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TODAY'S New York Times Book Review has a sharp, funny piece called "The Joy of (Outdated) Facts" about books, the Internet and out-of-date information.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.