Period.8

Chris Crutcher is one of my favorite YA authors, and this book didn’t disappoint. What I enjoy most about Crutcher’s novels are the characters. No one writes more likable or hated characters than Crutcher, IMHO, and the protagonist and antagonist in Period.8 are some of his best yet–again, IMHO. Just as we discussed during last class, this novel delivers the ultimate good guy and the hated bully.

What I’d like to discuss this week, though, is the importance of this book as it relates to the issues kids are dealing with today. How does Crutcher develop this invisible wall between the teens and the adults? Why is this important to the story? Why would this interest YA readers?

You can discuss any and/or all of these points and/or questions, or you can talk about whatever you want to talk about. See you Tuesday.

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Bill Gates Doesn’t Get It

Recently, Bill Gates wrote about the “myths” that are confusing the debate over “what the Common Core is, where it came from, and the impact it will have.” There are good arguments on both sides about the process in which the standards were made, how they will impact an already burdensome testing culture, and how the standards will hinder autonomy and creativity for teachers. While I could take aim at his reasoning for calling any of these points “myths,” that is not what I think is the real issue that is “confusing the debate.”

It is within the first two sentences of the article that reveal where Gates fundamentally misses the point of education: “I don’t know many business leaders who are satisfied with America’s schools. In fact, just about every CEO I know is worried that this country simply isn’t producing enough graduates with the skills they need to compete globally.” So business leaders and CEOs consult Mr. Gates about education policy? This frustrating question about the education experts informing Bill Gates reminded me of an article that I have my students read on the first day of my English methods class titled “The Learning Knights of Bell Telephone.”

In 1952, Bell executives started to worry about the education of their managers. One sociologist explained Bell executives’ concerns to a magazine:  “A well-trained man knows how to answer questions, they reasoned; an educated man knows what questions are worth asking.” Wanting their junior executives to know what “questions are worth asking,” Bell partnered with the University of Pennsylvania and created the Institute of Humanistic Studies for Executives, which was ultimately a 10 month liberal arts education. During their time in the Institute, the junior executives completed 550 hours of course work, with “more reading…than the average graduate was asked to do in a single time frame.” Along with the wide reading of literature, the Institute required “visits to museums and art galleries, orchestral concerts, day trips meant to foster thoughtful attention to the history and architecture of the city that surrounded the Penn campus, as well as that of New York and Washington.”

Interestingly, at the end of the Institute, the executives completed a questionnaire, and “their answers revealed that they were reading more widely than they had before — if they had read at all — and they were more curious about the world around them.”  And even more interesting, the graduates showed discontent with business being their sole purpose in life. One student in the program was quoted as saying that he felt “like a straw floating with the current down the stream,” and added, “The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be that straw again.”

Leading industrial psychologists at the time praised the Institute, but Bell pulled support shortly after another round of positive results. I guess the “questions worth asking” weren’t the ones that Bell executives wanted from their employees. But more importantly, does Bill Gates think these are the “questions worth asking”?

Last night, I had the honor of hearing Jonathan Zimmerman talk briefly on the topic of education in the US, and he made the point that what’s “lost in the argument” is the fact that the conversation revolves around a “vocational education instead of a classical, or liberal-with-a-lower-case-l education.” Mr. Gates engages America in an argument about vocational education, which really gives a classical education the short shrift. This is where the real confusion is, and a point that is more important than any of his “myths.”

Bill Gates needs to stop arguing for the utilitarian approach to education that his buddies think will help the US compete globally. Getting kids to be “curious about the world around them” will certainly have more of an impact than simply ensuring a set of skills has been acquired. If Mr. Gates wants an education that will give us a competitive edge globally, then we need kids challenging themselves and ideas instead of allowing them to feel like a “straw floating with the current down the stream.”

The Fault in Our Stars

What a great book. While the story line was not one that I would normally enjoy, it’s hard to deny that it was a good read. Let me start by stating the obvious, though: Green is an excellent writer. (Not that my opinion will help put a book on the Canon.) He writes about death as if he was once stricken with a disease and faced an inevitable doom. He writes philosophically, yet without the condescension that might scare a teenager. I’ve always felt that making the abstract concrete was the art of a true genius. Green does this so well as he dives into the fears and questions and anticipations that surround death.

What I find so unique about the book is that it centers around teenagers grappling with death. Not that YA doesn’t deal with death, but not many take on the death sentence of an illness like cancer in such a way that still captures the sincerity of a teenage mind. Those of us in our later years talk about how teenagers sometimes have an immortality complex, and Green does a good job of dismissing this perception, showing the devastating realities of teens who are having to deal with their own mortality.

What are your thoughts? Like it? Didn’t like it? Why? Why not?

America Needs to Define the Purpose of Education

A former student of mine recently shared this video with me that raises questions about our current education system here in the US. The speaker argues that his generation “will not let exam results decide their fate.” I like it. Yet this claim and the reasoning presented in the video to support it come back to a central question about the education system in the US: What is the purpose of education?

The closest thing I’ve found is the mission statement on the Common Core State Standards Initiative website. According to the statement, the standards are “what students are expected to learn” and are “relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers” so that “our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

This statement, along with the standards themselves, seem to advocate that the goal of education is simply skills-acquisition. Phrases like “success in college and careers” and “compete successfully in the global economy” only show one side of what education can do, and should be a product of a much more important goal. Sadly, though, we haven’t identified this important goal.

Because education is a product of society, the US education system is founded on meritocracy and the skills dictated by the business world. While we can find evidence in our history of education advancing religious and patriotic values, what seems to be driving policy in the 20th and 21st centuries is based on what Raymond Callahan coined the “cult of efficiency,” which demands the skills and goals of business procedures. This helps us justify why we label students with grades, and why learning has become a variable in a cost benefit analysis.

As a teacher, nothing bothers me more than to see a kid play the grade-game: Is this for a grade? Will this be on the test? It shows that I’ve failed in conveying the true meaning of my English class. If they walk away thinking they got nothing from reading Hemingway other than a grade, then somewhere along the way I didn’t make it clear to all my students the deeper understanding of the world around them that is offered in the Nick Adams stories. If I hold myself to this standard, why can’t America’s educational system?

Education makes you a better person, a better citizen. It allows you to empathize, to understand different perspectives without agreeing, and to have humility without shame. A good education requires you to question your world, your society, and to seek the truth even if it challenges what you’ve always believed or thought you knew. (And a life lived unchallenged isn’t worth living, in my opinion.) When you place these goals of education first, then the skills that the business world are touting will surely be acquired simply in an effort to achieve them. 

If teaching has taught me anything, it’s that students love learning, but they hate school. They don’t see a need for it unless they  see a direct correlation to their long term goals, whatever those might be. Students are not seeing education for what it really is, and that’s our fault for not identifying it.  We always say to students,  “You need an education because…” Instead, our society should simply argue, “You need an education.” Maybe if we conveyed goals that reflected the true intent of education, then students would love school as much as they love learning.

However, the message we send kids is that education is what you make on a test, and a passing grade will get you a good job. I’m glad to see kids are smart enough to know that a test doesn’t determine their fate. I’m glad to see our kids want more out of education than just grades. It would be nice if the policy wonks on Capitol Hill were on the same page.

I like your essay, but you failed!

Since I recently moved here to New York from Texas, I applied to be on a Common Core (CCSS) committee so that I could learn more about the education policies of my new home state. I’m not really sure what I can and cannot talk about, so I’ll just say that I was required to look closely at a few of the writing standards. By the end of the day, I was left thinking of Peter Greene’s excellent blog post about CCSS, and the limitations it presents.

What makes Greene’s argument so compelling is that he gives examples of famous authors who would fail under specific standards. I thought of this point yesterday while spending the majority of the day staring at one of the common core writing standards that New York has adopted:

WS.11-12.1 Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.

This writing standard is for 11th-12th graders, and seems innocuous until you read all the sub-standards that are alphabetized beneath it. One in particular concerns me, and became a topic of discussion as our meeting dragged on: d. Establish and maintain a formal style and objective tone while attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline in which they are writing. Much of the debate at our table centered around what an exemplar essay would look like to represent this standard. An essay that is completely void of voice?

The standard attempts to give a caveat by claiming that the students’ writing should be “attending to the norms and conventions of the discipline.” However, it reads as if all “norms and conventions” that will be attended to will require an “objective tone.” Let’s not forget that this standard is listed under the argumentative essay.

To echo Greene’s point, this would mean that a student who mimics Charles Blow, Thomas Friedman, Alan Brooks, or George Will would fail. These writers argue in a tone that is anything but objective, and, in my opinion, it is their tone and style that should be credited for much of their fan base. I might not agree with what they say, but I sure enjoy reading it!

According to the state of New York, though, that’s not authentic writing.

Good writing instruction should include mentor texts, and good argumentative mentor texts could include pieces from the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Students should then be asked to find what interests them, and what they want to talk about. Then they write. They argue. And while their arguments should attend to the norms and conventions of style and tone, a good essay is not necessarily going to have an objective tone.

When teachers lead their students toward issues that they are passionate about, then it is imperative that we give them a voice. Where is that standard in the Common Core?

Graphic Novels in English Classrooms

It’s fitting that the first post on this blog is about graphic novels, because I enjoy reading them more than most genres. When I taught them as a high school teacher, there was always a reaction (sometimes from parents, sometimes from administrators, but always from students). There is so much more to like than just the words! A good graphic novel will interweave art and text to tell the story, and what’s left out in the language is many times better told in the picture.

In my Young Adult Literature class, we’re reading American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang and Blankets, by Craig Thompson. The former is a story about a middle schooler who just came to the country, and with dry humor the narrator gives the reader a glimpse into some of the absurdities immigrants must face. Blankets is Thompson’s memoir, and chronicles his life from a young boy through to adulthood. The majority of the memoir, however, focuses on his senior year in high school and the love he has for a girl he met at church camp. (I don’t want to give too much of either plot away, so I’ll leave it at that. Just know they are more complex than this.)

ABC was a refreshing read. It’s unique storytelling comes together in the end, even though I was a tad confused getting there at times. But what I really enjoyed about the novel was the humor. I found myself laughing out loud often, which allowed me to have sympathy for the character, but not without dignity.

Blankets is one of the most honest graphic novels I’ve read. Because of this honesty, it would surely be a tough book to defend if a parent challenged me. Not that I couldn’t defend a high schooler reading the book, but I always made sure to have a signed consent form before putting it in their hands. (What’s great about tagging a book with a consent form is that you guarantee it will be read.)

So what are your thoughts on teaching these graphic novels? What about graphic novels in general? Do they have a place in the English classroom?