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. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

World premiere of New Souls tonight at The Senator

When Robert Douglas was in my 9th and 11th grade classroom, and later living in my house when he was homeless his senior year on the way to a Incentive Awards full scholarship at the University of Maryland, I always told him he had an old soul. Now, he's made a movie called New Souls, a documentary about life in urban America. It comes on the heals of two books (Fertile Concrete and Fertile Concrete II), a career as an educator, and plenty of activism. The film is having its world premiere tonight at The Senator, before it makes its film festival circuit. I'll be there and you should be too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Review: King of Cuba

Cristina Garcia's King of Cuba was one of our summer reading selections for rising IB Seniors, chosen by the IB History of the Americas teacher and me based upon its description and reading the first few pages. I'd known Garcia from her great little novel Dreaming in Cuban, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992, so I figured the novel would have literary merit; the IB History of the Americas teacher thought the focus on Fidel Castro and Cuba would help emphasize parts of her course.

I read the book this summer, and, while I've got some mixed feelings about it as a work of great literature, I do think it was a successful summer reading choice for these rising seniors. King of Cuba has two protagonists: a fictionalized version of Fidel Castro, who is turning 89, is concerned about his legacy, and is disappointed that young Cubans don't appreciate his continuing revolution against capitalism. His bad health has led him to give up some of the day-to-day operations to his charisma-free brother, Fernando, who lets Castro's great triumph be staged as Bay of Pigs, The Musical!, among other indignities. The other octogenarian protagonist is Goyo Herrera, a Cuban exile living in Miami who longs for revenge against Castro for, in his view, destroying his country but, more importantly, stealing and destroying a woman he loved. Goyo, like Castro, lives in a state of despair; a recent widower and the father of a prying single daughter and a 60-something drug addict, out-of-work son, he longs to outlive Castro or, if things work out like he wants them to, to die as the man who assassinated the tyrant.

Despite the heavy subject manner, the book is mostly a short, light, funny read -- it maintains a zany, comical tone throughout. The humor is pretty broad, with an assortment of penis and age jokes. Indeed, there's much broadness here; Garcia hits us over the head with the fact that these men are foils for each other; they're both womanizing, cigar-loving, cranky old men raging at the dying of the light. Both encounter strange, foreshadowing characters named Vasquez. Both have flashbacks to past disappointments. Both have current familial disappointments. They are, as she says in the author interview in the back of the edition I read, "two sides of the same Cuban coin" (a fact she definitely did not want us to miss!)

Garcia's structure is interesting. Besides moving back and forth between both protagonists and settings, she intersperses footnotes written by random Cubans (baristas, bloggers, hoteliers) who interject their views into the setting and sort of satirize what's happening. I don't think this part of the novel worked; in such a short novel, I think it was a lazy choice to try to tell the story of all of Cuba without having to work the "small guys" into the plot, just throwing some of their thoughts in their like a half-baked Greek chorus. Sometimes it gets too "look at me, I'm a writer", particularly when she includes footnotes written by "Cristina Garcia, novelist". Ugh. The whole book is already irreverent; I don't think we needed the footnotes as well (will be interested to hear what students think  about these in discussions next week).

I have some mixed feelings about Garcia's language, which sometimes I think tries too hard and ends up reading purply (such as in the opening pages describing the beach setting). However, other times, she can really hit a zinger; in a conflict with some hunger striking dissidents in Havana, she has the Castro character tell them, "We must make our peace with dying. But remember this: you won't create a solar system in which I am not the sun. Even after I'm gone, the heat of my presence will be felt." Yes, she captures the braggadocio of a fading tyrant pitch perfectly at times.

The pacing of the novel is erratic, and I was disappointed some of the characters didn't get more development, particularly Goya's daughter Adeline. However, I loved the melodramatic and improbable, but thoroughly entertaining, ending, and will definitely be interested to hear what students have to say about it now that we are ready to discuss it starting tomorrow.

All in all, I thought this was a good read for our purposes: a rather easy read for the summer, with some attempts to do interesting things with structure and genre (is it historical fiction? No, it's set in 2015. But it's something.) that should provide some routes for analysis and comparison with the other summer reading text, James Baldwin's Going to Meet the Man (my review here).

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"

The first day of school is something I anticipate for months. I ponder over the best books to teach, the seating arrangements most conducive to forming a classroom community, the assessments that will best show how well my students have learned. The night before, I get everything ready: laying my clothes out, making my lunch, packing my bags. Invariably, I can't fall asleep, as the butterflies churn in my stomach. This year, I was awake until 2:30 a.m. on Sunday night.

Then, paradoxically, the first day ends up being both the most exciting day of the year and the most boring. It's exciting, of course, because you meet the young people who will be in your classroom for the next year, but it boring because it's the most teacher-centered day of the year. Ironically on "the first day for students", the kids are in the background; none are really given a chance to make an impression yet. It's lots of teacher talk, my least favorite part of teaching; I grow tired of hearing my voice by the end of the 2nd period, and I surely speak more today than I do any other day. Every year, I try to think of different ways to do it, but it never really works out: syllabi need to be reviewed, attendance needs to be called out, class policies and procedures need to be described. I'm thankful for an administrator who, early in my career, stressed that it's important to do something on the first day of school, and to assign homework, so I always do that, but there's not much time for a whole lot.

This year, with my seniors, I was really happy with how a brief lesson and discussion over Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day" turned out. The poem, pictured at left, is really a wonderful little piece, with the speaker pondering some existential questions and then observing a grasshopper, which she uses as a catalyst for some direct questioning of the audience, and, urgently, with a "seize the day" type of attitude, asks the reader, "Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?".

The students ate up the poem, picking up on its dismissal of conventional religion, the speaker's view about what true spirituality entails, and its concluding, compelling question. (I can't wait to do other Mary Oliver poems with these students, like the powerful "Wild Geese" and "The Journey").

But as the extension assignment, I've modified my annual "send an e-mail to me with a brief biography" assignment that I always give on the first day (I need to capture their e-mails plus get to know them a little), I'm having students answer for me, via e-mail, Oliver's question at the end. So, all night last night and then throughout the day today, I've been getting e-mails with the subject heading, "re: my wild and precious life" and getting these really wonderful little e-mails from students who want to be social activists or educators or doctors. I keep reading them and getting goosebumps. True, a handful of the responses are short, clipped, I-need-to-fulfill-this-guy's-assignment replies, but the majority are happy to answer a broad and personal question about what they want to do with their life (I told them they could answer it any way they wanted to), and I couldn't be happier with how it all has gone. Thanks for the assist, Mary Oliver.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

English Department Ice Bucket Challenge

Andrew, our colleague and friend, also a wonderful teacher of writing and theater, was diagnosed with ALS about a year ago, so today, with his blessing, we were proud to complete the ice bucket challenge as a department in order to raise some money for ALS research.

When we planned this about a week ago, we were afraid that it might go too viral by the time we got to school (today was our first day back), but this is a pretty special #icebucketchallenge; I can't accurately describe how moving it was to hear Andrew's words and be a part of it, so take a look. I promise it'll be one of the best #icebucketchallenges you see.

And please make a donation to the cause to help fund research for this :