Tuesday, September 22, 2009


We were building Central America in my classroom. That tiny slip of countries between Mexico and South America was the subject of my unit in sixth grade social studies, so I asked for volunteers, and parents and students chipped in to buy us a plywood platform that covered eight desks, modeling clay, miniature trees, vegetation and other model pieces from a father’s architect firm, chicken wire, and paint.

The kids could have worked all day on the project, and thrown the other subjects out the window. Students arrived an hour before school, stayed in at lunch, and remained until dark in the evening, all to work on Central America. One night, I found myself with five boys working on various areas of the board. Gary was one of them.

He had transferred to the school that year. I never saw his transcripts from his other schools, and his parents did not attend Back-to-School Night. From the start, he struggled. He was smaller than the other boys, painfully thin, with a yellow cast to his skin. I had tried to call his parents to discuss his lack of progress in my classes, but there was no answering machine and notes I sent home went unreturned. Mostly, Gary slept in class and turned in blank tests. Central America gave him a reason to live. He loved working on the project, and would take meticulous care crafting mountain ranges and rainforests. He told me he wanted to go there someday.

So there we were, five o’clock in the afternoon, the sun long since disappeared from the late autumn sky. Gary was painting his mountains with cans of spray paint, and we were all a little high from the fumes. “Mr. Martin, can we get extra credit for helping so late?” Carlos asked. I told him I was keeping track.

“My mom was really mad at my last report card,” Steve offered.

“My dad gave me the rice and beans,” Gary said.

“Rice and beans?” Carlos laughed. “You mean that’s all he gave you to eat because of bad grades? That’s messed up.” They all laughed, even Gary.

“No, he made me kneel on the rice and beans, not eat them.”

We all put down our tools, glue, and paint cans. “Gary,” I said as evenly as I could, “what do you mean?”

“When I get bad grades, my dad puts a tray on the floor and dumps in rice and beans before they’re cooked, when they are really hard. Then I have to kneel on them while holding a half a bucket of water, sometimes for an hour.”

“What does that do?” one boy asked.

“You should see my knees,” Gary said. “They look like pizza when I’m finished, and sometimes, the blood soaks through and my mom has to throw the pants away.”

After I dismissed the boys, I found the principal, a nun named Sister Maria, and I told her what Gary said. She picked up the phone and dialed the 800 number for Child Services. She gave the information to the operator—Gary’s name, address, the school name, the reporting teacher (she used her own name for this, telling me she would take the responsibility), and other pertinent information. After she hung up the phone, she told me I did the right thing for Gary.

I was nervous the next day. Gary was unfazed, his usual self in class, staying in at lunch to work on the project. I kept waiting for the authorities to descend on the school, but it was an ordinary day.

The next day, Gary slept through reading class, and came alive for Central America. No storm troopers landed, and no helicopters hovered over the building. After school, I stood out on the second floor landing and watched over the playground as the kids went to their carpools and walked home. The playground was still busy when I heard a piercing scream, inhuman, like an animal being torn apart. I looked around the area beneath my perch, trying to find the source of the sound. Kids were running, mothers were herding their children away. Then I saw him. Gary stood at the fence, his hands gripping the mesh. He was screaming, long, wordless, blood-curdling shafts of sound.

I ran, down the stairs, across the playground to the fence. When I reached the boy, he began flailing at me. “Noooo! Nooo!” he shrieked. He pointed up the street. I looked in that direction and saw a battered car pulled at an angle to the curb with police cars behind. Two figures were out of the car, lying face down in the street. The cops had their guns drawn and were gingerly approaching the figures. “They have my mommy!” Gary screamed. “They are taking them, nooo!”

I grabbed Gary around the body and pulled him from the fence. I wanted to get him inside, out of sight of the incident down the street. Maybe I could settle him down. Outside the fence, an unmarked police car pulled to the curb. Two men in suits with guns in holsters at their waists got out of the car. One opened the back door, and a woman with a briefcase got out. They looked at me through the fence, and then glanced up the street. Gary was kicking and screaming. All the parents and students stood open-mouthed, staring at the spectacle.

In a few moments, the woman and Sister Maria came out on the playground and over to where I struggled with Gary. Sister Maria tried to quiet the boy. “Gary, this woman needs to speak with you.” He would have none of it.

“Come with me, Gary,” the woman said.

“They are taking my daddy,” he screamed in her face.

Suddenly, the two plainclothes police officers were next to us. They bundled Gary up and carried him away. I was stunned. I was only vaguely aware of the car screeching away from the curb. In seconds, it was all over. Gary was gone. One cop car remained down the street while his parents’ battered vehicle was towed away.

I went back to the classroom. The sun slanted through the windows, and I could smell the ocean just a few miles away. Sister Maria was suddenly in my doorway. “You did the right thing,” she said without prompting.

“I did not expect that to happen.”

“No, no!” she fired at me. “Do not think that way! You did the right thing. What his father was doing to him was abusive.”

“Maybe, but Gary did not seemed bothered by it. He was very matter-of-fact about it. Now I’ve destroyed a family.”

“You did nothing of the sort. It is not right to make your kid kneel on rice and beans until his kneecaps bleed. You did the right thing.”

After she left, I slumped at my desk. The sun flooded the room with late afternoon light. Central America sat in one corner, nearly completed, towering mountain ranges, rivers, rainforests. I pulled out a large magnifying glass that some teacher before me had left in the desk. I focused the rays of light on my desk blotter, and one by one, burned tiny holes in the felt. I wanted to destroy the model. It was all I could do not to smash the plywood into slivers and fragments, to annihilate Central America. I didn’t. I packed up and left the building.

The next day, I let one of the students take the whole project home in his father’s truck. Sister Maria told me she finally got answers from the watch commander at the police station. Gary’s father had felony warrants for his arrest. That was the reason for the major league take-down in the street. “You did the right thing,” she kept insisting.

I never saw Gary again.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Saroyan's Ghost

“What future have you mapped out for yourself?”

“Future?” Homer said. He was a little embarrassed because all his life, from day to day, he had been busy mapping out a future, even if it was only a future for the next day. “Well,” he said, “I don’t know for sure, but I guess I’d like to be somebody some day.”
(from The Human Comedy by William Saroyan)

I am trying to get my students to write with present tense, active voice verbs. “The work may have been written a hundred years ago,” I tell them, “but your reaction to it is in the here and now. You want your writing to have a sense of urgency, a feeling of forward motion and immediacy.”

So we practice what we preach. We write, rewrite, revise, restate, and shape the truth to a sharp and decisive point. We will write with our blood and leave bits of flesh in the inkwell when we are finished. But most important, we will share what we write. We will publish. Then, let the discussion begin. Take no prisoners, leave nothing standing, scorch the earth, find the beauty in the everyday, sing the song of history. This is real.

In twenty-three years in the classroom, I have learned how to teach writing, and it is not about comments and grades, grammar and spelling, red pens and syntax. The best way to teach writing is to write for publication. Get it out there. Let the world have it and chew on it. Nothing motivates like someone pulling you aside to say your latest piece made them mad, made them think, made them laugh, cry, jump up and down, swear at the moon. When the audience roars, the grade becomes secondary. Someone read what you wrote, and it did things to them. That is what writing is all about.

So I started a blog for my students. And since they are American-Armenians, there is only one person whose name I could evoke: William Saroyan. We will publish under the name, Saroyan’s Ghost, because he haunts us, he urges us forward, he sets the example. We can trace our lineage from Saroyan to Kherdian to Bojahlian to Arax to Janigian to Michaelian to a growing multitude of which I hope my students will some day be members.

The blog will publish the best writing from our school, focusing mainly on nonfiction. This is the second step in the process of making the school a focal point for writing and publishing of student work. We started a school newspaper two years ago, and students assumed control of creating the yearbook. This year, we are adding several blogs of which Saroyan’s Ghost is the first. From here, the sky is the limit. I want to publish an end of the year “best of” anthology. We would like to have a school magazine, an alumni publication, podcasts and video feeds, indeed, all forms of media involving writing and publishing. I want students to swim in ink, revel in words, love and worship books and pens and paper.

So, we need readers. Please hop over and take a look. I will publish new writing at least once a week, maybe more often. Offer up a comment, let us know what you think.

Have you seen the ghost? Saroyan lives on.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Teachers Or Students: Who Decides What We Should Read?

The debate erupted in the pages of The New York Times a few weeks ago: is it time to allow students to pick the books they should read for English class?

The article, written by book critic Motoko Rich, details how several schools and districts across the country allow students in a variety of grade levels from elementary to high school to make up their own book lists for literature class. The students select a book and read it. When finished with the reading, the child meets one-on-one with the teacher, or in small groups to discuss the reading. He must also keep a journal about the book and his response to it. All of this “is part of a movement to revolutionize the way literature is taught in America’s schools,” according to Rich.

How prevalent is this wave of new reading? This month, “students in Seattle’s public middle schools will…begin choosing most of their own books,” Rich reports. “And in Chicago the public school district has had a pilot program in place since 2006 in 31 of its 483 elementary schools to give students in grades 6, 7 and 8 more control over what they read.”

As one would expect, the debate quickly became heated. Diane Ravitch, professor of education at New York University is quoted in the article as being strongly against this method of curriculum development. “Kids will pick up things that are trendy and popular,” she says. “But that’s what you should do in your free time.”

Letters that came into the paper following the article’s publication seem to be evenly divided. “Preparing students to read for 21st-century success requires that all educators rethink traditional approaches,” writes Michael L. Shaw, professor of literacy education at St. Thomas Aquinas College.

“As all English teachers know, getting students to read for both comprehension and enjoyment is a daunting task,” writes Walt Gardner, a teacher both at public schools and UCLA. “But because the accountability movement, as embodied by No Child Left Behind, ignores noncognitive outcomes, teachers will continue to ignore the attitudes of students. Too often this leads to teachers’ teaching the material in the curriculum while teaching students to hate the material in the process.”

Another writer comments that, “As a student and avid reader, I find it slightly insulting that teachers are giving up on class novels.”

Still another says, “Books of the students’ own choices should certainly be a part of the curriculum, but not at the expense of the classics, which often surprise and delight even the most unwilling reader.”

For me, the issue is not black and white. It is not about surrendering complete control over the direction of the English curriculum and allowing students to make up their own reading lists, nor is it about imposing only the classical canon on them in a way that simply bores and stultifies what should be an enjoyable and interesting experience.

The canon, the so-called “dead white males,” might seem dated here in the 21st century, but I would argue otherwise. Many of those books have been read for a long time, and contain many truths about human existence and the way the world works. They have stimulated human minds to think, consider, reflect, and understand complex ideas and difficult situations. Those books have enlightened and entertained us, even given us the opportunity to expand our narrow view of the world. It would be heresy to dump them because we live in different century, or for what I suspect is the real reason, they are too difficult to teach and read because they challenge teacher and student to think and they do not offer easy or concrete answers.

There is also a need for students to learn to love and enjoy reading. To do this, they should have every opportunity to select their own books. My ideal would be to place the student in the book store and allow her to wander the aisle following her own instincts and interests. Let her read whatever she wants.

My perfect place of equilibrium in this debate would be my sixth grade classroom when I was a child. The teacher had the requisite basal reader, the English book. We might have slogged through a novel or two as well in this curriculum. In addition, my teacher made literally hundreds of books available to us in the form of a reading list with a brief summary of each title. We were required to select so many titles from the list to read on our own each quarter. I believe she gave us a quick test to make sure we had read. She made it very clear that if we did not like our choice, we should return it to the library and select another. This was reading for enjoyment. She also made it a habit to read to us every day from C.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, a sort of priestly Sherlock Holmes for Catholics. I remember being surrounded by books, and we read, often silently, or were read to, all the time. My teacher modeled what a life for a reader should be. She told us how she loved the cold, rainy Saturdays when she would bake fresh bread in her oven and spend the day reading and listening to the rain on the roof of her apartment. She told us how she read books about the places she traveled to in the summer, and visited the sites mentioned in the novels and stories. She carried books with her everywhere she went.

Guess what? I, and many others in the class, became readers. She changed my life, and without that experience, I do not know how I would have found my way.

This should not be a debate. We cannot just let kids pick whatever they want to read. “Would we be so eager to embrace a ‘choose your own math’ or ‘choose your own history’ class?” Times reader Lisa Dunick asks. What she says makes much sense. “We expect that students learn the curriculum in those courses whether or not they are ‘into it.’ Literature is no different, and literature courses shouldn’t be treated as glorified book clubs. By allowing students to bypass difficult texts or texts that don’t seem to relate to their contemporary lives in favor of ‘Captain Underpants,’ teachers miss a valuable opportunity to teach them that real scholastic and intellectual growth often comes when we are most challenged and least comfortable.”

We cannot abdicate our authority as teachers because students fight us over reading assignments. We cannot surrender the classics like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby because they are challenging and force us to rethink our lives. Left to their own devices, students will lose their way and possibly miss some life changing books. We must guide them. We select the books in the curriculum based on a variety of factors, but one real consideration is age. There are certain books that make a difference in students’ lives at particularly tender ages. I am thinking of The Outsiders and Flowers for Algernon in the eighth grade. I am thinking of The Catcher In The Rye in high school, and Lord of the Flies.

But students can also be reading Stephen King, James Patterson, and Nicholas Sparks. They can follow the adventures of that mouse on the motorcycle, Charlie as he explores the chocolate factory, and the sagas of vampires and teenagers in the Twilight series.

In short, there is room in the world for all books. Reading, both of classics and trash and everything in between, is always a good thing.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Laughing Without An Accent

Laughing Without An Accent: Adventures of a Global Citizen
By Firoozeh Dumas
Random House; $15.00, paper
ISBN 978-0-345-49957-8

With all the disagreements, fears, and hatreds among the people of the world, and what seems like the total failure of diplomacy to solve these issues over the last few years, I often wonder if the world would be a more peaceful place if we all got together over some good ethnic food, a nice bottle of wine, and some deep conversation. Certainly such an event would not further damage the situation.

Firoozeh Dumas’ recent book, Laughing Without An Accent: Adventures of a Global Citizen, feels like the reader and writer are meeting for coffee and some good, often very funny, conversation. Dumas is an excellent story teller, able to capture a moment at the tattered edges where one culture meets another, and uncover the human truth and humor inherent in such cultural clashes.

Dumas is originally from Iran through Berkeley, California, married to the “Frenchman,” as she calls him, a true multi-cultural citizen experiencing firsthand what it is like to meld food, language, dress, and religion from all over the world and somehow manage to teach the children (she has two) well.

In the first section of the book, Dumas discusses her search for a translator for her debut set of memoirs, Funny In Farsi. “Iran does not currently adhere to international copyright law,” she writes. “This comes as a shock to most people, given Iran’s law-abiding image.” She is trying to keep control of the process, but in her native country, anyone who wishes may translate a book and sell it to the public. This leads to all kinds of bootlegging and rogue publishing. She relates the story of a respected history professor who upon discovering the translated text of his book is radically different from his original, confronts the publisher in Iran only to be told, “Our translation is better than your book.”

Dumas spends much time discussing the way humor moves from language to language, culture to culture. Some things just don’t translate, like Carol Burnett’s Tarzan yell. In the end, the book is translated successfully, and Dumas is invited to receive an award in her country. When she asks the editor why he thought the book was successful with the Iranian people, he replies, “Your stories are funny, but the way you write about nationalities—you don’t make one bad and one good. We don’t hate Americans.”

In the chapter entitled, “Eight Days A Week,” Dumas analyzes the difference between education in Iran and school in America. “When I met my first teacher in America…I was so confused. She was so nice.” It is here in America that Dumas discovers the magic of books, reading and the library. As a child, she had a hard time believing that libraries loaned books. She brings along her purse on her first trip with her brother, thinking she must pay a fee at some point, and returns pleasantly surprised when she simply borrows the books. School in Iran, she remembers, was much different. Hours of homework, teachers were “stern, feared, and respected.” They gave no compliments and few superior grades. “Our teachers did not try to be our friends or to be liked,” she writes. “They were there to teach us.” Holidays in America like Halloween she finds ridiculous because schools lose a whole day of instruction to candy and parties. This would never happen in Iran.

In Iran, students face a challenging reading curriculum: Dickens, Twain, Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Gorky, Nietzsche, Borges, Arthur Koestler, Stefan Zweig, Sartre, De Beauvoir, and Camus. Her father’s position with the National Iranian Oil Company gives her a privileged seat in better schools. Dumas takes advantage of this education, leading her to one of the best California universities, U.C. Berkeley. “I give credit to my Iranian schools for teaching me discipline. I learned that school meant work, not play. I never expected my teachers to make subjects fun. Fun was what I had with my friends, outside the classroom.” This is a refreshing change from the occasional “can’t we do something fun today” that I get from my students. Dumas believes the problem is that “Delayed gratification has fallen out of fashion.” What hope can Americans have for the future, she says, when smart kids “are called nerds and geeks and dorks?” A country that allows smart kids to be made fun of and bullied faces a descent into stupidity and banality. Welcome to the American twenty-first century.

There is much to love in this book, and not all of it is funny. Like the best humorists, Dumas has a satirical, sometimes bitter cast to her observations. And there is sadness, like the chapter about the death of her uncle. She explains how Iranians and Muslims mourn for the dead. But later, the family holds a more American funeral service featuring family members eulogizing the departed. There are pictures of her uncle in flush times, and near the end of his life when he is “frail and tired” from his battle with illness. He was a man, Dumas remembers, who always had a book with him, and who loved reading. “My uncle, along with the rest of my family, came to America seeking a better life,” she writes. “Like so many immigrants before us, we found not only what we wanted but a few things we didn’t even know we were looking for…”

I grew up with the Iran of the American hostages, held in captivity for 444 days. I clearly remember the angry fire of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the fatwa and Salman Rushdie, and now, the presidency and nuclear thuggery of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Firoozeh Dumas is a change of pace, a breath of fresh air. Through her writing, we can laugh at the culture clash, the differences in people, the richness and beauty of life. For the first time in my life, I sat down with an Iranian. I laughed, I heard her stories, I recognized that we are different, yet remarkably, we have much in common. I discovered that laughter does not have an accent, and I had fun.