Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Freire)

Well, this one had stared down at me from the shelf for long enough. I decided that it was finally time to push my way through. Margin notes, including many definitions, provided an historical account of my previous attempts. For a while, perhaps because I’m just older or, more probably, because I’ve studied many who came after Freire, I was doing well. I agreed with what he criticized about the ‘banking’ approach to education and advocated in terms of ‘problem-posing’ education. The end of chapter 1 was a period of real clarity, as I think I understood and recognized much of what he has to say about the oppressed here. Obviously, I became overconfident, and several subsequent sections stymied me.

My confidence returned at the outset of Chapter 3, as I found myself in enthusiastic agreement with what Freire offers here about language and how it is an act of creation. Then the gaps between margin notes became longer. I found myself turning pages with only the vaguest sense that I understood what Freire was saying. The sections on ‘Divide and Rule’ and ‘Cultural Invasion’ opened up for me in useful ways.

I don’t think anyone, especially me, can review Freire. His work, in my perspective, stands outside of such a realm. Instead, I will offer that though I found much of it hard going, I found it all – especially those moments that resonated with my personal and professional experiences – to be incredibly compelling. Freire asks many questions, and I close the book – temporarily – asking myself, “What are my myths?”

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee (Mills)

Why do we read biographies? Why do I read biographies of authors? Why did I read Charles Shields’ bio of Lee, one that I now know Lee had no interest in? Why would I read this one and have no interest in the recent one of Salinger, another favorite author?

I want to know what we all want to know. Why didn’t Lee write (or publish?) more? The amount of scrutiny she received for her book in the early 60s was, by this account, staggering. What would it be like today?

What does this depiction of Lee and her hometown do to my reading of the novel? Can I put together her work on In Cold Blood with To Kill A Mockingbird? To what extent does biography matter?

This is a very readable book – surprisingly thin at times, given all of the information Mills said she gathered. I am aware of the controversy about it ( and find it, along with other pieces I’ve picked up from Lee’s small corner of Alabama, to be sad.

The book has insights, anecdotes and interviews. Part of it is Mills’ story, particularly her struggles with lupus. I appreciated her candor about it.

Next time, I’ll just read To Kill A Mockingbird again.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things (Hoffman)

I’m a sucker for stories that involve circuses, carnivals, sideshows, etc.. Maybe in another life I would have run away with the circus. So even though I was not blown away by The Dovekeepers, I decided to give Alice Hoffman’s newest one a chance; I’m so glad I did.

This is a wonderfully constructed book. The parallels evolve subtly and meaningfully. She evokes the atmosphere of early 20th century Coney Island incredibly well. I opened the book, and I was there. The writing is exquisite. One character is said to have “a thorn of compassion” before offering to help someone. What a great phrase and absolutely perfect for that moment and that character. Beautiful and important images of water are interspersed throughout the novel, and even a word like “brother” takes on such nuanced meaning.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire has an important role in the novel, but to her credit, the novel is not about that. The characters become involved with it, but Hoffman is willing to let some of the questions remain unresolved. On the other hand, the novel is, somewhat, about the fire and the issues that it raised – unions, social classes, immigrants, changes in New York, etc.. It becomes a great set piece, but does not dominate the proceedings.

Hoffman’s ending is evocative and well-earned. Hoffman’s orchestration of things both small and large is masterful.

I Read It, But I Don’t Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers (Tovani)

This is my second time through this book. This time, though, I read it with more focus and urgency. I have many students who are “word callers.” In Tovani’s terms, word callers “can decode words but don’t understand or remember what they’ve read” (14). She offers a dozen or so strategies that are both familiar and useful (sounding), and she seems to have the credentials to offer them. Still, I do wish she’d offered some concrete evidence that they, you know, work, or at least some anecdotes.

She’s got something, though. I was reading it and a student pointed at the title and said, “That’s exactly how I feel.”

I’ll probably see if I can introduce her ideas at my school.

This is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education (Vilson)

I picked up the school reform issue of The Nation. While I was not too inspired by any of the articles it contained, this book caught me eye, and I’m glad it did. Vilson is a voice – and I use that word deliberately – that we in the teaching profession need. He’s the first one that helped me make sense of education related blogging. His positive spirit is both inspiring and infectious. He is determined to teach “fearlessly.” He does not want us, as teachers, to wait to be asked for our input. Or, as he puts it, “[i]nstead of waiting for someone to hand the mic to us, let’s take it” (176). This notion of teacher voice, he contends, requires “three cogent pieces: a balance between emotion and reason; expert confidence; and a specific audience in mind” (178). He has the familiar criticisms of NCLB and Race to the Top, but it’s his constant attention to the needs of his students – even as he becomes a teacher leader – that prevails. And it’s his nuanced and developing understanding of the relationship among race, class, and education that’s inspiring.

And by the way, Vilson can write. I’m not just talking about his powerful poetry (seek out his performance at the Save Our Schools march), but also his prose. His meditation on behalf Ruben Redman as well as his “Note from a Native Son” are remarkable. And then there are sentences like these (trust me, it makes perfect sense in context): “Three-fifths for any man of color in this country would break his constitution” (77). Boom!

Here’s to the new generation.

Night Film (Pessl)

Atrocious cover art notwithstanding, this book is quite an accomplishment. Pessl has created worlds within worlds. What are those Russian dolls called? Nesting dolls, I think. Pessl is aware of her plot construction and uses the images of those dolls herself to much better effect.

This is a marvelous genre-defying story. There are twists and turns, action and reflection. Pessl has an eye for the telling detail. That she can stretch an image too far at times or neglect a practical detail or two are aspects of the book that are easily forgiven.

She is persuasive in her rendering of a male voice. The ending, the internal one for the male protagonist, comes off as not completely earned. I could have used more about Scott’s life prior to this latest investigation. I think such a move would have helped make the ending more resonant for me.

This is an extremely frightening and visually evocative book. Someone’s going to make a disastrous film version of it one day.

A fast and worthwhile read.