Ghosts in the Schoolyard (Ewing)

This book is essential. Much of its success stems from its narrow focus, a focus that’s encapsulated in its subtitle, “Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side.” Ewing refers here to the 2013 school closings because, as she makes it clear, this isn’t the first time that there were school closings; nor will it be the last. She also makes it clear that she recognizes that school closings have to happen. She seeks to make sure we understand that these decisions need to be understood as more than just the results of test scores or other cryptic jargon (“underutilized schools,” for example). There are historical factors as well, and those factors are inextricably linked with racism.

Since I knew her first as a poet from her remarkable collection, Electric Arches, it doesn’t surprise me that her attention to language is so insightful. The section on institutional mourning was revelatory to me. I just never thought that deeply about that aspect of a school closing. It helps to have the words of those who have experienced one (and, in some cases, more than one), but it is Ewing’s capacity to bring the various pieces of testimony together that really helped crystallize the issue for me.

This is not a book to read and shelve. This is not a book just for teachers or for Chicagoans. This is a book for citizens because we all, whether we like it or not, have a stake in public education. As we move forward in the wake of strikes (LA, and perhaps Denver), disaster capitalism and charter schools (New Orleans) and a Secretary of Education who seems to know very little about, well, education, it’s time to remember that the public is supposed to be in charge of public education.

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photo by Susan Irene Phillips
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The Coddling of the American Mind (Lukianoff & Haidt)

Read books, they said, that you disagree with. This one certainly qualifies. Even a cursory glance at my marginalia shows just how much this book, at least, parts of it, infuriated me. The book, with its surprisingly unacknowledged nod to Allan Bloom (especially considering the fact that his university – also my university – gets such high praise in the end) examines the origin of our obsession with the emotional safety of college students and the consequences it’s causing. The writers, perhaps practiced in it by their experiences writing for academia and magazines, are a bit overfond of numbering things. Even the clever catchphrases grow tiresome. But my biggest objection is the seeming blindspot when it comes to race and poverty.

There area a few token acknowledgements that some populations need more support than others, but to suggest that all parents adopt a more free-range parenting style, that their children carry a note saying they’ve been given permission to do this, that by doing so, the children will learn to negotiate the issues that are making them feel ‘unsafe’ on college campuses.

In a word, no. I’ve got students who are not permitted to stray from home once they return from school and may travel (not independently) to a local relative’s house during a vacation. Statistics be damned. Statistics assume a rational world. This is not the world my students inhabit. Send them on an errand at age 10? No. Just wrong. So either this is a blindspot or the authors don’t expect my students to attend their colleges.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Frankopan)

I have long accepted the need to remedy or at least balance the traditional canon in literature, and I guess I’ve had a vague idea that the same thing should be done in history, but from the beginning, Frankopan makes this necessity both specific and compelling. I understand the requirement to study American History (though when it ‘starts’ and ‘ends’ is always of interest), but why do we require students to study the history of Europe more than any other place? I know it’s likely because that story eventually ends in the United States. Frankopan, though, makes the convincing case, that to understand history, we shouldn’t look to England (for example), but to places whose names carry different weight now in our studies. And this weight, Frankopan demonstrates, is in large part due to our own blunders there. I’m talking about Baghdad, Iran, etc., the true center of the world.

In addition to seeking to persuade us that we need to reorient ourselves away from the United States and towards the true center of the world, Frankopan recounts the attempts at globalization that existed long before the internet, namely roads. The history of the world, Frankopan contends, can be understood by who has had safe access to and therefore control over resources all over the world.

This is, to borrow the blurb from The Wall Street Journal that graces the cover, “a rare book that makes you question your assumptions about the world.” It also made me question the range of my own education (and the reason for that limited range). There is so much I do not know.

Into the Hands of Soldiers: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East (Kirkpatrick)

This is just not an area or time period I know much about, and I am preparing to teach a novel set in post-Arab Spring Egypt, so I thought some background would be useful. The book is useful, but with all that happens and Kirkpatrick’s proximity to it, much of it is disappointingly flat. Perhaps it’s because he’s used to writing for newspapers. Maybe it’s because there’s so much to cover. But the book, presented as a kind of journal, does pick up in places, and those sections deliver some of the energy (both positive and negative) that seems to have swirled around those days. I could have used a map. And maybe a glossary of key players. Even without those, though, the patterns of events are sadly familiar, including the role of the US. As hard as it was at times to read of the inconsistency and (in)action of the Obama administration, it seems hard to deny it.

The Devil’s Highway (Urrea)

This is a remarkable example of narrative non-fiction. Urrea juggles storylines that establish the tension that results in the absolute catastrophe in southern Arizona. While there are a lot of books out there about immigration policy, this one is about the people. The immigrants and the families they leave behind. The coyotes. The people behind the coyotes. The border patrol. The hospitals. The social workers. All of them. The devil, if you’ll forgive me, is in the details. What each person was wearing. The significance of Mendez’ awkward gait. What it can mean when your phone call gets directed to this person and not that one.

The tension here is akin to Capote’s In Cold Blood. We know the ending, but we are desperately hoping that someone will step in and alter what might only be viewed as the logical consequences of so many bad choices. But that would assume that any of these individuals actually had any real power. The people with the money and power are always looming in the background, and they care little about the people who have arrived at a life that tells them that their best option is to walk from (at least) one country to another. They are viewed as individual, disposable people and this is the real problem. Urrea does give us some facts about how much we spend on people like this (after they’ve died or been caught) and wonders what might happen if we invested that money ahead of time instead.

If you want to debate immigration, read an editorial. Or write one. If you want to know the human story, read this.

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The Devil’s Highway

Carceral Capitalism (Wang)

I chose this one because I’ve become interested in how our obsession with capitalism (something I don’t know a lot about) could be (is?) driving mass incarceration. I can’t say I followed all of this (references to Marx make me realize that gap in my background knowledge), but I think Wang is generally persuasive. I found her style, sometimes academic, sometimes personal, sometimes quite poetic, etc. a bit discombobulating. It occurred to me at some point that this may not be so much a book as a collection of previously written items and that could account for why it seems so disjointed.

Pose Wobble Flow: A Culturally Proactive Approach to Literacy Instruction (Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen)

Well, I had been aiming for an epic for review #1,000, but my schedule got away from me a bit. But I’m okay with it (and will still get to The Master and the Margarita over my winter break) because this book, in its way (and not because of page count – about 130) has had an epic impact on me. I can’t say that I found a remarkable amount that is new here. It’s just the best, most condensed version of the kind of (English) teacher I want to be. I have the vocabulary for it and strong support for my development in that each chapter has reflection questions and additional sources at the end of it. I had some quibbles with their presentation of reading online (I side with Nicholas Carr here), but aside from that, I strongly recommend this for all people who are English teachers, are preparing to be English teachers, are interested in literacy education, and, well, teachers in general. A mind-changing, life-changing book. An epic, if you will.