Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Book Review: The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills


As long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by the life of Harper Lee, who wrote a book that inspired me and, through my numerous teachings of it, helped teach me how to teach. And then, of course, that was all from Ms. Lee -- no other books came forth after To Kill a Mockingbird, turning her into one of those fascinating celebrity figures who do great work and then disappear. Because I felt so drawn to her work and am so thankful for it, I've often wanted to visit her hometown of Monroeville, AL (the model for the fictional Maycomb) to see if I could catch a glimpse of her. 

Therefore, it felt natural to read this memoir written by a friend of hers, journalist Marja Mills, who lived next door to Nelle (Harper Lee's first name) and her sister Alice (a force in her own right, a lawyer who practiced until she was nearly 100 years old) for 18 months in the early 2000s. However, also as a fan, I had to weigh Harper Lee's objections to the book and decide whether my own longings to connect more with the woman behind this masterpiece outweighed them. I decided, as I did with Charles Shields' very good biography Mockingbird, that I would read it. I hate to be harsh, but remaining silent for 50 years means that others get to paint the picture of you, and I felt both Mills and Shields had the best intents in mind with their works. Harper Lee's objections to Mills' book seem like they are guided by others at this point, as it's clear from the memoir (and Alice Lee's words about it) that the sisters knew a book was being written. And I'm glad it was: Harper Lee will not live forever, and, in 100 or 200 years, when one of the great novels of the 20th century is still being studied, I hope there is a body of biographical work for scholars and students to draw from. At least Mills and Shields have attempted to create this sort of legacy. 

Now that I'm finished with Mills' book, I have mixed feelings about it all. Harper Lee seems like a regular old woman, getting her McDonald's coffee, feeding ducks at the park, hanging out with her other elderly friends. The portrayal of her made me want to call my Grandma. It's a respectful portrait, and I enjoyed much of it, although we don't learn that much about her. There are no grand revelations about why there was never a second book, no hints about why neither Nelle or her sister ever married or had romantic relationships. But, by the end of the book, I do feel like I know both of these women: the bristly, contradictory Nelle, her understated older sister Alice. 

The memoir is short, but lags in places, as Mills struggles to integrate Alice's long histories of families in the region with details about Harper's writing career. The anecdotes about feeding the ducks and fishing capture the drowsiness of life in Monroeville, but that doesn't always create vivid reading. An anecdote describing watching the film Capote, which featured Catherine Keener in the Harper Lee role, should have been a tentpole, an exciting and surreal experience shared with us as readers, but I just wasn't captured into the moment like I so wanted to be. I was, however, drawn into the history of the Lee family, especially enjoying the Atticus-like letters of A.C. Finch (the sisters'  father and basis for the character of Atticus Finch) and the backstory behind a fateful summer that saw the Lees lose both their mother and brother. The sisters hoped to set the record straight about their mother, after Truman Capote's accusation that she had tried to drown them as infants. 

I also, overall, liked the writer Marja Mills, who makes it clear she's not trying to write a hard-hitting biography but rather document a way of life in Monroeville, where "information about Nelle is currency." She is not a particularly gifted writer -- and this was a challenging book to write, I'm sure -- but comes off as a genuine and nice person who was trying to do the right thing. I loved her little touches of humor, such as wondering if she should put a sign in her car window (Please Be Careful, National Treasure On Board) on a road trip from Alabama to New York or, later, thinking during an outing, "I had one of those moments -- an 'Oh, my God, I'm in an exercise class with Harper Lee' moment..." That being said, she's often polite to a fault, not wanting to offend her prickly subject.

Harsh words about Capote are some of the strongest in the book. I loved what Mills does here, juxtaposing events in Mockingbird with things happening in Monroeville: "In To Kill a Mockingbird, streaks run in families. According to Aunt Alexandra, "Everybody in Maycomb, it seemed, had a Streak: a Drinking Streak, a Gambling Streak, a Mean Streak, a Funny Streak." In Truman's family, according tot Nelle, it was lying: 'They fled from the truth as Dracula from the cross,' she said." Later in the text, Nelle unequivocally calls Capote a "psychopath", in the clinical sense, and Alice Lee was said to have burned the memoir written by Capote's aunt, Marie Rudisill (the "Fruitcake Lady" on Jay Leno).

More sordid details about Lee's personal life, like the rumors that she dropped a 1980s true crime book after battling the bottle, are touched on, briefly, but not delved into. 

The memoir is also effective when it adopts an elegiac tone and connects anecdotes to Harper Lee's writing. After a night out at a Mexican restaurant and seeing Nelle's interest in a large table full of Indian families who run hotels, we get this reflection by Mills:
"It was impossible for me to watch Nelle's fascination with the subculture of Indian families running motels in modern-day Mockingbird country and not feel a pang, once again, for all the other writing she might have done. She admired their industriousness, especially at a time when she felt too many people born and raised in the area felt the world owed them a living. I couldn't help but envision a novel she could have written that included immigrants like those at the neighboring table, with Nelle's eye for detail and character, her empathy for outsiders, applied to the subculture of South Asians living in Southern Alabama."

The book ends with this same sort of elegaic tone, as Nelle, following a stroke in 2007 and a move into an assisted living facility, turns into "not the Nelle that I knew" and Alice, who, following her 100th birthday, has a bout with pneumonia that sent her into a separate assisted living facility. It's sad, but I did feel lucky to have spent so much time with them that I felt like I knew them -- as good as someone can know Harper Lee, who keeps everyone at arms' length. 

So, my feelings are mixed. I think this will be interesting, at least, to any fans of the novel who have interest in the woman behind it. There is nothing very groundbreaking here, and not nearly as much information as in Shields' earlier biography, but we do feel a part of the Lee sisters' world towards the sunset of their lives. I'm left, like Mills, even more wistful for Lee's unfinished career, wishing she would have stayed more in New York City and wrote, rather than being an unwilling tourist attraction in her hometown. 


Monday, July 21, 2014

A Baltimore Adventure: Seeing John Wilkes Booth's Grave (as well as that of about 65,000 others) at Greenmount Cemetery

One of my goals of this summer is to explore Baltimore in ways I haven't before, to see some of its nooks and crannies and learn my adopted hometown a little bit better. The Greenmount Cemetery is a part of the city that I've always been curious about; I drive by it all the time but have never been inside. I love history, especially presidential history, and visiting the final resting spot of America's greatest villain, John Wilkes Booth, had a morbid appeal to me. I also love incongruity, so the incongruity of this national historic site and an absolutely beautiful cemetery nestled amongst a pretty rough part of East Baltimore (North Avenue and Greenmount) is also something that drew me to it.

I pulled in one day last week, unplanned, after a trip to the gym. It is open from 9am to 4pm on weekdays, and this is what the front gate looks like:
Entrance gate of Greenmount Cemetery
A sign asks you to stop in at the office here. In both of my visits, I just told them I was doing some sightseeing, and they gave me a map of famous graves.
Greenmount Cemetery office
 The cemetery is beautiful. This is the view right upon entering the gates: the chapel and a bunch of coneflowers and black-eyed susans.

View of chapel.
July in Maryland: coneflowers and black-eyed susans.
My first bit of business was the most important for me: to see the John Wilkes Booth grave. I don't remember when I first became interested in Abraham Lincoln; it could have been writing to the President in the early 1980s and getting a book of all the Presidents sent back to me and reading a bit about the assassination. I've visited Ford Theater, read Manhunt, and in general been fascinated by this story for years.

This is the family plot for the Booth family. John Wilkes was a famous actor during his time and was the son of a famous actor, Junio Brutus Booth. Many in the family are buried here.
Junius Booth, Mary Ann Booth, John Wilkes Booth, Fredrick Booth, Elizabeth Booth, Mary Ann Booth, Henry Byron, Joseph Adrian Booth.
Visitors leave pennies on the Booth family obelisk. I love this tradition: sort of a "screw you" to Booth's villainous legacy.
This is an unmarked headstone on the family plot, about 8 feet from the obelisk. Some people think this unmarked headstone is John Wilkes Booth's, as evidenced by the pennies placed here, but the man in the office says this isn't case. A commenter on this site says this is "Asia's footstone".  This website has some lines about this as well: "Henry W. Mears, a young man at the time of Wilkes' burial, who became a Baltimore undertaker and occupied the building formerly used by Weaver, later recalled: "I saw the body of John Wilkes Booth lowered into the grave, and for many years had charge of the lot. While Edwin Booth was alive he evidenced a desire to beautify it, and sent for me to arrange the details. Each grave was discussed, but when that of John Wilkes Booth attracted his attention he turned to me and said, "Let it remain as it is -- unmarked." I guess the question is whether people think that "unmarked" means not having a headstone or means not having any writing on the headstone. 
The Booth family plot is in the Dogwood area of the cemetery. That's my blue Ford Escape in the background; I wanted to give a perspective to anyone who may be wanting to visit it how to get to it by car. The map is a little hard to read and there are over 65,000 people buried in this cemetery.
This is the view from around where my Ford Escape was parked. It's a beautiful cemetery.
On this side of the chapel is also a small pond with goldfish.
I wondered if this fox might help himself to a fish or two from that pond from time to time. Here he is keeping an eye on me as I explored the cemetery, before dipping into one of the holes by the side of the road. This was about 2pm in the afternoon in the middle of Baltimore City.
About 100 feet from Booth's grave is Johns Hopkins grave, in the Summit area near the chapel. Mr. Hopkins' gravesite is modest considering his place in Baltimore society today, just a flat slab of concrete buried next to his sister. People also place pennies on his grave, for reasons unknown.
I loved this epitaph on a grave near Hopkins': "Mary Elizabeth Garrett - Born March 5, 1854; Died April 3, 1915.  A women of quiet realized enthusiasms she served her day well and will be long remembered by those for whom she labored."
On my 2nd visit to the cemetery, I decided to find the inventor of the ouija board, Elijah Bond.  Interestingly, his grave is not listed on the Greenmount Cemetery map they hand you at the entrance, despite nearly 80 other graves mentioned. If you want to see it -- and it's interesting, with a model of an ouija board on the back of it -- it's near marked grave #45, on Central Avenue in the J section of the cemetery.

I love books so I wanted to see Enoch Pratt's grave. His is in section G off Central Avenue, and is rather rundown and ordinary compared to many memorials in this cemetery.
I love the landscaping in the cemetery. I think this is Roman Candle? 
It was a great place for a solemn jog.
Images like this abound in the cemetery.


I love this shot, juxtaposing the headstones with modern murals against East Baltimore row homes off Greenmount.
Another shot of the cemetery with the incongruent row houses behind it.

Beautiful scenery at Greenmount Cemetery. 
This is the marker for Hugh Sisson, but it's not this guy, who I thought it was at first because the name sounded familiar.
Overall, this is a great way to spend an hour or two in Baltimore, exploring a beautiful, quiet old cemetery with friendly staff and some real points of interest for history buffs... and free. Highly recommended.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi


At our school, finding a 9th grade novel by a world female author has been a challenge, so I read the article "New Wave of African Writers With an Internationalist Bent" in the New York Times with a special interest. I love the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and while Americanah worked really well my 12th graders last year, I don't want to overdo her; there are more voices than just hers. So when I read about Helen Oyeyemi (doesn't turn 30 until December 2014, born in Nigeria, but raised in Great Britain), and read descriptions of her novel Boy, Snow, Bird, I was definitely intrigued. Listen to this pull quote from New York Times Book Review: "gloriously unsettling... evoking Toni Morrison, Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Chris Abani, and even Emily Dickinson". Just the mention of Murakami and Morrison -- two of my top-5 writers -- were enough to make me want to read this novel.

The title refers to three of the characters: Boy (and she's a female) is the first narrator, Snow is her stepdaughter, and Bird is her biological daughter and the younger (half) sister of Snow. Boy and Bird trade off as narrators, but Snow is only viewed from their perspective; however, several of her long letters make it into the narrative as well. 

Boy (not a nickname, and there's a reason it's so unusual, although the payoff is slight) runs away from her abusive father at the age of 20 to a small Massachusetts town, where she befriends and later marries a widower, Arturo, who has a beautiful young daughter named Snow. It's not until Arturo and Boy's daughter is born brown-skinned that we realize that Arturo, and the rest of his family, are light-skinned African Americans who have been passing as white. This realization -- about a third of the way through the novel -- provides the novel its chief conflicts about identity, and lends the book its interesting discussions about race and motherhood that Oyeyemi is exploring.

Oyeyemi is using Snow White as a jumping off point here; we first meet Snow scampering outside a house in the woods, "looking like a friend to woodland creatures", and the conflicts she has with her stepmother (interesting choice to cast the likable and spunky narrator Boy in the "evil stepmother" role) regarding her younger sister Bird are similar to the stepmother/stepdaughter conflicts of that fairy tale. But Oyeyemi isn't trying to retell Snow White, just play around with our collective memory of it. When Arturo makes Boy a snake bracelet, Boy's friend asks, "I mean, could that scream 'wicked stepmother' any louder?" 

It would be a lot of fun for students (and, yes, this is appropriate for 9th graders and above) to trace and reflect on all the fairy tale elements, particularly the heavy mirror motif (all three title characters have issues with mirrors) and how that might showcase these women's issues with identity. More fairy tale elements are strewn throughout the book -- evil parents, cast-off sisters, talking spiders, a fairy godmother character -- and the whole thing is lively, funny, and entertaining as well. This was a joy to read and I plowed through the 320 pages in a couple of days. 

Though the novel is about race, but it didn't strike me as an issue-oriented novel as it could have been if Oyeyemi wanted to be more preachy. With the plumbing into our subconscious via the heavy allusions to Snow White, the author seems to be arguing that race is about perception, not biology or stereotypes. Set in the 1950s and 1960s, but in an idyllic suburb, the hints at the American Civil Rights such as Emmett Till are mentioned sparingly, and it's really about character -- characters that we grow to really like, despite their envy for each other, despite their lack of reflection. There are no easy cookie cutter themes here; there are no morals to be told. Even the question of what makes a good mother is hard to answer here.

So much, in fact, remains open-ended, that this was the largest fault I found with the novel. The ending is disappointing, with its lack of closure for the characters after a major plot twist. And I found Arturo's lack of conviction in keeping his daughter at home rather than letting her stepmother send her away (for 15 years!) to be incongruous with what the character had stood for before. 

Still, Oyeyemi's dry sense of humor throughout this novel and its non-preachy reflections on race and identity make this a great read, and would make a great book to teach. I can see students loving this book, much in the way students love Song of Solomon, another book that is wildly entertaining but also so allusive and complex that it deserves and rewards rigorous study. This novel doesn't match that one in language or in conclusion, but I saw some parallels with its subtle treatment of race in America and, of course, its use of fairy tale. 

A great read, one that I highly recommend and may try to work into curriculum one day. 





Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Day Pregnant with the Celestial Fire of the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, or, Alternately, Hearing a Lecture about the Rapey Vibe in Romeo and Juliet

I've been lucky enough to participate in some amazing experiences in professional development, but the two most amazing were through the sumer programs for teachers funded by the National Endowment of the Humanities, notably the 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute and the 2013 Steinbeck Institute. Both were multiple-week institutes focusing on scholarship and pedagogy, and both of them were amazing experiences in improving my classroom practice.

One of the great things about these institutes is that, so far, I have continued to stay connected with the other teachers involved. This fall, I'm going to be presenting about Steinbeck at the National Council Teachers of English conference with colleagues from my Steinbeck cohort, and about Shakespeare with colleagues from my TSI cohort. (November is going to be busy.)

With that being said, Teaching Shakespeare Institute 2014 is in full swing, directed by new Folger Institute Director of Education Peggy O'Brien, who I've thought was amazing since she blazed in to do a lecture with us in 2008 and with whom I've stayed connected over the years. I e-mailed her last week asking her if I could sit in on any of the 2014 sessions, and she agreed to have us (myself and another TSI alum) for a day this summer.

Amber Phelps (TSI 2012) and I took the MARC train down to DC yesterday, getting on the 7:20 train, grabbing breakfast at Union Station, and making the mile-or-so walk to the Folger Library, something we both did every day in our respective summers of attending (amazingly, this is the first summer since 2004 that there hasn't been a teacher from our department at the institute; Amy Sampson, formerly Rosoff, did it in 2006; myself in 2008; Tameka Taylor in 2010, and Amber in 2012). The institute selects teachers from all over the country for the 4-week institute dating back to first institute in 1984, so we are very lucky indeed to have so many of our faculty involved.

Back in 2008, our Education Director, Robert Young, spoke every morning about TSI as being "pregnant with celestial fire", a phrase from Antony and Cleopatra Thomas Grey's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (thanks to Mike Lomonico for the correction) that spoke of the energy that one feels with a group other passionate educators working on honing our craft. This summer, I wanted to feel a little bit of that again, if only from the outside, and learn a little bit more about Romeo and Juliet. The reason the Folger TSI works so well is that it's a mix of so many things that teachers don't usually get to do: hearing scholars, doing primary source research on your own, performance, and pedagogy specifically connected to subject. I know that, as an English teacher, I haven't heard any English professors or literature experts speak about literature since I was in college -- except at these institutes. Of course, we discuss books ourselves, but our lives are devoted to the teaching of it, not the hard work of analyzing it; since we ask our students to do it, we should be doing it ourselves as much as possible. We do, of course, but there's a rarity with which we listen to scholars who devote their lives to the study of literature, and there shouldn't be. During my experience in 2008, the three Shakespeare scholars -- Dr. Stephen Dickey of the University of California at Los Angeles, Dr. Jay Halio of the University of Delaware, and Dr. Margaret Mauer of Colgate University -- led our studies and discussions, with each day of the 4-week institute beginning with an hourlong lecture moving into a small-group discussion. I loved this part of the institute (as well as last summer's in Monterey at the Steinbeck Institute with world-renowned Steinbeck scholars), and teachers don't really get to experience this in their usual professional development.

Some of the scholars are different these days in the institute, but Stephen Dickey is still one of the lead scholars at TSI, and my colleague and friend Amber were lucky enough of to take the MARC train down from Baltimore and attend his lecture yesterday. The current focus of study at TSI is Romeo and Juliet, a play I have taught a dozen times and know well but I always want to learn new things and new ways of looking at it. The title of Stephen's lecture was innocuous enough: "Nightingales and Pomegranates: The Balcony Scenes", but it was anything but: he makes the case that Romeo's language is full of predatory allusions, and it's only at the end of the play where we realize Romeo's true intentions; the language of rape that is present until that point, especially during the two balcony scenes.

Dr. Dickey started off his lecture by asserting the familiar argument that Juliet is the hero of the story, but he argues that it's not just because of default, as most commonly asserted, but, rather, because she is the character who is almost always presented in confined spaces (her balcony, her room, her tomb), yet "challenges the world with the most vigor and the least help." He spends the rest of the lecture painting Romeo as a bit of a villain who uses the language of rape, suggesting that his motives are unclear until the very end of the play; his argument was that Shakespeare didn't want to portray Romeo as a rapist, but to have that possibility in our minds (and in Juliet's).  If Romeo is bedding Juliet, spilling her virginal blood along with Tybalt's lifeblood, isn't that the biggest revenge he could have against his rival family, and couldn't that add to the danger and suspense of the play if we're not sure about it until the end?

Dr. Dickey started his argument by looking at one of the primary sources for Romeo and Juliet, entitled The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke. This narrative poem was written in 1562, about 30 years before Shakespeare wrote his play, and the source is full of this language of rape. Here's a line describing when Romeo first sees Juliet:  "At length, he saw a maid, right fair, of perfect shape, / Which Theseus or Paris would have chosen to their rape." Both Theseus and Paris are mythological figures who raped (Perigune and Helen, respectively), and the first mention of Juliet mentions them both as well as, of course, the word "rape". Dr. Dickey uses this and a few other examples to argue that readers are so quick to read Romeo and Juliet as a love story -- and the balcony scenes as examples of this love -- that we ignore some of the language and the source material.

For example, Dr. Dickey argues that Romeo is a bit of an amorous predator in 2.2, the first Balcony scene. Looking up at the balcony, it takes Romeo 52 lines to reveal himself to Juliet, as he (creepily, voyeuristically) listens to her without her knowledge, and says,"Be not her maid, since she (the moon) is envious; her vestal livery is but sick and green / and none but fools do wear it; cast it off" After the earlier lines about Rosaline not giving up her virginity to him, these lines asking Juliet to cast off her clothes and give up her virginity ("vestal" = virginal; "livery" = uniform) seems a bit ominous. Even the sweet metaphor "O that I were a glove upon that hand / that I might touch that cheek!" feels a little degrading when looking at the probable source for that, Barnes' sonnet #63: "Would I were changed but to my Mistress' gloves, / That those white lovely fingers I might hide !  / That I might kiss those hands, which mine heart loves ! / Or else that chain of pearl (her neck's vain pride) / Made proud with her neck's veins, that I might fold / About that lovely neck, and her paps tickle ! /  Or her to compass like a belt of gold ! / Or that sweet wine which down her throat doth trickle, / To kiss her lips and lie next at her heart, / Run through her veins, and pass by Pleasure's part !" Barnes flips the sweet metaphor to a catalogue of possession of body parts, continuing to the "pleasure's part" at the end of the sonnet. This idea of possession is followed through later when Romeo can't stand the fact that carrion flies will be imposing themselves on Juliet rather than Romeo himself: "More validity, more honourable state, more courtship lives / in carrion-flies than Romeo: they may seize/ On the white wonder of dear Juliet's hand / and steal immortal blessing from her lips." Dr. Dickey argues that this degrading objectification and possession language of Juliet continues to present Romeo as possibly a predator of some kind who just wants to deflower Juliet (which, of course, he does a scene or two later, and, in Dr. Dickey's characteristic wit, he says that Shakespeare predicts slang of the future by having the first words that the now-deflowered Juliet hears from her mother are "ho daughter").

Dr. Dickey then discusses 3.5 as an antithesis to 2.2. In 2.2, the rhythm of the two characters is quick and feverish. The lines run into each other unevenly; the syntax and rhythm suggest passion. In 3.5, after consummation, however, the lines are formal and regularized. The characters trade dialogues of 5 lines, 6 lines, 5 lines, 9 lines, 10 lines -- it's even and slow, not frenzied and excited, no interruptions or passion. And, Juliet has changed. Rather than being the practical Juliet she was in 2.2, she is fantastical, trying to convince Romeo that it's a nightingale in a pomegranate tree, instead of a lark, that is singing, showing it's night instead of day. And Romeo, now "satisfied" and knowing that it's day, is in total contrast to how he was in 2.2; he is practical and ready to leave.

It's in allusions that Dr. Dickey argues that the language of rape is still present, primarily in the symbol in the title of the lecture: the nightingale in the pomegranate tree. Dickey argues that the nightingale is an allusion to the rape of Philomela by Tereus. After being raped by Tereus (her sister's husband), Philomela is transformed into a nightingale who sings a mournful song. Shakespeare often made use of the Philomela/nightingale transformation myth, such as in Titus Andronicus when discussing the rape of Lavinia, so Dickey argues that the nightingale is chosen purposefully by Shakespeare to imply that this possibility of rape is still there at this point in the play.  He chooses a pomegranate tree that the nightingale sings from, known for its thorns (the nightingale was said to sing its mournful song by pressing a thorn to its chest) but also known as being the bearer of the seeds that Persephone ate which sentenced her to spend a third of her life in the underworld and led to her rape by Hades.

These symbols, Dr. Dickey argues, have weight, and had weight during Shakespeare's time. Juliet knew what she was saying. As he says, "It ain't no bluebird in a maple tree or a raven on a bust of Phallus." It's more than just a nightingale on the pomegranate tree.

Dr. Dickey argues that Juliet isn't accusing Romeo of rape, but implying that if Romeo left her again without seeing her again, it would be similar to rape. Shakespeare provides this possibility until the end, when his actions (rather than his words) of suicide show he truly loves Juliet.

As you can imagine, my boiling down of a 60-minute lecture into a blog post certainly leaves some evidence and parts I didn't understand out. But I did my best to convey Dr. Dickey's ideas, which were revelatory. I love thinking about things in new ways, especially literature that I've taught for years.

Just one lecture can impact my teaching. I can certainly craft a lesson about the allusions to the nightingale and the pomegranate tree with my 9th grade students and ask them to find language in 3.5 that support different interpretations of Romeo's intent. I can craft a performance-based lesson juxtaposing 2.2 and 3.5, and asking how differences in meter and syntax suggest different feelings by the characters in the scene. I could have students read passages from Barnes' primary source material and identify differences between the original source and Romeo and Juliet and what those differences mean for the authors' purposes. The possibilities are almost endless, and just one morning visit to TSI helped catalyze all these thoughts for me.

I feel lucky to be part of the national network of teachers who have completed the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, and left feeling inspired by the faculty and group of 25 teachers who were there this year. One of them, Dan Bruno, is blogging about his experience here and a bunch of them are Tweeting about their experience with the #tsifolger tag. The Folger Education blog is here.

A few photos from the day:

Amber and I in front of the Folger.

Dr. Stephen Dickey during his lecture in the Folger Theater.

The Folger Theater and its season for next year.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The U.S. Inertia to Year-Round Schooling

My friend Cristina Duncan-Evans, a fellow Baltimore City Public Schools teacher, wrote an essay called "A Teacher's Case Against Summer Vacation," which I thought was spot-on in addressing education reform: the inaction towards the traditional American summer vacation, which gives kids 10 weeks off every year, in contrast to other countries which sprinkle shorter breaks throughout the year to avoid the wear-down  of skills that occurs, disproportionally for low-income students.

Duncan-Evans' editorial focuses not so much on the reasons for year-round school, which I think are evident, the primary being that kids -- particularly low income students without access to summer camps and such -- experience skills- and knowledge-loss in the summers.

Rather, the essay focuses on the American inertia present in the current educational reform movement to seriously examine year-round school. There have been a handful of efforts to create year-round schools, but they seem to be also combined with extended school day efforts, which I don't think makes sense. It's not about the time students spend in the classroom, I don't think, but the way that the time is sparsed out; research suggesting U.S. students don't go to class any less than their world counterparts supports this. As Duncan-Evans' editorial points out, there are several logistical issues with year-round school, but also just a lack of movement towards it; there are lobbies, nostalgic factors, and parental pressure. With so many reforms to education taking place, why isn't this long-standing tradition of a 10-week summer vacation something we examine?

Where I think Duncan-Evans' editorial is most interesting is when she discusses how, in the era of educational reform and political pressures on schools for performance, the focus still is limited to what is happening with the adults in schools, rather than changing family cultures around educational policy: "teachers... disproportionally... feel the brunt of education policy changes. Asking ordinary families to make substantial changes is a much tougher sell." Of course, the blame-the-teacher era is strong and we don't often look past it. However, I think this sale could be made to families (though not amusement parks or summer camps). A school year consisting of four 10-week quarters, separated by 2 weeks each, maybe an additional one over the holidays, and a 5-6 week summer vacation would seem palatable to most families who may enjoy the downtime during the school year more than 10 straight off weeks in the summer. However, I don't know who is willing to make it. Arne Duncan is against our current school calendar, but for some of the wrong reasons: he just wants more seat time for students.  I'm not in favor of that, necessarily, I'm in favor of just a small restructuring of the calendar, so the shorter summer vacations could prevent the summer slide that we worry about and the more frequent breaks during the school year could create more time for reflection and recharging through the year.

There are also, of course, logistical factors: air-conditioning being a big one. That would absolutely need to happen before entertaining ideas about year-round school.

But this is a conversation worth having, so I wanted to add this little blog post to it. I enjoy the recharging of batteries that the summer affords, and I'm sure students do as well, but some modifications to the schedule could create recharging throughout the year and prevent the summer slide.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Book Review: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee


In my experience, teachers like apocalyptic novels because students like apocalyptic novels. I cannot claim to be an expert on Young Adult literature, but it's hard not to notice the phenomenon of The Hunger Games and Divergence, amongst countless others, so when Chang-Rae Lee -- who offers both a high literary pedigree and a multicultural voice -- enters the genre, teachers will take notice. A teacher in Baltimore might even take even more special notice, with the knowledge that the setting of this apocalyptic novel is a futuristic Baltimore (known as B-Mor).

As it turns out, the futuristic Baltimore setting will not be much of a selling point to students. Other than the Baltimore-style row houses that B-mor residents live in, plus some bodies of water, there is little of Baltimore recognizable in Lee's apocalyptic setting. It could have been any large east coast city. 

But there is plenty that students would like from this book, starting with the one-sentence plot description: it's about a pregnant teenage girl who leaves on a quest to find her true love Reg, who is mysteriously removed from the B-Mor community. In the novel, B-Mor is sort of the middle class of a tri-casted social system consisting of the charters, the worker colonies, and the counties. The charters are the Mitt Romneys, who have great big homes, servants, and lots of resources; the worker colonies live safe and mostly contented lives manufacturing goods, primarily for the charters; the counties are everything else, spread across the broken terrain (the world has been ravaged by disease and global warming) and often savage. The 16-year old Fan has no idea where Reg has been taken, but sets out in those dangerous counties to find him.

With the caste system that America has become, one would think that Lee's focus for his dystopia would be on economic disparity, but it's really not. The primary concern of the novel seems to revolve around myth-making and the impact of myths and stories on the general populace. After Fan leaves, life in B-Mor -- which has always been comfortable and free of rebellion, with the reach of the workers' thoughts having a "near ceiling" -- begins to demonstrate acts of resistance to their lives, which are predestined to be the same worker class generation after generation unless, during adolescence, they score very high on an aptitude test that will allow them to move up to the charter position. 

Fan's story is told by the collective "we" that Fan leaves behind in B-Mor. It's a strange and interesting choice by Lee, a commentary on the lack of individuality in his futuristic world. However, it doesn't always make sense. The collective narrator tries to account for the plot problem by telling us that what happens to Fan upon her leaving isn't altogether known -- "We can't help but build upon what is known, our narrations not fantastical or untrue but at times vulnerable to our wishes for her, and for ourselves" -- but it's not clear how any of it at all is known. The collective narrator is building upon some sort of story, but it isn't clear how this story got back to B-Mor at all.

Fan's solitary journey to find Reg confuses the residents of B-Mor, who wonder why she would risk the safety of her life and her job as an aquarium diver. However, they soon are transfixed by her story, the result of the legend-making that the storytellers are creating: "The more we follow the turns of her journey, the more we realize that she is not quite the champion we would normally sing; she is not the heroine who wields the great sword; she is not the bearer of wisdom and light; she does not head the growing column, leading a new march. She is one of the ranks, this perfectly ordinary, exquisitely tiny person in whom we will reside, via both living and dreaming." Fan functions as a symbol for the residents of B-Mor and, really, the character herself never comes off as a fully-fledged human being; however, I think that's part of the point; she's largely an invention of the collective mind of the narrators, and doesn't make her story any less compelling. This decision casts the novel in the mode of a fable, of a legend, and suggests Lee's concern with the idea that stories can transport and inspire.

With the stretch of "how do they even know?" forgiven, we can get into the thrust of Lee's novel, which I have some mixed feelings about but mostly liked. As with most quest narratives, Fan's story feels episodic, but it perhaps even feels moreso because the plot flips back and forth between the happenings in B-Mor, some philosophizing, and back to Fan's journey. Here's a good example of this, written in Lee's standard beautiful prose: "If she possessed a genius -- and a growing number of us think she did -- it was a capacity for understanding and trusting the improvisational nature of her will. This might seem a contradictory state, and for most of us it would be. We have hopes and make plans, and if they are dashed or waylaid, we naturally rationalize and redraw the plan to locate ourselves anew. Or else we brood and too firmly root. Very few can step forward again and again in what amounts to veritable leaps into the void, where there are no ready holds, where little is familiar, where you get constantly stuck in the thickets of your uncertainties and fears..." Lee's writing is beautiful, and his ideas in this book -- despite the obviousness of the dystopian plot of three castes and the lack of social mobility -- often left me pondering.

Fan's story is compelling, but the pacing sputters on occasion; I was dragging myself through the novel at times, one of the reasons I don't think it would make a great teach. However, the writing is beautiful. I found myself snapping photographs of my Kindle screen so I could transcribe passages later, such as this one, discussing the rare B-Mor residents who score high on the aptitude tests and become Charters: "The understanding, of course, is that we'll never see this person again, that he or she will not return, even for a visit. For what good would that do? What lasting joy would it bring, to us or to them? Isn't it better that we send them off once and for all beneath the glow of carnival lights, with the taste of treats on our tongues, rather than invite the acrid tang of doubt, and undue longing, and the heart-stab of a freshly sundered bond? Isn't it kinder to simply let them exit the gates, and for us to turn away, too, and let our thoughts instead drift up on their triumphs to come?" Just gorgeous.

I will say that once Lee stopped creating new episodes for Fan -- surely meant to tell the story of the apocalypse, as she stops off at both of the other tiers of the society and delves into characters there -- that the final plot arc was singularly compelling and a page turner. The ending of the book was gripping, and has lingered with me after finishing the book. 

Ultimately, this one gets some mixed reviews from me. There are certain elements that would make it an interesting teach -- the collective narration choice, the poetic language, the indomitable teenage protagonist. But its uneven pacing and uniform mournful tone might make it a tough sell, even for those of us who live in same narrow row houses that the residents of B-Mor live in.

A favorite former student makes his first film, to premiere in Baltimore next month

When I taught Robert Douglas as a 9th grader way back in 2002, and then again as a Junior in 2004, I knew he was something special. Even though he had been through things that I could never imagine -- not knowing his father, family addiction, the death of his mother, the murder of a brother, extreme poverty, a push into the Baltimore drug trade, all of which he details along with the rest of his coming of age experiences in Baltimore in his gripping memoir Fertile Concrete -- he had the markings of an old soul, and I had faith in his ability to overcome his circumstance, a faith I have and hope I display to all my students. But I'd never had another student come stay with me during his senior year because he was homeless; I never had another student so in need of a college scholarship get a full ride to the University of Maryland; I never have had another student write two books (the aforementioned Fertile Concrete and its sequel Fertile Concrete II) and now direct a movie - New Souls - getting a big premiere at The Senator. I knew he would do great things, but I never imagined how soon, how much. Now an educator and coach in Baltimore City himself, he is someone who, as a student, taught me how to teach early in my career and I'm so proud to see his accomplishments now.



Here's the trailer:







Here's Robert's website, where information about his books is available: http://www.robertadouglas.org



Here is where you can buy tickets: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/movie-premiere-new-souls-tickets-12229415511