The Story of the Night (Toibin)

I have to ration certain authors, and Toibin is one of them. I don’t remember how I stumbled on The Master, but ever since, I’ve loved every single one of his books. I pull one of his books off the shelf when I need a sure thing, and once again, he came through. The thing is, I am not sure how he does it. There are no verbal pyrotechnics here. Just sentence upon sentence of seemingly straightforward sentences that, put together, tell (in this case), a half-Argentinian man living in Argentina throughout the Falklands War, the privatization of the oil industry, and the introduction of AIDS into the international vocabulary. I know that sounds like a lot (and I’ve left out things like the death of someone’s mother and a character’s passive decision to become part of a corrupt arrangement), but it really sneaks up on you and builds up to a well-earned emotional climax.

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Instructional Rounds in Education (City, Elmore, Fiarman & Teitel)

Meet the newest metaphor. School systems should use rounds, like hospitals do, and then whatever the problem of practice that exists will be cured. I overstate things. . . but only by a little bit.

This quartet of authors has created an extremely organized system. And if – as is the case with most professional development plans – it is applied down to the last detail, it would probably help. Yet even the best organizational plans, when laid upon shifting sands, will crumble. The authors have their parachutes built in, ready to explain away as the participants’ responsibility, any flaws in their plan. They forget, and this is the major flaw of the book, that they are dealing with human beings. And this is not, to use some of their condescending language, because I want to protect my own style; it is just true. You can practice and pinpoint all you want, but my descriptions of what I see in the classroom are always going to be grounded in who I am and all of the biases and background bits that I bring to the table. It is not a business; it is not a science. It is human beings. Here’s the core of the book and also the core of the problem:

Rounds is based on the highly contentions and problematic assumption that for schools to improve systematically, they have to develop shared practices and a shared understanding of the cause-and-effect relationship between teaching and leaerning. To characterize differences in practie as matters of taste or style, having little or no consequence for student learning, is to trivialize the importance of teachers’ practice and its cumulative effect on student learning.

They do love to think of themselves as controversial – here and throughout the book. They’re not; they’re just the flavor of the month. Data-Driven Decision Making by another name. This effort to reduce teaching to some kind of cause-and-effect that is easily identifiable and once identifiable then replicable is akin to chasing unicorns. But what such an effort does support is reducing teachers to part of the mechanics of education. If it was so easy to find these cause-and-effect relationships, don’t you think we would have done that by now? The authors assume that things in the classroom operate in some kind of vacuum, like if I just follow the algorithm, then all of the kids, the ones who ate breakfast and the ones who didn’t, the ones who were born into houses with lead poisoning and the ones born into houses with silver spoons, well, they will all learn. And if teaching can be reduced to an algorithm, then teachers can be replaced by computers.

The others move on from the paragraph quoted above to hysterical and hyperbolic examples to try to make their point. They refer to a plane about to make a landing and mock those who would want to deviate from the routine and accepted practices about how to land the plane. First, I want to ask, are those practices the same as they were 10 years ago? 20? But that would be to accept their analogy. That teaching is akin to landing a plane after a routine flight. The thing is, it’s not. Teaching is akin to having 25 different planes heading for some kind of crash, and that’s when we want teachers who are knowledgeable and trained and flexible and trusted enough to be like Chesley Sullenberger. Now do that 5 times a day. Every day.

You want systematic improvements? Start by leveling the playing field. School funding in Ohio, where I teach, has been declared unconstitutional 4 times. 4 times. And nothing has changed. Or start before that. Start with a country founded on two genocides, do nothing to offer any kind of reparations, develop policies that make those who are starting behind become cemented in those spots (at best) or fall further behind (at worst) and then say, if only we offered descriptive observations than judgmental ones, then all will be better.

Believe it or not, I am for systems. I am for coherency, consistency, collaboration. And I do see how the process of rounds could, if implemented well and narrowly focused, help address a very specific problem of practice in such a way that such an effort could be evaluated at an appropriate interval to see if it’s having the desired impact (and I wholeheartedly reject standardized test scores as the way to evaluate the success or failure of rounds). But this book, in the end, is a sales job, and one based on a kind of circular logic and plenty of false dichotomies. Dichotomies work with computers, not people. Certainly there are better and worse ways to do things, but that’s not the same as saying there are right and wrong ways – far from it.

Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Idea (Reece)

I have long been fascinated by utopias. I remember taking a class on Utopias and Dystopias in 8th grade (I think) and reading Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy. Now that I know more, I kind of can’t believe we read that, but when I was in 8th grade, we didn’t have the menu of utopian / dystopian novels that are available now. And I’m interested in the trend. I think it has to be more than just marketing. If you believe that arts reflect or respond to society, what do you make of the run of utopian stories, not just at the young adult level but everywhere, even from authors who don’t usually spend time in the area (Chang-Rae Lee, for example)?

In any event, that’s why I grabbed this book. Right away, Reece challenged my thesis that every effort has failed. He doesn’t equate ending with failing, which is a debate I might have with him. Nevertheless, I enjoyed following his road trip through communities, some of which I knew about (in fact, I live in a failed / ended attempt at a utopian community) and others that were completely new to me. At times, the book feels like looking at pictures of someone else’s road trip, but it’s mostly engaging, as Reece moves back and forth between his visit to the community (or what remains of it) and the community’s history.

I have to admit that I was (pleasantly) surprised when he ended his road trip in. . . Cleveland. He cites Ohio Cooperative Solar and Evergreen Cooperatives as evidence that America’s most radical idea is alive and kicking today. I think that’s why I enjoy the notion of utopias. They require such hope.

Ohio Cooperative Solar

Evergreen Cooperatives

Erik Reece

The Arch and The Butterfly (Achaari)

It started out so well, so promising. I was into it for a while and then it kind of went all over the place, both in form and content. There are some interesting insights – how we are all kind of archeologists of our own life, for example. But the story gets so diffuse, with so much more summary than scene, that I pretty much lost the plot and generally didn’t care. Perhaps it would reward more attention than I gave it, but after such a strong beginning, I couldn’t find my way back into it.

The Price (Miller)

I saw a production of it on Broadway with Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub and Danny DeVito, and it has been kind of haunting me ever since. I wanted to read it, but I could not find a copy of the script by itself, so I finally went in for the collection of his plays produced for the centennial of his birth two years ago. Despite the dated language – we don’t call each other ‘kid’ anymore – it holds up well; it’s complicated. No one is simple or oversimplified. Everyone has a story. The story they are living, the story they tell themselves to keep living. Time passes. Laugh. That’s all.

A Time to Kill (Grisham)

My commute this year is a bit longer, so I’ve been going the podcast route. I’ve been enjoying John Grisham’s podcast, so I thought I’d give one of his books a try. It made sense to me to start from the beginning, especially after he told stories of how big of a flop this book when it first was published. Grisham is very forthright about his goals and perfectly willing to embrace his success. He apparently, for example, exercised his right to veto an initial casting decision for A Time to Kill. But his ultimate goal, he explains on the podcast, is to keep people turning the pages and, despite many misgivings about the racial and sexual politics of the book, I kept turning the pages. The details here are not Grisham’s strong suit. Most sections read (at best) like useful first drafts. On the podcast, Grisham says that the first draft was around 1,000 pages, and my edition checks in at just over 500. He says the experience turned him into a firm believer in outlines, so maybe the future books are more precise. I don’t know if I’ll give any more of his books a try. I’d always heard this one was a kind of To Kill a Mockingbird-lite, and I can see the basis for the comparison. Based on the way he talks about them, A Painted House and The Innocent Man are possibilities.

Ferguson Interview Project (Birch)

This seemed like such a promising idea. In the spirit of Anna Deavere Smith or, closer to home, the collaborators who created the excellent production Objectively / Reasonable, Ms. Birch went to Ferguson, Missouri to conduct interviews about the Michael Brown incident / shooting / murder / assassination. The choice of words tells you something about the interview subject. On the plus side, some themes emerge, such as the number of municipalities around Ferguson and that their existence creates the need for separate police forces. Aside from the word choice issue and that recurring observation, Ms. Birch generally seems like she was the wrong person for this project.

Just because you can ask questions doesn’t mean you can conduct a good interview. She often seemed like she had a script and was unwilling / unable to vary from it. Her obsession with social media, the arts and her ill-conceived question about heroes revealed her pre-existing and, to my mind, superficial agenda. Though she asks each interview subject to identify themselves, she offers no basic biographical sketches about who these people are and why she chose them. There is no organization of the interviews.  She does not, for example, organize all of the interviews of the local politicians together. Or the clergy. There is just one interview after another. In addition to the lack of introductory or biographical information, there is no reflection. And Birch’s haste does not excuse her extremely poor proofreading.

While there are insights both large and small that can be gleaned from the interviews, I still wish someone more prepared and experienced had conducted them and put the book together. This might be the kind of book that can only be written once. I am glad that it exists, but at $35, I’m not sure how far it’ll travel and how much good it will do.