Thursday, June 26, 2008

Quiet, Please

Quiet, Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian
By Scott Douglas
Da Capo Press, $25.00 cloth
ISBN 978-0-7867-2091-0

What are we supposed to glean from Scott Douglas’ memoir of his five years as librarian in the public libraries of Anaheim, California? Here are some random first impressions: patrons often use the computers and bathrooms for inappropriate behavior; librarians do not read, and Douglas himself lies about his own reading; Douglas now believes books are not everything; he is a typical slacker who goes off to graduate school on the city’s dime; the main attractions at modern public libraries are food sales and computer usage; he wants to be the next David Sedaris; the very idea of a public library as a gateway to knowledge for the masses is a pipe dream.

To be fair, Douglas does work in some history of libraries, from Alexandria in 300 B.C. to Andrew Carnegie and the first public institutions, and finally, to Bill Gates and his gifts of computers and software from the Microsoft empire. But there is little discussion of books. Douglas could have just as easily set his memoir inside an airplane factory. He is, in fact, into paper airplanes, as well as the computer game, FreeCell. His smug tone and attempts to channel Sedaris are off-putting and at times, downright irritating.

His use of footnotes, ala David Foster Wallace, another of his admitted heroes, is also annoying, and adds nothing to the narrative. “I think [the footnotes] give the book a certain urgency and energy,” he says. “The generation I grew up in is now being raised on DVD’s (sic) with commentary tracks. In many ways, the footnotes serve as my commentary track to the memoir.” Sorry, but a book is not a film. And, in a clarification, if the generation has already grown up they cannot now be raised on DVDs.

Douglas begins his story with his first days on the job as a library clerk. He tries to pass himself off to his co-workers as a reader and a man of intellect only to discover that his fellow employees are as clueless about literature.

He goes on to discuss his first forays into storytelling for young patrons, and to discuss how his first week in the library is the week of September 11, 2001. But he cannot give the tale sharpness or poignancy. His discussion of terrorism and resulting mood of the country is particularly shallow. While discussing the collapse of the twin towers with a friend over lunch, he writes, “How long until people don’t remember what 9/11 means?” His friend does not think anyone will ever forget. “I looked down at my pizza,” he continues. “My friend had picked the place for lunch because he had seen a commercial on TV advertising free bread sticks.” After pausing for a footnote about how much he likes free samples of bread sticks, Douglas compares the way Americans remember the Oklahoma City bombing to the way they might someday remember 9/11: as a shadowy, unfocused memory. It all comes off as superficial.

Douglas moves on to discuss his adventures in graduate school, an opportunity paid for by the city of Anaheim. He characterizes one professor as a “cocky, boastful goof who used big words to prove points.” Should he have used smaller words? “Nothing he said made any sense,” Douglas writes, “but I liked him because he had sweaty armpits, which were fun to draw in my notebook in lieu of real notes.”

Later in the book, Douglas takes offense when a teenager calls him a “faggot” for no particular reason. He takes great pains to tell us he is not gay, and that this incident, and similar ones, makes him hate teenagers. So name-calling and ridicule are fine when hurled at a goofy professor, but not when the insults are directed at him?

His remedy for putting an entire class to sleep with a boring story? “[T]ell a fart joke. Or if you don’t know any fart jokes, make a fart noise.” Douglas reveals his immaturity and vacuity with such comments and scatological attempts at humor. David Sedaris, Mark Twain, David Foster Wallace, he is most certainly not.

The book is a disappointment on so many levels. Even in the nuts and bolts editing, Douglas and his editors miss the mark. Awkward and grammatically challenged phrases abound: two fellow librarians “reminisce of the career of Julia Roberts.” He changes the names and characteristics of people in his story “so as not to receive a lawsuit.” He writes in another place that conspiracy theories “centered around 9/11.” When he questions an advisor about a failing grade, he writes that “the program prohibited her to tell me.” The problematic passages detract from the effectiveness of the writing, although the book would have made only a slightly better impression if it was copyedited properly. Inept writing and use of language in a book allegedly about books and libraries does not impress.

The only real value in this sophomoric carnival is the ample evidence that public libraries are in trouble. When Los Angeles went on a campaign to remodel its branch offices, many reopened in fantastically modern buildings with a bit more square footage, but with half the books replaced by a large number of computer stations. Douglas details this process in his library. As the influence of the computer grows, older books are not replaced. The budget shrinks for new books, and people come in to surf the Internet and check email. The library becomes a community center. The idea of a public library is diluted and eventually will be discounted altogether, the real “dumbing down” of our society and culture.

To his credit, Douglas does make an issue of how many immigrants and non-native English speakers come in to find books and information to learn the language and culture. It seems the public library system is ignored by middle and upper class Americans, with the exception being the elderly and the mentally handicapped. But Douglas is condescending and superior in his tone with these patrons as well.

Indeed, like the classroom, the library is changing. What disturbs is not just the lack of books, the limited funding of libraries by the city, the disrespect patrons show towards books, learning and the life of the mind. These are the fault lines in the rupturing American culture, but it is deeply disappointing that those whose job it is to promote learning, reading and writing, the librarians, have such poor attitudes and insufficient maturity to redefine and invigorate sacred space, the temple secular, the holy library. Front and center, that is the message clearly offered in Scott Douglas’ memoir.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Toughest Road

Stick a fork in this school year; it is done. I signed off on the last grade sheet after scoring the last final exam.

So let the reflection begin. What did I learn this year? How will I revise my courses and syllabi? How will I do things differently next year? What will I spend my summer doing to improve my craft?

A glimmer of an idea arrived on my doorstep in the form of the denigrated and declining Los Angeles Times, dateline June 21, 2008. In a front page story, we learned about Phil Holmes, “one of the great English teachers of his generation,” who is teaching the final years of his career at View Park Preparatory High School in South Los Angeles after thirty-five years at upper crusty Harvard-Westlake. Was he fired? No, he chose South L.A. for the students, the same students he now informs are failing the quarter.

Mr. Holmes is relentless. He demands excellence and he will stop at nothing to get it. He is a role model for teachers and an inspiration for students.

“He considers every lesson, every minute of class time, to be important,” Mitchell Landsberg, the Times staffer writes, “and, at age sixty-six, he often stays up past midnight preparing for the next day’s lessons.” Holmes leads the class in a thorough examination of an essay, even criticizing the student critics, ripping up their theories and responses, labeling arguments as “mindless.”

“The entire class was like this, Holmes leading a discussion in which no point, no word was insignificant. He could be brutal…” The students, most of whom are African-American, love and appreciate Homes’ efforts. Therefore the testimonials for Holmes’ methodologies are numerous. “I was taught to think,” says Barton H. Thompson Jr., a Stanford law professor and former Holmes student.

Landsberg writes that “Creative writing, Holmes believes, is a frill for most high school students. How many, after all, will become poets or novelists? But virtually all will need to write some form of persuasive essay, in college and in their careers. That is Holmes’ central focus.”

I studied the article and ordered the textbook from Amazon: The Uses of Argument by British philosopher Stephen Toulmin. I absorbed the mantra of Holmes’ courses: “Writing a sustained case, free of mechanical errors, in a readable style…Claim, clarification, evidence and warrant, cemented by ‘backtracking,’ a practice in which the writer re-reads and challenges his own work and answers any questions that arise.”

Next year, I must push harder. I must take the students down the toughest road. Notes will be collected frequently and graded. The syllabus will not change, I do not care how many other tests are scheduled for that day. I will pound in lessons on vocabulary, writing, grammar, critical and analytical thinking, and literature. The reading schedule will be set in stone. In short, 2007-2008 will serve as the last year I am waylaid by superficiality, triviality and distraction. There is nothing more important than the study of English in the classroom, every day, for the full hour, for the 180 school days of the year.

I will spend the summer preparing for this intensive focus. I will review every text, every note, every lesson plan, every activity. I will sharpen and refine and revise until everything shines like the sun and cuts to the point like a razor. I will redouble my efforts to teach and be the best possible teacher for my students.

And I will expect my students to be nothing less than brilliant, every day. Education is too important, and we are at a critical juncture in our cultural lives. If we do not inspire smarter students capable of thinking critically and analytically, competent with research and information technologies, able to think strategically and act decisively, then this country is doomed.

All of this will be done quietly, but with intensity and passion.

Mitchell Landsberg ends his portrait of Phil Holmes on such a note: “There are no fireworks, no speeches, no round of applause. Just this: As he walks out the door and heads to the parking lot, Phil Holmes knows that today he delivered a good lesson. He didn’t waste a second. He made the students think.”

Such will be my re-emphasized mantra for 2008-2009.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Lists, Lists and More Lists

I said these were difficult weeks. I stared at my book shelves and made some tough decisions. So what was left out, you might ask?

I teach all four high school grades, all honors or Advanced Placement courses. These kids still do not read enough, but they are far more likely to read than our mainstream college prep courses. Therefore, every book I had to cut was agonizing. The only bright spot is that several students asked me for a list of books I cut so that they could read them over the summer.

I lost a lot of literary blood in my ninth grade English course. Laurie Halse Anderson, an amazing writer of young adult titles, was usually our first read of the new school year. Catalyst is a moving and intense book, but it is a work the students can read on their own. They do not need me to teach it to them.

Within their Prentice Hall anthology, the students read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I usually add to this A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Considering that our theatre department performed this play during the 2007-2008 school year, most of the students know it well. Therefore, out it went.

I also cut Skellig, by David Almond. It is a book rated for middle school, but contains some incredible William Blake references. I teach it in conjunction with a set of Blake poems. Blake is covered extensively in tenth and twelfth grades, so Skellig got the ax.

English II Honors for tenth graders suffered some major cuts. I lost Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. The play is showing its age. I find the last act incredible, but the lead up is a bit slow and small town, which is the point, however my twenty-first century students struggle to stay involved in the narrative.

I have taught Death of a Salesman to sophomores for thirteen years straight. The play makes me cringe—that is how well Arthur Miller nailed the characters. I see all sorts of people in the Loman family; they are the ghosts that haunt the American landscape. After thirteen years, I felt it was time for a rest. I will bring it back at some point, but not for next year.

I usually try to schedule a major work of mythology during the sophomore year, because once we hit AP classes in eleventh grade, I cannot squeeze it in. Students are supposed to have a handle on mythology by junior year; the AP exam does not go back past the sixteenth century, but students are expected to catch the allusions. However, Ovid’s Metamorphoses is extremely redundant. It also took a long time to teach—sometimes as much as three months. We cannot spend that much class time on a single work. Therefore, if they see any Ovid at all next year, it will be in excerpts, not the full epic.

I have decided to try to finish all the literature by the end of the first semester and then spend the entire second semester on writing skills, grammar, vocabulary, and research writing. I think we need this focus going into AP Language and Composition.

For the eleventh grade course, we have two class periods per day. The first class period is the actual AP Language and Composition course; the second daily class period is a writing, grammar, and test preparation period. Having ninety minutes each day allows me to cover a lot of ground. Still, there had to be cuts.

I have taught Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman for several years running, and it is an incredible book so I have kept it for summer reading. I have paired it with The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a novel I taught for the first time this year with success. I had to cut In My Father’s Name by Mark Arax, a local hero-writer of mine. I also dropped The Catcher In The Rye for the same reason as some other books: it needs a rest. I have taught it every year for thirteen years or so. The students love the novel and really respond to it, so I will bring it back at some point.

I dropped the Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried, a book that never fails to move me, especially when Tim O’Brien writes about dreaming Linda alive again. Linda is a girl O’Brien had a crush on when they were in fourth grade. She died of a brain tumor. The final scene of the novel, where they are ice skating through his dreams, is one of the most moving passages I have ever read. I wanted to focus on more material from the Norton Reader, several thousand pages of nonfiction writing, so O’Brien’s book had to go. This was a painful cut for me, but necessary.

I briefly flirted with teaching On The Road by Jack Kerouac and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. My students have expressed interest in the Beat writers before, especially after our visit with Aram Saroyan. In the end, Kerouac’s work was a little too specific to an era, although it killed me when I first read it. Kesey’s book may return another year.

In many ways, the senior AP Literature and Composition course was the most challenging to pick books for because those students have a shorter year than the rest of the school. I cut units on the Bible, including the Book of Genesis and Book of Revelation. I might still give them some copied pages to study.

I cut completely an excellent textbook, Writing About Literature, mainly because the book is expensive and I have handouts that cover many of the same topics as the chapters. I did not feel we did the book justice this year, and I do not like that feeling. Students pay money for a book; we need to use it to its fullest potential.

I cut Beowulf, like Ovid, because it was drawn out and redundant. With the poor movie version released this year, it has also become cliché. Again, I had to consider the sixteenth century-present focus of the exam.

I reinstated Shakespeare’s Hamlet, replacing the Scottish play, and briefly toyed with also adding Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but we barely have time to go through Hamlet once from Shakespeare’s point of view.

The biggest battle on the senior level was whether to add in Frankenstein and Crime and Punishment, both novels that have appeared in essay questions on the AP exam, and that I have taught previously. In the end, I added them in, even though I am still not sure I will have time to cover everything. I told my students today that we will be racing the clock, but with the school year drawing to a close, their minds are not wrapping around this information. Therefore, I will have to push hard with them in the fall in order to get everything covered.

On this year’s exam, the students had a free response essay question that contained the following books:

The Age of Innocence
Alias Grace
All the King’s Men
All the Pretty Horses
Anna Karenina
Billy Budd
The Brothers Karamazov
Cold Mountain
The Color Purple
Don Quixote
Glass Menagerie
Henry IV, Part I
Huckleberry Finn
Invisible Man
King Lear
The Kite Runner
The Misanthrope
The Piano Lesson
Pride and Prejudice
Reservation Blues
The Sound and the Fury
A Streetcar Named Desire
A Tale of Two Cities
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Tom Jones
Wuthering Heights

Based on this list, and others like it, I felt the heat to pick the books that would maximize my students’ reading level. As always, planning classes is an activity that is never finished. The classes and texts are always changing, always being adjusted.

Several years ago, I compiled a list for each grade level of all the books we have taught in previous years. It is from this list that we choose books each year, and the list is always being updated. Here it is:

Grade Nine
1. The Human Comedy by William Saroyan
2. The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
3. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
4. The Miracle Worker by William Gibson
5. The Odyssey by Homer
6. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
7. Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
8. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
9. The Giver by Lois Lowry
10. The Chosen by Chaim Potok
11. Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee
12. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
13. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
14. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
15. A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly
16. Skellig by David Almond

Grade Ten
1. Night by Elie Wiesel
2. The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
3. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
4. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
5. Antigone by Sophocles
6. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
7. My Antonia by Willa Cather
8. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
9. Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
10. Hard Times by Charles Dickens
11. The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
12. Our Town by Thornton Wilder
13. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
14. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
15. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
16. Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
17. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers
18. The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
19. Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson

Grade Eleven
1. The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
2. Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
3. October Sky by Homer Hickam
4. Ordinary People by Judith Guest
5. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
6. Cat On a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
7. The Crucible by Arthur Miller
8. Fences by August Wilson
9. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
10. The Catcher In the Rye by J.D. Salinger
11. The Piano Lesson by August Wilson
12. A Raisin In the Sun by Lorraine Hansbury
13. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
14. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
15. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
16. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
17. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
18. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
19. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
20. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
21. The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
22. A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton
23. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
24. Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie
25. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
26. The White Album by Joan Didion
27. In My Father’s Name by Mark Arax

Grade Twelve1. The Black Dog of Fate by Peter Balakian
2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
3. 1984 by George Orwell
4. The Stranger by Albert Camus
5. Macbeth by William Shakespeare
6. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
7. The Tempest by William Shakespeare
8. Othello by William Shakespeare
9. King Lear by William Shakespeare
10. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
11. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
12. Oedipus the King by Sophocles
13. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen
14. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
15. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
16. Heart of Darkness and The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad
17. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
18. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
19. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
20. Remains of the Day by Kashuo Ishiguro
21. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
22. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
23. Lucky by Alice Sebold
24. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
25. Big Fish by Daniel Wallace
26. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

I have moved books around over the years for honors and AP courses, but this is basically what my students should read before they leave high school. I just wish we had time to teach every book every year.