Sunday, July 29, 2007

Read This!

Juniors and seniors in high school should rush right out and pick up a copy of today’s The New York Times and read the pullout section entitled Education Life. Mixed in with a variety of ads and invitations from colleges are articles that run the gamut from serious/informative to frivolous/interesting. First, the serious and important information:

In a section called “Strategy Testing” by Samantha Stainburn, students are counseled about whether or not to submit SAT or other test scores. More and more, colleges are allowing prospective students to skip the SAT for other indicators of ability and intelligence. According to Stainburn, “More than 700 colleges will consider your application without a peek” at the SAT score. Evidently, this trend came out of the need to allow students who do not test well to demonstrate their competence to attend college. Stainburn breaks down the article into four sections: The Reality, How To, Caveats, and Success Rate. Basically, it all boils down to the score: if your score is low, applying to a school that places less importance on the test is advisable. Students with good scores have nothing to worry about when they apply. The article presents some interesting ideas about this new trend.

More chart than article, “Data” presents the latest figures from a large number of colleges and universities regarding faculty to student ratios, class sizes, and number of undergraduates. An interesting entry: the largest college in the country is Miami Dade College with 45,048 undergraduates, 35 percent full time faculty, 26:1 student/faculty ratio, and 67 percent of their classes containing 20-49 students. One of the smallest is the University of Texas, El Paso with 16,486 students, 62 percent full time faculty, 20:1 student/faculty ratio, and 57 percent of their courses with 20-49 students.

When listening to a senior student in high school describe his college application choices, one often hears the word “safeties,” as in, “I applied to UCLA, Dartmouth, and Cal State Northridge as my safety school. “Safety school” is a word one should never mention when speaking to an Admissions official at a college or university. It is akin to saying, “You are my last choice.” In a piece called “The New Safeties,” Michelle Slatella examines this application phenomenon of selecting at least one school as your last resort. “With more students applying each year, many colleges that were traditionally considered safeties have shed that label, sending applicants scrambling to find replacements.” She breaks her analysis down to four sections: Don’t Call Them Safeties; How Likely Is Your “Most Likely”; Apply With The Same Oomph; and Pick A College You Can Live With. Included is a sidebar on suggested new fallback campuses students might want to investigate.

Financial aid and student debt are growing concerns for students and parents. Laura Pappano examines “Lessons From The Loan Scandals” and offers important advice for parents and students shopping for loans. The article is lengthy and meticulously researched. Included is a sidebar listing actual students who applied for loans in June with the results.

Among the less imperative but still interesting articles is a piece by Claire Dederer on student dorm room door decorations. Included are a number of photographs of doors from across the country. With the often elaborate decorations, I wonder how much time went into the decorations, and if students spent that much time studying as well. Yes, the decorations are that involved.

Charles McGrath, former Book Review editor, weighs in on two recent books regarding college life and the unfortunate tragedies of the last year: April 16th: Virginia Tech Remembers by Roland Lazenby, a teacher and journalist at the college, and Sugarcane Academy: How A New Orleans Teacher And His Storm-struck Students Created A School To Remember by Michael Tisserand. Both books stress the importance of community, according to McGrath, a topic of interest to prospective students and their parents.

Finally, Jamie Wallis presents a photo essay, culled from the work of student photographers around the country, on the absence of shoes on campuses ranging from Los Angeles to Oregon. Winter temperatures drop into the 30s in Oregon, Wallis reminds us. In the essay, we see students with bare feet on desks and tables, in the library, standing on line at the cafeteria, and of course, in the classroom. Heaven for those of us who hate wearing shoes; scary for those of us profoundly scared by the possibility of foot fungus.

There are many other articles and tidbits for students and parents, so check it out. The section can be accessed online as well.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Mystery Revealed

Body of Work: Meditations On Mortality From The Human Anatomy Lab
By Christine Montross
The Penguin Press, $24.95 cloth
ISBN 978-1-59420-125-7

It begins with an image.

She is floating out on the Michigan lake of her childhood. She describes the way her body suspends itself over the watery abyss, inhale, exhale, rise, sink, “as if gravity were a law you could choose to disobey.”

So begins Christine Montross’ superb poetic meditation on her first year in medical school and her experiences in anatomy class dissecting a human cadaver.

“The dead body harbors the great mysteries of creation and humanity,” she writes, “the hidden beauty and intricacy of function, the insistence of individuality, the inevitability of decline, the incontrovertibility of death set up against the ill-defined boundaries of life.” Montross knows what the cadaver dissection will reveal, yet she is unprepared for the connection and depth of feeling she develops for the corpse she will come to know as Eve.

The book is laid out like a syllabus, specifically, the anatomy syllabus. It begins with the issuing of the bone box, “a wooden, handled box a little larger than a briefcase,” that contains two thirds of the skeleton of a human body. Montross also meets her fellow classmates and they make small talk. Once home, she marvels at the intricacies of the bones—“twenty-eight bones in the skull alone,” she writes.

The next morning, after some trepidation, she meets her cadaver Eve and her lab partners: “Tripler, a bright and wonderfully quirky ex-ballerina; Tamara, a shy and often-absent twenty-one-year-old…and Raj, a recent biology major who cannot wait to begin dissecting.” Eve is introduced in almost mummy form, her arms, legs, face, and body parts wrapped in “translucent, cheeseclothlike material.” As Montross and her fellow students begin to uncover and dissect the body, they come to learn many things about how Eve lived and died. There will not be one square centimeter of the body that is not used in the course of the class. The use of cadavers in anatomy class is all consuming, and the bits remaining at the end are gathered together and cremated.

As a guide during the weeks of class, the students follow the Essential Anatomy Dissector, a manual they must consult during the dissection procedures. Montross quotes often from this book. Eve’s body, indeed all bodies, differ slightly from the manual, leading to some confusion and missteps along the way. But the students manage to fumble through each dissection, growing in confidence and skill. It is Eve’s donation of her body that allows this to happen, and Montross expresses her reverence and gratitude throughout the book.

She also gives the history of human cadaver dissection in the anatomy lab, from the days of grave robbery and the use of criminal remains to the present day donations to science that allow people to elect to give their dead bodies to medical schools. It is a fascinating history full of taboos, and I have rarely heard them discussed with such candor.

Later in the book, Montross compares her dissection of Eve with procedures she witnesses performed on live bodies during her assignments as an intern in a hospital. One is left with the idea that medicine often involves traumatic procedures and operations to cure the human body of its ills. Montross details some of the more traumatic, such as cutting open a chest and sawing through the rib cage, and cauterizing a bleeding uterus with an electrically charged device that leaves the flesh grey and charred. She also probes the moment of death. What separates the living from the dead? she wonders. She uses anecdotes and powerful imagery of real cases to light up this issue.

The most difficult parts to dissect for Montross are the genitals and the face. In the genital region, she feels as if she is violating Eve’s person, cutting and examining areas so personal as to be seen in life by only a lover or intimate, possibly, or personal physician. “It is this moment that makes me wish to speak to Eve,” she writes. “I do not know which weight the balance favors. I do not know whether the new acquisition of knowledge, this vision of her depths is worth what I have done to her. I do not know if it is worth it to me. I wonder if her bodily womanhood was centered here or someplace else, more subtle…” Montross is humbled by Eve’s gift, and when she uncovers the uterus, the seat of womanhood, the student yearns to offer it a blessing.

The neck, face and head dissection take a tremendous toll on the students as they near the end of the course. They are cutting into, and pulling apart, the region of the body that gives Eve an identity. Strangely, the brain is also in area where the exact function of each part remains somewhat of a mystery, even though it dictates personality and intelligence. The graphic descriptions, both here and elsewhere, are often difficult to read, but the sheer honesty and power of the simplicity in which Montross describes the procedures make for clear and enlightening reading. If one yearns to know what it is like to become a doctor, this is the book to read.

In the end, Montross comes to two conclusions: in the lives of her grandparents and the examination of Eve’s body, she comes to understand “that the dearest and most enduring moments of our lives are sometimes the quietest ones,” and that “No harm can come to one after death.” The first is wholly spiritual and intellectual. The second is mostly practical, because after reading the book, some might be discouraged from following Eve’s example and donating their cadavers, or those they once loved, to medical schools. Montross realizes that the body is only a vessel for this life. Once we are finished using it, what once held ourselves is now empty, a husk of our former species, an empty chrysalis that once contained us, but now rests in decaying fragments. We have flown away.

Christine Montross does a superb job of using the experience of her dissection of Eve to illuminate what it means to be alive. Along the way, she crosses the frontiers of taboos and mysteries of the human body, but she is never exploitive, and always insightful. Her writing is poetry, her science is art, and we are left with a deeper understanding of human existence and its often untimely end.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Why Catholic Schools Face An Uncertain Future

For those of us who value our Catholic school education, the recent settlement the Archdiocese reached with molestation victims to the tune of 774 million dollars is a disaster for the church and may raise red flags about the future of Catholic schools as we know them. The settlement will undoubtedly force the diocese to go leaner. But what few people know is that the settlement—660 million dollars added to the 115 million already paid out—is not the only problem facing Catholic education.

Catholic schools have always done a better job of educating students. This tradition continues today. The evidence is clear in test scores and student achievement. What is even more fascinating, for much of Catholic school history, the emphasis in hiring teachers was not on credentialed candidates necessarily, but on religious and philosophically like-minded individuals. In other words, it was more important for a teacher to be a Catholic, or at least share in Catholic values and morals than to be in possession of a valid teaching credential or an advanced degree.

Through the years, the Catholic system offered a more rigorous and demanding curriculum featuring older, tried and true methods in the classroom, focusing on memorization, recitation, grammar, math, spelling and vocabulary, social studies, language and literature—the basics of a solid education. When public schools ditched older methods for newer ideas and fads, Catholic schools moved cautiously, and in many cases rejected the fads for what worked in the past.

The Catholic system also prided itself on educating students cheaply. There was little bureaucracy and red tape, less middle and upper management. The money went into the classrooms. Of course this was mostly due to the fact that the church system was pioneered by nuns who did not draw a full salary, lived in a convent, and did not need a huge benefit package or a 401k.

At the end of the 1960s, as vocations to the religious orders declined, schools were forced to hire lay people, mostly recent college graduates who either from their own experiences wanted specifically the Catholic system, or who knew the pitfalls of the public sector and chose the church school for its streamlined approach with better disciplined students. These lay teachers required full salaries, but were often hired below market value, and in the beginning, medical, dental and retirement benefits were limited.

In 1987 when I started teaching, a first year teacher’s salary was 15,000 dollars per year. In the public school, a teacher averaged almost double that amount. Medical benefits at my first Catholic school consisted of a trust fund: everyone paid in so much a month, and then drew out what was needed for medical expenses. There was the possibility that the money would run out. Public school teachers had a union, full medical and dental benefits, and a credit union.

I chose the Catholic school system because I was educated in it. I could bear witness to the fact that the new theories and methodologies coming out of the education schools did not make for better teaching. The nuns who educated me worked from solid methods used for decades. I have always modeled my classroom and teaching after my Catholic school teachers’ ways and means, and I have never had a problem adapting to changing classroom climates and student personalities.

More and more, lay teachers took up positions in the schools, even becoming principals and administrators. Salary demands grew exponentially. Tuition at Catholic schools has always been low, ensuring that all economic levels of students could attend. Catholicism is not the religion of the rich, as most Catholics are immigrants, and working class people. Whereas, with nuns the tuition demands could remain modest because salaries were miniscule, as more lay teachers took over, tuition had to rise to cover costs.

In addition to the financial burden of rising salaries and costs, Catholic schools are notorious for giving large families tuition breaks. This has become problematic with the rising costs. Many schools have had to charge the full freight to every student, leaving many poorer families to resort to the local public school.

Parents now must be actively involved in raising money for their schools. Carnivals and festivals are annual events designed to raise funds for schools. Alumni and development offices now dot campuses, staffed with people whose sole job is to raise money and increase endowment funds. In parish schools, this is a difficult task. Parishioners are already giving to support the church each Sunday. Financing the school is a separate area requiring its own annual giving. Many Catholic families cannot donate to both entities.

The current salary scale used by the diocese schools leaves much to be desired. Top candidates will go elsewhere. The church, hoping to lure more credentialed teachers, will see them trickle away to public and independent private schools who can pay more. A veteran teacher with a mortgage and a family cannot survive on a Catholic school salary.

The scandal involving the priests and molestation victims will impact schools, at minimum, indirectly. Cardinal Roger Mahony has already put a plan in motion to sell off church-owned land and other investment holdings to amass the 250 million in cash the church needs for its portion of the settlements. Insurance carriers and religious orders will pick up the difference. But this black mark on the church’s reputation has cost the organization followers. Many are unwilling to give to an organization that dodged and weaved to avoid responsibility in these cases. So church attendance has declined. Fewer parishioners means fewer students and less money donated to the schools. Across the country, Catholic schools have suffered enrollment declines that are unprecedented. In many dioceses, schools and even parishes have been shuttered. Teachers who might have chosen the Catholic system will now think twice.

Independent Catholic schools run by religious orders or a Board of Trustees and not connected to a specific parish have fared better in the crisis. Many have a more liberal philosophy, and therefore enroll students from other faiths. They offer a rigorous program, but the schools are self-contained and are not part of a diocese system.

In this way, Catholic schools may survive. They must, for the most part, become independent private schools. They will employ mainly lay teachers and administrators, be more accepting of non-Catholic students, and deploy staffs of people in the development office to reach out to alumni and the business community for sponsorship and donations, accumulating rich, well-invested endowment funds to insure funding and solvency for decades to come Aggressive fundraising may save the day, and in private, independent Catholic schools, it is much easier to promote distance from parish scandals. Many independent private schools now hire credentialed teachers and strive to pay them more competitive salaries with a solid benefits package.

The Catholic schools of yesteryear are a thing of the past. No more nuns patrolling the aisles of large classes of eager learners. It is much more expensive to educate students now, and even the public sector has felt the crunch. It is a shame though, because even as I cringe at each new molestation allegation, and feel a deep embarrassment for the reprehensible conduct of Cardinal Mahony, I know that I received an excellent education for thirteen formative years inside those classrooms with the black-clad, habited nuns and dedicated lay teachers of my childhood. Too bad such a successful enterprise, responsible for the education of millions of students, should be destroyed in a toxic cloud of deception and criminal perversion.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Can't Say I Didn't Warn You

If you are a senior in high school for 2007-2008, this is the time for hard work and effort, or the beginning of a meltdown. The good students, the ones worried about their college resumes, are taking extra classes at local junior colleges, volunteering their free time at summer day camps and retirement homes, or getting a jump on studying for the final assault on the SAT. The other category is planning how to do the least amount of work in their final year of high school.

Teachers warn them every year. Beware of “senioritis,” a disease so rampant it rivals the plague in its heyday. Every year, I make the same speech to eleventh graders: make sure you do not get lazy, and make sure you really want to make the commitment to AP classes before you enroll for senior year. Of course, the warnings fall on deaf ears.

Seniors apply to the colleges of their choice between October and January. Acceptances are mailed out beginning in March. The letters clearly state that the student is accepted conditionally, with the condition being that the final grades received at the Admissions office in June are passing or above, and the student continues to demonstrate progress toward a diploma. If everything goes as planned, the student earns that diploma and enrolls in the college of his choice in the fall. Some students fail to comprehend this, and they quit working with as much as a semester left in their senior year. They end the year with deficient, or even failing grades, and the university revokes their acceptance. The result is a bright future flushed down the toilet.

As an AP teacher, I always marvel at students’ shortsightedness. I mean, really, these are supposed to be bright kids, yet every March, it is the same story. Some quit working because they have been accepted, but others slack off because they did not get into the school of their choice. They develop bad attitudes and decide to take revenge on teachers, their high school, and anyone else who might have had a hand in their rejection. The joke, however, is squarely on them. Quitting before the final whistle blows hurts no one but themselves, and therefore, blaming others for their own ineptitude is simply revealing more of their own deficient character.

In an article in the June 22, 2007 issue of The Los Angeles Times, writer Larry Gordon says that this lack of focus and laziness at the end of twelfth grade “can dump as much as two percent of an incoming class” at a good university. Some schools make allowances for special problems like illness or divorce, Gordon writes, and private schools may allow students who have deficiencies to take make up courses in summer school. But the bottom line is that to quit working after the application is in the mail is a recipe for disaster. UCLA, according to the article, expects to revoke ninety acceptances this summer.

This lazy attitude is often supported, or even fostered, by parents and occasionally, administrators. Repeatedly in conferences, I have heard parents say that senior year should be a time for fun and relaxation, a chance for one last party with classmates. After all, one parent said to me, they have been in school twelve years or more. They have earned it (emphasis mine). Administrators also are guilty of looking the other way. When teachers are faced with declining interest in the spring, disciplinary problems, and extreme acting out on the part of these nearly legal adult students, principals are often reluctant to “pull the trigger” and take away privileges and social events like Grad Night and prom. They know they will face a firestorm of protest from the students as well as the parents, so they cave. Yet the teachers are stuck in the classroom trying desperately to maintain order and finish curriculum to prepare students for college. Parents, administrators, counselors, even janitors, should support the teachers for the good of the students.

I have seen this rescinding of acceptance several times in my career, and I have yet to see a case where it was not deserved. In addition, I have also called the Admissions department of universities where my students have been accepted and retracted my letter of recommendation for a student based on performance and discipline in late spring. To have a student ask you in November to write such a letter, only to turn belligerent and disruptive in April makes such action imperative. I am a teacher who takes letters of recommendation seriously. I consider this “Jekyll and Hyde behavior” deceitful on the part of the student. I do not recommend students who are dishonest, pretending to be well-behaved until the letters are mailed.

Gordon quotes San Marino High School Assistant Principal Mary Johnson: “It’s a heartbreak, but in my own opinion, consequences follow actions all too infrequently in some students’ lives. And this is the real thing.”

Agreed. Real life most often does not include “do-overs.” This is something our culture does not do a good job teaching our young people. We are seeing the results all around us. If an actor uses a derogatory term for gay people, he apologizes and checks himself into rehab, then complains when he is fired. Worse, he pulls out the race card and claims the whole incident is a result of the producers’ racism. Paris Hilton has a meltdown because she must go to jail for her misbehavior and stupidity. Parents and friends claim she is being treated unfairly.

This is life. In life, one takes action. There are consequences for these actions, and we must live with the consequences for the rest of our lives. This used to be the most interesting part of drama and literature. How does one live with the consequences of her actions? In literature, the protagonist’s response to these consequences, and her ability to rise above them and redeem herself made her a hero. It is difficult to find one of those these days, especially in the high school classroom.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

End Game

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Eliot “The Hollow Men”

In recent weeks, the universe of end-times prophecies has been very busy. According to an AP wire report posted in June, “three-century-old manuscripts by Isaac Newton calculating the exact date of the apocalypse, detailing the precise dimensions of the ancient temple in Jerusalem and interpreting passages of the Bible…lay bare the little-known religious intensity of a man many consider history’s greatest scientist.”

Separately, in a piece in the July 1, 2007 New York Times Magazine, we learned that the ancient Mayans of southern Mexico and Central America formulated the exact date of the end of the world as December 21, 2012.

Newton used the “cryptic Book of Daniel to calculate the date for the Apocalypse” as no earlier than 2060. The Mayans did not so much believe that the date they computed indicated the end of the world as much as the end of a cycle and the beginning of another. According to the article written by Benjamin Anastas, the Mayans “conceived of history not as the linear passage of time but as a series of cycles…that would repeat over and over.” As proof of their accuracy, Anastas offers that these ancient “calendar keepers are known to have charted the cycles of the moon, the sun, Mars and Venus with an accuracy that wouldn’t be duplicated until the modern era.”

Speculation about the end of the world has always been with us, but picked up speculative intensity at the end of the Second World War. This coincides with the arrival of the atomic bomb, which gave us, in most people’s minds, the ability to complete the task of world destruction. With the Cold War, we immersed ourselves in end of the world propaganda. I remember clearly receiving a print out in high school of the number of atomic and nuclear weapons the United States possessed, compared graphically to those in the Soviet Union’s arsenal, and running both tallies against what it would take to blow up the world many times over. Of course, both nations had the ability to destroy the world. That is what led to philosophies like the assurance of mutual destruction that kept each country from launching the weapons during those tense years.

The fact is, as the film Testament made clear, usage of these weapons would not have resulted in the immediate demise of the world. Most likely, the bombs would fall where they fell—either in the targeted areas, or off course—and the resulting explosions would kill some people. More dangerous would be the nuclear fallout from the explosions, or even the debris in the atmosphere that would bring about a “nuclear winter” blocking out the sun’s rays and causing catastrophic environmental changes that would slowly kill off life across the planet.

In the film, we watched as a family, isolated by explosions far away, are left to die, one by one, from the unseen but lethal radiation that slowly poisons them. It remains a poignant, powerful film, if a bit dated.

The millennium launched a new round of end of times speculation. Dire predictions were made about the stroke of midnight on December 31, 1999. Our computers were supposed to go mad, and the world would grind to a halt. Somehow, weapons and the anti-Christ would be set loose on the earth. The reality: it was a rather peaceful New Year’s Eve. At 12:01 AM my computer shuffled the date back to 1982. It kept right on running without any crash and burn. I did have to upgrade, though, which made me wonder if the whole fantasy was cooked up by IBM and Microsoft.

September 11th added another chapter to the end of times prophecy. May be it was not the year 2000 that was the actual millennium, but 2001. People turned to the Bible. The anti-Christ, according to some reports, was supposed to arise from the Middle East. Baghdad was the Fertile Crescent which was the supposed location of the mythical Garden of Eden. How poetic: the world ends where it all began.

The fact is, as Thomas Stearns Eliot puts it in his poem, “The Hollow Men,” the world will most likely end as a result of a long, slow decline. One man, or one country, even with a storehouse full of nuclear weapons, could not end it instantly. A rock hurtling through space could strike the earth, causing catastrophe, but life would die out slowly, and probably not completely. We have been hit before, and certainly, the resulting changes eliminated some species, but life persists.

A few years ago, National Geographic Magazine did a spread on the town of Chernobyl in Russia, where a nuclear power plant suffered a meltdown on April 16, 1986. The catastrophe radiated the city. The population evacuated, leaving everything behind. When the magazine’s scientists, writers and photographers arrived, they found rusting cars in parking lots, apartments with food still on the tables, clothes hung in closets, and personal belongings untouched since evacuation day. But most intriguing was the growth of nature. The city was teeming with wildlife. Birds sang in the trees; deer roamed playgrounds and parking lots. Human beings were absent, but nature prevailed. Of course, we are probably only beginning to see the damage to the animal and plant life from the radiation, but somehow, life survives.

Human beings are resilient creatures, as is much of life on earth. Much has been made of global warming and disappearing species, but change is a fact of life. Certainly, we should not poison ourselves, nor continue to be addicted to a substance that is finite in supply, and damaging to use, like oil. But the world will not end now, or even later.

The Mayan prophecy is big in the harmonic convergence set, but they have missed the point. It is the cyclical idea that the Mayans happened upon that is key. The earth does follow cycles. Life itself is a cycle. Walt Whitman knew it; the Buddhists incorporated it into their religion. The movie, The Lion King, called it the Circle of Life. The Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is littered with life cycle discussions. “What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun? One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays.” Or the classic lines, “There is an appointed time for everything…A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build…”

The larger lesson in all of this is the need for an active life of the mind. Newton had it. The Mayans had it. The world will end when, and how, it will, but are you alive? Are you a thinking person? What have you learned about this life, this existence, about the human condition? Why are you here? These questions are what we should focus on. It is the mystery of life that calls us, that makes us marvel at the stars, and weep when we hear Mozart’s Requiem. It is not about the end of times, but the roads we travel and the adventures we find on our way.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

One Summer Night

I am standing in the pre-dawn darkness on my patio. The neighborhood is silent, asleep. From this distance, I can hear the low hum of traffic on the freeway almost a half mile south. The air is warm and humid, but the skies are clear. I see nothing up there, and they said it was coming. But I hear nothing, and see nothing, except quiet stars and the cavern of emptiness above me, above the roof line. I wait.

Summer nights are like this. I am a night person, and during the eight weeks of vacation, my body clock rotates later and later through the day until I am rising from sleep at noon and going to bed at three or four in the morning.

I love the night. There are no phone calls, or knocks at the door, or interruptions. I can read and write and think, and my solitude is complete.

This summer night is the same as all the others, yet something different has drawn me outside into the darkness. I think I will know it when I see it, but I am not sure, because I have never seen one before this night. It is warm, but I shiver with anticipation.

In my life I have seen most of man’s journey to space unfold. I remember the Apollo missions, and watching the grainy, black and white footage on my parents’ television when the astronauts made one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind. I watched every blast off, and every splash down in the ocean, until the journeys became commonplace and ordinary, until people stopped really paying attention.

The thing about space travel is that it never becomes mundane. Just when you think it is “been there, done that,” something happens to shake us up, and makes us realize that the feat we are attempting is within the purview of gods and superheroes: to hurtle through space at the speed of sound. The fumbled, but successful mission of Apollo 13 was such a wake up call.

And I can remember clearly, standing in the hallway of my university, watching the space shuttle Challenger explode over and over again on a live news feed that terrible January day. And I remember the grim day in February, 2003, when Columbia broke apart over Texas. For two years after, no shuttles flew, no missions were accomplished. There was talk of scrubbing the program, that it had outlived its usefulness. Even though we were in the process of building an international space station, there was talk of letting the Russians finish it, or simply abandoning it altogether.

I remember thinking how could we have fallen so far? All those hopes and dreams from the 1950s and 60s for space travel: gone. Traveling to the moon, or through space period, has to be mankind’s ultimate stretch to go beyond the limits of human ability. The science, the mathematics, the bravery of the astronauts all were part of one of humanity’s greatest endeavors: to transcend our own limits and fly to distant worlds. These were dreams that before 1960 were best played out in science fiction stories. But we, in the late twentieth century in America, had made fiction real, until the point where it was almost mundane and pedantic. And then the inevitable happened: we were taken down. The shuttle Columbia fragmented across the heavens and fell to earth in pieces.

August 9, 2005, I stood on my back patio trembling in the moist warmth of a summer night. CNN had just announced that the space shuttle Discovery, the first shuttle mission since Columbia’s demise, would be landing not in Florida, but at Edwards Air Force Base in the high desert of California. I watched the tracking of the vehicle by satellites. According to the reports, it would pass overhead in mere minutes. But outside, as I searched the sky, I heard only traffic noises and the quiet muffled dreams of the sleeping neighborhood. I waited and waited. Nothing.

I decided to go back inside and check the news. Something, some hiss in the atmosphere, froze me in the warm darkness. Across the heavens moving south to north, incoming from the Pacific Ocean, traveling faster than the speed of sound, I saw a golden streak catapult across the sky. Twin sonic booms shook the neighborhood. I could see the glass in the windows quake with the force. Even though the shuttle was gliding to earth, the speed it traveled through the heavens gave the golden streak a roaring sound, like a jet fighter.

I followed the streak across the valley and over the hills of Sylmar. I ran back inside in time to see the space craft glide onto the runway at Edwards, a perfect landing in the dark. At five o’clock in the morning, the space shuttle was home.

Summer is the season for children. Summer days are spent in pools, and playing baseball. For me, summer has also been a time of dreams. I remember lying in my bed in my parents’ house, too hot to sleep, so I turned on the light over my bed and read until the deep hours of the night. I just took the night and swallowed the books whole in six or seven hours.

I try to live my summers that way now, although I have responsibilities and bills to pay. I stay up late and read and write and think. The house is quiet. Up in the summer sky, things are quiet now, too. But I cannot help but think about how we try to extend our limits, to transcend our weaknesses, to fly away to distant worlds only to return someday to our own world, smaller now for our journeys and what we have seen. In the silence of a midsummer night’s waking dream, it is clear to me that all things are possible.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Real Trouble In Virtual Reality

There is an interesting article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic. Written by Caitlin Flanagan, the piece is a book review of several recent books about the Internet and young people.

First, the books Flanagan reviews are: Generation MySpace: Helping Your Teen Survive Online Adolescence by Candice M. Kelsey, a former private school teacher from Los Angeles; To Catch A Predator: Protecting Your Kids From Online Enemies Already in Your Home by MSNBC and Dateline reporter Chris Hansen; and the Internet sites and programs associated with the books, including and Club Penguin.

Flanagan begins with a story. She tells of a most disturbing encounter she had when she traveled, at the age of nineteen, to visit a friend one summer. While sitting at a train station, a young man approached her and struck up a conversation, claiming that he knew her and her parents. He also knew her address and phone number. Flanagan gets a strange vibe from the guy, but they talk amicably while she waits for the train. When it arrives, she boards. The man climbs the steps behind her and whispers menacingly in her ear, “You ought to be more careful about what you write on that tag.” He gleaned all of the information needed to approach her from her luggage tag.

She goes on to equate that luggage tag with the profiles teenagers publish on the website MySpace. The man at the train station had used two things against her: some personal information and her youth. The books and sites Flanagan reviews discuss how the Internet allows all kinds of predators like him to access teenagers’ data.

For anyone who has seen the Dateline show, To Catch A Predator, one cannot help but be amazed at the depth of depravity of the pedophiles caught in Chris Hansen’s web, the stupidity that each one displays, and the ease with which Hansen racks up the numbers of guilty. They enter the staged residences so fast they nearly collide with one another.

For anyone who has not seen the show, but has paid even a little attention to the news, it is abundantly clear that the predators are out there. Whereas, my parents told me never to speak to strangers, it is a different world now. “The Internet has opened a portal into what used to be the inviolable space of the home,” Flanagan writes, “through which anything, harmful or harmless, can pass.

The piece goes on to discuss how Hansen convened a panel of teenagers and asked them directly how many had been approached by someone in a sexual way. “Almost all the kids raised their hands,” she writes. But the shocking thing was that the kids had neglected to tell their parents because they did not want their Internet privileges taken away.

To investigate just how easy this online stalking is, Flanagan tried an experiment of her own. She logged on to the site, Club Penguin, a “safe” place for young people to play games and learn. She developed a relationship with several other players, masquerading herself as a pink penguin. Just as no one knew she was an adult, the other children she played with could have easily masked their identities as adults, too.

She then moved over to MySpace. By simply typing in a local girls’ high school in the search box, the profiles of several students came up. She explored one of the girls’ entries. “I could tell in a minute that this was no fake profile,” she writes. “I taught at a Los Angeles private school for many years, and the associations and places to which she made reference were all of a piece.”

By using the school website and the entries in the posts, Flanagan was able to piece together the girl’s schedule and activities for a given week. She actually went to the school, but is stopped by the brick wall around the campus. Still, she concludes that the place to meet the girl, if she were a predator, probably would not be on school grounds.

Flanagan checks back on the girl’s site several times. An Internet-posted invitation to an outing at a local restaurant with friends would have given her ample opportunity to “run in” to the girl. She also could, using posted pictures, recognize her at, say, a local Jamba Juice store.

She ends the piece by sending the girl off to college, where, using MapQuest, she would not be all that difficult to locate there, only a few hours away. The point she makes is clear: this is a whole new world for stalkers offering ample opportunity to victimize young people, and the teenagers’ very actions in posting on these sites could lead to their own victimization by these opportunists. Often, parents unknowingly encourage the process by not supervising the online activities of their children.

I recognize the validity of what Flanagan and the books she reviews in the article have to say. I can only add that the young people are not the only people who are victims of others on the Internet. Young people often do some victimizing as well.

Last year at my school, we had a situation where a teacher participated in an obstacle course race to be run by a group of teachers against a team of students at a pep rally. Four or five teachers agreed to run the race in the name of school spirit.

During the race, one particular teacher lost her balance and fell. The other members of the team helped her up and they continued the race. Within hours after the rally, a cell phone video of her falling, secretly shot and with obscene and ridiculing language added, was posted on YouTube. When we searched the site, we got additional surprises. All the teachers who had participated had individual videos posted of their portions of the race. We also found several videos of classroom activities, recess and lunch misbehavior, and assorted other images. Most of the posts, like the one of my class, was simply me teaching the class in an animated fashion. My reputation was not damaged by the experience. But the taping was done without my knowledge, and that is what I found offensive and exploitive about the posting. If I had secretly videotaped my students, even in an innocent activity, and posted it on the Internet, I would face at least some criticism and may be some disciplinary action. If I had secretly videotaped my students looking foolish, or in some exploitive manner, I would be in for public censure and may be even a civil or criminal action. The students don’t often see the unfairness in this.

Teachers have a thick skin. Sure, the teachers were upset when they found all their videos on the Internet, but we are adults. More damaging were the postings we uncovered containing images of students taken by other students to ridicule them. In fact, there were a number of disputes and problems among students this year that were made worse, or even precipitated by posting of pictures or video on a website.

We live in a culture where more and more, there is no privacy. Security cameras are everywhere. The fear of terrorism and crime has reached the point where people are willing to sacrifice privacy for safety, although arguably, we may not be any more safe. Technology has also developed to the point where images and audio clips can be captured, often without anyone knowing, and later posted to the Internet for others to see and listen to, and offering no context to the image or the way something was said.

Politicians, teachers, parents, even the students themselves, talk about enacting laws, or recognizing freedom of speech and expression. People often do not see a problem until they are taped or victimized, and then they want protection and legal rights. It is a quagmire. If a terrorist act is foiled because of a security camera, that is good. If someone is videotaped without her knowledge in a store fitting room, and that footage is used in some prurient way, we demand that the law step in and the camera be removed. But we simply cannot have it both ways.

The Internet is a wonderful tool for knowledge, communication, and bridging gaps among people. It can also be dangerous. There will always be deviants out there; they have been with us since crime reporting began. The law should come down on them decisively as it always has. But those of us not in that pursuit must be vigilant and think through what we post on the Internet. Ethics should be considered; the harm we cause others must be recognized and avoided. This takes personal responsibility, something our teenagers are learning. As adults, we must model it for them, and when they breach this responsibility, we must be quick to punish and teach.

The student who posted the poor teacher falling at the rally was quickly caught by the powers-that-be. He came on the school intercom a few days after the incident and apologized to the teacher involved while the whole school listened. It was a very public remedy for a very public and inappropriate infraction.

Friday, July 6, 2007

How To Improve Your Literature and Writing Skills

If you want to be a better writer, you must put it out there. Forget talent, forget brilliance, or trying to be clever. If you want to improve your writing, and therefore become a better writer, you must write and write and write. Revision. Restructuring. Rewriting. Live it and breathe it.

And read and read and read. There are no shortcuts. One must live the life. Being a man or woman of letters is a way of life. It all begins there. If you are willing to adopt the lifestyle, then chances are that you will improve, and even go places.

A student of the writing life is by connection, a student of the life of the mind, a student of literature, a student of thinking. A person like this reads like she breathes. Every free moment is spent actually reading something; that is, when you are not writing something.

What most students do not understand about being an honors or Advanced Placement student in English is that it involves a lifestyle. There is no one volume to read. There are no specific years or eras to study. One usually has adopted the lifestyle from a young age. Was there a time when one did not read? The student cannot remember it. Reading just always was. In the morning, while eating breakfast, a student read the cereal box, front, back and sides. In school, the student may or may not have excelled, but could always be found in the library reading strange books not assigned by the teacher. In high school, I knew guys who would blow off whole days of school to read philosophy, or mysteries, or Camus. School books were pedantic; if you were a student of literature, you were never satisfied with the anemic reading list of the English classroom. You were way beyond that.

No, it was not a matter of arrogance, although there is a certain amount of arrogance implied in being a writer, as book critic David L. Ulin says. You are grabbing someone by the lapels and demanding that he read your latest essay: that is arrogant, in a way.

Many readers and writers are shy people. They like a cold, dark day where they can curl up in a favorite chair and read. These people may be shy on the surface, but they are not shy in print, or with print. They know what they want to say; they know what they want to read.

In my classroom, I know who these people are. They are the ones who pull out a book to read, even when there are only a few minutes to spare. Sometimes, they read right through my lectures, or when they are assigned other work. I should interrupt them, force them to get back on task, but I can’t. I know the land they inhabit. I have been there myself many times, and I have been known to go back there when I should be writing something, or grading some papers, or doing something more productive. So when I see the girl in the fourth row reading a Gossip Girl novel, the fifth Harry Potter book, or Catch-22, I have to ignore it. For the good of readers everywhere, I have to let her go.

These students may also not read the assignments as thoroughly as other, more classroom-motivated students. When the papers are returned, these students often have higher grades. They tell the student across the aisle “I barely studied for this.” Yet there is the higher grade. In a nutshell, they are used to reading like a true literature student. Therefore, the knowledge comes to them more easily. In addition, they are often naturally good writers, and so their first draft of an in-class essay comes out better than another student who has stayed up for two days trying to read through the novel and then write coherently about it in forty minutes. They are better because they live the life and practice the skills.

These are the students who think through in their minds the story they wish to tell. Their very thoughts are organized in narrative fashion. Does this skill come naturally? In part, but it also comes from practice. This is the thing they do well, like other people play football, or drive a car, or throw pottery. This is the way they deal with the world, indeed, how they access the world. It is the main conduit, this reading/writing lifestyle, of living.

The AP exam in both language and literature tests things a student might have learned in the English classroom going back to at least third grade. Unlike many other AP exams, there is no finite text or course to study. It includes everything, although both exams focus primarily on the sixteenth century forward. Still, a student must know major mythologies, religious texts, early forms of writing as reference points for what comes later. One must get the connections and allusions and references to ancient literatures and cultures, to current events and politics. It is truly everything—English, history, philosophy, rhetoric, sociology, psychology—and accessed primarily through writing. The multiple choice section of the exams is worth forty-five percent of the total score; the essays are worth fifty-five percent. The test even leans toward the better writers!

So, you may ask, what if I adopt the lifestyle? What if I am like this? I spend my summer nights reading under the covers with a flashlight. I read every Harry Potter book, made every voyage with Horatio Hornblower, solved the mysteries with the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, followed all the plot threads in the course of the Narnia Chronicles, and now I read like I eat or breathe. Bookstores are places I will haunt when I die. I was on the river with Huck and Jim. I shadowed Holden around Central Park, and I walked Boo Radley home with Scout after he saved Jem’s life. Will I, how do I, become a better English student?

What about writing?

Oh, I do that too, you would say. I keep a journal. I write for my school paper and literary magazine. I am obsessive about rewriting my papers, continuing to polish my work, until it shines like golden orbs of essay brilliance. I enter every writing contest. I submit pieces to newspapers and magazines without telling them I am still in high school. Now I even tell them. Anything to be able to submit and may be see a story of mine in print. I have notebooks filled with stories, essays, poems, like Emily Dickinson did. And if someone took away all my pens, I would continue to write in my own blood. What else can I do to be a better writer?

Keep going. A lifestyle is for life. And I will not tell you that books and writing take the place of falling in love, or having a child, or knowing your parents are proud of you. But the literature and writing life will teach you about those things, and how to appreciate them when they happen to you. Good books teach us how to live. Being a good writer means capturing the experience for others who come after you. If you are willing, and you are committed, it is a wonderful journey.

Just a few of many books that celebrate and enhance reading and writing:

Readings by Michael Dirda
Book By Book by Michael Dirda
An Open Book by Michael Dirda
The Delights of Reading by Otto L. Bettmann
The Literary Companion by Emma Jones
The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White
The Writer’s Mentor by Ian Jackman
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Robert’s Rules of Writing by Robert Masello
Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

My Good Dead Friend Alfred Kazin

Truth be told, as it always is, I never met Alfred Kazin, and wherever he is now, he will not know me. He lived in New York and was one of a group known as the New York intellectuals, critics who influenced American culture almost to the end of the twentieth century. Alfred Kazin also taught at Amherst College, Harvard, Berkeley and SUNY. I feel as if I know him, that I have walked the streets of New York with him, listening to his words and opinions. I carry his wisdom forward; I try to be the proper torch-bearer.

“Writing is my life, the one steadiness I have,” Kazin wrote once. He is unique in the world of letters: he wrote criticism and essays, but was also a voracious reader. His first book, On Native Grounds, explicated and explored the difficult works of Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Emerson. It was published when he was only 27 years old, and was the result of five years spent in the reading room of the New York Public Library. He worked on it every day for months, up to twelve hours a day.

“The automatic part of all my reading was history…The past, the past was great; anything American, old, glazed, touched with dusk at the end of the nineteenth century, still smoldering with the fires lit by the industrial revolution…” Kazin captured the spirit of American literature, even as this form was being born, arguably with Whitman, Emerson, and Thoreau leading the way. He became the guardian of what was pure and good in our culture, in the life of the mind.

In addition to criticism, Kazin wrote memoirs. He used the idea of a walking man to stimulate his reflections on the points of his life. He walked the streets of his beloved city, New York, and on out to Brooklyn and the outlying areas, and he wrote about his journeys in a number of books like A Walker In The City. Much of what he wrote has the passionate intensity of Whitman’s poetry. Kazin captured the city, the bustle of it, the pounding intensity and the teeming life, from Battery Park to Harlem. His writing is lyrical and poetic, a kind of stream of consciousness that matches well with a trek through city streets and among the masses of people, immigrants mostly, hurrying to work, to school, to their lives.

Kazin brought to his studies the discipline of a Talmudic scholar. Yet, he was fiercely secular. Born in Brooklyn in 1915 to Russian parents, his father, a painter, his mother, a garment worker, Kazin was raised in an environment where politics, religion and culture collided. The denizens of his neighborhood were Orthodox Jews, Communist workers, and immigrants who came to America searching for a better life away from the Cossacks and the tsarist persecutions. He spoke Yiddish, and lived in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Brownsville. He began his writing life in journals, writing furiously about the changing world around him. This led to his forays in the public library, the most democratic of American institutions, where an immigrant child could access the great minds and literary work of all the authors who had come before. Kazin spent his time reading and reading and reading.

“I discovered as a very young man,” Kazin said in an interview, “that my way of writing was to talk to myself, as it were. In everything I’ve written since I began to write professionally, I adopted a habit of putting down my thoughts and arguments, my impressions, my experiences, to myself in diary form, in journal form.” Much of this early and late journal writing was collected in his book, A Lifetime Burning In Every Moment.” The writing in his journal is not all that different from his memoirs, but we do get to see the connections he makes between culture and literature when they are fresh. We also see his awareness of the pleasures of writing. The material is more immediate, more intimate than his published works. “I could think what I really wanted to say about William James or Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman by first writing in my journals as if I were writing about a personal experience,” Kazin said. He goes on to say that “I was very much influenced by that literature from Emerson to Emily Dickinson and William James. I think it’s the core of American literature.”

A variety of critics influenced Kazin over the years, including Van Wyck Brooks, Edmund Wilson. G.K. Chesterton, Randolph Bourne, and H.L. Mencken. These were critics who did not just criticize books, “but were concerned with the necessary continuity of progress in American life and were not afraid to attack social and political evil.”

Alfred Kazin died on his birthday, June 5, 1998. His passion for the written word inspires me as a teacher and writer. I see him in my mind’s eye, the walker, using his walking as a metaphor for life’s journey, how we all are walkers in a city, discovering our world, and reporting back what it is we have found.

Further Reading
A Lifetime Burning In Every Moment (Harper Perennial, 1996)
New York Jew (Syracuse University Press, 1978)
A Walker In The City (Harvest Book, 1979)
Writing Was Everything (Harvard University Press, 1995)
On Native Grounds (Harvest Book, 1995)
God and the American Writer (Random House, 1997)
An American Procession (Harvard University Press,1984)