Monday, August 31, 2009


I was always a voracious reader as a child. Reading that was required for school barely pinged my radar; I read it and moved on to something else, like the Narnia Chronicles or Madeline L'Engle or Alcott or Hardy. I liked doing well in school, so I liked doing the reading and getting a good grade on the test. I remember not liking Silas Marner and hating Great Expectations. I was meh on MacBeth but really *liked* Hamlet.

There's a mini-debate going on in the blogosphere over English classes that no longer center around required reading but instead are run as reading workshops in which students choose their own books. The NY Times reports, Meg Cabot responds and points to an essay on the Accelerated Reader program and Smart Bitches responds to Cabot as does Linda Holmes of NPR. Joanne Jacobs wants to see both required common reading and reading choice.

A lot of this comes down to effective teaching, I think. I've gained a bit of a rep in my college for teaching "The Office" in my lit survey class. But I taught it alongside "Bartleby the Scrivener" and "Death of a Salesman," two texts I usually find difficult to engage students in. I throw in "Dirge" by Kenneth Fearing, too, and it makes a nice little cohesive unit about work, consumerism, capitalism, and masculinity. I recently watched "Office Space" for the first time (yeah, I know--in my defense it came out while I was 6 months pregnant with my first child) and Peter is a kind of Bartleby-esque figure.

I think Cabot misses the boat totally, though. It seems to me we have a series of challenges when it comes to reading. We have to:
*get students to see value in reading (Cabot would argue therefore we have to let them read what they want)
*continually challenge students to read more complex language (one of the arguments for developmentally contructed reading lists--increase the challenge bit by bit)
*teach students about how language works.

This latter aspect is where Cabot misses the boat, but I have heard her complaint echoed again and again, by students and by friends who complain about their days in high school. She writes:

I don’t think there should be mandatory reading lists in school. I cannot think of a single book I enjoyed that I was required to read in school….

…with the exceptions of books I had read before they were assigned to me in school, like To Kill A Mockingbird, and Catcher in the Rye, which were then ruined by someone going on and on about all the “symbolism” in them, and what the authors really meant, which, as an author myself, I can tell you–THE PEOPLE WRITING ABOUT THESE BOOKS DO NOT KNOW. Seriously. THEY DO NOT KNOW WHAT THE AUTHOR REALLY MEANT AT ALL, AND ARE MORE THAN LIKELY WRONG. THIS IS WHY THESE AUTHORS ARE IN HIDING.

How is it that understanding symbolism can *ruin* a book for someone?

Furthermore, isn't understanding symbolism (and metaphor and tone) a crucial lifelong learning skill? Isn't it essential to understand how writers can influence us with their words? Doesn't symbolism, metaphor and tone exist outside of fictional writing?

When I'm teaching writing, I often use a passage from this essay, written by Mona Charen:

On Dec. 10, 2003, freedom took two body blows. The first was the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to permit the limitation of political speech. This is not exotic dancing or flag burning. This is "Vote for Sam Smith" -- the beating heart of our democracy. The Supreme Court has just tied a gag around our mouths, and most of the intellectual class is delighted....

Liberals have howled for three solid years now that in 2000, the conservatives on the court stampeded over the law to place their preferred candidate in the White House. (The truth is that the Democrats had successfully suborned the Florida Supreme Court to flout the law and the U.S. Supreme Court merely stopped them from hijacking the election.) But look carefully at McConnell vs. Federal Election Commission, and what do you find? The conservatives on the court were vehemently opposed to this assault on speech despite the fact that these restrictions will undoubtedly favor incumbents.

When my students are done reading it, I ask them if they know what Charen is talking about. They have no clue. I say, well, is it good or bad? They know it's bad. In this case, it's so obvious that Charen is deliberately using imagery of violence to describe McCain-Feingold.

It's important that they learn those skills, and richly written literature can help them learn. They need to understand how word choice contributes to tone because they need to be able to interpret tone in an age where most communication is done online in written language. They may not want to read "Bartleby the Scrivener," but they need to understand precisely how pompous and self-serving the narrator is, and how Melville is crafting the story to mock the narrator.

Scholarship of popular culture can help draw out the ways that seemingly unserious writers also use the elements of literature, patterns of imagery, meaningful symbols, in order to craft a particular response from readers. Plot is one element, but use of language is another.

I am never one who believes in the One True Way of teaching something. My feeling is that you have to use what works with that group of students and adapt accordingly. This is why I would find it hard to teach anywhere with a standardized curriculum, and I'll be honest that I chafe a bit against having a required textbook. The problem is there is so much at stake--or so much perceived to be at stake--with K-12 education that it's difficult to be that adaptable.

I think if we had less high stakes testing, we could see more experimenting from teachers trying to increase the challenge of the reading selections while still promoting the joy of reading.

Friday, August 28, 2009

I'd like to think that any officer would have noticed something weird, but I suspect it was a good thing that the officers who first met Philip Garrido and his two daughters at UCBerkeley were women. (This link doesn't mention one officer's name, but I'm pretty sure from a different article that both officers were women.)

I'm telling you--that area of CA is weird. Tracy (where Melissa Huckaby allegedly murdered Sandra Cantu and where the Schumachers kept a teenage boy imprisoned) is about an hour away.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I understand that what I am about to write has absolutely no basis in what anyone would consider acceptable evidence. It's just a hunch.

But my gd, Katie Roiphe must be miserable.

My general experience is that conservatives and people who make really really stupid arguments (note: these two groups usually consist of the same people) usually are projecting their own feelings on others. The more bizarre and out-there the accusation, the more likely it is that they're masking their own feelings.

"Why won't feminists admit the pleasure of infants?" the subhead to Roiphe's article reads. She is amazed that her favorite feminist authors never had children or had only one. She sees feminist writers as minimizing the pleasures of motherhood:

Historically, feminists have emphasized the difficulty, the drudgery of new motherhood. They have tried to analogize childcare to the work of men; and so for a long time, women have called motherhood a "vocation." The act of caring for a baby is demanding, and arduous, of course, but it is wilder and more narcotic than any kind of work I have ever done.

I think Roiphe has mixed up cause and effect. The only women writers that men would take seriously were childless and.or who wrote about how motherhood was a vocation. If they started writing about the pleasures of motherhood, they would be taken far less seriously. Many writers have pushed through those barriers and written about motherhood. Tillie Olsen wrote about the pleasures and pains of motherhood in "Mother to Daughter, Daughter to Mother: A Daybook." From "Tell Me a Riddle," when Eva visits her daughter and brand new granddaughter:

"A new baby. How many warm seductive babies."

From "I Stand Here Ironing":

"She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur."

Roiphe's argument only makes sense if you ignore the many feminist writers who did write about the pleasures of motherhood. Or it makes sense as the ravings of a woman who is trying to persuade herself and those who know her of her devotion to her child.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Cape Cod or Bust? Bust.

My friend Ernie used to always say "Be careful what you wish for. You might get it."

I wished for some quiet time to read and enjoy sitting by the pond at the house we're renting on Cape Cod.

Well, I got it. Tuesday night we were biking back from an ice cream place when a biking clusterfuck happened, I tipped over and couldn't get my right foot out of the pedal clip in time. Broke my ankle: spiral fracture of the distal fibula. I'd post a pic of the beautiful wishbone-shaped fracture as seen on my x-ray, but I don't have a scanner, and the CD they gave me with my images works only on Windoze, and I haven't set up my Macbook to run Windoze yet.

I am still amazed that apparently I did not let lose any "unacceptable" language in front of the kids when I fell because it hurt so badly I thought I was going to throw up.

Yesterday I spent most of the day getting it cared for. First thing was to get an in-network doctor to look at it. That was a bitch and a half. I spoke to a "find a physician outside of RI" rep (she was located in Minnesota) and a customer service rep, and then my husband spoke to a CS rep because he had a different question about the deductible. It ends up we have 3 kinds of deductibles! A deductible for out of network care, a deductible for an individual's uncovered expenses and a deductible for the family's uncovered expenses. Wow.

Anyway, what no one at BCBS could tell me was that the walk-in center in Harwich was part of Cape COd Hospital which WAS covered under BCBS. However, the provider directory says no such thing. It also says there are no orthopedists in my plan within 50 miles of my zip code.

Fuck this health insurance/health care system. Just fuck it. Anyway, $125 later ($25 for the walk-in center to x-ray my foot and send me to CCH, which was $100 for ER care) and $8 for the crutches, which could be purchased only from a place in Yarmouth, apparently, I made it home, exhausted. We were all exhausted--kids, husband, me.

Now I have to contemplate the difficulties of what happens when a parent is incapacitated. I have crutches, but I can barely get around in them today. My body is still adjusting to having to use different muscles, and I'm sore all over. It doesn't feel bad enough to use pain meds, but maybe I should.

The other issue is that apparently the mom is not allowed to get sick/incapacitated. My kids are so nonplussed they don't know what to do. They're all starting to realize, I think, how much they depend on me keeping everything running smoothly. Right now they're in annoying stage. "Pick the crap up off the floor so I don't trip over it getting around on my crutches" is met with blank stares or annoyed sighs. Asking them to get me something so Ken doesn't have to run around to do it is met with resistance. Asperger's boy is actually a bit better than his older and supposedly more mature sister, who seems personally offended by my injury.

I think today is emotional angst day, though, so I'm willing to give it a little longer. Ken is going to talk to them while they're out on their outing. Meanwhile, my goal is to accomplish the following:
1. Bathe somehow. I stink. I swear, I needed a shower before the accident. It's way worse now.
2. Read my book (Hot Pursuit by Suzanne Brockmann).
3. Watch Monday's ep of The Closer.

I also have to work through a whole lot of other problems. I broke my right ankle, so I can't drive. How I am supposed to parent when I can't drive, I don't know. Also, we have 2 cars here on the Cape, and I have to figure out how to get two cars home when we have one driver. I also have to find an orthopedist to get me a cast, and I have to find out how long it's going to be so I can figure out how I'm going to get to and from work when it starts for me on September 2.

Some vacation! And it started so nicely. :(

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Vacation at the Cape

The family and I have arrived at our rental house on Cape Cod. The goal for the next week: Read lots of books, rest, relax, recharge, and ride my bike on the Cape's famous Rail Trail.

My son digs into the sand on our first night here:

Saturday, August 01, 2009

More Summer Camp

Via DoubleX (which I almost never read), I found this article on a Berkeley mom's guilt over sending her 6 year old to day camp 3 out of 12 weeks of summer.

I really do think that what we need is to have more *longer-lasting* camps, not these one-week things. The longer camps give kids the time to build relationships and friendships. For the self-employed who have a little more flexibility, like the author of this article, the kids could go to camp for a shorter day, not 9 to 5 or 8:30 to 3:30.

I'm also interested in how so many of these articles are written by urban-ish moms from Berkeley or the NYC area. How about moms in Birmingham, Alabama? What do they do? Moms in Fargo, ND? Moms in Greene, NY? Why is it always Berkeley-area moms or NYC-area moms?