Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Reading List 2009-2010*

The biggest question this year in revising my syllabi was not what to have my students read, but how much to have them read.

The first things the students must read for me is what we call the Summer Reading Requirement. These are selected books to be read over the summer before class starts. In our school, we test them on these books during the first week of school.

In ninth grade, I will have them read A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury for the summer. Most reading lists in high school contain few science fiction books. Bradbury is such a master of language, and he tells a ripping good story, so choosing him was a no-brainer. Donnelly writes beautifully and poetically, and the dilemma of the main character of the novel—whether to break away from her small community and close-knit family and go away for college—makes the book important for my students.

Once we start the year, we will move from an anthology of literature through several novels and plays. Inherit The Wind, based on the Scopes Monkey* Trial and the debate between creationism and evolution, is always a favorite and leads to great class discussions. I will also use G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, a real challenge for students, and classics like To Kill A Mockingbird, The House On Mango Street, and Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I first read the Golding book when I was in ninth grade and it had a profound impact on my life. Hopefully, I can recreate that for my students.

Tenth grade students will read To Kill A Mockingbird and a Hercule Poirot mystery over the summer. The Harper Lee classic was left out last year, so I am playing catch up by including it here. As for Agatha Christie, few high school reading lists contain mystery stories, yet students love them. I used this book several years ago and started a run on Christie books. Students raced from one book to the next and could not get enough of her work.

During the year we will read Camus’ The Stranger, Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Julius Caesar, Our Town, and Death of a Salesman, to give them some classic American drama. Also included on the list are Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, The Red Badge of Courage, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I will put in selections from Oscar Williams’ anthology, Immortal Poems of the English Language to start a study of poetry that will be continued in the twelfth grade.

AP Language and Composition for eleventh grade students will begin with Einstein’s Dreams, a unique and thought-provoking novel, and The Catcher In The Rye, a classic work by J.D. Salinger. Both books are easy reads for the students; they love them, and the books need no teaching, really, although we will get into some interesting discussions about the nature of time and the universe with Alan Lightman’s book.

During the school year, we will alternate between The Norton Reader, an anthology of nonfiction prose, and several classic novels and plays, including The Great Gatsby, The Bell Jar, Huckleberry Finn, The Road, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Crucible. Eleventh grade is focused on American literature, but I have added for this year Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which we are performing on campus, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.

Seniors in AP Literature and Composition will read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by the inventive Jonathan Safran Foer, Lucky by Alice Sebold, and 1984 by George Orwell. The Foer book is different from many novels of the twentieth century. He experiments with altered text and a creative expansion of the traditional novel while detailing a child’s grief over the loss of his father on September 11th. Sebold writes boldly about her rape as a college student in this nonfiction work. I will take some time with Orwell’s classic as there are a few things I want my students to really lock onto in the novel, even though they are reading it on their own.

We will push through several great works of literature, mostly British, during the shortened senior year—students graduate about four weeks earlier than the rest of the school. We will continue our study of poetry with Oscar Williams’ other anthology, Major British Poets. Novels on the list include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Crime and Punishment. Drama will not be neglected, and I am able to include some humorous work: Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Waiting For Godot, and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I love Tom Stoppard’s take on Hamlet from the minor characters’ view, and Samuel Beckett’s work is particularly relevant these days when the theatre of the absurd is now called real life.

For classic literature, I will include Dante’s Inferno from The Divine Comedy. This will allow us to discuss some Christian theology as well as the psychology of human nature, revenge and redemption. Since the AP exam covers literature from the Renaissance forward, Dante helps with mythology and Bible references in more modern work.

So there it is, our entire year of study. It will be a real push to get through everything, but I told my students before they left for the summer that failing to cover something is not an option. It is all important, so they will be reading and reading and reading, along with vigorous and regular writing.

It should be a tough, invigorating, intense year.

*Yes, as William Michaelian pointed out, it was not the Scopes "Money" trial, but the Scopes Monkey Trial. Consider my error corrected.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities
By Italo Calvino, William Weaver, translator
Harcourt, Inc.; $13.00, paper
ISBN 0-15-645380-0

Italo Calvino’s magical book, Invisible Cities is literary achievement. Part fantasy travelogue, part philosophical discussion, and all together a must-read, the book posits a discussion between Kublai Khan, emperor of the Tartans, and the young Venetian explorer, Marco Polo. The topic: the cities Marco Polo has explored, or one city in many forms.

These explorations include cities of memory, of desire, trading cities, thin cities, cities of the sky, continuous cities. The result is a deeply engaging work of literature that pushes past the limits of the novel. In between these illuminating descriptions of foreign locales, Calvino treats his readers to the dialogue between these men, one in the midst of his career, the other in decline, believing his empire to be in ruins.

“Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions,” Calvino begins his story. But Khan listens more intently to Polo, the lure of the description is the lure of story. He brings his two historical characters together, gathering them to the fire for a series of late night conversations. “There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening,” he writes, “with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres…It is the desperate moment when we discover that his empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin…” The language is a litany of images and ethereal description. The writing is simply masterful and intense.

Each chapter is an explanation and description of another city. For instance, “Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors.” In the city of Isidora, “desires are already memories.”

There is the city of Anastasia with its concentric canals and kites flying over it. The city of Tamara, with “streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things.” Yes, Tamara is a city of symbols.

Along the way, Calvino breaks for philosophical dialogue between the two men. When the Khan asks the purpose of journeys—to relive the past or to recover the future—Marco Polo has an answer. “The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”

These interludes function as the dialogue of life—why are we here? What is the purpose of our life’s journey? What do we hope to find? In the end, are not all journeys internal and external, discovering what is inside us as much as what exists in the world?

The Khan notices that Polo’s descriptions resemble each other. So he tries a new tactic: “From now on I shall describe the cities and you will tell me if they exist and are as I conceived them.” They do exist because the traveler inevitably goes in search of something, and he finds that for which he is searching. “With cities, it is as with dreams,” Calvino writes. “Everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

Marco Polo eventually admits that all his described cities are one city: Venice, his home. When the Khan marvels at this, and questions why all of these places are really one place, Polo states that he is afraid of losing the city he loves, therefore by integrating the canals, the water, the architecture into the magical places he has visited, he preserves Venice in his mind. But he is still worried. “Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”

We travel to find ourselves, to know our world as we learn the world inside of us. Some say the mind is the last frontier of exploration, and Marco Polo would probably agree. His journeys to other lands in this book are about discovering what is inside his mind as much as discovering what is in the world.

The last dialogue is an examination of the Khan’s atlas. We have seen the maps of places known in the world, of places lost, of places yet to be discovered, and finally, the places of imagination and fiction: Utopia, Atlantis, the City of the Sun. The final place is the infernal city of “ever-narrowing circles” This is the Inferno of Dante. But Marco Polo believes that this place is not where we will go after we die; he believes that if there is an Inferno, it is “where we live every day…There are two ways to escape suffering it,” Polo states. “The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” In the end, that is what we must find in the invisible cities of our imaginations.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Education By Humiliation

In these dark days of American education, when school days and weeks are being cut, programs are jettisoned, and teachers face layoffs and work furloughs, we need leadership, and we need answers. In the absence of either, it appears the American public will embrace anything. They will allow their sons and daughters to be humiliated, undergo instruction that focuses on a test rather than enlightenment, and to ultimately graduate in a kind of assembly line uniformity that leads to robotic slavery and not knowledge and wisdom.

In an article in the Los Angeles Times last week, writer Mitchell Landsberg profiled American Indian Public Charter School of Oakland, California, an institution that mocks “liberal orthodoxy with such zeal that it can seem like a parody.”

Ben Chavis created the school and serves as its spokesperson. Even though the school name reflects a Native American focus, Chavis’ first step upon taking charge was to fire most of the staff and dump the “Native American culture content.” He calls such curriculum “basket weaving.”

“You think the Jews and the Chinese are dumb enough to ask the public school to teach them their culture?” he asks.

He replaced the cultural studies with a curriculum focused on what students need to know to score well on standardized tests. It is teaching to the test so that the scores go up and he has instant measurable stats to impress parents and the public. It is an old and common deception by administrators looking for a pat on the back. But a standardized test is not the only measure of intelligence, and educators and organizations like William Fitzsimmons, Harvard University’s dean of undergraduate admissions, and the College Board, owner and facilitator of the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, have all decried this kind of educating only for the test. Students need far more knowledge, experience and skills training than could ever be measured on such a test.

Chavis is ignorant of this. He refers to all nonwhite students, even African-Americans, as “darkies.” At his school, it is acceptable to punish a misbehaving student—a girl—by forcing her to clean the boys’ restroom. Landsberg writes that “under Chavis, the school…relied on humiliation to keep students in line, ridiculing miscreants and sometimes forcing them to wear embarrassing signs. When one boy was caught stealing, Chavis shaved his head in front of the entire school.”

When recruiting faculty, Chavis also goes to the extreme. His ad reads: “We are looking for hardworking people who believe in free market capitalism…Multicultural specialists, ultra liberal zealots and college-tainted oppression liberators need not apply.”

How do you become a teacher without being “college-tainted?”

Of course, conservatives find this to be a good thing. Landsberg cites columnist George Will as an enthusiastic fan of the school. The school philosophy, as quoted in the piece, “does not preach or subscribe to the demagoguery of tolerance.”

In some ways, American Indian Public Charter School borrows much from Catholic schools of the mid-to-late twentieth century. They use every minute of the school day in the classroom, perfect attendance is required, students face daunting amounts of homework each night, and the school “refuses to promote struggling students to the next grade,” keeping a tight hold on discipline and forcing every student to attend a summer session. All good things, but what needs to be added to this is the development of thinking, reasoning, and analyzing skill sets. Where is the teaching of values, ethics, the rights and responsibilities of the individual? Rote memorization, testing practice, and drilling testing skills are not enough.

Landsberg also makes a point of mentioning that faculty turnover is high. Teachers are supposed to have the same class for three years, but that is “more theory than reality.”

The lessons that Landsberg observes also leave much to be desired. In a grammar lesson, a student writes on the board that “The extreme abolitionist John Smith was hung after a brutal revolt.”

The teacher counters with the statement that “Historically, there’s a problem. Grammatically, it’s correct.”

Wrong. John Brown was hanged—English teachers should know that when the situation involves a rope around the neck, the correct form is “hanged.”

The final insult comes at the end of the piece. One young student who stayed home to watch Barack Obama sworn in as president of the United States faced a severe punishment upon his return because Principal Janet Roberts “believes that nothing—absolutely nothing—should get in the way of class.” I am reminded of Mark Twain’s comment that school should not interfere with a child’s education.

“There are no televisions at American Indian,” Landsberg writes, “no computers in the classrooms, either—so there was no way for students to watch the inauguration.”

“It’s not part of our curriculum,” Roberts says to the reporter.

Since the presidency of Barack Obama is now a matter of history, I cannot help but think that it might someday appear on a standardized test. I guess then it will be part of American Indian Charter Public School’s curriculum. Hopefully, the school, its shortsighted philosophies and crackpot theories of education will be long gone by then.