Thursday, December 31, 2009

Trust In The Future

It has not been a good year. Economic troubles, second thoughts, regrets, reconsidering my life—all part of reaching mid-life, I guess, although I have always been a person edged in melancholy, harder on myself than any parent, teacher or boss could ever be. The questions persist: what does this all mean? Where are things headed? Am I doing all I can do with my life? I keep hearing Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify.” I find that once I leave the classroom for the day, I do not want to speak. I want to revel in silence, in thinking. More and more, I want to withdraw, to retreat.

The values I hold dear, the parts of life I find most important—the life of the mind—reading, writing, thinking, are things unimportant today in a culture mired in ignorance and materialism. I am at odds with most people I meet, many of my students and their parents, people I used to consider friends. In my forty-sixth year I find that I am inarticulate. When I open my mouth, nothing I say sounds right. So why speak at all. Instead, I should say nothing whenever possible. Or, I have one mouth and two ears; therefore I should listen twice as much as I speak.

Whatever the formula, 2009 is a year that did not work for me. But that is good, and part of being. Imperfection must be embraced, and its companion, impermanence must be welcomed. Yin and Yang, black and white, good and evil—the paradox inherent in everyday living means that there will be good years and bad years. In the end, everything changes, indeed, must change, or die. Even death is a transfiguration. We move on.

I tell stories in the classroom. I teach by two methods, mainly: storytelling and questioning. Often, I use humor. I believe that learning is not an act of drudgery, or shouldn’t be. I believe discovery can be fun, and that by laughing at ourselves we can learn much about the human condition. But the humor masks a deeper pain. Comedians are the saddest people, sometimes. I fight with depression. I am too connected, too invested, too caught up.

Sometimes, we must take a step back and look at our lives. Take stock. Reconsider. In writing, this is revision. Put the story away in a drawer for a day or so. Come back to it with fresh eyes. This is also how we must live.

Passion is a double-edged sword. Stoicism tells us to not let our passions rule our behavior. I struggle with this concept, although I deeply admire it. Emotional control is an act of great effort for me, requiring strength I often do not possess in abundance. But there it is: things are going to go wrong; disappointments will come; and darkness shares equal space with the light.

So here we are on the cusp of a new decade. I feel in my heart that some change is coming, but then change is always coming. Not much of a prediction on my part. There is never a moment when we are fully grown up. We are always considering Frost’s diverging paths in the woods. We will always have “miles to go before we sleep, and miles to go before we sleep,” until we die and pass on to whatever is to come.

I hope 2010 brings new opportunities, moments of clarity, love, peace. In my darkest times, I must remember to trust in the future and let things come. The lessons of The Art of War by Sun Tzu are clear: a warrior waits for his moment, in rain, snow, heat, pain, suffering, disappointment, a warrior waits. And when the time comes, he is ready for whatever life brings. That is the way we must live. That is the only way to proceed.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition
By Bill Bryson
HarperCollins; $29.99, cloth
ISBN 978-0-06-196532-6

Let’s face it, we do not have much documentary evidence of William Shakespeare’s life, and where evidence fails us, legend takes hold.

Bill Bryson discusses what we know, what we speculate, and what has been misconstrued in his updated edition of the great writer’s biography, Shakespeare: The Illustrated and Updated Edition. The book itself is a work of art, with heavy paper and loads of drawings, illustrations, and a significant bibliography. Still, the ground Bryson tills has been planted and harvested before, yet one gets the feeling that this is an up-to-the-minute biography, and Bryson himself admits in the preface that “For somebody who has been dead for nearly four hundred years, William Shakespeare remains awfully active.” He refers, of course, to the endless reams of scholarship and investigation published each year about the man, the myth and the legend.

Bryson sets off with the three revisions discovered since the volume was first published. The first is Shakespeare’s likeness, a subject of much speculation over the years. Everyone has seen the folio engraving of him, but Bryson reveals that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon has given us a definitive portrait of Shakespeare, and it is not the one we know. This image is known as the Cobbe portrait because for many years it has been displayed in the Cobbe family’s ancestral home.

The other two noteworthy events are the discovery of the foundation of “London’s first purpose-built theatre on the site of a disused warehouse in Shoreditch” dating from 1576 and the recovery of yet another folio of plays stolen from the Durham University library.

Bryson takes us through Shakespeare’s life and times. The biography is well-researched, and covers the major points of interest. What really wins the day, however, are the illustrations. Bryson draws from a plethora of sources, and the art definitely enhances the history, and makes purchasing the book worth the rather steep cover price.

The book is a good overview of Shakespeare’s life. Certainly there are other more scholarly and detailed approaches, but this is a good place to begin a study of his works and history. The book’s value is really more decorative than studious, as other writers have delved more deeply into a critical analysis of the plays and sonnets. I would use this volume as an illustrated teaching tool. Bryson also does a good job of updating what we know with the latest ideas about Shakespeare’s life and times.

It is amazing to me that someone who wrote almost a half of millennium ago could still be read in classrooms across the world today. And the performances of Shakespeare’s work continue, in almost every language and on every continent. Part of my class study of Romeo and Juliet includes a recitation of the balcony scene in Armenian. I even remember a line in one of the Star Trek films that extols the virtue of Shakespeare’s words in Klingon, demonstrating that in a science fiction future, Shakespeare’s plays would spread to other planets throughout the galaxy. One can only hope this will come true some day. Until then, Shakespeare remains an enigma as well as a box office draw. And that makes him a truly remarkable artist.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

I wish everyone:

Peace and tranquility this holiday season. And some good books and a warm fire!

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Break

Today begins our Christmas break, so the entire middle and high school student body gathered at St. Peter’s Church for a service. The weather was cold and windy, but the day was also bright with sunshine and blue sky.

I am struck by the quiet hope of the season, the solemnity of it all, and the power of winter, even here in southern California. After finishing at school for the day, I went to a local shopping mall. Big mistake! I felt like I was assaulted by the crowds, the cars and traffic, the frantic nervousness of it all.

To me, the dream of Christmas is a reflective time. The year has been difficult, what with the economy tanking and the increasing stress of simply being. I enjoyed the pause of church this morning, the calm before the over-heated nonsense of the mall. This is the time to think of where we are in our lives, what is important to us, and the meaning of love and friendship. It seems more and more difficult to connect with people these days. Everyone exists in his own universe. I include myself in this assessment.

On the wall over my desk in the classroom, I have a quote that I put up every year as a reminder. “Listen to the silences that you are unaware of,” it reads. Grammar is awkward, and the literal meaning might be paradoxical, but I love it nonetheless. That is what I will spend this break doing: listening to the silences. It is a noble pursuit. I will also grade some papers, read, hopefully get some rest, and get back to taking some walks in the brisk weather.

I will try to figure out where I am in my life, what will come next, and how to live better.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Eating Animals

Eating Animals
By Jonathan Safran Foer
Little, Brown and Company; $25.99, cloth
ISBN 978-0-316-06990-8

Jonathan Safran Foer’s departure from fiction has caused quite a stir among American readers. The author of Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has chosen the meat industry as his target in his latest nonfiction work. The book is exactly what one might expect: a somewhat shrill screed decrying the eating of animals. As I was reading, I could not help but compare Foer’s work with other landmark book-length investigations of various industries: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a work of fiction that instigated the formation of the Food and Drug Administration with its expose of the secretive meat industry of the early twentieth century; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, one of the first books to discuss our destruction of the environment; and The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford’s examination of the funeral industry.

Foer’s work was inspired by the birth of his son and his desire to feed him a healthy diet. The meat industry is still guarded, and Foer recounts his difficulty getting access to factory farms and a look at what happens there. He is forced to sneak in at night, and what he sees is revealing and disgusting. However, I do not think his revelations will be a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to our relationship with food over the last few decades here in America.

One would think a book of this nature is an argument for vegetarianism. Foer is a vegetarian, and he believes this is the only healthy choice of diet, but that is not the goal of the book. He takes on the philosophy of eating meat, specifically, the way we grow, produce, and slaughter animals for food. In scenes right out of Dante’s Inferno, Foer takes us inside the lives of these animals with the argument that such disregard for life, such abusive and violent behavior against another creature, cannot be good for human karma.

In fact, Foer makes the point that simply swearing off the eating of animals is not enough. The demand is still high. The fraction of the population that holds to vegetarianism is so small that the factory farms continue unabated. And many of the dwindling number of individual or family farms face economic ruin and sell out to the larger conglomerates. If they do survive, they are forced to contract slaughterhouses to prepare their animals for market, and the abuse happens most prevalently there. So whether or not a chicken is free-range, natural, grain-fed, et cetera, means nothing if they are slaughtered inhumanely in the end.

Foer also takes exception with those terms. He writes, “To be considered free-range, chickens raised for meat must have ‘access to the outdoors,’ which, if you take those words literally, means nothing. (Imagine a shed containing thirty thousand chickens, with a small door at one end that opens to a five-by-five dirt patch—and the door is closed all but occasionally.)”

Another term Foer blasts is “fresh.” “More bullshit,” he writes. “According to the USDA, ‘fresh’ poultry has never had an internal temperature below 26 degrees or above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Fresh chicken can be frozen (thus the oxymoron ‘fresh frozen’), and there is no time component to food freshness. Pathogen-infested, feces-splattered chicken can technically be fresh, cage-free, and free-range, and sold in the supermarket legally (the shit does need to be rinsed off first).”

Foer tells us that “more than ten billion land animals [are] slaughtered for food every year in America,” but he does not leave out the “chicken of the sea,” to use a popular canned tuna slogan. He details the way fish are captured, how they are farmed, and in what conditions they live up until slaughter. Many people mistakenly believe eating fish is an acceptable solution to our overindulgence in red meat. Wrong. Fish often contain higher levels of mercury and other chemicals, and the factory fish farms are no better than their landlocked counterparts.

Who are the biggest violators both of ethics and health concerns? Foer singles out Tyson Foods and KFC—no surprises there. Does anyone out there believe healthy eating begins with fast food? As for Tyson, I feed my dog from their bags of chicken breasts due to his irritable bowel disease. I boil the breasts in a pot. What I see there makes me fight the gag reflex: hunks of grey-colored meat, slimy white streams in the water, globs of gristle and sometimes bone, and often an ammonia smell to the entire pot. I worry about my dog, but this meat is for human consumption. I feel nothing but trepidation for the people who purchase these discount bags of flash frozen chicken. Foer only confirms my worst fears when he discusses Tyson’s procedures for delivering food to the table. Tyson, according to Foer, is the main supplier to KFC restaurants. “An investigation at one large Tyson facility found some workers regularly ripped off the heads of fully conscious birds…” he writes, “urinated in the live-hang area (including on the conveyer belt carrying the birds), and let shoddy automated slaughter equipment that cut birds’ bodies rather than their necks go unrepaired…” At another site, “fully conscious chickens were kicked, stomped on, slammed into walls, had chewing tobacco spit in their eyes, literally had the shit squeezed out of them, and had their beaks ripped off.”

Foer presents a grim and horrific picture. There is some of the cutesy typeface tricks of his novels, but his message is clear. We are doing a disservice to our world with our out-of-control demand for meat. His book is a good beginning for those who wish to know more about what happens before that turkey, pig, chicken, or cow comes to the table. The information Foer presents is available elsewhere, including some interesting images and film clips posted on the internet. However, he presents our problem as a moral issue, not just a dietary preference, or a way to eat more healthy.

Jonathan Safran Foer believes we are committing atrocities, demonstrating our rampant disregard for our fellow creatures, and by not mending our ways, we are tempting the hand of God. And this reason alone should be enough for us to rethink our dietary choices.

Friday, December 11, 2009

How To Study For English Class

In a sort of follow-up to yesterday’s entry, excuse a bit of teacher business. There will be a quiz on this material Monday :). Here are some tips to develop good study habits for English:

Motivation: if you have a definite purpose or goal, you will find it easier to learn the habits and skills of effective studying. The study of humanities (history, English, philosophy, art, literature, et cetera.) will help you to become an educated person. Courses in these subjects develop skills in critical reading, writing, and thinking. Therefore, these course are important and deserve your effort and attention, no matter what your career plans may involve.

Study at the same time, at the same place, on a regular schedule every night. Plan on spending at least 30 minutes per academic subject each night, but also realize that some courses may require more time than others. Give more time to the subjects that you find most difficult. During your study periods, do nothing but studying. Have a separate time for relaxation and rest.

Take good lecture notes. Questioning and listening are basic skills required when taking notes for lecture courses. Listen for key phrases the teacher uses to emphasize such as: "the main point is..., remember this..., et cetera." Listen for repeated statements and emphasized words and concepts. Do not attempt to copy down every word given in a lecture. Learn to extract the essential information by identifying the major points the teacher makes. If you do not understand something, ask a question.

Keeping good lecture notes is not the same as taking good notes. After lecture notes have been taken down, review them and reduce to key terms and concepts in a clearly defined order. Review everything, and if needed, rewrite and reorganize.

There is a method to studying written work for notes, and it is called SQ3R. Here it is: (S) survey the material, reading carefully; (Q) question everything you don't understand and try to find or develop answers for each question; (R) reread the work again, looking for missed facts and details; (R) rewrite the major points in your own words in detailed, analytical terms; (R) review the major points before class.

Date your notes and keep them neat and organized. Separate each class into its own section in your notebook.

Sit at a desk or table and read the piece through. Do not lay in bed or have the TV or radio playing while reading. These things distract you and lessen your concentration.

Read the book through, underlining key material, marking whole key passages and pages where the most important material is found.

Reread the book by reading the marked places and take careful, brief notes on the significance of the material. Work through the piece again asking yourself these questions: Who are the characters? What happens in the piece? What do you think the author means in this piece? What is his or her message?

Read through the questions at the end of the selection. If you have been assigned the questions, do them. If not, try to answer them in your head as you go along. Any uncertainties, look up the answers in the selection.

Keep a reader’s journal. Write down your thoughts, impressions and feelings regarding what you read. If you hated the selection, give concrete reasons why you disliked it. (Unrealistic characters, confusing plot, etc.)

Remember, reading is an active process. You have to work at it and not just expect the work to jump at you off of the page. How much you learn is directly related to how hard you concentrate.

Study your notes and then circle the most important notes you have taken which lead you to a conclusion about a possible theme.

Write a paragraph or two in your notebook summarizing the action, character, plot and theme of the work. Include as much detail as possible.

When taking exams, look for critical words and know their meanings: compare, contrast, criticize, define, describe, diagram, discuss, evaluate, explain, illustrate, interpret, justify, list, outline, prove, relate, review, summarize, and trace.

You should consider this a standard homework assignment to be done every night in addition to whatever else is assigned that day in class.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Taking Notes

The bank that owns the property next door to me is preparing to sell it. So yesterday, the entire contents of the former occupants’ lives were dumped on the sidewalk for everyone to pick through and take away. I walked over to see what the hullabaloo was all about and found a first edition cloth bound copy of William Manchester’s Goodbye, Darkness. I stood there for a moment in the gathering twilight thinking what were the chances that I would find that book—one I reviewed a while back, and written by my current obsession, the historian Manchester—in the midst of all the rubble.

As I continued looking through the junk, I found a box of notebooks. “Northwestern” was embossed on the covers. Someone had written “Microbiology” underneath the college logo in black marker. There were maybe ten notebooks in all. I took one up and began paging through it. There, in the neatest handwriting I had ever seen, were someone’s notes for her study. Things were labeled, diagrammed, cross-referenced. Chapters were delineated, outlined, organized. I could write a book with those notes, maybe several books.

And so I was thinking of note-taking.

I have become a compulsive note-taker. I took notes in school, like any student, but the notebooks I kept were messy, revealing someone who had yet to decide what his handwriting would look like, or if he would eschew handwriting altogether and be a printer, like his father. There were notes in cursive following the best my Catholic school teachers could do. Other pages were mere scrawls—disorganized, unclear, containing huge gaps when I probably tuned out in class.

After I became a teacher, my handwriting and my note-taking skills improved. My biggest problem was my left-hand writing: I suffered tremendous writer’s cramp if I had to write more than a page continuously. Years ago, I taught myself to type, and I have always found myself a quicker typist than a handwritten note-taker. I have settled on a procedure that works well for me. I write notes in handwriting in either a reporter’s notebook, or a Moleskin notebook. The notes tend to be bullet points, short, brief ideas or lines, sometimes quotes. Later I transcribe them to the computer when time allows. Typed or rewritten on legal pads, I gather the pages in file folders and place them in a cabinet near my desk. This is how I build my teaching and writing.

Notes to me are everything. Which was why I was so sad to find those notebooks. A whole study, it would seem, regarded as trash.

My students take notes as I teach, and I often ask them what they are noting. I am interested in how they process the information, how they determine what to note and what to leave out. For the younger classes, I am responsible to teach them how to note. I tell them not to try to write down everything the teacher says, especially if the material is covered in a textbook or set of readings. Teachers come in two flavors, many times: the one that lectures strictly by the book, and the other that uses the book as a jumping off point for additional learning. If the teacher sticks to material in the book, the student has two opportunities to note. If something is missed in the lecture or discussion, then by reading the chapter or section, the missing pieces can be filled in. If the teacher uses the text as a beginning, then taking notes during the class is a necessity, and to miss the readings and the lectures is to miss two different things.

In high school today, I think the move is away from lecture and more toward cooperative learning, group projects, presentations, seminar approaches. I see my students glaze over when the lecture goes on too long, however, the Socratic method is my best tool. It takes patience and resilience to keep hammering at them with questions to lead them to the answers, but if I do it right the entire class is involved. On my less perfect days, I wind up cutting corners and giving away the answers, not the best way to teach. Student involvement is key.

For me, one guide when teaching is to remember how I learned. Even now, how do I learn new material? The most important difference between me as a student and me as a teacher is that the teacher wants to learn, has questions he wants answered, and loves to research. Not so the student of yester-year. My students are being put through the paces, as I was at their age. Therefore, the questions are the teacher’s not the students’. The trick is to get the students to want to know, to ask the questions. The questions are far more important than the answers.

So notes, highlighting and annotating texts, how do we sort it all out? Some is intuitive. You can feel when something is important. Maybe the teacher repeats it several times, or it comes up repeatedly in the material. When I read, the sentence seems to jump out at me, especially when reading history or science. Literature is a bit trickier. There, repeated readings are a must. I cannot figure out where a poem or chapter or short story is going until I have read it through once. Then I can work through it again and find what is important. Literature calls for repeated readings.

All in all, note-taking is a personal skill; students must find a system that works best for them. That is another reason why I found those notebooks, left in the cold and darkness at the curb, so sad, indeed. They are the product of someone’s thinking, considering, living with a subject. They are a record of what that person found interesting, and placed enough value in that time was spent gathering the information. Sure, it could have been just a class, but it was learning, nonetheless, and an indication of a mind-life. Now, in the midst of widespread foreclosures and a difficult economy, the notebooks are rubbish.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Better Heart: The Search For School Library Funding

The following is an essay I wrote for a contest where the prize is a "library makeover." Granted, the prizes are computers not books, but at this point, I'll take what I can get. Our school library is small, and really needs to break into two libraries: one for elementary school students and one devoted to the needs of the middle/high school. If anyone out there has some money they wish to donate in this tough economy, we can put your name on the building. It will be our library, and yours, too! We will even let you check out as many books as you want for as long as you live. As for the contest, I had 2000 characters, including spaces and punctuation, to make my case.

The library is the heart of the school. Our heart is insufficient for our student body.

We are a pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade school of 650 students located in Canoga Park, California, founded in 1976 by the Armenian General Benevolent Union, an organization providing a cultural education for Armenians who were dispersed around the world following the genocide of 1917. This was the first mass killing in the twentieth century, and a model for the horrors of the Holocaust twenty-three years later. We know this because Hitler told us in his own words, haunting us for generations: “Who remembers the Armenians?”

The teachers, the principals, the librarians, the counselors, the students, parents, even the maintenance staff, battle daily to prove Hitler wrong, to insure that one and a half million Armenians buried in the landslide of history did not die in vain.

But we need your help.

We need a stronger heart.

We have a small library that must service all students, toddlers to young adults. We want to build, to expand, to become a force in education, and we feel this process cannot move forward unless we have a better library. Having Acer technology would allow us to maximize our space and offer students more opportunities to discover their world. Research projects, internet connections, worldwide communication possibilities, graphic arts, writing, history, literature, languages, all can be accessed and enhanced using technology. Our parents have donated money, we have reached out to the community, we have begged, borrowed, and pleaded, but we need more.

Books are sacred to us. Libraries are our cathedrals. Like the phoenix in the ancient legend, we wish to soar from the ashes of destruction to create a better world. We need help to gather the tools to make a difference.

We have a good heart, and we are willing to push beyond our boundaries. With your help we can strengthen our resources and endeavor to discover our future. We can build a better, stronger heart.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Laundry Room Libraries

Great article in today’s The New York Times. Writer Susan Dominus talks about “saving the planet and expanding the mind.” How, you might ask? Her neighbors in Washington Heights piled all of their used books in the common laundry room in the basement where others might have a crack at them.

“At my former home…I read the narrative of some unidentified young couple through the titles that accumulated in our makeshift laundry room library,” she writes. “First The Fertility Diet, then several months later, What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and finally a slew of baby-naming books…A glance through the laundry room stacks provides a point of entry into lives that sometimes seem opaque, for all proximity.”

Dominus goes on to say that “Originally just a pile of books like those in so many other building basements, the library became a library about six years ago, when a superintendent put in some shelves.”

I marveled at this ad hoc common person’s library. I lived in an apartment for almost eighteen years; never saw a book in our laundry room, however, the manager did horde all the cast-off furniture, regardless of value, every time a tenant moved out.

At my school last year, a parent donated a grocery bag stuffed with thrillers, mysteries, and detective fiction. I do not spend much time in the faculty room, so it took a few months before I noticed the bag in the corner. The generous student was one of mine, and he asked me why the books were thrown in the corner of the faculty room. “Couldn’t we put them in the library?” he asked. Evidently, that is where the family thought they would be going. “Since the library does not want them,” he said, “why don’t we put them in the classroom shelves?”

Good idea! So there they are, along with other books I have collected, purchased, found over the years. Only a few students take advantage, however, and I wonder why.

It seems my students only want to borrow books when they need them for class. “Mr. Martin, do you have any extra copies of Hamlet? Sure kid. It’s on the shelf. They are reluctant to buy unless we will use the book for several weeks running. Some do check them out of the public or school library. Last year, I was asked if they could download the book on their iPhones. A larger number are lucky enough to have parents who take them regularly to the local chain book store.

I think the laundry room library is a good thing, but I like to buy fresh copies of my books. I love cracking one open, highlighting text, marking up the margins. If the book is rare or difficult to find, I refrain from marking and use post-it notes. Having grown up in the public library near my childhood home, now that I can, I buy fresh from the store whenever possible.

I also wonder about the culture of a laundry room library. It seems people in other cities value books more. Every time it comes up here in Los Angeles, someone always reminds me that we do have a book culture, as evidenced by the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books at UCLA every April. Yeah, I guess that counts for something. Still, in other cities, people read on the subway to and from work. They read in the parks at break, on lunch hour, or on Sunday afternoons. New York has news stands on corners throughout Manhattan. In L.A. books are important for movie sales. It is more important to be seen reading, I think, then it is to read. And the last time I was in a Border’s several weeks ago, I was appalled at the collection of freaks and weirdoes inhabiting the aisles. Some were speaking aloud to themselves, others were singing, rehearsing scripts, acting out. One guy was dressed in a shabby tuxedo with a top hat and cane, I kid you not. Most of them were reading books and magazines only to throw them on the floor or back onto any random shelf. Then some serious buyer can come along and pay full price for a used book.

No, Los Angeles has a way to go before we start setting up lending libraries down in the laundry room. It’s too bad. I think we’re missing something.