Saturday, August 28, 2010

Shaming the teachers

Recently, I opened the Los Angeles Times online and the big story of the day was about evaluating teachers. A man with white hair and jeans was pictured in action in his classroom, and I assumed that he was one of the top-ranked because of his prominence. Rather, he was one of the worst-ranked. The Times set the scene for his official public shaming.

Most teachers are eager to learn more about their effectiveness and how they can improve. When I posted the piece on Facebook, upset about its inherent meanness and the focus on standardized test scores, former and current teachers laid into me. They were chomping at the bit for something like this.

With this story, the Times has created its own news, stirring up a firestorm that has prompted many subsequent articles and a slew of smart comments. In their relatively new role as LAUSD watchdog, they've exposed some travesties, like the "holding tank" of teachers who can't be in a classroom because of serious charges against them but who are still collecting salaries, sometimes paid to stew for years. Another piece on the ridiculously soft evaluation process was dead on.

This is something different. Here's the original article, "How Good Is Your Child's Teacher?" 

Diane Ravitch, author and education expert who has come down hard against standardized test culture, called the article "disgraceful."

My favorite response to it has been "The Measure of Our Worth," an Op-Ed in the LA Times by Ivanhoe Elementary fifth-grade teacher Kim Jones.

Arne Duncan says that releasing this data (based on a "value added" approach that many experts distrust) is about looking at success. It's more about looking at failure -- the failure of an education system that is becoming more about standardized test scores and less and less about nurturing creativity and curiosity.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Where's the middle class hero?

It seemed for a little while that Congress was going to be the superheroes for public schools and laid-off teachers, but, alas, their interrupted vacations were for naught. Rather than spend the money now to rehire educators, most districts have decided to sit on the funds and prepare for the budget-cutting storms to come. Here's the New York Times story about the crushed hopes of laid-off teachers.

The face of the teacher in the photo echoes Dorothea Lange's brutal Great Depression photographs -- which is apt.

Whenever I read the comment threads about these stories, somebody inevitably says something to the tune of, "What makes teachers so special? They need to take the hit like so many others." Problem is, Sir (and it's always a sir), that we're not just talking about people's jobs; this is about children and our already over-strapped, struggling public school systems.

It makes sense in these dark times that so many people are turning to Lisbeth Salander, the heroine of Stieg Larsson's blockbuster fiction trilogy. Lower class, tiny, female, fragile, furious, doll-like, brilliant, anti-authority, anti-consumer, and vengeful, Salander is a great hero for our troubled times.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

David Brooks jumps in the Books vs. Internet debate

I've had so many conversations about this with librarians and educators recently -- and everyone that I'm talking to is landing heavily in on the books side. This may seem obvious, but a New York Times article a year or so ago tried to suggest a counter-intuitive and hopeful argument, that kids are reading more than ever before, but that reading just happens to be on the Internet. No real reason to devalue that, or is there?

And here comes the New York Times columnist David Brooks -- a controversial figure, but a very smart guy -- who argues that the mere presence of books seems to enrich students. He cites a study which revealed that kids who brought home a stack of free books over the summer fended off the traditional summer decline. The books actually did a better job of bolstering the brain than summer school did.

Then he launches into the old Internet vs. Books debate, arguing that authority matters. Books do something different for our minds and our culture.

He says, "A citizen of the Internet has a very different experience. The Internet smashes hierarchy and is not marked by deference. Maybe it would be different if it had been invented in Victorian England, but Internet culture is set in contemporary America. Internet culture is egalitarian. The young are more accomplished than the old. The new media is supposedly savvier than the old media. The dominant activity is free-wheeling, disrespectful, antiauthority disputation."

As exciting as this can be, he says, the Internet keeps us on top of things, but it doesn't enrich us. And there's something to be said for authority and respect for books and writers.

Read more of this powerful piece by clicking here.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Neil Gaiman, Librarian's Son

I'M trying to make this blog about more than just the collapse of the library system -- really I am -- but events keep bringing me back to the matter. The latest is the report of an excellent speech by writer Neil Gaiman about the importance of libraries. 

This article, in London's Daily Telegraph, reports on the novelist -- whose mother was a librarian -- picking up the Carnegie Medal for The Graveyard Book. (The award is given by the Chartered Institute of Information Professionals.)

In short, Gaiman described closing libraries as "stealing from the future." Here's what he said:

 "Libraries are our future – to close them would be a terrible, terrible mistake – it would be stealing from the future to pay for today which is what got us into the mess we’re in now.
"In this austerity world it's incredibly easy if you are a local authority and you are looking for cuts, to say 'Let's cut libraries'. But that's borrowing from the future."
Part of what I also like is the way he insists on the importance of libraries and librarians in the Internet age -- calling them "more important than ever."
Anyone who follows this blog -- or the current debates over libraries, information technology, and so on -- knows that libraries are hardly just about musty old books. Though without musty old books, we surely wouldn't have writers like Neil Gaiman.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Libraries really run themselves, don't they?

During the nightmare in Pasadena, as the district opts to close all school libraries (and doesn't seem to be backing down), one comment on the Pasadena Star-News web site simply suggested that the kids shelve the books and the library...well, libraries are really systems run on autopilot anyway, right? 

I'm always flabbergasted whenever someone throws out the idea that libraries basically run themselves. Aside from being totally insulting to librarians, it's a downright ridiculous suggestion. 

There's a reason why my MLIS program is the most difficult educational program that I've ever been in (and I've been in many) -- libraries are serious business, and they need trained professionals running them.

This kind of inane ignorance about libraries, though, is what got us to this place, where vital public library systems will close their doors two days a week. (Click here for the Los Angeles Times story on the L.A. public library closures.)

Here's a voice of reason on the topic. Andrew Motion, former poet laureate of Britain, has denounced this "let the library run itself" idea (well, let the library be run by volunteers), which is spreading like wildfire. Quite appropriately, Motion frames this as an issue of equity.

Motion says, "Whether we are traditionalists about libraries or not, and I consider myself not, we ought to be able to accept that libraries are very important pieces of machinery for delivering to human beings what they need – information, pleasure, instruction, enlightenment, new direction in life. They're also joining up with services which help people with difficulty reading, and working with people learning English – to put all that in danger is exactly the wrong thing to do," he said.

Here's the rest of the story, from The Guardian.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

YA dystopias -- are we in hell, or just high school?

In another example of YA's tight grip on even adult book lovers, Laura Miller has a great piece in the recent New Yorker magazine about young adult dystopian novels. Books discussed here -- Hunger Games, Maze Runner, The Knife of Never Letting Go -- have an ardent following in my library.

I held my breath a bit as Miller attacks Hunger Games' every flaw (she's spot on with each criticism), making it all sound like complete nonsense. But then she completely gets it with this amazing section:

"If, on the other hand, you consider the games as a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience, they become perfectly intelligible. Adults dump teenagers into the viper pit of high school, spouting a lot of sentimental drivel about what a wonderful stage of life it's supposed to be."

The rest of this section is brilliant, but it's too long to quote. Here's the full, incredibly thoughtful article, in which Miller shows a deep understanding of why students love these dark, creepy books. It might make YA-obsessive adults wonder, however, if they're still having a hard time getting over their own high school hazing.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Slipperiness of Facts

TODAY'S New York Times Book Review has a sharp, funny piece called "The Joy of (Outdated) Facts" about books, the Internet and out-of-date information. I make a brief appearance as an unnamed "school librarian friend" concerned with her students' lack of skepticism. (He's referring to my recent LA Times piece about kids and the Internet.)

The author, Geoffrey Nicholson, is a new discovery for me, an author who blends wit and enthusiasm with a piercing intellect. Reading his work is a true pleasure, and I can't wait to read his essay collection, The Lost Art of Walking. Here's a link to his website.

Nicholson begins talking about his obsession with an old edition of the Guinness Book of Records, and then tells us:

"It took a while for me to understand why my need for the book had been so great, and then I realized, with a bit of a slap to the head, that for much of my life I’ve been accumulating “books of facts,” single volumes as well as multivolume sets. I also have eight random volumes of the 1969 World Book Encyclopedia, which I found on the street. "

More on this shortly.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Final layoff

The process of getting laid off in education is like water torture. First, there are the rumors, then the pink slips, then the meetings, then the rumors, then the final layoff notices. And then the talk of alternative funding.

My principal came over to my library yesterday to hand me the final layoff letter and to give me a hug (which was much needed).

As a librarian, this "termination" symbolizes so much more than the loss of a single person. The space that I'm in charge of -- as humble as it may be -- includes the work of decades of culling, buying, and protecting. It's a living thing; it moves and flows, it provides a safe haven and a place for collaboration. The closure of a library is a death.

This article in the Huffington Post by one of the good guys in this battle -- Peter Dreier is a prof at my alma mater Oxy and someone who tried to get the parcel tax measure passed -- made me feel a whole lot better.

At least we're discussing the problems in this whacked system. Here's Dreier on what's wrong:

"The harsh reality is that, like every school district in California, Pasadena schools are still suffering from the shock waves produced by Proposition 13, the statewide initiative passed in 1978 that put a ceiling on local property taxes. Since then, school districts have been almost totally dependent on the state for school funding. Once among the best public education systems in the nation -- from kindergarten through college -- California has now sunk to one of the worst.

California is the 7th wealthiest state in the country (in per-capita income), but it ranks 46th in per student spending, according to Education Week -- $8,164 compared with the national average of $10,557. It ranks 42th in the number of students per teacher, resulting in large average class sizes. California has 20.9 students per teacher, compared to a national average of 15.5. It is at the very bottom in the ratio of counselors, school nurses, and librarians to students." 

That's the bad history; but there's good news here, too. Most of the people in Pasadena voted for the parcel tax measure, and that many others are talking about the serious inequities in this screwed-up system. 

Here's the entire Huffington Post article.

Announcing new blog -- Sidecar!

I'm creating a new blog devoted solely to intense teen reads called Sidecar. Though it's not ready for it's big debut yet, here's a sample book review:

Matt and his fellow football players enter the gym, pound metal, and then head for the back room for their injections. In the opening sceene of Raider's Night, you are delivered a world in which kids are willing to do just about anything to win -- and the coaches and parents are willing co-conspirators.

Riding an emotional roller coaster -- partially caused by the drugs, partially caused by the tough, warlike jock culture that keeps him cut off from his feelings and from connecting with any girlfriend -- team co-captain Matt goes off to football camp, eager to focus on the game. Only a harrowing hazing gone wrong makes him question everything that's made life worth living.

No mere football book, Lipsyte's gripping and at times terrifying novel is a serious critique of macho masculinity. A deep, powerful read about all the things that can keep boys and men focused on the strength of the body at the expense of the soul.

Bibliotherapeutic value: Though shocking at times, this is a brilliant exploration of sports/guy culture. It sends a strong message to the reader that friendship is more important than fighting and winning. Underneath it all, there's a sense that Matt's main problem is that he can't acknowledge his own feelings -- rather than making him a winner, it's threatening to undermine his entire life.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Feeling like a sucker in the system

What's happening in education right now reminds me of a book review I did for the Los Angeles Times. The book, called Welcome to the Aquarium, is about a year in an incredible teacher's kindergarten classroom.

Here's an incredible teacher offering the kind of rich life experiences that create life-long learners, and then you see how the system dampens the experience for the students.

[From the review:] "'s no surprise that Diamond is sometimes infuriated by new trends in education. She describes how her kindergartners' legs shake as they take a standardized test -- the fact that the test kit comes with a cheery puppet who is supposed to spout the questions makes the scenario even more horrifying." (To read the entire piece, click here).

Sometimes it's hard not to feel that the ed system is there to impede learning, not to promote it.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Kid, don't listen to that bottom-heavy bear

Finally getting to day two of the Los Angeles Times Festival of books -- by five o'clock on Sunday, both my son and I had come down with a wicked virus picked up somewhere between the booths and the food court.

As the virus was beginning to tickle my throat, and I was probably getting a little grumpy anyway, I was driven to distraction by a huge fuzzy bear dressed like Flavor Flav.

Hip Hop Harry closed out the day -- he's a body in a huge bear costume (he's also the star of a tv show on Discovery Kids) vaulting around to the delicious sounds of Kurtis Blow.  Not only did Harry underscore that old school hip-hop whomps the newer stuff, he also emphasized our wrong-headed approach to getting kids to read.

Harry rapped about the importance of washing hands, brushing teeth, and cooperating. All fine, but damn him for what he did next. With my impressionable three-year-old in the audience, he followed those "good for you" messages with a riff on books, reading and libraries called "I Love to Learn." I should've covered my kid's ears.

Sven Birkerts, a former teacher of mine and the writer of a few seriously contentious books (especially The Gutenberg Elegies, which he wrote while I was in his class -- not a compliment!), has written about his problem with prescriptive reading, and I have to agree.

I learned about the power of the written word when I was in sixth grade, when I giggled over the Judy Blume book Forever with a classmate at recess one day. The next day, I was called for a very serious conference with the teacher. Seems that my classmate, who had just arrived from Egypt, told her dad about the book and that was that. The book was officially banned from the school.

Now, I'd never had any restrictions on my reading (and I'd never, ever been in trouble at school before). Did I learn that books were powerful? Did I learn that some books were considered "bad for you"? Oh, yes. Did I hate reading for it? Heck no!

Also, because of my hideous illness, I have had the time to read many of the Atlantic Monthly's entire 2010 fiction supplement. My favorite story was a bizarre and wonderful slice of fiction called "Bone Hinge" by Katie Williams about a pair of Siamese twins. Was this story good for me? Probably not, because it was both creepy and sad. But it was worth reading -- it took me somewhere.

So what do we need to teach kids about reading and books (and libraries)? That reading can be dangerous because it can break you out of yourself, that it can take you to a new place, that it can be disturbing and sad but still glorious because it can rock your world. No, Harry, reading is not good for me. It's not even "good." And that's the best thing about it.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Plugging in at the Book Fest

I don't know what I'd do if I lived in another town; to me, it's not spring until the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books hits. I have no idea why I love this event so much...the crowds are thick and slow, there is never enough time to get to enough panels, and it's usually hot as hell.

Today was one of the best Book Fest days that I can remember. Great weather, James Ellroy performed some crazy magic trick for my son, and I got to attend thought-provoking panels.

First was the panel, "Rebooting Culture: Narrative and Information in the New Age," moderated by David Ulin, the LAT's book editor, with some serious thinkers in the realm of literature and our fragmented culture. A point of contention was whether computer culture would a) make the idea of intellectual property a relic, b) make us cling to taut, realistic narratives, or c) kill reading altogether. (Nicholas Carr, one of the panelists, wrote the great Atlantic Monthly essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"--sadly, I side with Carr.)

The next panel was moderated by my husband, Scott Timberg, and included Aimee Bender, Lev Grossman, and Victor LaValle. It was a pretty serious discussion of genre, realism, and fantasy. Bender is always a great presence at these things -- she can bring up Kafka and the TV show The Bionic Woman in the same sentence and make it all make sense. Grossman was very smart and funny (his book sounds like an adult Harry Potter...with sex). LaValle was so impressive that I had to read a few chapters of his book, Big Machine. Afraid I'm hooked.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The dark and the light

Just began dimming the lights on the Los Angeles Public Libraries on Sundays. Incredibly sad, but a much better alternative than closing ANY branches. See this story by Kevin Roderick in his blog LA Observed

Roderick's been a bit of a library advocate recently. Also liked this commentary on Jaime Escalante and education, though a recent Times story hinted that Escalante's story helped push the drive toward high-stakes testing -- which gave me pause. A great teacher, nonetheless.

On a lighter note, I came across a great article about Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards' love of libraries in the London Times Online. Richards actually wanted to be a librarian -- let's see, rock star, librarian, rock star, librarian...tough choice for many.

An excerpt from the piece, written by John Harlow:

The guitarist started to arrange the volumes, including rare histories of early American rock music and the second world war, by the librarian’s standard Dewey Decimal classification system but gave up on that as “too much hassle.”

For more on Richards on personal and public libraries, click here.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The crumbling of public schools

Enormous cuts are beginning to make people take a good hard look at our education system, especially in our divestment from it. Others are shining a light on certain practices that should probably be abandoned (like the seniority system).

Two pieces that came my way today should be read by anyone who cares about education.

The first is an article co-written by a colleague, Tyler Hester--a second-year teacher at Blair IB Magnet in the Pasadena Unified School District who has been pink-slipped (along with all of the district librarians). Check out "Letter from a Laid Off Teacher" here.

Another was a gut-wrenching opinion piece by Derrick Z. Jackson called "The Death of Public Education" that ran in The Boston Globe. Here's an excerpt:

"Beneath the numbers is the resegregation of children on the basis of
class, race and immigration status. Prison spending soared so much,
that by 2007, five states spent as much or more on corrections than on higher education, according to the Pew Center on the States."

It's a fascinating and terrifying look at how the U.S. has given up on public education and on the kids in the system. Read the entire piece here.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

What happened to the parents?

Really fascinating piece in the New York Times today about parents in YA books -- a historical look at how they've evolved (mostly devolved -- or disappeared). It's called "The Parent Problem in Young Adult Lit"; check it out here.

In my YA book group, we started talking about this topic when we were reading Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Get the parents out of the way and the kids can be heroic. Then again, many of the YA writers are Gen-Xers -- could this the revenge of the latch-key kids?

After witnessing the impotent father in Twilight, the murder of Bod's parents in Graveyard Book, and the abusive behavior of the harrowing psycho-mom in The Rules of Survival, I was surprised to encounter the flawed but heroic single mom in Rachel Mead's fantastic When You Reach Me.

But let's not talk about what happens to the parents in my new favorite YA book, Jellicoe Road...

(The painting is Mary Cassatt's "Under the Horse Chestnut Tree.")

Thursday, April 1, 2010

My Interview with School Library Journal

Well, it's a little strange for someone who used to make a living interviewing people to be the subject of an interview, but here's my Q&A with School Library Journal.

I thought the questions this person asked were just perfect (and I read that magazine all the time, so I was completely shocked and thrilled that they wanted to do something on me--who, me?). And it allowed to get some things that were really bugging me off my chest.

Am still surprised that my op-ed is getting this much traction. As someone who has been saved more than once by a patient librarian, I am worried about the state of the profession (and our information society), so I hope some decision-makers will listen!

Here's an excerpt:

This is the way I see it: most teachers and administrators went to school more than 10 years ago. If you've been in an undergraduate or graduate program recently, you see that everything has changed so drastically in the realm of research and technology that it is a new world, a new universe. Everything is different.
Teachers see how students are manipulating the technology, though, and they're seeing bad information, false information, and an explosion of plagiarism.
They're worried. But they are so busy preparing students for these high-stakes tests that they often struggle to make the time for research projects.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Finding Meaning in I Am the Messenger

After picking up and putting down the weighty The Book Thief after noting to myself that I have to read it eventually (how often do you get to read a novel narrated by Death himself?), I was pushed by my YA lit group to read I Am the Messenger. Also by Marcus Zusak, Messenger is a far cry from Book Thief, and I've had plenty of reluctant readers pick it up and call it the best book they've ever read.

Messenger is a raw-boned and tough, but a little slapstick, too. Narrated with good-hearted attitude by the protagonist, a self-described loser who wanders through life and can't do anything right but simply be the youngest (illegal) cab-driver in the area.

Caught in the middle of the bank robbery, Ed does something completely out of character and heroic. Then he begins getting mysterious cards in the mail that send him to different locations.

He goes to each, and he finds that there's a job for him at each location; they are at times harrowing and at times sad.

Though his missions can seem a little contrived at times, the ending of this novel blew my mind. Strangely enough, some kids at my school are obsessed with the book but couldn't understand the ending at all. Hint: Read that section about the visitor carefully, and toss out any preconceptions about what a novelist can do!

The Web and Misinformation

THE other day I was reminded once again of what a font of misinformation the Web can be.

A student in my high school library declared that he "hated" the new healthcare plan passed by Congress and pushed by the White House.

Why? I asked. Because, of course, "Those poor women will get knocked up every week and get an abortion every week." And, apparently we now have a Communist system, like Russia. Doctors will go "bankrupt," like England, he told me.

Not everybody agrees on healthcare -- we all have our own opinion of the new legislation -- but I think any informed person can recognize the lack of facts here.

Where are you getting this, I asked? "The Internet," he replied, as if saying, Where else?

For more thoughts on this phenomenon, see this article, "Young Learners Need Librarians, Not Just Google," that was published in Forbes Magazine.

And then there's my op-ed that ran in the Los Angeles Times, "Saving the Google Students."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Map of Things to Come?

A new map -- here -- shows impending cuts to school libraries around the country. It comes at a time when my very own school district -- in Pasadena, Calif. -- has pink-slipped all of its librarians.

Studying this map, it's obvious that Pasadena stands out by choosing to get rid of middle and high school librarians. But any loss of a library is a problem. I know that everyone is blaming the increase of Internet use for districts' willingness to wipe out school libraries and/or librarians, but there's something else under the surface.

Reading, and the critical thinking that went along with it, was considered the bedrock of the educational experience back in my day. Building the relationship with a library was vital. I still remember what my elementary school library at Highland Oaks looked like. I remember exactly where I was sitting (and the way I was facing) when I read One Fish Two Fish by Dr. Seuss. The people at that school allowed us time to relax into the place, to play as we read, to love language.

Now, thanks to No Child Left Behind, it's all about teaching to the test. The "process" approach (the kind of project-based learning that has proved to be most successful in teaching) has been tossed aside. It's about pouring information into kids' minds so that they can test well right away. As my husband aptly points out, it's that kind of short-sighted, short-term thinking that has impacted journalism, with corporations' obsessions with quarterly profits. It might produce quick results, but it doesn't produce long-term gains or real quality.

So... research projects and independent reading aren't considered important in this quick-hit culture. We'll see soon enough if this approach works for the future -- my guess is that the positive results will be temporary. And when libraries, and the enthusiasms they spark, are lost, they're likely to be lost for good.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Welcome to Dig Me Out

Welcome to my blog, dedicated to books, Young Adult literature, and issues around libraries, education and technology.

Here is a piece from Sunday's Los Angeles Times about the importance of librarians to teach students digital literacy. It seems to have struck a bit of a nerve.

I'll be following this debate, so please keep coming back.