Sunday, July 06, 2014

Just Bubble In "C" for a Sandwich

(Illustration by Nicholas Frith, Wall Street Journal)

I’m entertained by the simultaneous rise in resistance to the Common Core and No Child Left Behind mandates and the renaissance in experiential learning.  Between Maker Faires and STEM robot competitions, you’d think making things was a brand-new revelation.  Alison Gopnik’s column “A Toddler’s SoufflesAren’t Just Child’s Play” set off a light bulb in my brain.  The notion of letting a child cook his own meal does feel like a revelation to many because the educators, parents, and student are so used to preparing for standardized education and standardized tests that they forgot how to cook.

When you consider that this Standardize Everything movement gained its greatest amount of steam with the release of No Child Left Behind, this makes sense. The legislation was co-written by Teddy Kennedy and George W. Bush—two rich guys who quite possibly never cooked their own meal even once.  [Feel free to break out of the cooking metaphor—I doubt they gained many real-world skills of any kind, save perhaps how to (insert some mysterious sailing terms here).] 

As a result, much of education quickly reverted to skill-n-drill exercises, and school districts that have misread the Common Core as a mandated curriculum (it is not) have in many cases sucked all creativity out of their schools.  Some even cut recess at the elementary schools in lieu of more test prep, for chissakes.  We now have a nation of kids sitting on their butts instead of, well, doing stuff.  The call for experiential learning (aka, learning by doing stuff) is not new--see exhibit John Dewey from 100 years ago--but it is increasingly timely given the push to keep kids in desks improving at one essentially worthless skill: the ability to take tests well.

In the big picture, what we have here is yet another case of America electing rich guys who don’t understand how regular folks live.  Seeing Gopnik's column in the Wall Street Journal of all places about the need for experiential learning just drives home the point that sometimes maybe, just maybe, we can be more “hands-off” with the schools:  Hire good teachers, then let them be creative.  Let them and the students get cooking.

Friday, January 25, 2013

5-Second Book Review x 3

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Incredible.  A must-read.  The Great American Novel of the Iraq War.  This book accomplishes everything we ask of good fiction.  I can't throw enough superlatives at it.

 Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey

Great poetry about death, the South, race, and the Civil War (amongst other topics).  "Letter" and "Southern History" in particular blew me away.


 The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

A great read.  Everything I read by Perrotta is great.  He, like Fountain, has an incredible eye for social commentary and the ability to sneak it in alongside compelling characters and plot developments.  This is plain old good writing.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Garfield's Glock

I wrote with my students this morning.  Here is the first-draft result plus a couple of photos I snapped of yesterday's Sunday newspaper and another one I took back in August.

We Have a Problem: In Response to the Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting

We have a problem, America. This is hardly news, but it’s worth repeating.

We have a gun problem, but the problem is bigger than guns—it’s about our culture. The fact that we even debate—in the face of conclusive evidence about guns and murder rates—whether or not to allow Americans to own semi-automatic weapons is insane.  If I talk aloud to an empty room, I’m thought to be nuts, but if I say I need a gun that can shoot 850 bullets per minute because a nonexistent boogey man scares me, well, that’s okay in America.

And that is nuts.

So, yes, banning semi-automatic guns should be an immediate priority.  Is that hampering freedoms, limiting the right to bear arms?  Maybe, but so what?  No man is an island, so we often limit each other’s freedoms for the greater good.  You can’t smoke in bars in Michigan anymore because it slowly kills the waitstaff and other patrons.  You have to wear your seatbelt in a car.  You have to pay your taxes.  All of these are laws for our own and the greater good.  Outlawing tools of mass murder is, obviously, for the greater good.  It’s such a no-brainer that disagreement is ignorant, stupid, or evil.  Or perhaps all three.

But guns are just the beginning.  We have a violent culture.  The makers of the movie Jack Reacher had the presence of mind to postpone the release of the movie due to the tragedy, but did we need yet another movie about shooting people in the first place?  It’s not just movies.  Our bestselling video games?  Also shooting people (or zombies, but let’s face it, these days that’s the same thing).

We have a violent culture.  We need more than a gun ban.  We need to reframe our thinking.  We need a semi-automatic gun ban AND to be better people.  We need to stop finding happiness and escape through fantasies of murder.  I understand the psychology of horror movies, our obsession with—and, it should be noted, value in—being entertained by our fears, but we’re well beyond that now.  Call of Duty isn’t about facing fears.  It’s about shooting people for entertainment.  This acceptance of violence as normal is our collective problem.  The mentally ill, and many not considered so, have a hard time seeing the line between accepted and unaccepted violence in our culture, and the culture has to own some of that blame.  Yes, we need more access to mental health care, but we also need to improve our culture.

Some say that violent movies and games are age-protected, that the young and impressionable can’t see them, but when I open the Sunday paper, I see ads for semi-automatic weapons of mass murder wrapped around the funny papers.  (In fact, it's the same model of gun, a .223 semi-automatic, used by Adam Lanza in Newtown.)  I should not see last-minute Christmas shopping circulars advertising rock-bottom prices for weapons of mass murder while trying to find Garfield

But I do.

(That's Lanza's model of gun again. Twice in the same newspaper.)

It's even in the comics themselves.  Here is one of the "funnies" that was underneath that wrap-around gun ad.  The "joke" is that one character wants to murder another with rockets.  This is not Bugs Bunny using mild violence to reinforce a joke.  This lacks a punchline whatsoever.  The desire to kill is the punchline itself.

So we have a problem.  We’re sick, and we need change, now.  We needed it a long time ago, but maybe, just maybe, we can use the unnecessary deaths of Sandy Hook’s children as motivation for the rest of us to grow up already.

Friday’s shooting was a tragedy, and the bigger tragedy is that it is only another school shooting.  The fact that I have to type another is all we need to know.  I, too, cried a lot over the weekend.  I played my ass off with my two-year-old son and then bawled like, well, like him because others cannot play with their kids today.  I’m also sad for his future.  I have to send him to school in a few years, and I don’t know if I’m willing to do that here.  America, we’re sick, and I don’t want my child to get the bug.

It’s time for change. It’s time to grow up. It’s time to stop playing guns because it hasn’t been a game for a long, long time now.

Let’s get better.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

On the Upside of Illness

Man, I love teaching Honors Creative Writing if for no reason other than daily Sacred Writing Time.  Here is mine from today:

On the Upside of Illness

Halfway through the work day on Monday, my body betrayed me.  I had a to-do pile a foot deep, but doo-doo pile was worse.  I was dizzy and weak, I had to sit down. 

I went viral.

I toughed out the day because that’s how I was raised: workers work, whiners whine, and ne’er the two shall meet.  I made my way home like a drunk driver.  Radio off.  Mirrors adjusted correctly.  I blinked hard to focus on the white and yellow lines ahead—all eyes and ears on the road.  Miraculously, as with my early twenties, I and the other drivers survived.  I got home, trudged inside, and fell on the couch. 

I didn’t get off it until ten hours later, at which point I merely moved upstairs to the bed.  I didn’t ultimately arise until 12:38 Tuesday afternoon.  My body shut down for roughly twenty hours.

Of course, we’ve all been there, or at least most of us have.  A nasty virus hits you and you shut down.  Nothing particularly interesting here, except, somewhere around Tuesday morning during one of my feeble attempts to get up, I had the epiphany that being sick was an utter joy.

Not being sick sick mind you—there is no joy in cancer, for example—but dealing with a short-term nasty bug like mine was a pleasure.  I, for all intents and purposes, was granted a day-long vacation.  A true vacation, with no demands, pressures, or schedules.  My one and only priority was to sleep, and due to my outrageous fever (I never checked it formally, so the data-hogs among you are left wanting numbers, but trust me, I was aflame), my dreams were unreal. 

I suppose druggies discovered the joys of surreality a long time ago, but I’m no druggie.  I like the world too much to escape it without control.  But a 24-hour shot of fever dreams makes for a very do-able vacation.  While on the couch, I distinctly remember my wife and child playing and listening to Christmas music.  So, my fever-addled brain determined that my son was made of snow.  Later, in the bed, I dreamt I had moved to a major city, like New York (but not New York, in that way dreams work), and crashed a party full of engineers watching a stadium concert by Aerosmith or Coldplay or some such schlock. Everyone at the party accurately decided, while munching a variety of fresh berries and whipped cream, of course, that the fireworks far outperformed the music. I then took back my bicycle from the high school basketball teammate who had stolen it to ride around the party, and I rode it home through the air.  As in, flying, like E.T. only better because there was no E.T.

But, as mentioned, somewhere after noon I finally rose, was able to eat and drink a little, and began my slow re-acquaintance with the real world.

I cannot begin to tell you how let down I was.

The fantasy fever world was better in many ways (except for my son—I’m glad he’s real and not Frosty) because it all held wonder, a sense of mystery and unknown fun that the real world lacks.

Today, I reported for work.  Slower and duller than usual, I’m making my way through the day, but I can’t help but think that we’re missing some bigger point.  On my way in today, my brain still making the adjustment to regular life again, I thought a leaf blowing across the road was a fairy.

And why the hell not?

Why must we so rigorously and religiously stick to schedules and plans and data data data?  Don’t get me wrong—I am one of science’s biggest defenders, so this is not a piece decrying what we know to be true.  My son is vaccinated—no bioweapon in daycare is he.  Evolution happens (see exhibit: The Virus That Crushed Nobis Yesterday).  Physics tells us whether or not asteroids will smoosh Toronto.  But there is still room in life for the bizarre, for moments that don’t need to be or cannot be quantified, for the embracing of the unknown and impossible.

We don’t need to push ourselves so hard every day that life loses its wonder.  As I exit my orbit and prepare for splashdown, I’m trying to embrace the opportunity this bug brought me.  I hope to become a better me because of my fever dreams.  Today, I’m only taking on as much work as I can do well.  I’m quitting at quitting time so I can play, really play, with my son and wife.  And I’m making sure I get a full night’s sleep.  The dreams are too good to be denied.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Meditation, Of Sorts

Yesterday's reflection, a first-draft:

There is No News Cycle on the Trail

The world today
went farther into the
handbasket's hell,
no doubt,
but forgive me
for not noticing this time.
You see,
it's late November in 
Michigan, the time
when Joe Henry says you can
almost see the river 
turn to steel,
and as a native son
I vouch
he's right.
Because Charlie & I hiked
two hours today
and spent a good chunk
of time tossing sticks 
into the grey lake,
the only motion 
our arms, flying sticks, & ripples.
A few curious does watched us
from afar, twitching white tails at
the imperceptible breeze.

The lake cares not

for problems.
Neither do the deer.
Neither, for that matter,
does my two-year-old son,
as impressed with each throw as he was with the first
because I can get the sticks
all the way to the water
20 feet out, past the muck.
Yes, you can always
hurl the dead wood
beyond the muck
to still water beyond.

And you can do it
& again.


And here's the great Joe Henry song, "Sault Saint Marie," referenced above.