Thursday, March 31, 2011

Slow type

And now I run the risk of seeming ridiculously retro and nostalgic, but I loved the story in the New York Times style section today about typewriter fetishists.

“I’m in love with all of them,” said Louis Smith, 28, a lanky drummer from Williamsburg. Five minutes later, he had bought a dark blue 1968 Smith Corona Galaxie II for $150. “It’s about permanence, not being able to hit delete,” he explained. “You have to have some conviction in your thoughts. And that’s my whole philosophy of typewriters.”

The article, "Click, Clack, Ding!, Sigh"...brought up a lot of buried misapprehension that I've always had about the slapdash approach to writing that the computer has created in all of us. And because this  is not just about the love of slow-brewed thoughts, but about the sad fact that we've embraced plastic over lovingly burnished metal, here's the slide show companion to the story.

In grad school, I was taking a class with Sven Birkerts when he was writing The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. In the class, he often threw out his theory about computers creating a lot of bad thinking and dashed-off writing (see Louis Smith, above). I'd even take it a step further to say that handwriting creates the best link between the brain and the hand, offering up more creativity and solid thinking. I remember casually asking a writer/editor if she ever tried writing in longhand first, because I always thought it brought better results. "Just sounds like a waste of time to me," she said with a flummoxed look, making me feel like a complete throwback...kind of like these typewriters.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The joys of independent reading

Recently, in light of some recent events at my school, I've been thinking a lot about the value of independent reading as part of the school curriculum. As standardized testing takes hold (and as independent reading assessment has become more time-consuming and difficult), kids are choosing fewer books on their own. It's a real loss, and it's happening at all levels of the socioeconomic spectrum. Our teachers have embraced independent reading, and we're seeing the payoff pretty clearly.

As an AP English student, I read scores of plays and novels. However, the books that I remember are the ones that I chose off of an approved but not core list. These books felt dangerous, outside the classic curriculum, fringe, and my attachment to them was personal. Those seared in my memory are Naked Lunch, On the Road, Turn of the Screw, among a few. They were generally books about people operating outside of normal society, often in deranged ways.

The middle and high school where I work has embraced a different kind of independent reading. Instead of edgy classics, our kids are reading YA fiction, often intense books with strong plots. Most are not reading Great Expectations, or even On the Road or Catcher in the Rye, but, quite frankly, they wouldn't anyway. While some lament the loss of the classic as more modern fiction is embraced, my feeling is that we are creating readers instead of turning kids off of reading for good, which is what would happen if I handed one of my students my personal favorites. My hope is that they will dig deeper and turn to classics after they build their reading muscles, which are often pretty lax.

The way that my school has promoted books and reading is through our "book club." An informal group of people who buy books and might start casual conversations about them. It is not a real book group, which, as a recent New York Times piece notes, is not always necessary. As Rebecca Stead notes, often a reader wants the book to only exist in the reader's mind. "For me, as a kid, a book was a very private world." Stead recalls not wanting to talk to people about the books she loved because it shattered that intimate relationship with the work.

People who want to promote reading, though, have to work hard to build a must-read excitement for a book. As book critic and author Laura Miller states, there's a whole lot of competing interests out there. Book groups and Internet book sites generate excitement and interest around an activity that, for most kids, might not seem worth their while.

“If you want to build a culture where people who could just as easily watch a movie are going to instead say, ‘Oh, I’m going to read this Tracy Chevalier book or ‘The Kite Runner,’ ” Ms. Miller said, “then they do need that kind of stuff like the book groups and discussion guides.”

Letting kids pick their own books is controversial, as this New York Times article -- "A New Assignment: Pick Books You Like" -- indicates. At this point, though, it may be the only way to get kids to read. And, if you can't get kids to read, then you really shouldn't be in the education business at all.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A new addiction with City of Bones

It's always fun to find a new book addiction, and I'm completely hooked on Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments Series. The opening nightclub scene in the first book, City of Bones, is an easy book talk. All I have to do is act it out (I knew those high school drama classes would pay off somehow), and the book is sold.

In this scene, the main character, Clary, a normal Brooklyn teenager, goes to an all-ages club. In line, she spies a cute boy -- who just happens to come to her (and the bouncer's) attention because he's got a sword. Inside, Clary's busy deciding whether or not to go talk to him as he ponders why humans are such easy prey and zeroes in on his first victim. The night ends with a killing and a dead body that can't be located. No one believes Clary's murder story, and she's wondering if it's all been a very strange dream.

The dream becomes the narrative as Clary bumps up against one otherworldly creature after another. My personal favorite is the sinister cabal of librarians -- archivists who resemble a cross between a Zen Buddhist monk and the Grim Reaper -- who can read minds and crack open memories, laying waste to the human hosts.

In one scene, these librarians, the Silent Brothers, come up in conversation. One character reminds another that he hates the Brothers.

"I don't hate them," said Jace candidly. "I'm afraid of them. It's not the same thing."

"I thought you said they were librarians," said Clary.

"They are librarians."

Simon whistled, "Those must be some killer late fees."

Clare's humor seems aimed at adults, but the romance and drama grabs kids. Let's just say that the series came to my attention when a student, normally calm and collected, checked out the third book and, with a wild look in her eye, grabbed it, explaining, "These are the most addictive books ever. They're like Twilight -- on crack."

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Measure L passes

I've heard from a few who know far more about public policy than I that Measure L was bad governance, but I'm still happy that people came out to vote for libraries.

An LA Weekly blog quotes Yes on Measure L chairwoman Lucy McCoy as saying, "Tonight was a vote for keeping our kids safe after school, for helping job seekers get back to work, for seniors looking for a warm place to read and for all the Library goers young and old.  Angelenos have sent a clear message that our libraries are a critical part of the fabric of our community."

This blog, written by Patrick Range McDonald, correctly states that the Los Angeles Times mostly stayed out of the fray, allowing hallowed Southern California library lovers to post op-eds and choosing not to support the measure. The Weekly, on the other hand, exposed the frightening city hall shenanigans that were poised to undermine the entire public library system with its fantastic cover story, "City of Airheads," a rallying cry for anyone who cares about public institutions.

It's pretty obvious that we need a rallying point for school libraries. The unions are too focused on classroom teachers to worry about librarians. If the teachers unions can't fight for school libraries, who can?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Save LA's Libraries: Yes on L

Alexandria, which didn't make it
Today, of course, is election day in Los Angeles. I want to urge everyone to vote yes on Measure L, which helps fund the badly drained LA library system.

HERE is a wonderful piece by the writer/world traveler Pico Iyer. Our state and city budgets are in desperate shape, we all know," he writes, " but to save money by reducing library services and resources is like trying to save a bleeding man by cutting out his heart. Or — if we could reach it — his soul."

The way to think about it is "Do we want to live in a world without libraries?" My sense is that the people making these decisions are not the ones who need library services. 

Measure L gives the people who do the opportunity to tell the city that libraries matter to them. I've spoken to Susan Patron, a writer and LA's most famous librarian, and both of us agree that there is a very strong chance that, once the funds and staff are taken away, cities and schools will not give back, even in good times. When the budgets shrink, the libraries can't serve the people. 

Then, the people get angry at the libraries and its staff for not providing proper service. If we get to that stage, if everything has atrophied at the rapid pace that it's moving now, there is a very real chance that we won't have libraries because our idea of a vital library will be a dim memory. Definitely vote for L.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Building a 21st Century library

I'm currently taking a class with school library master David Loertscher, which is turning out to be one of those uncomfortable yet valuable "learning what you don't know" experiences.

Loertscher, a proponent of expanding the role of the school library on campus and of using technology to teach, constantly reminds us of how plugged-in we need to be to teach this generation of students. The class is a real reminder of how much we're not doing to use technology on our campuses.

We're still here, but where are our kids?
Through Loertscher, I found a link to the "Big Think" blog, and a list by Scott McLeod of what we'd need to be doing if we were all serious about technology. Here's a taste of McLeod's list:

  • "treat seriously and own personally the task of becoming proficient with the digital tools that are transforming everything instead of nonchalantly chuckling about how little we as educators know about computers;... 
  • better educate and train school administrators rather than continuing to turn out new leaders that know virtually nothing about creating facilitating and/or sustaining 21st century learning environments;"