Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Embracing the Human Condition

Since June 4th, the blogosphere and twitterverse have been teeming with authors and teens in arms against Meghan Cox Gurdon's "review" of YA fiction in the WSJ.  Her piece is rife with manipulative little tidbits from concerned mothers who worry that fiction will encourage deviant or self-destructive behavior in their impressionable children.  Gurdon takes a paper-thin view and paints it with a broad brush.

A large part of the outcry against her article has responded to Gurdon's argument that "books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures."  Yes, it's the old the book made me do it ruse.  Several authors spoke out about the lunacy of this assertion, none so eloquently as Sherman Alexie.  The primary point of his response is the cathartic, re-affirming value of dark YA literature that offers kids in dire situations a sense of salvation.  "They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books-especially the dark and dangerous ones-will save them."

Grace Troxel echoes that sentiment in her blog and defends dark YA literature for its ability to "contextualize" the difficult issues that teens already face and often feel they are fighting alone.  She further argues that these novels create a dialogue where for years there has been none.  And it's that very lack of dialogue that is most dangerous to our children.  

Still others, like Becky Levine, stand up against the ridiculous suggestion that the industry is trying to "bulldoze coarseness and misery" into the lives of our teens while a swarm of tweeters exclaim "#yasaves" and continue to slap back Gurdon's elitist "gatekeeping censorship" disguised as the ever-popular and totally condescending concern for the greater good.  I won't get into the question of parental guidance here, but suffice it to say I am an involved parent.

For the most part, much of the conversation I have read so far has focused on the value of YA to change the lives of teenagers who have experienced the worst of this world or the ability YA literature has to contextualize situations and start a dialogue for disenfranchised or marginalized adolescents.  All of this is valid and important.  But there is an even more crucial idea under attack here:  The human condition.  Sherman Alexie touches on it:

When some cultural critics fret about the “ever-more-appalling” YA books, they aren’t trying to protect African-American teens forced to walk through metal detectors on their way into school. Or Mexican-American teens enduring the culturally schizophrenic life of being American citizens and the children of illegal immigrants. Or Native American teens growing up on Third World reservations. Or poor white kids trying to survive the meth-hazed trailer parks. They aren’t trying to protect the poor from poverty. Or victims from rapists.

No, they are simply trying to protect their privileged notions of what literature is and should be. They are trying to protect privileged children. Or the seemingly privileged.

I think about my own son, a white, middle-class teenager who has faced some upheaval and disappointment along with the typical angst of adolescence, but nothing like addiction, rape, poverty, or mental illness.  Does that mean he should never read anything that deals with such harsh subjects? What do books like Speak or The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or Scars have to offer my son?  The same thing that the Harry Potter books or the Percy Jackson series or any number of zombie books that he has read offers.  A look at the human condition.  We are flawed.  We have fears.  We make mistakes.  We get betrayed and hurt and life gets messy.  And some kids have been subjected to as many horrors as adults, perhaps even more.  But we pick ourselves up from whatever our circumstance and choose how to respond.  The majority of kids (a hopeful estimation) may never know such dire circumstances as those in some of the books they read, but for most kids (even the privileged), adolescence feels like a battleground where the choices they make have far more complex and far-reaching consequences and reinforcements don't always arrive on time. At least they can go through the paces and explore those questions through the pages of a book where the monsters are only ink and shadows and the kids are ultimately heroes.  

It is a hard lesson to learn that the world is not a warm lap and tender kisses and sunshine all around, but adolescence is for finding yourself as well as learning how to deal with the realities of this world. My son is not about to go cut himself or smoke crack because he read about it in a book, no matter how devastated he was by recent personal events.  But he may understand a classmate's behavior a little more. He may develop a stronger sense of relativity and compassion.  He may find a strength he never knew before.  He will have an even better sense of what it means to be human.  And he will choose what he becomes.  

While I would like to protect my children from all the ugliness in the world, I would do them far more harm if I pretended it didn't exist.  

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Thoughts on the Impact of eBooks

With the rise in sales of eBooks and the constantly evolving market for eReaders, the question has arisen whether the effect of technology will drive the printed book to extinction.  I've posted about this before (Clouds in my Coffee) and I can't say I have any better answers, but it did make me wonder what the effect of audio books has been over the years and whether that looked as ominous as eBooks when it all started.  Granted, they each hit slightly different market motivations, but what is the correlation?

My husband listens to a lot of audio books simply because it allows him to read more than he would otherwise.  He listens while he's mowing the lawn, taking a shower, driving, and other less convenient places for paper books.  He still buys paper books, especially those he wants to read again or keep as a resource.  But for fun, popular fiction, he often goes the audio book route.  Ultimately, I doubt he would ever really subscribe to the whole eBook deal simply because it would just be another way to read a paper book...involving hands and eyes.

So, why choose eBooks over paper?  For the most part, I think people choose it for the weight factor, as well as convenience.  Why lug around 60 pounds of literature when you can have your entire library at your finger tips for just  8.5 ounces?  I know that's one reason so many agents and editors glommed on to the Kindle way back when.  Are there other reasons?

Audio books certainly have their niche and they have provided literature for a wider audience who might not otherwise read paper books at all.  They have also generated additional revenues for the publishing business.  Will eBooks find that same kind of well-defined niche or will they supplant the printed word altogether?

I would love to know how many writers have an eReader, how many are thinking of getting one, and how many refuse to be traitors to tradition.

What are your thoughts on the issue? Please feel free to comment in detail.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Learning: The Quintessential Survival Skill

I've been considering picking up some additional graduate work and the following is my response to a request for a writing sample.  The topic was "the impact of three issues that challenge educators today."  This will be the last of my rants on educational topics for a while...I promise.

As I stepped through the door into my own classroom at Heritage High School eighteen years ago, I brought my passel of ideals and my passion for literature with me and laid them right out for everyone to see.  I had no doubt that these pieces of gold would inspire my students and generate a whirlwind of learning, no matter how disparate the learning styles or how severe the behavioral issues or anemic the student motivation. I had a mission. If only it were that simple.  While I had the immeasurable support of my administration and confidence in my vision, it soon became clear that there was a lot more to being a teacher than teaching, talent, and good intentions. In college, no one really prepares you for the politics of teaching.  By politics, I don’t mean the ideology of the superintendent or the social etiquette of the faculty lunch room.  I mean the white noise that both student and teacher must endure to get the job done.  
Working in a township school, I was prepared for some disparities in the socio-economic composition of the student body, but the most persistent motivational roadblock came not from the students themselves, but from their parents.  Politicians argue about the accountability of the school districts for the quality of their children’s education, but one of the most damaging cultural attitudes that teachers must face is a devaluing of education by the already disenfranchised.  In this particular community, many of the parents had never finished high school, let alone gone on to college.  They were farmers or factory workers who saw school as a necessary evil.  Other families may be broken, one-parent homes relying on school to babysit their children while the parent worked two or three jobs just to make ends meet and avoid welfare.  The frustration, exhaustion, and formative experiences of the parents translated to a mistrust of school as an institution and even an adversarial relationship with education itself, an attitude which was ultimately inherited by their children. They did not see education as an opportunity, but rather as just another yard stick with which to measure their deficiencies.  It is difficult to help these students (and their parents) see the value of learning for its own sake, but that is part of our mission.  
 As our economy struggles, the divide between the haves and the have-nots grows and so does this attitude that education is not for everyone.  Lack of equity in the distribution of resources has always been an issue.  Some school systems simply do not have the same access to funding or the most modern resources essential to educational growth.  And with the lightning pace of technological advances, many schools cannot keep up, which again pits the more affluent communities against the poorer communities and the politicians get to decide who gets funding based on academic performance rather than need.  Their altruistic but misguided answer is No Child Left Behind legislation that is intended to hold public schools accountable for sloppy standards, bad teaching, and poor programming.  However good its intentions, NCLB is in large part perpetuating some of the most pervasive problems as it widens the gap and confirms those old prejudices against education. It has created a “teach to the test” mentality in many school systems that are terrified of losing their funding or being labeled as “the bad school” and abandoned by anyone with the means to transfer their child to a “choice” school.  Administrators have begun to pressure, and in some cases bully, their faculty into using a canned pedagogy that may encourage a stronger performance on the test but that will surely hinder true learning, which is whole the point of education.  Jobs are threatened, innovation is stifled, and whole populations are ignored in the name of that sacred test score.  Sadly, NCLB is now a significant part of the problem instead of the solution.    
Solid, veteran teachers will continue to inspire their students and help them learn, but in some ways their efforts may be hobbled by politics.  First year teachers do not have the experience to help them discern where an appropriate line can be drawn between content and learning so they rely on their administration and their mentors. Moreover, the efficacy of the assessment is only as good as the instrument, and we have plenty of research that demonstrates the biases and limitations inherent in many standardized tests.  So where does this leave ESL students and students with learning disabilities and other special needs?  With the ever growing diagnoses of children with ADD, ADHD, and Asperger’s Syndrome, as well as other issues that affect learning, the current trend in response to NCLB is to make few accommodations while forcing them to participate in this flawed evaluation process. There is no specific measurement of their growth as a subset of the population.  Through my own teaching experience, I saw the number of students with these issues in my classroom grow year by year.  Some of these students had early intervention, but many went undiagnosed or unserved for years.  In addition, the influx of non-English speaking immigrants is disproportionate across regions, yet these students are introduced to our classrooms, often with little support depending upon the availability of funds and programs, and included in our standardized testing which will impact that carefully guarded average that represents “adequate yearly progress” and subsequent NCLB approval.  
Teaching has always been a challenging vocation and certainly not a profession for the weak-hearted.  Education, however, is the backbone of any society and no matter what the political climate or the changing demographics or the gap in generational attitudes, learning is the essential point.  A student cannot effectively acquire content knowledge unless he learns how to learn first.  At its very core, learning is a survival skill, one that needs to be nurtured and fed and practiced throughout life.  Good teachers lead their students onward through the white noise and help them develop the most crucial competency they will ever master—the ability to learn. 

Monday, June 06, 2011

Fast Food Education?

Caution:  The following post may rant, rave, or otherwise inflict strong opinions upon the reader.

The week before I graduated from college, looking forward to working on my Master's degree and beginning a career as a teacher, I was treated to dinner out with my parents.  Though I embraced my calling  whole-heartedly, graduation still brought out the jitters and uncertainty of my impending "adult" life.  My parents apparently felt it their duty to add to the butterflies in my stomach by choosing that night to question my plans and denigrate what I thought of as a noble and intellectually fulfilling field of work.  They wanted me to be a lawyer or even a doctor, not a teacher.  Teaching would be an abominable waste of my talents.

As I sat there with my jaw hanging open and my stomach in knots, two things came to me.  First, I realized that my parents had no idea who I really was or what talents I possessed.  Second, I realized that these two people, with their college degrees and their white-collar jobs had already forgotten who had led them to that place of success and who had prepared the daughter sitting in front of them go out and blaze her own trail and quit sponging off them.  They may believe both their own success and my impending launch into independence was all of their own making, but anyone who knows my family dynamics would laugh out loud at either supposition.  By some miracle, I left their doubts and denigration in the dust and pursued my own dream anyway. After 20 years of teaching, raising my own children, and writing, I wouldn't change a thing.

Sadly, my parents' cynical and demeaning attitude towards teaching continues to infect our culture and ultimately tear down the once high standards and respect that used to be and should always be associated with teachers.  This morning, I saw this story on the Today Show:

Believe me, I know what it is to face such malice, and what makes it worse is this infuriating notion that because we teach "children" we are no longer human beings with the right to protect our own safety. I emphasize the word "children" because it's obvious that high school students like the one in the video are not those helpless, wide-eyed little creatures we like to think of when we say that word.  This guy was physically a man.  At 5'2 and 100 lbs, I certainly would have felt threatened.  In fact, our 6'1 male band director was assaulted by a student with a hammer and sent to the hospital one year.  Another was jumped by 3 male students after school and beaten severely...all because one of the boys was told to spit out his gum 3 times before he was sent to the hall for mouthing off.

What struck me most about Mrs. Hadsock's plight was this general attitude about teaching in the United States.  Have we become no more than babysitters?  Are we simply custodians or surrogate disciplinarians for parents who don't have the time or inclination to actually raise the children they spawn for whatever reason? (modifier purposely ambiguous there).  If a kid acts out to the point that he endangers someone else's safety, why does a teacher get both blamed for the kid's actions and punished for protecting herself and her students? A student does not get a "get out jail free" card just because he is chronological still considered a kid, nor do the parents.

Our government has passed laws that require us to educate our children to a certain age to protect those children from the kind of industrial age slave labor and mistreatment we can find in any Charles Dickens novel.  Why?  Because we should care that our children grow up healthy, happy, and educated and become responsible adults who continue to make our country financially, politically, and morally strong.  Otherwise, why not leave them in the sweat shops and blacking factories and corn fields?

I chose to teach because I love literature, learning, and writing.  But even more, there is a certain magic that happens when a kid discovers something new, both for the kid and for the teacher.  It's a physical sensation as much as it is an intellectual one.  That tingle that makes you feel strong and smart and capable of anything.  It's intoxicating and completely addictive.  What's more, I know how priceless the ability to learn is and what teachers sacrifice to share that with their students.

Teaching is not a cushy job that gives you lots of holidays and the summers off.  Most of us work practically non-stop.  A teacher never stops looking for inspiration, for those little connections that may spark magic in the classroom.  We think about ways to reach our students even in our sleep.  Never mind all the grading and paperwork and preparation we have to do. We come to our mission with awe for the sheer impact it can have on a single life.  But for a growing number of parents and kids, teachers are like those frozen burritos you can buy 4 for a dollar at the Quick-E-Mart:  cheap, convenient, and filling the most basic purpose.  There is no respect, no sense of honor, no reverence for the deliverer of the most crucial survival skill a kid can master—learning.

I know there are some lemon teachers out there, more and more every year precisely because of this attitude.  We give education majors more hoops to jump through instead of higher standards and greater inspiration.  We demand our teachers teach to a flawed test instead of teach our kids how to learn.  We lower our standards so we can raise our numbers.  It's no wonder this generation is filled with a false sense of entitlement and false self-esteem.  It's all based on nothing.  Their advancement, their diploma, their sense of self-worth.  Show up and get a medal.  Actual participation is optional.

To Mrs. Hadsock, I say thank you for caring, thank you for inspiring, thank you for demanding that you get the respect you deserve.  For those who consider teachers to be nothing more than convenience food, shame on you.