Monday, January 7, 2013

Go Above Your Nerve

"How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts in spite of all the crap they endured. How many of them didn't collapse in a heap of "I could have been better than this" and instead went right ahead and became better than anyone would have predicted or allowed them to be. The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker.  It is not fragility. It's strength. It's nerve. And "if your Nerve, deny you--, as Emily Dickinson wrote, "go above your Nerve." Writing is hard for every last one of us--straight white men included.  Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig." -Cheryl Strayed (alias, Sugar).

Monday, March 26, 2012

Suicide, Jews and Savannah

What I've been reading: 

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes:  At first, Barnes' slim, Booker-prize winning novel seems like a thematic rumination on memory, nostalgia and personal history.  The  narrator, Tony--captured with equal precision in youth and age--looks back on his life and recounts the story of his first love, Veronica, consistently spiraling back to the same set of uncertain memories.  After an odd weekend with Veronica's family and a subsequent break-up, Veronica ends up dating Tony's boyhood friend, Adrian, much to Tony's childish dismay.  Adrian later commits suicide, but the reader is unclear why until the very last page of the book--brilliantly, at the exact same time Tony understands the weight of what happened 40 years earlier.  As the reader gets enmeshed in Tony's churning psyche, and as Tony uncovers more and more information, the narrative darkens with intrigue, but remains faithful to its initial thematic focus.  Keep at this book; the ending is worth it.

What We Talk About When We Talk about Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander:  Englander's latest book of short stories came out the same week as his modern Haggadah (compiled with Jonathon Safran Foer), and it's hard to say which text is more Jewish.  The stories are diverse, but all come back to an enduring Jewish backdrop: antisemitism on Long Island, settlers in war-torn Israel, drug-induced recreations of the Holocaust.  The stories are dark and complex, but infiltrated with bits of humor and compassion.   My favorite of the eight told the story of a secular Jewish man who finds himself in a seedy Manhattan peep show before returning home to his suburban family.  As he battles between guilt and desire, the women in the show morph into his family members and finally his boyhood rabbi, and the readers gets sucked deep into his neurotic fantasy. Though inconsistent in quality, the stories merge Jewish history and modern Judaism in inventive, surprising ways that definitely warrant a read.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt: This book was the perfect companion for a recent trip to South Carolina.  During a weekend in Savannah, GA, New York editor, Berendt, falls in love with this sleepy Southern city and takes up semi-residency.  As a trained journalist, Berendt begins poking around, asking questions, meeting people and learning about the city's complex social network, twisted inner workings, racist history, long-standing grudges and sultry underbelly. Although the book centers on a drawn-out murder mystery, its real focus is the amazing cast of characters Berendt meets while living in Savannah.  Through rich and evocative language, Berendt introduces readers to a drug-addled gigolo, a fly-keeper in possession of a deadly poison, a voodoo princess, a sexy black drag queen and the seedy founder of the historic preservation society.  This book is hilarious and dramatic, and one of the few non-fiction books I've had a hard time putting down. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

What We Read

This recent New York Times article hits close to home.  The article discusses the familiar push toward more non-fiction reading in the classroom through the use of a study on the Core Knowledge Curriculum. The article says:

"Reading nonfiction writing is the key component of the Core Knowledge curriculum, which is based on the theory that children raised reading storybooks will lack the necessary background and vocabulary to understand history and science texts. While the curriculum allows children to read fiction, it also calls on them to knowledgeably discuss weather patterns, the solar system, and how ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia compare." 

Despite a personal bias toward everything literary, I know reading non-fiction is important.  As a result, I have probably doubled the amount of non-fiction we read in my class, and I feel good about my students' overall comprehension.  The majority of information for which people are held accountable in daily life comes from a variety of non-fiction sources: newspapers, the internet, magazines, work emails, even restaurant menus.  Kids must be exposed to non-fiction in order to discuss, compete, analyze, synthesize and, of course, meet pesky benchmarks. Unless you are an illustrious English major, success in college depends on the ability to read and process a wide variety of informational texts. The new national standards for Language Arts (The Common Core) emphasize non-fiction reading skills and, as such, states are pushing their evaluations in that direction.  In an effort to remain at the forefront of urban education and see our students become better readers, there's an increased focus on non-fiction in the reading department at my school.  How can we best use non-fiction in the classroom, and what specific skills can we teach kids to be successful when reading dense, informational text?

I support the non-fiction focus 98%, but a few things in the article made me bristle, like the mild insinuation that "children raised reading storybooks will lack the necessary background and vocabulary to understand history and science text."  The lack of nuance in this statement devalues storybooks, a child's earliest exposure to literature.  This undermining of picture books subtly devalues story, voice, imagery and figurative language--the stuff, the beauty, of fiction.  Of course, kids must be exposed to non-fiction texts early in order to process harder ones later, but the statement suggests we discard storybooks entirely, replacing them instead with cold hard facts, graphs and history. This is sad.  I also bristle at the verb allow: "While the curriculum allows children to read fiction..."  This simple turn of phrase makes fiction out to be a child's guilty pleasure--one that grownups will allow as long as its secondary to things like weather, Egypt and planets. A reading curriculum should not allow fiction; a reading curriculum should uphold, teach and treasure fiction.

I don't think anyone's actually suggesting we remove literature from reading and English curricula, but I do worry about slippery slopes and subtle messaging.  With increased emphasis on how to teach non-fiction, I worry we're losing sight of how to teach and read fiction.  I'm concerned literature will gradually depreciate in value until novels, stories and poems become an afterthought, secondary to more important pursuits in the classroom.  Fiction and non-fiction exist in concert.  Good readers must know how to process and appreciate both genres with equal aptitude.  In the past, perhaps English curricula has favored fiction, leaving non-fiction in the dust.  This new focus could be compensating for lost time, but as we reinvigorate non-fiction in the reading classroom, we have to be extra cognizant that we continue to elevate and teach literature.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Number Crunching

I'm consistently surprised that I'm a teacher, but even more surprised that I'm a teacher at a school that spends one day every quarter analyzing data and crunching numbers--just the things I'd been trying to circumvent since wading through my math credit in college. I like words because they're malleable and nuanced and tap nicely on my tongue.  I get words and words get me.  Numbers, on the other hand, stare me in the face, mocking my inability to see the way they work.  My own fear convinces me numbers are only useful when calculating my 15% teacher discount at J.Crew or how many hours of sleep I'll get it if I stay for one more drink. 

But I'm starting to think numbers aren't all bad; maybe even I can hang with digits and data. Once a quarter, my students take an interim assessment from which we gather and assess data on their performance and overall readiness. The data is meant to target certain deficiencies and inform our instruction for the next quarter. While this makes good sense, it goes without saying that my pals on the left coast probably cringe at the idea of so much testing.  But what about the child?  How can you reduce seventy children to a blinding Excel spreadsheet? Have you no heart?

The fact of the matter is that I'm a teacher, and my job is to teach children to read better.   When I open up my Excel spreadsheet full of data, I get to see something concrete. I get to see percentages, broken down by class, by passage, by skill, by standard. I get to see who's rocking it and who needs tutoring.  I have numerical evidence that lends credence to hastily-conceived inferences I've made about proficiency and ability.  I can create plans that make sense and avoid ones based on nothing.  I've come to really like Data Day even if it forces numbers on me.  Data doesn't reduce students to percentages, but it does help ensure they're getting the instruction they need at school every day.  That's something I can geek out about.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Have You Read?

 Last week, I proctored tests for three days straight.  This means hours of time when I can’t get work done because kids have questions and kids need tissues, but I also can’t possibly circulate purposefully for two hours straight without freaking the kids out.  These stretches of undirected time beg the perennial question: What did people do before Al Gore invented the internet? Were they more productive? Happier and more focused? Bored and less informed?  

After I binge on Facebook for a while, I get deep into internet territory—from the very lowbrow to the very highbrow.   At first I’m looking at a list of where to get the best fries in the city, then suddenly I’m reading up on controversial teacher evaluations, letting my favorite sites take me to other sites in a manic whirlwind of Tweets and hyperlinks. Part of me feels guilty.  My eyes scan across hundreds of pages, and my fingers scroll errantly, while my saturated brain tries to synthesize more information in less time. As a product of my generation, does my mind only function if I’m clicking fast and skimming as I scroll? Have I lost the ability to enjoy the long-form, the deliciously dull, the arduously good?  The way I obtain and process information is fast and schizophrenic.  I wonder if it’s really taking me higher, or if I’m just reveling in the cache of having “read”the right things.  And by read, of course I mean skimming quickly and then gchatting links to (non)interested friends in order to prove I've done my reading. But, would our grandparents call this reading?
One of the only Portlandia skits I liked was called “Have You Read?” The camera panned over a coffee shop conversation of three twenty-somethings competing over who’d read the most from a pre-approved list of pretentious publications. They don’t discuss ideas or news, but merely trade titles and names, ensuring a certain communal level of intellect while sipping Stumptown coffee.  But with the internet, the competition is endless and irrelevant; we can all read everything at warp speed with very little focus required.  Where is it getting us? 

While part of me feels guilty about my internet dependency, another part feels happy.  I’m amazed by the quantity and accessibility of high quality journalism, photos, news and jokes.  It’s only 8:45, and I’ve read an archived New Yorker expose about the LRA from 1998 and a funny piece by an unknown about the downfall of PBS’s much-loved pup, Wishbone. The internet makes the world feel smaller and more available.  It gives us every possible bit of information at the tips of our fingers.  The internet confirms good journalism, but also allows us guilty pleasures.  Last week, when I was bored stiff during proctoring, the internet was welcome relief.  I’ll suffer the consequences later in life, I’m sure, but for now: Bring on that delicious guilt.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


I haven't been blogging much, and everyone's  noticing.  People across the nation have sunk into deep depressions without weekly entries, and Obama fears we may have a national mental health crisis on our hands. I feel equal parts guilty, elated and relieved about this new development--or rather, lack of development. I told myself when I started that if blog entries turned from folly to burden, I'd stop.  The thing is, I really don't want to join the disheartened masses of blog quitters, promising ideas so quickly lost to the labyrinth-like Interwebs. Rather than wasting time on my self-indulgent blogging crisis, though, let me share two things.

I was at the gym last night doing a pretty half-assed workout, but I still felt good about myself and even better that I was rocking Nike shorts in early March.  As I was leaving the YMCA--a bastion for hipsters and low-income families alike--I noticed a woman moving slowly up and down on the stationary bike.  Ever-so-slowly because she was daintily pulling shoestring French fries out of a McDonald's bag.  And suddenly, I felt even better about myself.

That's blog-worthy, and so is this:

Monday, February 6, 2012

I Like my Bike

The Top Ten Reasons Why I Like my New Bike:

1. The prime acquisition. Ever since I moved to Brooklyn, I've wanted a bike. I come from the bike capital of the country, bikes make the world feel smaller, and all cool girls have bikes. However, I'd made very little headway in terms of putting my money where my mouth is. Majken, who is more of a doer, bought a cute little vintage silver bike on Craig's List that turned out to be a few inches too small for her.  So, although I feel guilty, I got a sweet bike by doing absolutely nothing.  Rest easy: Majken got a matching blue one from a man in Queens the next day AND I paid her back.

2. It has those cool vintage gears and curved handlebars.

3. I have a new friend at the Bike Shop on Atlantic Ave: a short guy with a buzz cut in grimy jeans who knows about gears and brakes and that I'd want a helmet to match my bike. 

4. I biked around Prospect Park in February with a boy who also has a bike and, even though my hands were freezing, my body got a little sweaty.

5.  My bike turns 45-minute sedentary subway rides into 20-minute bursts of exercise.

6. I like my bike because I know that once I get a white basket, a bell and a clip-on light, it's going to be that much cooler.

7. My bike cost only $100, which is an amount of money I have also thrown down for less useful things like designer jeans, an impromptu trip to Target, an overpriced dinner in Manhattan and red shoes I never wore.

8. I can bike across bridges, which reminds me of the Portland Bridge Pedal, the Willamette River and my family.

9.  I can run red lights on my bike and sometimes even go faster than cars, but I'm outside and haven't spent any money on gas.

10. When I put my bike in my living room, It transforms the space into instant urban-cool.