Shopping Mall (Newton)

Bloomsbury has started an interesting series called Object Lessons. It is intended to be a “series about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” Some of the topics include dust, hair, bread and a sock. I chose this one because of my general feelings about malls, in particular, the Mall of America. When I told the bookseller that I looked forward to the criticism of the mall, she said she thought it was more of an homage. And she was right. There are some sweet vignettes about the author’s family waiting for the mother to emerge from the mall where she worked.

The argumentative side of the piece is, however, fundamentally wrong. Newton laments the loss of mall culture and says that times have changed since the days of Victor Gruen’s utopian vision for the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota. The mall was supposed to be the Main Street of the suburbs, and not only did that fail to work, it was never going to work.

The suburbs, created out of a love for the car, a desire for more space, and the need to get away from those who couldn’t get away from the city (the poor, the black, the brown) served to cement – and I use that word deliberately – the divisions among people. A mall could never have been a suburban version of a city center because anyone can access a city center or public square. Not everyone can get to a mall in the suburbs. And those who can’t get there probably can’t afford much even if they could find their way there.

And despite noble attempts to dress it up, a mall is, at its heart, a capitalist enterprise, one that cannot and will not co-exist from the democratic (or even worse!) principles of a public square.

Newton, who writes well and possesses a heavy dose of nostalgia says that “[n]o mall is forever; their lifespan, like our own, is finite” (126). Beautifully put, but in the end, wrong. As the son of an architect, it has been my experience that no one creates a building without expecting it to last. Yes, we’re finite; that’s part of the deal and we know it from the very beginning. Malls are monuments; they’re not supposed to have an expiration date.

I agree with the woman who is quoted as being sad that the Rolling Acres Mall was the “landscape of [her] childhood” (122). Children may spend time in malls, but it is no place to grow up. Newton shouldn’t be so surprised by her reaction.

Newton regrets the recent run of mall-based violence. He reports the unsubstantiated claims that the violence was planned over social media. He and others are probably right. It probably was organized. And those teens chose their target wisely and, I think, knowingly. You can protest downtown all you want, but disrupt our temples of capitalism with violence or even a non-violent protest? It is, for some, truly the end of days. Let’s hope it’s the end of malls.



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

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.

Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition (Shetterly)

My school received a donation of enough copies of the book for both students and staff. We are going to hear the Anisfield-Wolf award winning author speak on Friday at Cleveland State University. The Young Readers’ edition is one of the better examples of the form that I’ve encountered. Shetterly successfully intertwines the stories of the four African-American women – Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden – against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, and the introduction of television. It is to her great credit that she is able to make the moments of space flight suspenseful even though the outcome is already known. There is a particularly lyrical section in the first chapter that sets the context for the experiences of these four remarkable women. I enjoyed the pictures included in the text and wished for more of them. And the explanations of the science and math were within my feeble reach in those subjects.

To reward myself, I watched the movie with my family. It was, in short, awful. Remarkably, Theodore Melfi, a white man who both co-wrote the screenplay and directed the movie (why?) managed to make it a story about Al Harrison (Kevin Costner, in full speech-making mode – Crash still loves making speeches). Melfi reduced the 4 women to 3 and maybe, maybe, the trio as main character made it hard to do much more than paint each woman as a stereotype. And I understand that you sometimes need outsider characters to show change, but for a story that was, by all accounts, a story about African-American women asserting themselves in a racist and sexist society, why does Harrison become the hero for tearing down the sign marking one bathroom being for one race only (a completely fictitious scene in a movie based on true events)? Granted, we do see the women doing math, though Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) has this awful line in response to a patronizing and sexist remark from a would be suitor: “So yes, they let women do things at NASA, Mr. Johnson. And it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses.”  This is what they came up with for Johnson to articulate her intelligence and independence?!?!?!

Then there’s the troublesome nature, present in both the book and the movie, of exceptionalism. Is it possible to both applaud the telling of a purposely neglected story (though I wish, especially in the movie, that one of the women had been allowed to tell it) and to worry that the book and movie contribute to the narrative present in so many stories featuring people of color, narratives that are comforting to white people, that essentially can be boiled down to — If they can do it, why can’t you? (And therefore if you can’t, it must be due to some flaw in your character.)

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Kendi)

Put the American History textbooks away and use this instead. Initially, I was put off by the word ‘definitive.’ How could a person claim such a thing? But it didn’t take long for me to accept the word. In clear, efficient and persuasive prose, Kendi takes us through 400+ years of American History, years guided by an inversion of what we normally expect when it comes to racism. Kendi argues that the problem does not start with racism, but with self-interest. The self-interest yields racist policies. The policies engender racist ideas. And it is these ideas that generate the hate and ignorance we saw recently in Charlottesville. And the cycles goes on and on and on.

Kendi pretty much hits all of my college reading list and investigates both their words and actions (which are sometimes contradictory – see Thomas Jefferson) when it comes to racism, discrimination, segregation, assimilation, etc..  Since I already knew some of the pieces about King, including aspects of his work that are often underreported, I found the evolution of DuBois’ thinking and activity fascinating. It made me want to return to his work and find a good biography.

As I neared the end, I anticipated what Kendi might have to say about Obama and the current occupant of the White House. Kendi dips into Obama’s tenure, notably into his response to Rev. Wright. Obama, like pretty much all of the other historical actors in American History, comes out with a mixed report. Of those who get any kind of substantive treatment, I think only Zora Neale Hurston and Angela Davis seem to have spoken and acted in an anti-racist manner with any kind of consistency.

I am not one of those who insists that if you critique something that you are therefore responsible for providing suggestions or solutions. Kendi does present some ways to organize the country’s thinking near the end of the book, both for those who have power and those who don’t.

I also want to add that of all of the books that were celebrated as being able to explain how we ended up with our current occupant in the White House, this one does the finest job of explaining the historical patterns that got us here and why we shouldn’t be surprised by his victory. We’ve been here before and we’ll be here again  unless we adjust the way we proceed. When it comes to the prospects of country making these adjustments, Kendi is, however tentatively, more optimistic than me.

Ibram X. Kendi

Social Justice Institute – Cleveland

The Empty Space (Brook)

As a long-time theatre fan, I have heard Peter Brook referenced innumerable times as one of the faces on the theatrical Mt. Rushmore. I just checked; he’s still alive. So when I saw this book, I thought I might gain some insight what makes him so revered. For much of it, though, he comes off as a grumpy old man in love with Shakespeare and little else. The book sparks whenever he talks about his specific approaches to directing. To his credit, he is aware of the contradictions in what he’s saying. His preference for the ‘rough’ style of theatre comes off as a bit romanticized and superficial. The claim that somehow better theatre is being done in bars than in theatres because it is in bars (and all that that involves) seems just silly to me.

The center of Brook’s theatrical universe is Brecht, and this book is the first time I’ve even begun to understand the notion of “alienation.” I’m more inclined to dig into one of Brook’s other favored playwrights, Samuel Beckett. I’ve always liked his work more than Brecht’s.

I had trouble with Brook’s obsession with Shakespeare, whom I love. Older, though, is not, by definition, better; it’s just older. I, for one, could do without ever seeing another Noel Coward play, even if Kevin Kline is in it.

While I agree with Brook’s desire that the design process evolve along with the directing process, I suspect it’s a privilege he earned, and not one that many theatres can afford.

I enjoyed being inside Brook’s head for an intense 140 pages. And I do have my own opinions about what makes good theatre. I think it will always survive, though I do think the desire to cultivate a new and diverse audience is, right now, at odds with the increasing ticket prices. I think there can be good theatre both in bars for five bucks and on Broadway for five hundred. I just want to get more people into both spaces.