regime, but I definitely need to do some more research on this. I thought the story was a good one, interesting for its backdrop of sibling rivalry but also for the growth of the brother after witnessing the injustice. Kids will like it.

"Imitation": This one is 3rd person limited point of view, and the protagonist, Nkem, is a woman whose rich and probably philandering Nigerian husband spends most of his time back home in Nigeria, while she and the kids live in the U.S. and she's basically a suburban soccer mom. The story critiques the patriarchal culture of Nigeria, one that Nkem was on the other end of when she had affairs with rich married men when she was younger, but now it is really bothering her. I loved this story, but is brief mention of oral sex ("in the early years, she would shower with him, sink down to her knees and take him in her mouth, excited by him and the steam enclosing them") and the symbolic non-waxing of her private regions probably put it a little in the inappropriate zone for direct instruction to 9th graders. But I loved wondering about the symbolic masks (the title refers to one) and would love to talk about this one more. Lots of interesting things happening.

"A Private Experience": A great story (though admittedly a little heavy-handed) that I'll have to do some research about to figure out what was going on in Nigeria at this time. Its protagonist (it's another 3rd person limited narration) is a woman, Chika, an Igbo Christian who finds herself saved by a Muslim woman who helps her hide out in a tiny store while Christian-Muslim riots break out outside. The aftermath is described here: "Later, when Chika and her aunt go searching throughout Kano, a policeman in the front seat of her aunt's air-conditioned car, she will see other bodies, many burned, lying lengthwise along the sides of the street, as though someone carefully pushed them there, straightening them. She will look at only one of the corpses, naked stiff, facedown, and it will strike her that she cannot tell if the partially burned man is Igbo or Hausa, Christian or Muslim, from looking at that charred flesh. She will listen to BBC radio and hear the accounts of the deaths and the riots -- 'religious with undertones of ethnic tension' the voice will say. And she will fling the radio to the wall and a fierce red rage will run through her at how it has all been packaged and sanitized and made to fit into so few words, all these bodies..." I loved this story; Adichie does some interesting things with structure, and I found the characters compellingly drawn and moving. It seems like Adichie is documenting these conflicts, but will definitely have to do some research.

"Ghosts": This 1st person story features a retired university professor who sees a man he thinks had died 37 years before in the Nigerian Civil War. This is a good story for students, as the flashback gives some background to Nigeria during the 1967-1970 conflict and the storyline happening in 2007 offers some interesting cultural tidbits, too ("I wonder what would have happened if we had won the war back in 1967. Perhaps we would not be looking overseas for those opportunities, and I would not need to worry about our grandson who does not speak Igbo, who, the last time he visited, did not understand why he was expected to say 'Good Afternoon' to strangers, because in his world one has to justify simply courtesies.").

"On Monday of Last Week": This one takes place in the U.S. again, and is about woman who immigrates to be with her husband, who had moved to America several years before she did. It details differing reactions to immigration, but the most interesting thing here is Kamara's (it's a 3rd person limited point of view again) attraction to and even obsession with the mother of the mixed-race child who she cares for. She has sensual fantasies (not graphic) about the mother, and that helps break her out of her immigrant depression or funk she is in. Then, a twist at the end of the story ends that. Interesting portrait of a helicoptering father fulfilling many liberal white stereotypes. Not sure if I can use this one with 9th graders...

"Jumping Monkey Hill": Certainly one of the centerpieces of the collection, because it feels so meta and autobiographical. It portrays an African Writers retreat, run by a patriarchal guy, who dismisses the protagonist's story as "agenda writing, it isn't a real story of real people". She confronts him, telling him the story is almost completely autobiographical. I think this will be a really great one to teach, as we get out the map and look at the different African countries Adichie is writing about (many countries have authors represent them). And looking at the story-within-the-story juxtaposed with the sexism of the retreat should make for some great discussions.

"The Thing Around Your Neck": What an interesting read this is. It's told in 2nd person, that rare point of view that is hardly ever used, and tells the story of a young woman who immigrates to the U.S. only to be molested by her uncle on the first night (I think it's the first night... have to double check). She runs away and becomes a waitress, and somehow falls into a relationship with a white college student. This one reminded me a lot of Ifemelu and her first boyfriend (Carl, I think?) in Americanah, with the well-meaning American boyfriend. This will be great with students; the symbolism of the title and the unusual point of view should offer lots of opportunities for analysis.

"The American Embassy": This one takes place back in Nigeria, during a time of political turmoil, when voices of journalists are being silenced by the government. I'll have to do some research on this one to understand the context more. The plot is sad but I loved the ending: the protagonist is a woman whose young son has been murdered accidentally by government troopers who stormed her house looking for her journalist husband. She is applying for asylum to the U.S., but ultimately is unwilling to describe her son's death in detail in order to get the asylum. This will be a great teach, an opportunity to look into what it means to get asylum and the sacrifices people are willing and unwilling to make.

"The Shivering": This one takes place at Princeton, and involves a Nigerian woman who befriends a gay Nigerian man. They find comfort in each other. It's a sweet story even though the protagonist, Ukamaka, is kind of a jerk most of the time. There's a moment when she says, "You don't know what it's like to be in love with an asshole" that flips the story, and I really loved it from that point on. I think the kids will like this one a lot.

"The Arrangers of Marriage": This one reminded me of Lahiri's immigrant short stories the most. A young Nigerian woman has her marriage arranged with the Nigerian doctor who has been living in the U.S. for a decade or so. There are a lot of interesting cultural discussion that will spring from this story, which involves the husband mostly rejecting his Nigerianism and the wife unwilling to do so. Lots of issues with patriarchy in this one too. Some issues with language (there's an American friend who curses all the time, but it's purposeful, to show her American-ness), but will still be a great teach.

"Tomorrow Is Too Far": One of my least favorites of the collection, it details the haunting secret of a brother's death years before. Some issues with patriarchy and such, but the jerk of a protagonist (and Adichie once again writing in the 2nd person, which feels like overkill) made me not like this one too much.

"The Headstrong Historian": Now this is the story most from the collection that I wish Adichie would turn into a novel. It really could hold the attention of a novel, too: it spans generations, opening in the late 1800s and moving a hundred years or so into the future. It's hard to describe and I definitely need to re-read this one a few times before I try to teach it, but it's about colonialism and missionaries and the dangers of relying too much on them for the education of your kids. It took me a few pages into the story to realize what a departure this was for Adichie -- historical fiction -- but it makes a lot of sense, since many of the other stories in the collection are a direct result of this colonialism we see documented here. I loved this one, how it plays with point of view some (there is a page or so written from the perspective of a colonizer, then it shifts right back to protagonist) and flashing decades into the future at the end. Cool story.

I'll probably post a few more blogs about teaching this work. We're set to begin it in mid-October, so lots of planning to do still. But I think it will prove to be a really intriguing book to teach.

My Case for Memorizing Poetry

One look at me in my sneakers, cargo pants, and athletic polo shirts I wear to school on a daily basis, and it's clear I'm not an old school teacher. I do everything I can to dispel the "sage on the stage" notion, pulling the curtain back on every teaching process that I can.  I don't ascribe to the notion that, to teach effectively, there needs to be much distance between teacher and student. This isn't very old school, I know, but it's gotten me by so far.

One old school thing I still do, however, is the memorization of poetry. Human beings have been memorizing poetry for thousands of years, back to the time of epic poets entertaining crowds and Athenian school children learning their culture through the memorization of them. In American education, recitation has been around since the late 1800s and, while some of the reasons (cultural capital, teaching grammar) have changed since then, I still feel like it's really valid: I truly believe that memorization of poetry helps understand how rhythm and tone create meaning. It helps us internalize the poem and a feel its power. The poem becomes a part of us when we can read it from heart.

I also think there are character and grit benefits from the memorization of poetry. As a progressive educator, I'm probably supposed to mostly resist the practice memorization; however, sometimes I think it can be really useful. In college, I excelled in classes like Psychology 101 and Biology 101 by creating and using flashcards based upon the reading and lecture notes. As an instructor of vocabulary, I believe that memorizing common Greek and Latin roots can help students break down unfamiliar words when they come across them; however, those roots won't help if they're not memorized. I still use goofy mnemonic devices to remember facts I learned in middle school that are occasionally useful for my life, such as classification systems for species (Kings Play Chess On Funny Glass Stairs... anyone else use that one?). 

However, this practice of memorization is not necessarily natural skill. It takes reading things over and over again. Writing it down until you get it. Testing yourself. Reciting the answers until you know you get it. These are important student skills not often taught and the memorization of the first three stanzas of "Annabel Lee" helps to develop these memorization skills. 

A couple of other articles about this practice are here: Should Students Be Memorizing Poetry? (Huffington Post); Why We Should Memorize (The New Yorker)

When I was a 9th grader, my English teacher, Ms. Feldt, had us all memorize the first three stanzas of "Annabel Lee", and I've been having students do the same. Not always that (wonderful) poem -- although I think Poe's line that poetry is "the rhythmic creation of beauty" makes it fitting -- but always something. I remember that 9th grade class 22 years ago and how proud I was having memorized the poem, and how all of our class felt closer having conquered the experience together. 

So, on this past Thursday, all of my 9th graders (or, all of them which met expectations) came into my class ready to read the first three stanzas of "Annabel Lee" by heart, standing in the middle of the room. A few decided to memorize more of it for more credit. And I used it as a reading assessment, one that reflected their analysis of the effects of the creator on the audience. The following is my adaptation of the MYP Language & Literature Rubric (Criteria A3) for this assignment:

Your performance of “Annabel Lee” is an assessment of how well you have analyzed the effect of the creator’s choices on the audience.

1-2: provided limited analysis of the effects of the creator’s choices on the audience. Student has not internalized poem at all. It is not memorized, or with little attention to tone or rhythm.

3-4: provided adequate analysis of the effects of the creator’s choices on the audience. Student has somewhat internalized the poem, in that they have it (at least mostly) memorized, but there is only adequate attention to tone or rhythm. (there may be uneeded pauses or uncertainty).

5-6: provided competent analysis of the effects of the creator’s choices on the audience. Student has internalized the poem, and there is competent attention to both the tone and rhythm of the poem and how these aspects create meaning.

7-8: provided insightful analysis of the effects of the creator’s choices on the audience. The reading thoughtfully and thoroughly shows the student’s internalization of the poem’s rhythm, tone, and cadence, and how these aspects all contribute to meaning of the poem.

Extra Credit Options:
Memorize more than the first 20 Lines at a 5 or above level of analysis.

Memorize 15-20 lines of another poem of Clifton’s or Poe’s at a level of 5 or above analysis.

It was a pretty great day of class.

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch fits my definition of mixed feelings. It is a terrific 600 page novel stretched across nearly 800 pages. It features really intriguing characters and a couple of characters who are amongst the most memorable I have ever encountered, but also characters who feel forced and underdeveloped. Its plot is full of intriguing mysteries and locations, but, by the time it was over, and the mystery and locations became more exotic, I was ready for the novel to come to its close. 
The novel begins in exciting and tragic fashion: an explosion at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, which kills the narrator's beloved mother. After the explosion, the narrator (Theodore Decker) is left with a famous masterpiece, a Dutch painting called The Goldfinch, and it tracks the narrator and the painting over the next 15 years or so.

Tartt does a really nice job with place. I've only been to NYC a handful of times and never been to Las Vegas, but, particularly with the latter city, I felt like I was there in that partially abandoned suburban sprawl; it was a “a toy town, dwindling out at desert’s edge, under menacing skies. Most of the houses looked as if they had never been lived in. Others — unfinished — had raw-edged windows without glass in them; they were covered with scaffolding and grayed with blown sand, with piles of concrete and yellowing construction material out front. The boarded-up windows gave them a blind, battered, uneven look as of faces beaten and bandaged.” Earlier and later, when Theodore, the grief-stricken teenager who hides it behind some drug use, is navigating different parts of NYC, I definitely was reminded of Holden Caulfield.

I loved a lot of this book: the narrator's voice was magnetic, his story intriguing and sympathetic. Female characters weren't really developed in the novel, but the ghost of the mother filtered through every page. Supporting characters, like Hobie and Boris, were memorable.

The story itself was really intriguing until the last couple of hundred pages. I felt a little disappointed once Tartt left behind many of the characters I had grown to love -- namely Hobie -- in favor of a globetrotting art thievery plot at the end that didn't wrap up all the endings as well as I would have wanted.

But Tartt makes up for it with the last dozen pages or so, when she tries to tie many of the book's themes together: the power of the transcendence of art, about the yearning for love and connection, about the power of what lies in the mind versus what is actually, literally there.

We had our Book Club conversation about it a couple of weeks ago, and reviews and feelings seemed to be as mixed as mine here. But I'll say this: I got a lot of joy out of this often thought-provoking and often very sad read. The portrait of a grieving teenager figuring things out while ping-ponging between homes and a problematic father was often very powerful. But I also think Tartt makes some missteps, particularly around the time (... minor spoiler ahead..) Boris re-enters the story in the last quarter.

Usually I will reserve my book reviews on this blog for books that I could imagine being used in a classroom, and I just can't imagine that with Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch: too long, to unwieldy, not enough payoff. But as a pleasure read, something with often great writing, intriguing characters, and thought-provoking themes, I think it was worth it. I'm interested in reading Tartt's other works. Someday someone will explain to me how this one won the Pulitzer, though.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Our 9th Grade Poetry Unit -- The Poetry of Baltimore: Lucille Clifton and Edgar Allan Poe (an Intense Focus on Two Poets Instead of a Grab-bag of Poems)

The teaching life has been busy, as it always is, but, this past week or so, more spinning plates are in the air. Blogging has been far down the list of priorities.

But I am pretty excited about the 9th grade unit we have just embarked on. For the last several years, my tackling of poetry in the 9th grade has been a grab-bag; for example, I'll throw in a set of five poems (Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath) about barriers while we study Fences. Or maybe I'll teach a few of my favorites ("Oranges" by Gary Soto; "The Girl Who Loved the Sky" by Anita Endrezze, "The Night of the Scorpion" by Nissim Ezekiel) if they seem to fit with a book we're doing. But a full sustained poetry unit? There just hasn't been time or the inclination.

But as the IB curriculum has changed for the older students -- I now am required to teach a whole unit on one poet during Part III of the curriculum, when previously that could be done in different parts of the curriculum while I did extra Shakespeare -- I have thought that this long sustained focus on one poet could be an important preparation unit for younger students.

So, this year, we have decided to hold a long and sustained focus on two poets, whose lone commonality is that they both wrote in Baltimore. Our unit -- The Poetry of Baltimore: Edgar Allan Poe and Lucille Clifton -- examines the work of these two great poets, one classical and one contemporary, and I'm excited by the intense focus of our unit on these two stylists.

The following is information from the handout to the kids:

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is one of the most famous American authors; he is one of the earliest practitioners of the short story and is credited with inventing the detective story. His first love, however, was poetry. Poe lived in Baltimore from around 1831 to 1835, first in a house in Fells Point, and then moving out to where it was safer in West Baltimore (it was then the countryside), in a little row house as the Poe House & Museum that still stands at 203 N. Amity. He also mysteriously died in Baltimore (found unconscious on Lombard Street, died in a then-hospital on Broadway Street), and is buried (along with his wife, mother in law, and grandparents) at Westminster Burial Grounds, located at 515 W. Fayette. Many years later, his most famous poem, “The Raven”, became the first poem ever to help name a sports franchise.

Lucille Clifton (1936-2010) lived in or around Baltimore from 1960 until her death a few years ago. Her first success as a local poet came in 1970 when she released her first book of poetry, Good Times, which was named by The New York Times as one of the year’s 10 Best Books. This led to Clifton being named poet-in-residence at Coppin State College from 1971-1974 and a career that saw the release of a dozen collections of acclaimed poetry, as well as a memoir and several children’s books. Ms. Clifton later was named Poet Laureate of Maryland (1979-1985) and served as Distinguished Professor of Humanities at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She has been honored with innumerable awards for her poetry, including the National Book Award (2000) and the Robert Frost Medal for Lifetime Achievement.

Of course, I'm offering some extra credit for students who do some scavenger hunting around the city for Poe sites, such as his grave, his house, and the place where he died. If anyone knows of any great Lucille Clifton sites, please let me know! (I discovered in my research that she was cremated, so no gravesite for her.)

We've divided the unit into five parts -- Figurative Devices, Language Devices, Imagery, Structure, and Sound -- and each of these five poetic elements are represented by both Poe and Clifton poems.

The poems and calendar we are doing are below. For the discussion, we are discussing other poems not listed or essays about poetry.

Introduce unit | Introduce Figurative Language

Examine figurative language in Poe’s “The Conqueror Worm”
Examine figurative language in Clifton’s “aunt jemima”, “white lady”, and “to my last period”
HW: Writing about figurative language
Touchstones Discussion Day
Pd. 7/8: Vocab 1&2 due

HW: “Annabel Lee” memorization
Examine Language in Poe’s “Annabel Lee”
Examine language in Clifton’s untitled cockroach poem, “blessing the boats”, and “libation”
HW: Language synthesis day
PD. 11: Vocab 1&2 due
Imagery in Poe’s “The Sleeper” and “Alone”

Day 1
Discussion Day;
“Annabel Lee” memorization checks
No School: PD
Imagery in Clfiton’s “miss rosie”, untitled celebrate poem, “photoagraph: a lynching”
HW: Imagery synthesis assignment
Examining Structure in Poe’s “The Raven”
October 1
Structure in “The Raven”

Structure in Clifton’s “mulberry fields” and “praise song”
HW: Writing on Structure
½ day for Parent/Teacher conferences (PSAT practice)
Sound in Poe’s “The Bells”
Sound in Clifton’s “this morning (for the girls of eastern high)”, “at the cemetery…” and untitle oh antic god poem
HW: Writing on Sound
Poetry Workshop: Writing a pastiche
Poetry Workshop: Writing a pastiche
Pastiche Due
Discussion Day | Hand out The Thing Around Your Neck
Day 1: Timed writing on unseen Poe or Clifton poem
Day 2: Timed writing on unseen Poe or Clifton poem
PSAT (all 9th, 10th, and 11th graders)
Independent Reading Assignment Due
PD Day: No School

Friday, September 5, 2014

Move Diary: August

Boyhood: I haven't been watching very many movies lately, with the start of the school year upon us. But I was lucky enough to make some time for Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which met my high expectations with its needling insistence that real life is dramatic enough to offer powerful
and thought-provoking entertainment. Shot, I'm sure you know, over the course of 12 years, it follows four actors (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater) in an engrossing coming-of-age story that never tries too hard; it just lets its characters exist and struggle and conquer. This is obviously a fictional movie, but because of the way it is shot over a dozen years, it feels like watching a documentary. There is no big climax or tragedy in the film, it just exists and moves. And I'm struggling here with describing it, because it felt like poetry to watch; it just got under my skin and, by the end, with so much emotion and love invested in the characters, small moments -- like a waiter thanking Patricia Arquette for words years earlier -- moved me to tears. The performances didn't feel like performances; after the film, Ethan Hawke felt like a friend; the lead kid actors' performances were so authentic they could have been my students. The film is called Boyhood, but all of its four main characters endure in ways like real people do, not overcoming insurmountable odds to have epiphanies or weathering terrible tragedies, but, rather, real people just living life. Linklater's direction is subtle and moving and powerful in its simplicity. I've seen a few really good movies this year -- Snowpiercer and Grand Budapest Hotel come to mind -- but this one's the best so far.

Non-Stop: I loved the preview for this one, and read a few good reviews, so I put it on top of my Neflix queue at some point (yes, I still am one of those who subscribes to the DVDs in the mail). The movie didn't disappoint. As the trailer describes, Liam Neeson is an air marshall who receives text messages saying someone on the plane will die every 20 minutes until he's wired $150 million to a private bank account. Turns out, the bank account is in Neeson's name and everyone now thinks he's the hijacker. We're kept on Liam's side for this, though, at times, we wonder if he's sane. Plenty of red herrings abound in this And Then There Were None on a plane, but a terrific supporting cast led by Julianna Moore (awesome, as always), Nate Parker, Corey Stoll (the bald Congressman on the 1st season of House of Cards) and even Lupita N'yongo (this was released after her Oscar win; I bet if the filmmakers had to do it again, they would have given her more lines). The film moves quickly enough where you don't notice too much just how silly it all is, and ends with a satisfying and exciting sequence that wrapped up all the plot threads nicely.

The Connections between Teachers and Police, and Similar Solutions

My dad was a police officer for 25 years, and still works in law enforcement. I love him and think he was great police (I'm using "police" as a noun without an article, just like they do on The Wire), one who cares about the people and the communities he's worked in (both Detroit and our small town in West Michigan), and I've always been thankful for law enforcement. In fact, growing up the son of police had a big impact in me going into a life of service in a public sector job. 

However, I recognize that my views on police come from a place of privilege, a sort of double privilege that comes from being a white guy and from being the son of a police officer. And, as the son of, plus the cousin of, the nephew of, former teacher and coach of, and friend of police officers, the current continuing embarrassment in Ferguson is heartbreaking, not only for the death of a young innocent man with his life in front of him, but also the blemish it's creating or perpetuating on an honorable profession. 

I've often seen a connection between educators and police officers: we both work in professions that serve our communities; we both live working class lives; we both rely on unions for fair protection from budget-crunching or numbers-posting cities and officials; we both work public jobs; we both face taxpayers who think they know what is best for our profession; we both become easy scapegoats when things go wrong. 

With this in mind, I just read this profile of Lupe Fiasco, a rap artist I've lost touch with over the last couple of years, but have really enjoyed his first three albums. In the profile, Lupe urges citizens to become police officers, and even offers direct links to how to become a police officer in Missouri.

I loved this sort of positive, long-term activism, and hope that some take heed.

Like in education, we need more good young people to become police officers, especially police officers in their own communities. Cities need more programs rewarding good cops working in urban districts (like the teacher contract in Baltimore City, which is allowing me to make more as a teacher than I ever thought I would, making thoughts of leaving non-existent -- why can't that happen for cops?). Cities need more program that encourage police to buy houses in the cities they work in and that inspire  police officers of color to join and stay on the force. 

In numbers released in 2012, fewer than 30% of Baltimore City police officers live in the city. I can't find current post-O'Malley percentage of African Americans in police force, but I'm sure it's under the population of the city itself. These are things that could be fixed with some tweaking of programs, and these programs should be incorporated nationwide. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Two Sides to the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

We've taught Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time for 9th grade summer reading for a number of years; almost invariably, students love the book. I've always enjoyed it as well; it's gimmicky, but Haddon does a nice job of flipping around a murder mystery to portray a pretty sad little family drama through the eyes of a very memorable narrator. Plus, I always felt like I learned something about Asperger's Syndrome after I read the book, about trouble reading emotions, about connection to animals

Because it's been summer reading, we haven't spent the normal amount of time setting up a book and discussing it as we go; often, it's a springboard for discussion and writing and we move on. Personally, I've always taken it for granted that Christopher had Asperger's Syndrome, and it wasn't until this time teaching it that I listened to his interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air that I discovered Haddon didn't do any research at all other than working with some developmentally disabled (not Aspergers) adults. And I discovered that there is much controversy in the autistic community about the novel; while Haddon never purported that Christopher had Aspergers, it is widely assumed that the character does, and the wildly popular novel is many people's only exposure to the condition. 

I don't think this diminishes the novel as a piece of literature, but it raises some questions that, this year, I wanted to investigate with students. As I've gotten along in my career, one of the things I've developed more and more is this goal of never putting the wool over my students' eyes. I'm not the "sage on the stage"; I have doubts and questions, just like I want them to. If there is controversy with this novel that they all mostly love (and I do, too), I want to discuss it.

This year, I've been especially pleased with a few supplementary non-fiction pieces I found that emerged as our first socratic seminar pieces.

First, we watched Temple Grandin's TED Talk, (h/t, friend and colleague Amber Phelps) 15 minutes of moving brilliance that is worth your time whether you're teaching the book or not. Seriously. Grandin is charismatic, specific, and insightful, and, speaking as someone with autism, we were able to compare her words and experiences with that of the fictional Christopher. 

Students watch Temple Grandin's TED talk.
Next, we read two opposing articles about the novel. The first is a positive review of the novel by a teenager with Asperger's Syndrome. The teenager, William Schofield, writes, "This book is a good murder mystery story but a better description of how the mind of a different person with some kind of special need looks upon how things work and come about." Schofield's convincing words are written in a voice not unlike Christopher's.

The other essay about the novel is Greg Olear's "When Popular Novels Perpetuate Negative Stereotypes: Mark Haddon, Asperger's, and Irresponsible Fiction". Olear, a father of a six-year old with Asperger's, describes the exaggerated symptoms of Christopher and the negative impact that the characterization -- similar to Dustin Hoffman's characterization of Raymond in Rain Man, since now every assumes people with autism can count spilled toothpicks in seconds -- has on members of the "aspies" community. Olear's essay is an interesting take on the novel, though the only real evidence he has that debunks Schofield's claims in his essay are reviews. Nor does he, at least for me, convince that Christopher (likable, heroic, wildly sympathetic) is a negative stereotype in any way. But Olear's take is definitely intriguing, and made me aware in ways I hadn't been before of the tenuous line that Haddon was trying to navigate -- basically, to write a novel about a character with a condition that he's not an expert about, and to try to get around this fact by never mentioning the condition. 

All of this led to several interesting questions: what responsibility do writers have in portrayal of conditions? Should Haddon have "stayed in his own lane" if his portrayal isn't 100% accurate? Or, perhaps most importantly, as one of my students asked, "Can any of us look at this book the same way after reading Olear's essay?" 

And, really, I don't think it's possible to. I don't agree with Olear's overall point that Christopher is a negative stereotype or that Haddon was a money-grubbing opportunist who is doing more harm to people with the condition than good. For me, Schofield's essay from the perspective of someone with Asperger's who identifies with the character is more powerful than of a protective parent. However, both voices are certainly valid, and listening to my 9th graders discuss them both, asking each other great questions ("How is Christopher a negative stereotype?", "What if someone tried to write a novel about someone with a serious terminal disease but doesn't do any research about the disease? Would that be right?"), it was a solid way to get them thinking about the book and the writing process really early in the school year.