Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tell Me A True Story

Books Discussed In This Essay
The Norton Reader (Twelfth Edition)
The Guide To The Norton Reader
Black Hawk Down
by Mark Bowden

“The imagination, values, and convictions of a writer play a big part in even the most accurate nonfiction, of course. Telling a true story well demands that the reporter achieve his own understanding of the events and people described, and arriving at that point can mean shading reality, even if only unconsciously. We view the world from where we sit.”
Mark Bowden
The Atlantic (Jan-Feb. 2008)

We need to teach more nonfiction in high school; as much as a full year should be devoted to reading essays, biographies, memoirs, reviews, critical analysis, and personal experience.

I can hear the screams from people who say that we are mired in a cult of narcissism. That the recent obsession in American letters with memoir and personal stories is really all about our own self-absorbed navel-gazing. It cannot be considered real literature. Do we need more stories about kicking drug addiction, defeating alcoholism, and surviving bad parents?

Fiction has its place; it is an art form that will always be part of the human story. There have been compelling novels written in the last ten years, and I believe these works should be read and taught in the classroom. However, for far too long, nonfiction has been relegated to the sidelines in the English curriculum.

I devote about sixty percent of my eleventh grade Advanced Placement Language and Composition course to nonfiction. Luckily, my school allows for ninety minutes of English instruction in eleventh grade, so I can schedule both novels and nonfiction readings. We use The Norton Reader (Twelfth Edition) in the class, an excellent book offering a wealth of essays, articles, op-ed pieces, and other types of nonfiction writing.

Nonfiction today utilizes many of the same techniques as fiction to tell a story, so teaching analytical and critical thinking skills using the standard literary devices works both with fiction and nonfiction. Essays incorporate plot, character, theme, symbol and other devices into telling the true story. This is quite a feat, when one realizes that the journalist does not control many aspects of the story like a novelist does.

“Every reporter knows the sensation of having a story ‘ruined’ by some new and surprising piece of information,” Mark Bowden writes in the January-February 2008 edition of The Atlantic. “Just when you think you have the thing figured out, you learn something that shatters your carefully wrought vision.” Bowden knows what he is talking about; his book on the U.S. war in Somalia, Black Hawk Down, is one of the most gripping nonfiction novels of the last twenty years. He goes on to say that “The Essential difference between writing nonfiction and writing fiction is that the artist owns his vision, while the journalist can never really claim one, or at least not a complete one—because the real world is infinitely complex and ever changing.”

Students need to read fiction, but nonfiction work, whether business communication, reports, documents, articles, essays, or other work, will be the balance of what they will need to read and understand in the real world. The reading and study of fiction and poetry does serve to sharpen skills of analysis, but nonfiction deserves an equal share of the time in the English classroom.

Students will also be forced to validate sources of information. Many of my kids stop with Wikipedia, the online, user-written conglomerate of information. I teach them that Wikipedia is only the beginning. They need to go to other sources, and assess the reliability of such sources to validate the information they seek. There is so much data out there posted on the Internet without any kind of filter or editorial oversight. To just take everything without consideration is a recipe for disaster.

Therefore, the same analytical and critical reading skills that are applied to fiction and poetry can and should be brought to bear on nonfiction literature. The AP Language and Composition course description from the College Board asks teachers to utilize non-standard writing like letters, cartoons, product directions, analysis, and corporate reports. Nonfiction is a necessity in the course, but I would broaden that out to regular English courses as well. Students need experience with nonfiction writing in equal measure with fiction and poetry.

Arguably, the greatest story is our story. Yes, this may be a narcissistic, but it is also a profoundly humanist view. Fiction is the story of people, of human beings, and therefore does it not suffice? Not entirely, because fiction, although composed of realistically drawn characters who must correspond to human beings in the real world, contains characters who are fabricated and not real. They are simulations of reality. I not only want to know how someone imagines another’s life; I want to know the truth about how others live.

The Norton Reader is an excellent text for teaching nonfiction work. I use the longer twelfth edition, however there is a shorter version that could be used as a supplement with the standard fiction and poetry covered in English class. The longer version includes a wealth and diversity of writers in categories based on the kinds of nonfiction writing. The book begins with “Personal Report,” the editors’ term for the personal experience essay. This section also includes journal writing. Well-known writers like Joan Didion and E.B. White are grouped with newer writers like the late David Foster Wallace and Nancy Mairs.

The subjects that each writer addresses also stretch the boundaries of the standard personal essay. I particularly enjoy Lars Eighner’s essay on dumpster diving, where he explains how he lives by raiding trash bins outside of convenience stores and supermarkets.

The book categorizes sections on people and places, human nature, cultural critique, education, language and communication, nature and environment, ethics, history, politics and government, science and technology, literature, the arts, and media, and philosophy and religion. Selected authors include Henry David Thoreau, Langston Hughes, Virginia Woolf, Stephen Jay Gould, Neil Postman, Aaron Copland, Susan Sontag, Martin Luther King Jr., Isaac Asimov, Hannah Arendt, Barbara Tuchman, Rachel Carson, Jessica Mitford, and Walt Whitman, to name just a random sampling. Each piece includes two or three questions as well as notes and information about each selection. An author’s biography is included at the end of the book.

Nonfiction needs equal time in the classroom with poetry, drama and fiction. If we expect our students to take an active role in their world, they must be informed. Should the role of fiction or poetry be diminished to make room for nonfiction? A creative way of teaching all the genres of literature must be found.

Writing is art and craft, and to tell a true story well takes just as much skill as writing a novel or play. The truth wins out over the art, and the writer must work with the material she is given, shaping the scale and balance to make the story riveting and effective.

It is time to see nonfiction, the story of our lives, as work worth reading and equal to the classic novels, poetry and drama we already teach. Nonfiction writing is literature, and will make for interesting reading and discussion in the English classroom.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

We All Need To Teach Writing

This week on my eI Community blog, I write about how all teachers in all disciplines must be writing teachers. Other bloggers address a host of other subjects regarding teachers and education.

Feel free to leap over and check us out. Remember, login name is The password is paulmartin, one word. Don't be afraid to comment and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

After Etan

After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive
By Lisa R. Cohen
Grand Central Publishing; $25.99, cloth
ISBN 978-0-446-58251-3

Any discussion of crime in America must include a chapter on crimes against children. The cases are numerous and horrific, but a few stand out as emblematic of the way society and the law have responded to these most heinous acts.

Steven Stayner: kidnapped in 1972 by a man who convinced him that his parents did not want him anymore; kept prisoner for seven years before escaping with another kidnap victim and being reunited with his parents.

Poly Klaas: kidnapped by Richard Allen Davis in 1993; Davis later hid her in bushes when he encountered a California Highway Patrol officer while his vehicle was stuck in the mud; Klaas’ body was found under some debris.

Amber Hagerman: kidnapped and murdered in 1996; her killing remains unsolved, although it is for her that we now have Amber Alerts for missing kids.

Megan Kanka: kidnapped and murdered by a convicted sex offender who lived across the street; she gave her name to Megan’s Law, allowing law enforcement to post registered sex offenders’ names and addresses on the Internet.

What kind of monster victimizes a child? And of all the children who go missing each year, what of those that are never found? What private hell do the parents, loved ones, and law enforcement officials go through, wondering about the fate of a beloved son or daughter?

Lisa R. Cohen, an Emmy winning television news producer, examines one such case in her first book, After Etan: The Missing Child Case That Held America Captive. She presents the story of Etan Patz, a six year old New Yorker kidnapped and murdered on his way to the bus stop for school. He most likely was snatched within sight of the fire escape of his apartment in the SoHo district of Manhattan. Although Cohen takes us painstakingly through the story, including a thorough vetting of the only suspect, Jose Ramos, the case remains unsolved. Etan’s parents did successfully sue Ramos years later for the wrongful death of their son, but he was never found criminally responsible.

Etan’s kidnapping changed New Yorkers. Parents no longer allowed their children to walk to the parks or playground. Many felt the year of the case—1979—marked the end of innocence.

Ramos admitted to dating Etan’s babysitter, and probably knew the child well enough to approach him by name on the street. Cohen explains that Ramos had a history of molesting children, and even sexually assaulted the babysitter’s own child. He was a serial predator of children, and is currently serving his time in a prison in Pennsylvania. He is due to be released in September of 2014.

Investigators close to the case, including former United States Attorney Stuart GraBois, believe Ramos approached the boy on his way to school, the first time Etan had ever walked to the bus stop alone, and took the child to his apartment several blocks away. Once there, he molested the child and eventually killed him, probably disposing of his body in the basement furnace. In any case, no trace of Etan’s body was ever found, and Ramos was later convicted of molesting other children, which led to his prison sentence. GraBois, over several face-to-face meetings, did manage to get Ramos to make a “90 percent” confession. The suspect said he had spoken to Etan on the street the morning he was kidnapped, thereby putting himself in contact with the victim at the time of the crime.

Cohen’s research is thorough and meticulous. She worked the story for both CBS and ABC, and has followed the case from the start. She takes the reader through the events, constructing the book like a novel. Ramos makes an appearance at the start when the babysitter tells him of the kidnapping. He goes out supposedly to look for the child. He comes back into the story later when he becomes a “person of interest.” Meanwhile, we see the cops on the beat in search of the boy, we see the district attorneys and their investigators, and of course, the anguished, tortured parents.

The reader also gets the full psychological profile of a child molester. We learn that people who commit such crimes fall into two categories. “Situational or regressed molesters can successfully carry on adult sexual relationships, but simply put, they will take whatever they can get,” Cohen writes. They often are emotionally immature and have low self-esteem. “Fixated or preference child molesters are sexually attracted exclusively to…children.”

The difficult part of this subject is the description and discussion of the act itself. Cohen does not pull punches; she describes in detail what Ramos and others like him do to children. It is difficult, painful, and often horrific.

So why read this book? If one is interested in the human animal and his psychology, this is a story of great interest. The writer takes us through one of the most notorious criminal desecrations of a child in the last thirty years, a case that continues to haunt the investigators, the lawyers, and New Yorkers today. Structured like a true crime nonfiction novel in the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the book has a lot to say about American society in the late twentieth century. Further, Ramos is set to be released in just a few short years, and has come up for parole several times. Animals like this belong behind bars forever, but it is not even accurate to portray this man as an animal. Animals kill for food, for protection. How often do animals kill for sport, to indulge a desire for pleasure, to express such a deviant and abhorrent interest in victimizing and exploiting the most vulnerable of their own? The book makes clear the danger in Ramos’ release.

In the end, there are no heroes in capes, no guardians of right, no safety in what is just and true. Evil is as much a part of this life as good. Are the two in balance or at war? Etan Patz was caught in the middle, between his innocence and something so dark and sinister that one can only hope his death saved him from the full knowledge of the creature that murdered him. And even though the brave and determined cops, attorneys, law enforcement officials, and his own parents tried to save him, the evil in Jose Ramos won. Such is the dark world in which we wander.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Lead

This week, my piece on homework is the lead blog entry on eICommunity. Please feel free to hop over and check it out. I discuss the necessity of assigning homework and how this should be part of a student's grade for the course.

And for all of you who wish to check out the site but are a little put off by the registration process, I have simplified things for you. Simply click on the link above and when the box comes up, use as your login name, and "paulmartin" without the quotation marks as the password. Look for my work and many other fine writers on K-12 Blogs.

Yes, it is really that simple.

Next week, my post at the Community will be about how every teacher across the curriculum must be a writing teacher. Either comment directly to the post or send me an email with your thoughts.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Book of Dead Philosophers

The Book of Dead Philosophers
By Simon Critchley
Vintage Books; $15.95, paper
ISBN 978-0-3073-9043-1

We need to study philosophy, if only to discover how to live. Simon Critchley adopts this as his thesis, writing, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” he says, quoting Cicero. And death, in Critchley’s view is just a part of life. So it is in his book about philosophers and their deaths that we get a glimpse of how to live, even as we examine the last moments of the greatest thinkers in human history.

Writers want to sell books, and Critchley seems to have selected his focus here with that in mind. However, he also manages to weave in a healthy dose of the great men and women’s views and ideas along with the story of each one’s demise. The only complaint would be that he also includes apocryphal stories that are interesting and sometimes chilling, but untrue.

He begins the book with an introduction that takes great pains to establish the criteria and parameters of his work. He quotes Montaigne regarding the preoccupation with death: “So I have formed the habit of having death continually present, not merely in my imagination, but in my mouth.” Critchley goes on to write that “the philosopher looks death in the face and has the strength to say it is nothing.” He believes that in death, these philosophers will teach us about life and more importantly, how to live.

Socrates, Critchley says, saw death as a good thing. “Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another.” He believes that the study of philosophy is not easily measured out. It cannot be “bought or sold like a commodity in the marketplace.” Although a demanding subject, the study of philosophy offers the reward of wisdom and insight. Critchley goes even further, saying philosophy is “erotic, not just epistemic.”

After the preliminaries are out of the way, we launch into the 190 or so dead guys and gals. Critchley divides the book up chronologically, beginning with the Pre-Socratics, Physiologists, Sages and Sophists, and concluding with more recent thinkers like Albert Camus, Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Some, like Pythagoras (580-500 B.C.) get a brief essay. Others receive a sentence or two. But herein lies the example of the apocryphal: Critchley writes that most classical scholars assume Pythagoras never existed. So can we include a figure who is more legend than truth in this discussion? Critchley does.

He also includes figures that span several disciplines, like drama and literature, mathematics, astronomy, and religion. However, his reasoning is sound because even though writers like the Greek dramatist Aeschylus used the theatre to convey his point of view, each arguably contributed to a particular school of philosophy. This is one of the successes of the book that writers and thinkers from other disciplines are included. Critchley demonstrates the universality of thought in this inclusion; philosophy is indeed a broad canvas involving many artists.

Along the way, Critchley conveys some good stories with the great ideas. Of Maimonides, he writes “It is an irony from which the contemporary world might learn that the person whom many regard as the greatest Jewish philosopher of all time should have emerged from the Islamic world.”

He tells us that William of Ockham (1285-1347/9) never used the term for which he is best known: “Ockham’s razor.” Although Ockham did have a “predilection for empirical evidence and logical analysis as a way of cutting through the nonsense.”

Then there are the deaths, and in a book with this title, one can expect a cavalcade of departures for the netherworld. Nietzsche, who “seems to have been coprophagic, that is, to have been partial to eating his own faeces and drinking his own urine,” died after kissing a horse; Plato, quite possibly died of a lice infestation; Edith Stein, perished in a concentration camp during the Second World War; and Simone Weil starved herself to death in solidarity with the citizens of France during the occupation in the same war.

Critchley even includes himself as the last philosopher, keeping his tongue-in-cheek sense of humor to the end: “Exit, pursued by a bear.”

All in all, Critchley’s book is interesting and compelling. He manages to work in some of the great ideas along with the death toll. What normally would be the last chapter in the biography, we get summed up in a few lines for each thinker throughout the book.

Even though the writer strives to give us thumbnail sketch of each philosopher’s life, times, views and death, the context is still a little shallow. Really understanding how to live, how to be human, how to behave morally in a duplicitous world, that takes study and in-depth analysis. Critchley tries to give the reader the lesson by focusing on the last moments, the transition from light to dark, but he serves only to pique our interest. To truly understand and evaluate the wisdom of these sages requires a longer journey.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

I Hear America Singing

“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boar, the deck-hand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing and washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.”
Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman: still relevant after all these years.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to hear America singing again?

Happy Fourth of July, America.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Life's Rich Pageant

“Breaking news coming across the wire services right now. Michael Jackson is still dead. I repeat. Michael Jackson is still dead.”

This is a freak show, but even freak shows get old after a week of twenty-four hour coverage. The hyperbole is thick and caustic: Barack Obama became president because of Michael Jackson? He broke the barriers, and that is why we have a black president? MTV never played a black performer until Michael Jackson? Michael Jackson changed the face of popular music forever?

Get real. Michael Jackson changed his face. That is the only thing we can say with certainty.

And what about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X? The history of sports must include Jackie Robinson. Or in music, Nat King Cole, James Brown (a hero of Jackson’s), and Marvin Gaye, all of whom predated Jackson’s successes of the 1980s and 90s.

This weekend is the fourth of July and Americans need to do some serious reflection. People die, and for those close to the deceased, that is sad. But we need to keep sight of the bigger picture. Instead of showing up outside the gates of Neverland Ranch in Los Olivos where the Jackson family has already announced there will not be a viewing and service for the singer, Americans need to focus on the decline of the empire. Unemployment figures climbed yet again. Iran is on the verge of civil war, and Iraq experienced another round of violence as some American troops pulled out. And we have casualties for the first time in a long time in Afghanistan.

But maybe Americans cannot handle such self-examination. It is easier to mourn an eccentric, dysfunctional performer and follow his family members than to deal with our own issues. Michael Jackson’s death is an easy equation—he died and now we are sad. Losing a job and failing to find another, trying to fight off the bank from foreclosing on the house, facing a difficult world that demands thinking and decisive action—those are issues too complicated and too scary to contemplate.

We are a country that values the ostentatious, the material goods, the physical strength, and we ridicule the deficit of those things. We are not a nation of thinkers. But that is exactly the skill we need to survive the test of this age. And we need to inculcate these thinking skills in our children. Michael Jackson is not the role model for our youth. He took drugs, swore off education for fame and fortune, jeopardized the lives of his “children,” acted inappropriately with young boys, and produced music that has yet to stand the test of time. He ain’t Shakespeare, folks. And he certainly is not a hero.

Ours is a country founded by a few men of thought and action. These men based the documents of this country on French philosophical thought and good, old-fashioned logic and reason. Jefferson read books. Franklin read books. They wrote and rewrote and revised until they got it right. Not many countries can say their constitution survived two and a half centuries. Sure, it is a living document, subject to amendments and legal exploration, but the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, these words stand. They deliver us from our own fanaticism time and again.

We have a president who can write a sentence. Moreover, he can speak his mind and be understood by others. He continually applies a thoughtful approach to governance, and demonstrates thoughtful consideration before acting, far different from the previous administration that utilized a “knee-jerk” response to every challenge.

Americans need to follow his example. It is time for us to re-engage ourselves in the democracy and become part of the discussion. The challenges we face in this country require thinking skills—hard, focused, analytical thought and critical thinking. I fear we may not be up to the challenge.

As long as we are sidetracked by the cult of celebrity, by materialism, by gossip and rumor, we do not stand a chance. Times are hard and we cannot run away. We must stay and fight with our minds, or ability to learn and adapt. We must become something only a few of us have every been: thinkers.

Michael Jackson said it best: it does not matter if you are black or white. We know that now, after the election of Barack Obama. What matters is how we think, and that is what we need now to continue to be a part of the American dream, of life’s rich pageant.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A New Blogging Venture: What It Is Like To Be A Teacher*

I am very proud to announce another blog with which I am involved: eInstruction Community. The parent site, eInstruction, is a technology company specializing in educational software and hardware for the classroom. Their motto is “Simple solutions. Real results.” A few months ago, I was approached by the company to become a blogger for a new site they were launching that would bring together teachers and school personnel in an online community. The new site went live this week, and I would invite everyone to stop by and check out the features.

The site name is eICommunity, and includes all kinds of resources and ideas for the classroom. There are blogs for kindergarten through twelfth grade as well as the college level. They have resources for downloading, discussion boards, and short recipes for classroom lessons and management called “Best Practices.” These practices include “Success Stories” and a link to add a story.

My attraction to this project is really about the community. Teaching can be an isolating experience—one person in front of a class. The tendency is for a teacher to feel he is the only one going through a particularly difficult time, or facing a classroom issue that is unique to his situation. The fact is, teachers discussing issues means that a member of the community will have support, thereby learning that there are commonalities in practice and problems, issues that we can, through discussion, shed some light on, and find solutions for, and become better educators. Teaching is a craft, a skill, and when true teachers gather together, the discussion is lively and enriching for all of those involved. That is what I hope the eICommunity will become.

My writing on the site will focus on stories from the classroom—what it is like to be a teacher, facing the issues, the difficulties, the successes and the failures. I wanted to take a practical approach, throw out a story or anecdote, and ask readers to submit their ideas and points of view.

So please stop by, read, comment, participate. The art of teaching is the craft of building a future, and this incredibly important vocation needs people called to serve, to teach, to help children discover their futures, their potential.

Meanwhile, I will also continue to post regularly to The Teacher’s View.

*Update: For all those who wish to follow my other blog at eI Community, you must first go to eInstruction to sign up. On the main page at the top there is a link to eI Community. Click on it, and you will be prompted to register. The registration is simply email, name, teaching information (do not worry; you do not have to be a teacher, however, you will be asked for this information so use your high school and be creative) and a few other questions. Do not hesitate to do this; you will not receive tons of ads or annoying emails or anything, but make sure you uncheck the boxes at the bottom. Once you have registered, you will have your login name and password. Then you can login and access the site. I am under "K-12 Blogs." Thanks for the inquiries and interest.