Month: June 2015

IN THE BEGINNING . . .

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Hah! You thought I was going to go all religious on you, didn’t you? Nope. I want to discuss the beginnings of novels. You know: that place where the author hooks the reader.

Some critic (I never heard who—it was on NPR) recently lauded Markus Zuzak for the opening lines of his new book, The Messenger. I’ve not seen the review or the book yet, though I loved The Book Thief. Anyway it got me to thinking about beginnings that I have particularly liked.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (of course!):

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

This sentence works delightfully. Yet it shouldn’t. Think about it. It begins with the vague pronoun it and the main verb is an innocuous “be” verb, is—no action there. The main clause is “It is a truth.” Yeah, so? Then we find a passive modifier (acknowledged) followed by a long subordinate clause (beginning with that) and we finally get to the main point. The sentence sets a tongue-in-cheek tone that we encounter again and again throughout the book. It also introduces the comic-serious subject of husband-hunting—or maybe we should say spouse-seeking? In any event, it works and it’s wonderful! (But just try diagramming that sentence!)

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Call me Ishmael.

Herman Melville’s famous opening line to Moby Dick introduces his narrator, the restless wanderer, symbolically named Ishmael, who proceeds to tell of his periodic need to go to sea. “Whenever I feel myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp drizzly November in my soul . . .” Don’t you just love that metaphor, “November in my soul”? Not March or December, but November. It is SO right!

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Leo Tolstoy starts Anna Karenina with

All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

That statement comes pretty close to being a universal truth on its own, but no, the book is not about a dysfunctional family—at least not only. Instead, it is a tragic love story about a sensual woman who defies the conventions of her society to follow her heart with disastrous consequences. My summary is incredibly shallow, and the book is incredibly rich in texture and characters. Tolstoy is not easy—but oh, so rewarding!

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Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: YOUR MOTHER PASSED AWAY. FUNERAL TOMORROW. DEEP SYMPATHY. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.

These are the first lines of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. One is immediately pulled into the character of the hapless Meursault. Imagine obsessing about the timing of his mother’s death with nary a whisper of what that loss might mean. Is he that indifferent to other aspects of his life? Well, yes, he is, but the book presents a basic moral conundrum that transcends this one rather insignificant man.

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I had intended to share a couple more, you get the picture: beginnings, whether they draw us in slowly or abruptly, often set the tone for the entire story.

What are some of your favorites?

 

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RANDOM THOUGHTS ON EDUCATION

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(from one who served time in the trenches)

When was the last time you opened a newspaper or some form of social media when someone was not venting about the deplorable state of education in America? That’s what I thought. Me, neither.

I’m no longer in the thick of it (kudos to those who are!), but here some random thoughts anyway. Well, three, lest I get carried away.

Class size matters.

Sure, you can put another desk in the room and fill it with a body. But you must then proportionally reduce your expectations regarding individualized instruction and personal attention for each child. Well, think about it! You give, say, a 4th grade teacher 35 students—that’s fewer than ten minutes per student in a normal school day. Never mind the additional time for marking papers and writing reports to parents, planning lessons, and on and on and . . .

It is just as bad for the high school teacher. There is a direct correlation between the number of students and the amount of substantive work that is required of them. Say it takes 5 minutes to grade an essay (a short one!)—that is time outside the actual teaching day. Five classes of maybe 30 students each—just how many essays/projects would you be assigning? Class size does, indeed, matter.

Admin overload.

Why is it that in education, the less contact you have with kids, the higher your salary? Those who are enamored of a business analogy will answer (with a smirk), “CEOs earn more than line workers.” Really? You want to make that comparison? Where does that leave students—who should be at the center of this enterprise? (I think a far better analogy, if you have to have one, would be doctors:patients::teachers:students. Teachers, like doctors, often have more education and training than their administrators.)

In America in the last couple of generations, we have seen an exponential increase in the ratio of teachers (I include counselors here) and administrators. I mean we have principals, each with 1-4 assistant principals and above them are superintendents and assistant superintendents—all with attendant clerical staff. And then—then!—there are curriculum coordinators to cover every subject area. They seem to spend more time “coordinating” their little bureaucratic fiefdoms than in considering what actually happens in the classroom. And we wonder why so many children get left behind.

Teacher evaluation.

Everyone knows who the best teachers are in any given school. Parents pull strings like mad to get their kids in those classrooms. Of course, these are subjective judgments, for no one—no one—not even the proponents of that idiotic test- ridden, colossally expensive No Child Left Behind fiasco—has come up with a truly effective, truly objective tool for measuring teacher competence. Faithful attendance at faculty meetings and neat lesson plan books are hardly evidence of classroom performance.

Merit pay? Turns out that is something of a joke in many schools. (Principals have their little fiefdoms too.) Sadly, the usual way for teachers to earn more money is to leave their classrooms and become administrators.

Admin types do try, but personally I never ever found an administrator’s evaluation of my teaching to be in the least helpful. I do not think I was just being arrogant. What I did find very helpful were private and anonymous evaluations by my students delivered to me after grades were posted for the school year. But my students were young adults.

Bottom line: No. I do not have a definitive answer, but surely there MUST be a better way.

THE SUBJECT OF TEACHING—AGAIN

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I spent a total of forty+ years in high school and college English classrooms—and one very forgettable year in junior high.

Why did I do it? Well, initially because that was one of the options for girls of my generation—pre-Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. (They were there—I just didn’t know about their radical ideas.) A single woman was a secretary, a nurse, or a teacher. (Oh, yes, of course there were a few exceptions, but not that many.) My typing was not up to par; I hated the thought of emptying bedpans; but I liked readin’ an’ writin’.

Once I got into teaching, I was hooked. I loved it! Well, mostly. Plusses: in-depth learning that came with preparing lessons and the dynamics of the classroom—outweighed minuses: marking essays and dealing with mindless bureaucratic paperwork handed down by the “higher ups” to justify their existence.

I must admit, though, that I was very, very lucky. I worked in five different school systems and in all of them I had a great deal of freedom to choose exactly what I would present to students. None of that ultra-restrictive nonsense: Tuesday-October 10-Act II, scene 2 of Julius Caesar; Wednesday-October 11-scene 3, and so on. Yes, there were certain guidelines: eleventh graders studied American Literature; twelfth graders studied Brit Lit. But there was enormous freedom.

Early on I decided my personal criteria for what to teach would be: 1. I would not teach anything I did not like/enjoy myself. 2. I would choose works that challenged, that merited classroom time. 3. I would teach mostly established works of literature. So, my students were subjected to The Scarlet Letter and Macbeth. They were, of course, free to wallow in Double Date Dora and Hot Rod Harry on their own, but those works would have little or no place in the classroom, no matter how “popular” they were. (Mind you those things often sneaked into discussions, but only tangentially.)

“Oh, but kids hate that stuff you inflict on them.” I heard that a lot. And sometimes they did, at least initially. (Sometimes after, too, she adds in all honesty.) But they often felt a genuine sense of accomplishment as well. So who is the adult in this situation? Would you allow or encourage children to subsist on a diet of only desserts? The intellect must be nurtured also.

Autocratic? Indubitably. However, I believe it is incumbent on educators to give students a solid grounding in cultural icons and use them to establish principles by which they may judge contemporary offerings.

How else can they learn to judge what Hollywood and the networks toss at them?

OK. Maybe they don’t: reality TV is often pretty mindless stuff. But we teachers do keep trying . . .

SOCIAL MEDIA

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OK. You got me into this social media thing. But I gotta tell you, it is overwhelming.

Overwhelming in its sheer presence. How many such sites are there anyway?! I can’t keep up with even a few. I can’t waste my time with more than one or two.

I like Facebook. Thank you, Sharon Wylie, for introducing me to that entity, and Joan Atkinson, for your continued help with it. However, I use Facebook primarily to promote my writing and to vent on topics of a very general nature.

And I wish others would do the same—or at least limit some of their posts. Certain folks seem to think that bombarding me (that is a generic “me” there) with religious messages will somehow turn me—us—into being more righteous. OK. I get it. I got it the first time. Jesus loves me. So what?!

Many public postings fall into the TMI category—too much information. Or too much inane information. Ex.: “I took a pain pill this morning and puked my guts out.” Really?! Or, a blow-by-blow account of a recent surgery and every single nervous twinge of the recovery. Or, “I made waffles for breakfast and, boy, were they good.”

Don’t get me wrong. I want to hear about my friends’ and relatives’ problems, thoughts, and life milestones, but I prefer that they convey private information in a private format! And I really like those posts that show me something new: an innovative way to peel an avocado; a new technique or gizmo for cleaning this or that; something you found interesting or beautiful or novel during cross-country or foreign travel; or something that did not make the national news, but is nevertheless noteworthy.

I realize that your children and/or your pets are the center of your universe and that Grandma and Aunt Susie find them to be just the cutest things ever. But, frankly, I do not. I think a good many of those cutesy photos (not all, mind you!) would be more appropriate in a more private venue. E-mail, anyone?

On the other hand, perhaps I am merely sharing my ignorance—again. It occurs to me that—for some at least—Facebook and e-mail are absolutely interchangeable. Well, so be it. There is always the “delete” option . . .