Sunday, August 25, 2013

Works Cited

There is no shortage of the memoir-as-Bildungsroman, the coming-of-age of the writer in the world.  Works Cited:  An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior (University of Nebraska Press, $16.95) by Brandon R. Schrand contains all the familiar tropes:  copious drinking and drugging, college hijinks, fraternity debauchery, sexual promiscuity, rebellion against authority, classroom failure and embarrassment, all repeated ad nauseam.  What sets this book apart is some beautiful writing.  That Schrand is gifted and that he survived his best attempts to remain a child in a man’s body are never in question.  Willingly, we go on his journey with him, riding the twists and turns of the story like passengers on a train snaking through the difficult terrain of a challenging country, a symbolism the writer, himself, uses in the book.

What really sets this memoir apart is its organizational structure.  Schrand eschews chronological order and instead, compiles his story as a bibliography of the books that changed, or didn’t change, or changed only years later, his life.  For the most part, this works, but occasionally, the cited book gets slighted for the drinking and debauchery.  In other words, straighten out the narrative and it becomes like all memoirs of youthful indiscretion, even with the beautiful writing.  Still, I found the unique organization a welcome change-up from the just-another-memoir-of-my-bad-boy days.  One of the lines that resonates comes right at the start of the book, and explains the reason for the bibliographic organization:  “…I acknowledge that books themselves cannot save your life. Not in any literal sense.  But if I misread my ways into mayhem and misbehavior for so many years, I was able, finally, to read my way to some kind of safety.  That journey is this story.”  Those of us addicted to reading and writing love when books save lives, if only because we all have our own version of the book that saved us.  That makes Schrand’s transition from royal screw-up to upstanding member of the writing world compelling.

He begins at the beginning, with his eccentric family life:  stepfather and mother get stoned; grandparents run a hotel; and Schrand grows up in the wilds of Idaho, Utah and the arid deserts of the northwest United States with occasional trips to Arizona and other places with often dangerous and funny adventures.  “Everything felt big to me,” he writes, “epic almost, and I matched the changing world I saw outside to the pictures in The Children’s Bible—pictures of flaming chariots racing through the skies, of Samson breaking the pillars, of Jesus walking on water.”  Connecting to the Bible makes Schrand believe the world would eventually “go crazy like that.”

A central internal conflict for Schrand in the book is his desire to grow up while remaining stuck in the quicksand of his own immaturity.  In the chapter connected to Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he writes:  “Caught in that heartbreaking paradox of both wanting to be a man and never wanting to leave childhood, Huck was a boy like me who yearned to be a man unlike his father.”  This introduces a number of false starts, dead ends, and misadventures on his road to being a successful husband, father and writer, and that feels real.  Life is not a straight line; we all fall back many times before setting ourselves free.  We see that clearly in Schrand’s writing in this book.  The examination of these events, his failures, his betrayals of others, must have been difficult for him to write, and must be excruciating to read for those who were witnesses or suffered those betrayals.  He takes pains to recognize the sacrifices of his wife, Kelli, who at one point in the story forces him to return to college and graduate while she rises at five a.m. to go clean toilets to make extra dollars to keep the family afloat.

Schrand’s writing contains the necessary healthy dose of self-deprecation.  He lets the reader feel his shame and laugh at him and his antics.  Yet, there is also a bit of a mirror reflection going on because his trials and tribulations, funny as some of them are, remain painfully recognizable.  There is not a lot that is new here in his memoir, but he does tell the story with grace, humor, and beauty, organized in a Works Cited listing of the books that inspired him.  In short, we can relate to his immaturity, his youthful blindness, his falling down.  We wait for the promised redemption, and like most of these kinds of books, he delivers in the end.  His journey is one of twists and turns, hills and valleys, all through the dark night of his misbehaved youth on out into the daylight of his maturity.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How To Use The New York Times In The Classroom

I'm again using media and journalism in my classes this fall.  Specifically, we have purchased digital access to The New York Times for every student and will be using articles on a daily basis in our course work.  To that end, I wanted to post some ideas about how to use journalism and media in the classroom.

Using journalism in the classroom offers an almost unlimited number of teaching possibilities.  Literally, any media platform will work:  daily or weekly newspaper; monthly magazines; cable news networks; blogs and tweets; and comedy or satirical news sites.  Many of these platforms cross over into different genres of reporting, so The New York Times online offers print, photographic, and video content, as well as blogs and reader commentary, all of which combine together to convey the story.  There will often be additional material on the site to enhance or supplement the basic article.  For example, an unedited version of an interview might be offered online, which means students might want to compare versions and analyze the differences.  In addition, a full gallery of photographs from a story might be available online beyond the one or two that accompany the article.

There are many excellent resources online for using journalism in the classroom.  I would also suggest two documentaries focused on The New York Times and journalism.  Page One:  Inside The New York Times (Magnolia Pictures, 2011) focuses on award-winning journalist David Carr and the Media Department at the paper, detailing how a reporter goes about covering a rapidly changing world; and Bill Cunningham New York (Zeitgeist Films, 2011), profiling the 84 year old NYTimes street photographer who has spent his career photographing fashion on Manhattan’s sidewalks.

Listed below are more specific ways a daily newspaper or article might be used:

1.  Journal writing—have students read an article and summarize the story in a paragraph or less (a highly underrated skill); students might also take a position on an issue based on their reading; students could also write about how the information in an article might have a global, national, local or personal impact; students might also explore the meaning of the NYTimes motto:  “All the news that’s fit to print” (now digitally, “All the news that’s fit to click”) and the ratio between “good” news versus “bad” news, since most people believe only the bad news ever gets reported.

2.  Analyze the way a specific topic is presented.  For instance, how is immigration presented in the paper?  Race relations? Third world countries versus First world?  How is a story like the Trayvon Martin case covered over time?

3.  Students might analyze the way a newspaper can be biased by comparing the NYTimes to another news source.  What facts are included or left out of a story that might be emphasized elsewhere?  How do different publications sensationalize a story?  For instance, how is The National Enquirer’s coverage different from the NYTimes?

4.  Journalism is all about the conveyance of facts in a supposedly objective manner.  How are the facts arranged in the story?  Which facts come first and which are buried in the body of the article?

5.  Develop a vocabulary of newspaper terms:  headline, byline, beat, editorial, op-ed, feature stories, graphic, lead, libel, slander, masthead, style guide, nutgraph, sources, attribution etc.

6.  Discuss with students the ways newspapers (news sites) attract readers.  What qualifies as news, and how does the meaning shift depending on the publication?  What draws them to a particular story?  What makes them tell others about what they’ve read?

7.  Have students prepare a presentation on First Amendment issues and freedom of the press.  Also, why is a healthy news media necessary to a democracy?  When and where has journalism been suppressed?  How many journalists have died in recent years while covering a story?  Are those deaths heroic?  How has the role of the journalist changed over the years?  One powerful and moving piece of reportage is posted online by photojournalist Tim Hetherington.  The short film is called “Diary,” and is a compilation of clips from his reporting life in a variety of places around the world.  Hetherington is responsible, along with Sebastian Junger, for the award-winning film, Restrepo.  He was killed by a mortar shell in Libya in 2011.

Diary (2010) from Tim Hetherington on Vimeo.

8.  Students should build their vocabulary by looking up unfamiliar words, terms, or phrases.  This could be turned into a game where students challenge each other to define or identify words and ideas from their readings.

9.  As they read through their articles, ask students what historical value a particular story might have going forward.  What stories will still be important six months from now?  A year?  Five years?  Ten years?

10. During the course of the semester, have students develop an article/idea file from their reading.  They should collect articles of significance to them, to their chosen fields, their possible careers.  They can use this file to find topics to write about not just in this class, but in other classes.  This also promotes making connections across the curriculum.  Connections are key.

11. Reading journalism can build map and geography skills.  For specific regions or countries involved in a particular story, have students compile a background file containing maps, geographic features, census information, literacy rates, health care statistics, etc.  Lead them to realize that such information, although not necessarily included in the story, forms the basis for writing in depth about an issue facing that population.

12. In groups, have students present an article to the class using digital resources like YouTube/video clips, photos, music, and art.  Encourage them to use non-journalism techniques to convey the story.

13. Have students research the way a story has been presented throughout history.  For instance, many newspapers referred to Japanese people during WWII as “Japs.”  How has terminology and public perspective changed over the decades?  Are we more enlightened now about issues such as racial sensitivity?

14. All journalists write from the formula of the “5Ws and the H”:  who, what, when, where, why and how.  Have students identify where the 5Ws and H are conveyed in the article.  Does the writer of a particular article fail to identify one of those?

15. Have students look up proofreading and editing marks and then practice using the symbols on a piece of writing.  There are hundreds of sites listing the common marks, but Merriam-Webster has comprehensive guide.

16. Discuss with students the different sources used to write an article, such as interviews on the record, off the record, background, deep background, unattributed, attributed, statistics, public record, Freedom of Information Act, etc.  Have students look for sources for a particular topic and evaluate the reliability of those sources.  For instance, in a civil war in a particular Middle Eastern country, who must a reporter interview to create a clear, objective perspective on the conflict?  Examine a particular article and make a list of the journalist’s sources.

17. Have students compose a letter to the editor—email or hard copy—and submit it to the opinion page.  The NYTimes allows both digital and snail mail, and the guidelines for letters are here.  Students might also post a comment online in response to a particular story at the end of the article.  This fosters engagement with what they read and demonstrates the democratic “town square” aspect of journalism.  More ambitious students might want to try submitting an op-ed piece to the paper.  For the NYTimes, the guidelines are here.  Students can also submit video responses; those guidelines are here.

18. Have students analyze the different sections in a newspaper, and explain what each of these sections covers.  If a school wanted to start a campus newspaper or news site, what sections should it include?  Why would it be important to have a campus newspaper?

19. On the artistic writing front, have students take words and phrases from the article and create a “found poem.”  A good guide to doing this can be found—pun intended—here.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Southern Bound

I am a big fan of books that surprise me.  John S. Sledge’s book, Southern Bound:  A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart (University of South Carolina Press, $24.95) is just such a book.

For seventeen years, Sledge was the book section editor for the Mobile Press-Register.  He also wrote a weekly column for the paper called “Southern Bound.”  However, as Walter Edgar notes in the Foreword, as his book was being prepared for publication, Sledge was relieved of duty when the paper became an online publication.  Adding him to the casualty list of the demise of print journalism means a loss for the citizens of Mobile and the region as well as another nail in the coffin for book coverage.  Luckily, we have this book, a compilation of his best reviews and essays, containing approximately twenty percent of his total output of 800 columns.

Book reviews do not have the kind of shelf life of essays or memoirs, but Sledge packs in a lot of detail in his brief, succinct reviews, making them interesting reading even if one hasn’t read the book under discussion.  At times, the pieces can fall back on a formulaic structure:  opening salvo followed by a brief summary of the storyline, an analysis of the good and the bad, and a pithy conclusion that ends the review with a kick.  However, every essay is packed with insights and observations.

Sledge’s style of writing could best be described as casual.  He sets the scene, summarizes the life of the author, outlines the plot, develops the characters, and explains the flaws and successes of a particular book.  There is a deep vein of southern writing in his prose, yet he is not simply a regional writer.  His diction and tone, while often folksy and conversational, also reveal him to be an intellectual and academic force.  He writes an inspired piece on Plato, and pulls down from the shelf Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on a cold, dark, rainy winter evening.  For those who love reading, there is a cozy familiarity in the book, a warm and inviting embrace from one reader to another.

The openings of his essays often surprise and pull the reader in from the first moment.  For example:  “It was a gorgeous fall afternoon.  The air was crisp and clean, the sky a brilliant blue and the Chinese Tallow trees ablaze with red and yellow.  I was working along my back fence, clearing away the dry tangle of privet, kudzu, and thorn that had run riot all summer.  With broad strokes of the sling blade I hacked away at the dense mass, sending twigs and broken bits of vine flying.  The westering sun shot golden beams through the debris-filled air, and there was no sound but the crash of the blade.  My barn jacket felt good in the chill, and my dog sat nearby, waiting for me to finish.  At that moment it struck me—I must read some Faulkner.”

There are nuggets of literary wisdom embedded here in his reviews.  He tells us, “The best fiction enlarges and deepens our understanding.”  Later, he writes of the great southern classic, “To Kill A Mockingbird” is easily the most important book ever to come out of Alabama.”  There is also a deep appreciation for literature, writing, and books.  He devotes an essay to the rebuilding of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, or the great library at Alexandria, Egypt.  He describes the building and fills in the history of the edifice.  This architectural discussion falls under what Sledge calls his “full-time gig”:  architectural historian at the Mobile Historical Development Commission.  He devotes a considerable portion of this book to architecture.  Libraries are of particular interest to him, and he spends the night in the Thomas Byrne Memorial Library at Spring Hill College as a way to enrich his writing about the building.  The library no longer exists as a library, he tells us in an update at the end of the piece.  The building now houses offices and meeting space, however, “It’s distinguished physical presence remains undiminished…”  He writes about taking his young daughter to see a library he loved as a kid.  That library sits on the University of Montevallo campus (formerly, Alabama College in Montevallo), and he opens the essay by describing “…a raw and gloomy December afternoon, overcast, blustery and nearly dark, even though it was only 1 P.M.”  Sounds like perfect reading weather.  He also discusses such structures as the New Orleans Superdome and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania.

There is the occasional miss.  Some of the reviews are not as inspirational or enlightening, and his essay where he writes a dialogue about the banning of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men featuring the voices of Lennie and George falls flat.

Sledge’s creed as a reviewer is simple, and he lays it out for the reader in his Introduction:  “Early on I resolved not to insult readers’ intelligence or to harangue them with my own opinions.  Given the facts and some background, I reasoned, readers were perfectly capable of drawing their own conclusions.  But something I did want to do was be a cheerleader for good literature, introducing my readers to books and authors they might not theretofore have known about or considered.”

It is a good mission statement, and serves Sledge well as evidenced in the book.  The southern United States often serves as the butt of jokes and has been stereotyped as the land of ignorance.  As Sledge points out, many fine writers came out of the southern states, and he is not just referring to the obvious ones like William Faulkner.  Southern writing is rich with tradition and character.  He takes great pains to explain the history and culture of the south.  However, John S. Sledge’s book is not just for those who live there.  His broad base of knowledge and his willingness to follow his own whims when he writes make for an excellent book about the reading life and so much more.  For that reason, I would highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Real Talk For Real Teachers

There is no shortage of books about education, and most of them are not positive.  The line of critics telling us what is wrong in our schools, with our teachers, and with students today, stretches to infinity.  If someone does manage to sneak through a book extolling something positive that is happening in the classroom, he is shouted down by those holding up schools as models of disorganization and chaos filled with child molesters and do-nothings.  No doubt, American education has been at a crossroads, a critical juncture that may well determine the future of the nation.  However, there is good happening on our school campuses.  And there are excellent teachers doing the job and living the life in the face of almost constant criticism and negativity.

One of those good teachers is Rafe Esquith, winner of the National Medal of the Arts and the Kennedy Center/Stephen Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award among other honors.  Even Queen Elizabeth has taken notice, making Esquith a Member of the British Empire.  Quite a trophy shelf for a teacher from Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles.  The story of Esquith’s work with the Hobart Shakespeareans is a positive beacon of light in a very dark period in American education.  For thirty years, he has taught everything from situational base running in the great American game of baseball to, of course, Shakespeare.  His day begins at 5 AM and goes nonstop until 9:15 PM when he drops into bed.  He teaches on Saturdays and plans lessons on Sundays.  He takes kids on trips during breaks to Washington D.C. and Ashland, Oregon for the annual Shakespeare Festival.  During the summer months, he brings in kids to study Shakespeare and prepare for the next year’s show, if he can bribe the janitors to unlock the door.  This is how he creatively works around the ever-falling budget ax.

Esquith is an excellent, all-around teacher, but what he is known for is the Hobart Shakespeareans.  Every year, his ten year old students produce a Shakespeare extravaganza that includes music, dance, and the plays themselves.  This teacher is a force of nature.  His latest book, Real Talk For Real Teachers (Viking, 2013) is subtitled, “Advice for Teachers from Rookies to Veterans:  ‘No Retreat, No Surrender!’”  The sheer scope of his commitment and the long hours he puts in may scare off some rookies and force veterans into retirement, but then they were probably not real teachers anyway.  For the real deals, he will motivate and inspire; for those who have never set foot in a classroom after their own graduations and think teaching is an easy gig with summers off, you will be in for a ride.

Esquith is brutally honest about his job.  Fatigue is always a factor, and failure is always lurking outside the door waiting to come in on the heels of a troubled student or a difficult parent.  Kids will disappoint, Esquith makes clear.  Parents will scream and berate, and there are times when colleagues and administrators discourage, complicate and frustrate.  All part of the game.  Esquith gives some solid tips to handle these cases and so much more.

What Esquith doesn’t like is almost as interesting as his advice on how to cope.  He knocks President Obama’s Race to the Top program, saying education isn’t a race.  “The journey is everything,” he writes, “and every voyage should balance adventure with rest.”  Teachers who follow Esquith’s schedule will not find any rest, but I take this to mean that students’ education must be balanced between academics and play.  Later, in his daily schedule, Esquith shows us the time he devotes to recreation with his students outside, teaching them teamwork, athletic skills, and a graceful competitive spirit.  He gets in some good digs about overemphasis on standardized test scores and the latest boondoggle, Common Core Standards.  At a training session, the presenter tells the audience of teachers, including Esquith, that their job as educators is “to prepare the children to be a part of the international workforce.”

To those well-intentioned business leaders and production specialists who think they know the secret to improving education, he says back off.  It is not as simple as a good teacher equaling good outcomes for students.  “The family situation of every student, both emotionally and financially, is the primary influence on a child’s success or failure in school,” he writes.  Teachers teach children, not curriculum.  “Standards may be the same for all ninth graders,” he says, but not all ninth graders are the same.”  Therefore, he makes clear that a good teacher must know his subject and how to communicate and inspire students.  Esquith writes:  “After a few years of finding one’s style and rhythm, good teachers begin to spend more time locked in on the audience rather than on the assignments.”

Much of what Esquith excels at is discipline.  He is disciplined and focused himself, and he expects nothing less from his students.  Without discipline, one cannot be effective as a teacher or a student.  He takes remarkable risks traveling with students in this age of frivolous legal action, and he spends a lot of time in the book explaining how he teaches discipline to his kids.  He places the problem within the framework of a permissive society.  “We have created situations where children do not understand that actions have consequences,” he writes.  School districts are too eager to please and to keep all stakeholders happy.  “In doing so,” Esquith writes, “they hurt the very children they are supposed to be helping.”  Before his Hobart Shakespeareans begin rehearsal or hit the road for an off campus adventure, they know that actions have consequences.

Do the students ever act up and cause trouble?  Yes, and these stories often include the teacher’s embarrassment, but Esquith analyzes the incidents turning them into learning experiences for the reader, often by showing where he, himself, went wrong.  This is all part of his classroom motto (and title of his first book):  “There are no shortcuts.”  Esquith says “It’s a reminder to students that nothing comes easily.  Mastering a skill or achieving a difficult goal takes thousands of hours…in a fast-food society, good things take time.”

I would be remiss if I did not point out some shortcomings in the book.  What works for one teacher is not universally good for all, and although Esquith never says his methods are a panacea, teachers who read this book need to recognize their own uniqueness requires his ideas to be adapted to their own style and persona.  He throws down a daunting example to follow.  His all-teacher-all-the-time approach may be unrealistic for those of us who, you know, need some sleep once in a while, and Esquith makes clear that rest is necessary.  Of course, some people need more than others, and that is important to remember.  Some teachers may even find his program discouraging to attempt to emulate.  He has had thirty years of trial and error to perfect his game, a game best suited to his temperament, his school, his classroom, and most of all, his students.

To combat burnout, he suggests, “Every year you teach, add one new activity to your class.”  For some teachers, this might be a recipe to maximize fatigue.  My philosophy has always been “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”  Sometimes, less really is more.  Again, it is up to the individual teacher.  If one is bored, or feels the teaching has become stale, then by all means shake things up and add something new.  One has to be careful, though, not to push too hard.  No student is better served by a teacher in the hospital with exhaustion.

I also found fault with the content of some of the teaching and activity he describes.  My first concern is with intellectual maturity.  Are children in fourth or fifth grade ready for Shakespeare?  It’s great that they can learn the lines and their meanings and perform for an audience, but there are a number of grade level texts that speak to their age and life experiences.  Shakespeare is high school level.  Pity the poor teacher who comes after Esquith and must teach the play he has already done.  Every teacher brings a new facet to a previously read work, but the kids don’t see it that way.  They see it as “been there, done that.”  This could set up some issues for teachers down the line, and I’ve seen that happen repeatedly in my twenty-six years in the classroom.  I am torn about what Esquith advocates here; I do think educators need to reach higher, and challenge students to do the same.  Still, it is a delicate balance between reaching and over-reaching.

Shakespeare often includes themes and ideas that although readable by a ten-year old student, may not be comprehendible.  Even his comedies base their humor often on racy material.  He mentions doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which has some sexual elements to it.  I’ve taught the play in the eighth grade without difficulty, but I’m wondering, truly, what a fourth grader might make of its confused lovers and sexual overtones.  Esquith also mentions using the Prince song, “Cream,” in a production.  “It’s particularly raunchy,” he writes, but he feels it is perfect for the themes of Measure for Measure.  I would be hesitant to have young children performing this song.

Rafe Esquith is a truly remarkable teacher.  His advice should be welcomed by teachers across the country as well as by parents.  Inspiration and creativity are crucial components of a healthy classroom.  Esquith shows the reader how it’s done.  He dares teachers to dream and to reach and to come to their classrooms with fire and passion.  His students remember what they learn in Room 56, using those lessons to strive for success in their future endeavors.  This alone is a testament to Rafe Esquith’s abilities as an educator.  As he shows us in this book, there is so much more waiting out there for the teacher who dares to dream, and for their students who are inspired to come along for the ride.