The one thing I regret is that I will never have time to read all the books I want to read.
--Francoise Sagan

Thursday, September 30, 2010

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

I'm a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan, so I couldn't resist buying What the Dog Saw a collection of his favorite articles from The New Yorker. These short pieces were perfect for me as I headed back to school after surgery. I didn't have a lot of time or energy left over at the end of the day, and there were several days when I didn't have time to read at all...but these were perfect little single-serving-sized pieces. I could read one in just 30 minutes or so and then choose another a few days later. I dabbled. I read which ever one caught my fancy on that particular day..."Hair Dye and the Hidden History of Postwar America"..."Why Some People Choke and Others Panic"..."What Pit Bulls Can Teach Us About Crime"...There were some truly interesting articles...And while I didn't enjoy these little tastes of Gladwell as much as his longer works, I was nevertheless fascinated and entertained.

I walked away with some interesting "What the Dog Saw", an article about Cesar Milan, I learned that dogs study and respond to human movements in a way that no other animals (including primates) do. There's an experiment where researchers hid a treat under one of two cups. When they brought dogs into the room, they found the dogs looked to the humans for cues as to where the treat was hidden. If the human looked at one cup or nodded in that direction, the dog would pick that one every time. Chimps, on the other hand, did not. They looked to other chimps for help and guidance but not humans. Fascinating, right?

I also learned about the power-law theory of homelessness in "Million Dollar Murray"...basically, homelessness doesn't follow a normal distribution (bell curve). Eighty percent of homeless people are off the streets really quickly, most within a single day...and they never return to the shelters or streets again. About 10 percent are "episodic users", meaning they come to the shelters for a few weeks at a time and return periodically especially in winter, but the last 10 percent are chronically homeless. And it is this chronic 10 percent that costs the health-care and social services industries the most money. One man, Murray Barr, in Reno, Nevada was homeless for ten years. When you total up his medical expenses they come to close to a million dollars! This totally changes how we think about and deal with the problem of becomes about solving a few hard cases...not dealing with thousands. Incidentally...the power-law theory applies to lots of other issues as well.

I could go on and on and on about all the interesting bits and pieces I gleaned from this collection...which takes me back to something Gladwell said in his intro. He's addressing the question he's asked most often: Where do you get your ideas? And he says, "The trick to finding ideas is to convince yourself that everyone and everything has a story to tell. I say trick but what I really mean is challenge, because it's a very hard thing to do. Our instinct as humans, after all, is to assume that most things are not interesting. We flip through the channels on the television and reject ten before we settle on one...We filter and rank and judge...We have to. There's just so much out there...but if you want to be a writer, you have to fight that instinct everyday."

I think that's true not just of writers...but of those of us who aspire to be well-educated, life-long while I'm walking away from What the Dog Saw with some incredible info stashed away, the thing that I want to remember most is that "everyone and everything has a story." I want to stay curious, ask questions, wonder...look for connections...and fight the instinct to dismiss and reject and ignore.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay is the third and final installment in The Hunger Games series. I inhaled the first two, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, over the summer, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on this one!

Because it's the last in a trilogy, I hate to go into much detail here...I don't want to spoil the first two for those who haven't read them (If you haven't, you should!) But I will say, I loved this one as much as the other two...right up until the last couple of chapters.

At the very end, Katniss, the protagonist slips into a drug induced haze...we experience the very end of the novel through a cloud of morphling: "Foam. I really am floating on foam. I can feel it beneath the tips of my fingers, cradling parts of my naked body. There's much pain but there's also something like reality. The sandpaper of my throat. The smell of burn medicine from the first arena. The sound of my mother's voice. These things frighten me, and I try to return to the deep to make sense of them." This felt like a cop out to me. It felt like Collins got to the end of a brilliant series and didn't quite know how to finish she was vague and poetic and nebulous.

In the last 30 pages, the book takes a final twist, which I hadn't anticipated...and I'm not sure I liked. It left me feeling unsatisfied. I wasn't counting on everything working out perfectly, but I was expecting, after all Katniss had endured, something closer to happily ever after...a real, indisputable victory.

I've read other readers' reviews, and reactions to the ending seem to be strong and pretty evenly split. Some people were disappointed like me; others loved it.

Either way, there's something to be said for books that cause such a stir...that make you angry...that make you think...that make you want your friends to read them just so you can hash them out together.

I'm still really glad I read this series. Now I just need you to read it, too!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fragile Beasts by Tawni O'Dell

Tawni O'Dell is no Edith Wharton...but I love her anyway. She grew up in coal mining territory...western Pennsylvania...and writes novels set in old coal mining towns...Coal Run, Sister Mine, Back Roads (which was an Oprah book club selection several years back)...and now Fragile Beasts.

The thing I love most about O'dell is that her tiny, one-traffic-light towns...and the characters that populate them...jump off the page. They spring to life right before your eyes. There you are sitting on the bleachers at the high school football game, riding around in a beat up rolled down, pushing a cart up and down the aisles at the Kwiki-Mart, stopping to say hey to Bill...with his baseball cap pulled down low, six-pack tucked under his arm. You don't just picture the place, you feel it. You experience it. And the feel like you know them. You get involved...invested in what's going on.

Fragile Beasts is about two high school aged kids, Klint and Kyle. Their mother left, moved to Arizona with some guy and took their little sister with her. Their father works at a job he hates and drinks to forget. One night Klint and Kyle are at a bonfire when their neighbor drives up, tears in his eyes, baseball cap clenched in his fists, and tells them their father has been in an accident. He was on his way home from Wing Night at The Rayne Drop Inn...he's dead.

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of town, Candace Jack, daughter of the founder of J&P Coal lives in relative isolation, tucked away inside her mansion, nursing an ages' old broken heart.

Fragile Beasts is the story of how the boys and Candace come together and ultimately help each other heal.

The novel alternates between Kyle's voice and Candace's...but O'dell writes from both perspectives very convincingly. Neither voice feels contrived. It also shifts from present day Pennsylvania to 1960's Spain...where Candace fell passionately, tragically in love. The two venues feel equally three-dimensional...the gritty, decaying, coal mining town and the noble, vibrant Villarica.

It's not an Ethan's not subtle or deeply nuanced. It's more of a delicious, soap-opera-y kind of novel. The kind that carries you away.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Following my recent experience re-reading The Awakening, I was inspired to revisit some other pieces I loved in high school but haven't picked up since...Our Town, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace....

But Wharton's novella, Ethan Frome, was at the top of my "To Be Read Again List" because when I read it for the first time, I was totally caught up in the romance between Ethan and Mattie Silver...I desperately wanted them to run away together...and I was totally crushed by the ending. I wondered if, this time, I would feel differently. How would 15 years and a host of life experiences change my perspective on the story...the characters? Would I see Ethan as weak and selfish now? Abandoning his wife and his duty. Would I turn on him the way I turned on Edna?

I entered in to reading in a curious frame of if I was conducting an experiment. I tried to be completely objective and open-minded...letting the story unfold...waiting to see how I might respond. If anything, I may have approached it a little cynically...

But it wasn't long before I was completely swept up again. Ethan is just such a good, honest, hard-working man. He gave up everything--college...his dreams for the future--to take care of his ailing parents and save the family farm. He married Zeena because he felt like it was the right thing to do...the practical thing. He tries to be a good husband, to give her what she needs to be comfortable and happy. He sacrifices over and no avail. It's never enough. Ethan's life is's impossible not to feel sorry for him. And Mattie Silver is the only thing that brings him happiness. She's young and fresh and beautiful. She's genuinely interested in him. She laughs at his jokes and makes him feel alive again...and hopeful. He is "too young, too strong, too full of the sap of living, to submit so easily to the destruction of his hopes". It's impossible not to want them to be wish Zeena would just go away. And the fact that they resist slipping into an affair even when it would be so easy and so forgivable makes you want it to happen even more.

I never loved Ethan more than when he's headed to borrow money from Mr. Hale so he and Mattie can run away, and he stops dead in his tracks. It says, "For the first time...he saw what he was about to do. He was planning to take advantage of the Hales' sympathy to obtain money from them under false pretenses...the madness fell and he saw his life before him as it was. He was a poor man, the husband of a sickly woman, whom his desertion would leave alone and destitute; and even if he had had the heart to desert her he could only have done so by deceiving two kindly people who had pitied him. He turned and walked slowly back to the farm."

Right there...that's when I wanted him to have Mattie the most. And as awful as I feel admitting it, that's when I wanted Zeena to die...she's already so sick...I guess...and so miserable...not really living at all. She should just succumb. Or maybe it could be an overdose...a stray spark...a loose wheel on the wagon...How horrible am I? How masterful is Edith Wharton?

She's got me right where she wants me...feeling how trapped Ethan really is. Feeling the futility of it all. There is literally nothing he can do because he is virtuous and good, and his circumstances are so hopeless and miserable.

And that's when it hit me...Ethan Frome isn't just a love's ultimately a statement about social class. It's about how in many ways, money can buy happiness...or at least it doesn't hurt. It's about how so many people are limited by the lack of resources at their disposal...trapped in bad situations because they can't buy their way out. If only Ethan had been more comfortable financially...he could have left Zeena some money, and he and Mattie could have started a new life for themselves. They could have had a happy ending.

Ethan Frome is absolutely brilliant...vivid, captivating, subtle, nuanced...I'm so glad I read it again. I definitely appreciated it more this time around, and I look forward to experiencing some other old favorites again soon.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"A Book" by Emily Dickinson

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!

I love this poem. It's always resonated with me...but not to the extent that it does now, following eye surgery. I had a detached retina...and the earliest days...right after surgery...when I couldn't read at all (or do anything else), were some of the longest, most restless days of my life. There was nothing I could do to pass the time. No escape.

I tried audio books, but I had a hard time following the plot. I kept having to rewind and re-listen. The words seemed to slip right through my fingers...I couldn't hold on to them long enough to construct the story. Maybe I'm more visual than I realized...maybe it was the narrator's soothing British accent...or maybe I was more drugged than I thought...but I was just lulled into the rhythm of the words.

The day I opened a new book, held a story in my hands again, and felt comfortable reading it, was pure joy! I was no longer stuck on my couch...confined to the same four my little August. I was transported...happily whisked away! The days since then have been filled with drama...with new people and places...sights and sounds. I've been living vicariously...and loving every minute.

Stay tuned...I have lots of blogging to do to get caught up!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Lessons Learned"

I just finished The Death and Life of the Great American School System...It was a truly fascinating read. In the final chapter, "Lessons Learned", Ravitch outlines her ideas for reform.

First, she makes the important point that schools are not responsible for all of society's problems...and while public education is an extremely important component of our democratic society, it alone can't save us. Ravitch writes, "Our schools cannot be improved if we use them as society's all-purpose punching bag, blaming them for the ills of the economy, the burdens imposed on children by poverty, the dysfunction of families, and the erosion of civility." She believes children from disadvantaged homes need preschool programs, medical care, and other social services to help them succeed...schools can't close the achievement gap on their own...rather they should be "part of a web of public and private agencies that buttress families." I couldn't agree more!

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites research showing that the standardized test scores of children from disadvantaged homes without a lot of direct parental involvement drop significantly over the summer, while the test scores of children from more advantaged homes tend to rise. That's a huge testament to the importance of the home environment. And another reason why teachers' jobs and salaries shouldn't be tied to standardized test scores. It takes a village...

That said, Ravitch does believe there are things we can do to improve education. Namely, we should focus on the development of a rich, rigorous curriculum in the liberal arts and sciences...ideally at the national level. She notes that those nations that tend to outrank us on international measures (Japan and Finland to name a couple) have national standards that spell out what students are supposed to learn in a wide variety of subjects. Massachusetts, one of the only states to have a strong curriculum in every subject, also has the highest scores in the nation on the NAEP and ranks near the top when compared to other countries. In addition, the 1,000 or so schools across the U.S. that follow the Core Knowledge curriculum regularly out-perform others on standardized tests. Ravitch says, "Having a curriculum is not a silver bullet. It does not solve all our educational problems. But not having a curriculum indicates our unwillingness or inability to define what we are trying to accomplish...if you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there." In other words, without a curriculum, all else is moot.

Ravitch also believes accountability must include more than the data we get from standardized tests. She proposes that every state establish inspection teams to evaluate its schools; and, according to Ravitch, any school that's struggling should receive extra support...professional development for teachers, smaller classes, after-school activities, additional tutoring, parent education classes, etc. She writes, "When schools are struggling, the authorities should do whatever is necessary to improve them." (italics mine)

Finally, Ravitch believes teachers should be subject-area experts and experts in pedagogy. Prospective teachers should be tested on their knowledge of what they will teach, and all teachers should be regularly observed and evaluated by their peers and supervisors. Ravitch also says schools will have to offer adequate compensation to attract and retain highly qualified teachers...but she doesn't elaborate much on that point.

That's it. Those are her suggestions. So...again...I'm left wondering...what needs to happen to make this vision a reality?

I'm also wondering what Ravitch's critics have to say. What's the other side of this argument? What am I missing?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

"Campbell's Law"

I just finished the chapter on accountability in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. So many times I found myself nodding vigorously...wanting to highlight every word...It's just comforting to know there's research that supports what I've been thinking about testing all along: standardized tests are flawed and limited, they're not intended to be used as the sole measure on which important decisions are based, there are too many confounding variables that affect test scores (i.e., language background, socioeconomic status, student motivation, parental engagement, attendance...just to name a few), and test-prep is taking over classrooms across America...superseding health, physical education, the arts, literature, government, history, and science. We're producing a generation of students who can (maybe) perform well on standardized, multiple choice tests in reading and math. Period. And we're calling that an education.

Ravitch cites Campbell's Law: "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social process it is intended to monitor." (italics mine) In other words, "When faced with demands to satisfy a single measure, people strive to satisfy that measure but neglect the other, perhaps more important goals of the organization." This phenomenon is known as goal-distortion...and Ravitch (drawing on the work of Harvard psychometrician Daniel Koretz) gives several examples from different disciplines...When the state of New York started issuing scorecards reporting mortality rates for surgeons, most cardiologists stopped performing surgery on critically ill patients to avoid getting a bad score. As a result some patients who might have survived were turned away. Also, when the airline industry was required to report on-time arrivals, they manipulated the expected duration of flights to compensate. As a result the on-time statistics became meaningless. Ravitch and Koretz believe this is what NCLB, testing, and "punitive accountability" are doing to education. Ravitch states, "The pressure to increase test scores is likely to produce higher scores, whether by coaching or cheating or manipulating the pool of test takers. As long as the state or district continues to report good news about student performance, the public seems satisfied, and the media usually sees no reason to investigate whether the gains are real...or meaningful." Fascinating!

Ravitch goes on to say, "Accountability as we know it now is not helping our schools. Its measures are too narrow and imprecise, and its consequences too severe." She says a good system would include other measures besides test scores...things like grades, teacher evaluations, student work, attendance, and graduation rates. A good system would also take into account what schools and districts are providing in terms of resources, class sizes, well-educated teachers, and a well-rounded curriculum. It would also include regular external inspections conducted by trained observers. In Ravitch's system, a low-scoring school would not be closed down, disrupting hundreds of lives, with the hopes that a new and improved school would spring up in its place. Instead, that school would receive additional support. Decisive and consistent steps would be taken to see it improve. Closing a school would be a worst-case epic failure on the part of not only the people who work in that building, but also on every district official.

So...I'm wondering...what do we have to do to make that a reality???