Sunday, December 5, 2010

Matched by Ally Condie

Matched by Ally Condie starts as chilling a book as you let it
be. Its the kind of book that requires some careful reading to fully
appreciate the horror of the world it creates. That's because the narrartor is part of and accepts that world completely. When you start to read against her placid observations (she's fine, initially, with The Society killing her grandfather because he's 80 years old!) you start to understand: this is the world of The Giver-- and nobody cares. That's when the book gets interesting. What if Jonas from The Giver didn't care when he saw his father killing babies?

A great companion to The Giver, Matched takes the innocent premise of that book-- that just knowing their society is evil will bring some people to revolt-- and moves it into a more modern realm: what if you know your system of living is wrong and don't care-- since you live a comfortable life? See what I mean? OY!

But then-- Cassia, the main character in Matched-- does begin to care. How?
Through poetry. I remember the precise moment when poetry slowed down
the whole world and called me. I was in sixth grade and encountered Harlem II by Langston Hughes in a literature text book. We didn't even read it for class. That poem, with its icy first line-- What happens to a dream deferred? grabbed me, spoke to me, made me realize that the written word pertains to me like nobody and
nothing else did or ever can. I believe from personal experience that there is a reason the Chinese burned libraries in Tibet before they destroyed anything else. Poetry can light your hair on fire and change you forever. It can make you act. Call me a crazy English major, but it can happen. Let's go with that.

Cassia's grandfather gives her an artifact-- a legal reminder of the old
days-- her grandmother's golden make-up compact. Hidden inside, her
secretly subversive grandfather has hidden Dylan Thomas's poem Do Not Go
Gentle. In Cassia's world, there are 100 approved poems, paintings and
pieces of music that everybody has access to. Cassia's father, a Society
Official, burns superfluous libraries for a living, as all that old
stuff isn't necessary any more. Do Not Go Gentle is not one of the 100.

Cassia's secretly subversive Grandmother was a Sorter in the old days,
helping to eliminate all but the 100 approved poems. She took one--
Thomas's-- and kept it. To Cassia, heart-sore and sad about her
grandfather's gentle death-- it is a beautiful curiosity. It itches
something out of her head and her heart. It makes her puzzle and think.
It drives her to distraction-- and eventually, to a great ending of the
book, which I won't give away. However, I will say that Matched does a
GREAT job of NOT committing the uber-sin of many YA writers. She doesn't
place her finger on a certain page number and decide, "Okay, time to
clean up, solve the character's problems in a kind and decent way and
end happily." Not that Matched doesn't end happily. It just doesn't end
in a manner you would expect. And I LOVE that.

Matched does sag a little in the beginning of the middle. I think an editor might have tightened up the book a bit. However, there is so much to explore and love about this book that I recommend it highly. NOT a Hunger Games read-a-like. But a great story that makes you think.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tyler Clementi, Facebook and Learning Communities

Rutgers Suicide Video
Tyler Clementi and the five other gay teen suicides this past week have the nation reeling. Debates are taking place about whether our national discriminatory policies and laws contributed to the deaths. Vigils are being held. And scarily, the death toll keeps rising: last week, five kids had died because of bullying online. This morning it is six.

As an information specialist and the mother of a gay kid, I am heartbroken. I am so fortunate to have been a member of a liberal Jewish congregation in a liberal part of a relatively liberal town. So is my kid. She grew up going to gay rights marches, spending Thanksgiving and Pesach with a two-mom family and hearing messages all around her of inclusion and acceptance. She still didn't come out to us until she was fifteen years old. Some of the suicides killed themselves right after coming out to their accepting parents. It would seem that parental acceptance was not key in these kids' sense of their place in the world. Unsurprisingly, it was more likely the attitudes of peers, teachers, the larger world and its attending information conundrum that drove them to kill themselves.

I can't solve our country's discrimination against its LGBT citizens here. But I can offer some thoughts about information and its uses and maybe, some better ways to keep our children safe.

Print information in our time is ubiquitous. The Library of Congress is now cataloging tweets. Our kids don't talk on the phone for hours as we used to anymore, and they don't even email that much: they text and Facebook each other. They communicate in print. They are busy content developers and that is a good thing.

Let's be clear: online bullying is NOT the fault of technology or Facebook. Facebook, like money, can be used for good or evil. It's only a tool. Educators around the world are using it increasingly in the classroom as an effective tool for teaching history, literature and more. It connects people whose purposes are good: for mutual learning, for keeping up with loved ones, and its uses are still developing.

However, as we know, our yetzer ha-ra and our yetzer ha-tov are not always in balance. Combine that with adolescence and poor impulse control and you have a potential train wreck. Add in parent and teacher inertia and you have a dangerous situation indeed. That's what I mean when I say information conundrum. As educators and parents, we are often unsure of ourselves. How much control of our kids is appropriate? Can we even keep up with our digitally native kids, when computers for us in 1980's high school meant a green screen with yellow letters and a blinking cursor?

We would never put our middle school-age children on a train and send them into an international city like Paris by themselves. It wouldn't be safe. I am asking, no, IMPLORING parents to REQUIRE that their children "friend" them or accept their "friend" requests in order to have a Facebook page. In the education world, we know children need support in order to succeed in educational tasks. We use the Jewish educator Lev Vygotsky's term scaffolding to express this. Scaffolds support workers and buildings as they are built. It is our job to provide support to our children as they build their online lives and their digital footprints. Some HR departments are searching people on Facebook before they hire them. Many Google people before interviews. DEMAND your child "friend" you. This way you can become aware of what is happening for them online. Adolescents need adult guidance in their lives. When what they say and do is in print, as much of their lives are now, they can and do make mistakes. These mistakes, as we have seen, can impact others enormously. Can we control all the information our kids are exposed to? No. Should we try to be aware of what our kids are doing in cyberspace? Yes.

I have made a firm policy NOT to allow children who are my current students to "friend" me, as I felt that too much shared information about my life was just TMI for them and for me. However, I am rethinking that position. Facebook is a vehicle I use primarily to learn and to share information. I don't use it to share minutia about my life or to, god forbid, offer secrets to the world. If I were to accept "friend" requests from my current students, I would be in a position to gently guide them online in a way I can't currently. This makes sense to me. It offers a safety net to them. The responsibility lies with me, then, to tell them that if they "friend" me, I will offer them quiet, one-on-one advice via email should they post something inappropriate. I will also tell their parents if I think it is truly over the line. This course of action feels proactive and positive for my students. However, I can't keep kids safe by myself. Parental involvement is necessary. Help me. "Friend" your kid. Let's create a safe learning community together that helps our children better balance themselves in a digital world.

NYT article on Gay Bullying and Teen Suicide

Pre-Crime Comes to the HR Department

Using Facebook in the Classroom

Education, Social Media, and Ethics: Howard Gardner, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Teacherphobia and the Failure of Citizen Responsibility

Oprah Winfrey and her current series on education in America has many teachers seeing red. They believe that Oprah and her guests on this topic are blaming teachers for the problems that exist in American schools. Oprah believes she should weigh in on these topics, and that doing so helps children. I'd like to respond to her with a few thoughts, as a person who taught in a high-crime, under-served community here in Pittsburgh.

On Oprah's show, Michelle Rhee, D.C. Chancellor of Education, lays out a scenario in which a principal tells a parent that the teacher is on an improvement plan and hopefully will get better. Rhee's hypothetical parent refuses to leave her child that day in that class. The scenario Rhee lays out immediately shows her ignorance about teaching, teachers and the whole idea of education. Watching that part of Oprah's show ALONE tells me most of what I need to know about Oprah's mission around education and any reason to listen to Rhee.

Every Principal in America could have and should have made that speech to every parent there is. Those of us who are teachers know the truth of the situation: teaching is organic and changes every minute with EVERY child. Finding the right ways to teach each individual child is an on-going process requiring peer and administrative support, not to mention the support of public officials and parents. EVERY teacher is constantly getting better, and, if we are lucky enough to have an administration which serves as an educational leadership team, you could say we are ALL on an improvement plan.

I'd like to lock unsupportive public officials and parents in a room with 26 children who represent the real world I have faced as a teacher. They break down like this: 5 kids who are homeless and/or suffering from PTSD, 15 who are chronically hungry and malnourished, 1 with mental illness, 6 who are suffering from abuse at home, 4 who saw their custodial parent dealing drugs the day before, 18 who will get in a fight that day, 12 who suffer from chronic respiratory ailments, 4 with serious health issues, 20 who have never seen a dentist or an optometrist, 22 who can't decode words but who are under crushing pressure from the school board to achieve on a high-stakes test that decides whether the school will lose teachers, art and music programs and school libraries and librarians. Can't read the test questions? Sorry, state rules disallow teachers from helping. For kids with barriers to education, these standardized tests are exercises in humiliation and stress. They add strength to the growing seed of self-fulfilling prophecy being sown in these kids: that school and education are too hard, a source of crushing failure and ultimately, personally irrelevant.

Let's not only focus on poor children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Let's talk for a moment about those children who have every material thing in the world but for whom their parents and grandparents are hazy presences rarely seen. Children who have it all but can't share, are ill-mannered, overly anxious about achievement and ignorant of the intellectual gifts their peers offer. Children who think intelligence is one thing, that achievement is one thing, and who struggle with the impoverished belief that attaining wealth is life's ultimate goal.

Perhaps facing this situation would help unsupportives become aware of what they don't know: that teaching is an art AND a science, that humility in the face of what teachers face daily is REQUIRED, that teachers deserve praise, great pay, good benefits, all the tools they need to do their jobs, and support from the community and the country.

If I could send a message to parents, Oprah, education tzars like Rhee and the country at large, it would be:

Send me children who have learned how to share. Send me children who are well rested, emotionally and physically healthy and well nourished. Send me children who can walk to their neighborhood park, playground and/or library without the fear of being shot. Send me children who can expect to have a family dinner every night at which a caregiver talks to them about their day, and I don't mean the nanny. Send me children who are encouraged to meet others who are not like them, and for whom diversity is a source of strength, not fear. Send me children who have been taught to respect adults. Send me children who are loved well and who are enjoying childhood. I will teach that child beautifully and that child will perform. And if that child doesn't? Send me the resources I need to help that child: speech therapists, social workers, whatever it takes. Don't leave me alone in the trenches.

Oprah and the country at large are placing blame on teachers for things teachers must face alone everyday. That's like blaming the army sergeant for not being able to take an enemy stronghold without any bullets. Oprah's stance is not meant to help children, but to call attention to herself and her production company. If she wanted to, Oprah and others could build health clinics, provide playgrounds, support community centers, build libraries, and send an army of health and service professionals into schools. So could regular Americans. Do your job, Oprah, Rhee, and America, so I can do mine.

Dear Ms. Winfrey