The Shape of Home (Chilcote)

It can be a lot of fun to be at least roughly the same age as an author. The allusions and experiences can resonate so deeply that they prompt the painful laughter of recognition. Such was the case with Chilcote’s  “Rock ‘n’ Rollers,” a gently mocking recollection of the first time the author, or at least the persona, heard Johnny Cougar’s “Hurts So Good” on a boom box. I was right there.

There’s a freshness in this collection, much of it celebrating the small moments that come up with being “sudden occupants of the life we’ve planned” as a married couple which leads to this insightful conclusion (in “Another Country”):

Perhaps marriage / is not a home, but a home-leaving – an imperfect residence in / another’s soul.

And then there are the children, forever ravenous (and very familiar), who, in “Veni Vidi Vici,”

Climb in the fridge, pull down yogurt, / scale the cabinets and topple teddy grahams, / Eat right off the floor.


Reputations (Vasquez)

I admire the way Vasquez unpacks his stories, his sense of when to speed up and when to slow down. Big things happen, but they do not occupy much space. Instead, he is more engaged by the way we respond, the intimate details of choice made and not made. Here, he explores the idea of reputation, how one is cultivated and how one, often quite easily, is destroyed. He seems to suggest that we at times become metaphors for ourselves, our whole lives spent trying to live up to our reputation.

Storming Heaven (Giardina)

I used to go to West Virginia once a year to visit my grandmother, but I haven’t been there since she died. I’ve always been curious about the place, and maybe the recent election renewed my interest. After I read James Green’s book, The Devil is Here in These Hills, a friend recommended this one and, as usual, her recommendation was solid.

I admit it took a little while to warm to the book. I knew Giardina was casting her net wide by introducing the time, the place, the people, and the issues. The dialect can, at times, seem a bit hokey. But once the plot gets going, this story of The Battle of Blair Mountain becomes a riveting tale on both a personal and political level.

And with the LaborFest coming this weekend and everything. . .

Map to the Stars (Matejka)

Anisfield-Wolf award winner Adrian Matejka has produced another excellent book of poems. I chose the word ‘book’ deliberately. This is not a collection of poems, but it is, like The Big Smokea book. Generally, when I read poetry, I can read 2 or 3 poems at a time. If I read too many more, I can’t really give them the attention they deserve. This is not to say that Matejka’s poems don’t deserve careful attention; they do. It’s just that the book has such a narrative drive (see the transition between “Stardate 8705.29” and “Business as Usual” for an example) that I often had to remind myself to slow down.

Together, these poems tell a compelling coming-of-age story that involves a move to the suburbs (which means a move from Prince to Fleetwood Mac) and all that involves, notably the sometimes unspoken but always simmering issue of race. In “After the Stars,” Matejka reports that “Upward / mobility equals stars in every // thing” and that the persona’s new neighborhood has “One sedan per driveway / & one tree centering each & every yard.” But all is not idyllic in the suburbs. Matejka reminds us that “All of this dirt came from some / other dirt repeating itself & you stand on top / of its frozen remains, arms raised like the Y / in YMCA. Look at you now. You are high-fiving / yourself in the middle of a future strip mall.”

Throughout, “[t]he spacious myth of space” proves to be just that, a myth. There is a hope that “everyone looks the same / in a space suit” but they don’t. In “Outta Here Blacks,” Matejka notes that despite the move, some things didn’t change:

We were outside our chalk-outlined / piece of town like a bad pitch. // We were outlying that old spot // like perfectly spelled / gentrifications.

Still, there remains a somewhat empty hope for a fresh start. In the perfectly named “Record Keeper,” Matejka writes

& because nobody / hunts for dinner in the suburbs, we put down / our implements of half step & appetite, sidestep / the moon as it descends into a whole plateful / of charred thighs and wings. We collectivize / the back-in-the-days way as tenaciously as chicken / legs undress themselves at a cul-de-sac party, then raise the stripped bones to history. Out here, there / isn’t any, so history is whatever we want it to be.

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.


A View from the Bridge (Miller)

I have a ticket to see the production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago on Saturday, and I’m pretty excited. I’ve read great things about Ivo Van Hove’s production. I saw the show once before in a production that was designed for a student audience. I enjoyed reading it. Though the language may be dated at times, the conflicts at its core are not. And the accusation that marks the climax of the play both puts one in mind of the HUAC as well as the power of the accusation – so often fueled by social media – today.

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.