Thursday, June 30, 2011

Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard

I missed yesterday's post, mostly because I was lazy, but also because I went to Zachary's, had a few Ace Pear Ciders and a slice of Pepperoni, and was pretty much done for the night (worth it). So I'm making it with a surprise Thursday posting! Whoot!

A little while ago, I read Switch, a nonfiction book I had purchased as part of my professional development. Being a grad student working for a large university, the title drew me in, mostly because I was interested to see if it could offer me any advice (or confidence) about working with a large department and making substantial, meaningful contributions.

Switch is a summary of the work of Chip and Dan Heath, two brothers who have studied large businesses and organizations and tried to create what is, in essence, a formula for enacting organizational change (in addition to familial and personal change).  

The book itself was pretty accessible - the writing was clear, and I did like the presentation of many examples and thought questions that allowed the reader to sort of 'quiz' themselves on how to change the presented situation. The examples were also encouraging to a grad like me - Chip and Dan provided plenty of scenarios where change was brought on by a lower-ranking employee. To be completely honest, it wasn't a mind-blowing text that instantly revolutionized my world, but it's simple advice is easy enough for me to implement (and I've been working to use their advice in every interaction I've had - when I've remembered to).  But, overall, it's a nice, fairly enjoyable read that helps pass the time, if nothing else.  Will it allow me to enact large-scale changes from my position next year?  Who knows?  I suppose only time will tell, but I will be referring to the book as the year goes on, to help me as a professional.

PREVIEW: hopefully, by Saturday, I'll be all caught up with reviewing books and then can get back to a regular schedule on Wednesday.  But it may not happen.  Because it's me.


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thoughts on Teaching

Whew, it's been a long time.  These past two weeks, I've had car issues, helped my boyfriend move, hung out with boyfriend's parents, babysat, moved into my new apartment, celebrated my cat turning 7, and babysat some more.  And it wasn't just any kind of babysitting, it was babysitting for two year olds.  Two of them.  Twins.  Needless to say, I've not had any time to really update my blog, which makes me sad.  I've also not had a lot of time to read - in these past two weeks, I've completed two books, which granted isn't bad, but it's no where near the 8 I wanted to finish.  I've also lost a lot of drive when it comes to writing this particular blog post, but I'm gonna bear down and power through.

I've toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher a few times, and I'll probably muse on this prospect even more as I make my way through grad school.  And as I was reading James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me a few weeks ago, this fleeting idea seemed to really take hold and resonate with me.  A lot of things Mr. Loewen was critiquing about how our current educational system really struck a chord, and it's only been exacerbated by more recent developments about educational issues affecting my current city (which you can read about here and here). 

I've already made my approval for Tucson's Ethnic Studies implicit, but here, I'll outright state it: these classrooms are doing the right thing.  They are using unique texts to cover a new, wide range of material.  They also utilize primary texts and confront controversial issues, encourage students to have meaningful classroom discussions, and engage in thoughtful intellectual debate.  Benefits to the students have been thoroughly documented, and the audit that was ordered by Arizona Superintendent John Huppenthal (who, ironically, declared Ethnic Studies illegal despite the audit he ordered finding differently) has found that these classes work tremendously to close the achievement gap facing lower income and underprivileged students. 

But, anyway, back to what I was saying: I've thought a lot about how I would personally go about being a teacher.  It would be a tall order, for sure, especially given that teachers are treated horribly here in the U.S. and our educational system has lots of problems.  But I've thought of a few things:

1) Using primary sources (and eliminating pesky textbooks). Now, granted, I don't know a lot about Arizona's requirements for using certain texts in the classroom, but for everything from English to History, there is a more effective way to implement textbooks in the classroom.  Students have a wide range of resources available to them via the internet - access to novels, historical documents, pictures of artwork, and so on.  Utilizing resources via the internet is cheap and incredibly manageable, but I realize it might not always fly, so...

2) Revamp textbooks if you can't eliminate them.  Pearson allows you to customize textbooks for any grade level, an invaluable tool that allows you to not only include primary texts, but also primary responses to texts (such as newspaper or journal articles that provide supplementary or opposing viewpoints).  One can make the switch to digital text books.  Customized textbooks are often much cheaper (Pearson's book starts at only 8 dollars, plus 2 cents per page, which is completely manageable if combined with other resources such as online activities).  Again, this depends a lot on textbook adoption and individual school districts (and state laws), but in placing a large emphasis on cutting costs, this actually might be really easy to implement. 

3) Gamify education.  Okay, so this branches away from Loewen's argument somewhat and granted it might seem a little like it's coming out of left field, but bear with me.  One of Loewen's biggest critiques about how we teach history now is that it's boring.  Teachers make it boring.  The educational process has become boring.  And how do we fix it?  Well, one way is to gamify education. Granted, this is still a new concept, and it will ultimately be interesting to implement, but part of gamifying education is really just encouraging us to move away from what we are doing currently and truly foster intellectual and educational development.  Make education less about earning grades, and more about learning.  This is totally feasible, but unfortunately, schools have in many way become organizations with bottom-lines (be they monetary or other), and students and teachers stuffer as a result. 

All these things I mentioned are just little beginning steps, still budding thoughts that have yet to bear real fruit. 

I have to apologize for this post.  This entire entry is all over the place and feels incomplete, but hey, it's an update, and I suppose just writing this will get me back on track to continue updating.  Hopefully, getting this out now will help organize my thoughts on this topic in a more coherent fashion in the future, but, we'll see.

Anyway, I'm out, for now.  See you on Saturday!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Road

Firstly, an update - my blog has changed YET AGAIN. I was having technical difficulties with the other one, so I transferred to a new account with a slightly modified domain name. If you were following me before, please follow me again! I promise this is the last time!

Also, I missed Wednesday's post, due to helping my boyfriend move, and then I had car issues this week so I thought, "Screw it, I'll post it next Wednesday."

So, today's post is going to look at the next book on my list: Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

What is there to say about this book? Well, I can say with absolute certainty (forget 'certitude,' Anthony Weiner...) that this book is one of the most gripping I think I've ever read.  This was a book that got under my skin in a profoundly disturbing way.  Simply put, this was a book that was hard for me to read, yet even harder for me to put down.  I knew that when I started tearing up 10 pages in, I was in for a difficult read.

Set sometime after an unnamed apocalyptic cataclysm that has left the Earth rotting and decayed, a father and son make their way south to try and find some way of surviving along the coast.  The earth is entirely scorched, the wildlife and vegetation nothing more than dust.  The man and boy have to avoid "the bad guys," cults of ruthless cannibals who are constantly making their way down the road, looking for flesh.  There's hardly any food and water remaining, the days are always cold, and the world is covered in ash and darkness.  The only thing the two of them has is each other.

McCarthy's prose is at times breathtaking, though I personally think he relies a little too much on antiquated words; in a way, it forced me to brush up on my vocabulary, so not too bad, but annoying when you're trying to stay immersed.

Yet, the writing to the point, minimalist in form, which is appropriate for the style of the book - even quotation marks and apostrophes aren't included.  It's bare bones, and this is a style that I think really complements the overarching theme of the novel - when the world is ending, only the bare minimum exists. 

As for the content, there are times when the book is downright gruesome, with violent images and sometimes horrific passages.  Without giving anything away, I came to a point in the book where I had to put it down, because the visual imagery was just too awful for me to continue that I just couldn't go on.  I decided to go to bed, only to open the book 5 minutes later when I realized - "I can't go to sleep with that image in my brain. I have to keep going."

That was a common motif for me - I had to keep reading.  It was so bleak, so dreary, so hopeless, but I had to keep going because I needed to know something good was going to happen, and if it didn't, my heart would break.

There's very little that is happy about this book.  Time and time again, our protagonists are left hopeless, and at the back of my mind, I kept having niggling little thoughts that they weren't going to make it - that there was no way that anything good would happen. 

I was mostly right.  Within the last 10 pages of the book, I was bawling so hard I had to put the book down to compose myself.  There is a glimmer of hope in the end, but the weight of the oppressive sadness of the book is unrelenting.  After I finished, I could only think about all I had read and seen in my mind, and I was disturbed to the point of not sleeping that night.

I told my boyfriend this and he asked me, "Was it worth it?  If you could go back, would you still read it?"  At the time, I answered that, as far as literature goes, it's beautifully written.  And it is, and this is something that does help cushion the blow of the impact, I think.  McCarthy will include throw away lines references Joyce, Dickens, and other authors. Some people have criticized the book for this (along with stylistic choices), saying that the novel is pretentious or overwrought.  Maybe that is the case.  And that's okay.  But, I actually read it differently - as a sly reassurance.  Everything in the world is gone, but language, and more importantly, literature, still survives in these characters - civilization is gone, but narrative will live on, in some way.  McCarthy places a large emphasis on the fact that the father tells the boy stories - that's an important point.  As long as people still live, narrative still lives.  It's all very meta, I suppose.  At least, that was my take-away. 

But going back to the question, "Was it worth it?"  I thought a lot about this question.  In the end, I think what The Road does best is it provokes the critical thought: what would I do?  This is both a good and bad thing to contemplate.  What would I do if the world were utterly destroyed, and there was no hope left?  How would I manufacture hope?  Would I even be able to?  Would it be better to go on living in such a place, or not?  This is the question that kept me up for a week, that made this read so difficult for me.  How does one fathom the unfathomable?  Am I worse off for thinking about this topic?  I've been told, "it's not going to happen," in an attempt to be reassured.  But that isn't the point.  I think what the book's goal is to get you to think about humanity - your humanity, to be more specific.  What lengths would go to in order to survive in such situation?

Do I recommend The Road?  From a literary standpoint, yes.  I think its themes, its style, its characters are all important to read.  Even for those who don't like it, I think it's important to analyze.  From a personal standpoint, I think this is a book that people should read, yes, but they have to be prepared to really ask themselves the hard questions after they do.

As for me, I can't say I enjoyed the book so much as others.  But I do think that it's had a profound effect on me, and I think it's just as valuable to read books that make you contemplate yourself and your life choices.  To contemplate what it means to "live" and to be "humane."  It's a book that I know will probably haunt me for a very long time.