Monday, September 14, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: Review

Harper Lee's second novel, Go Set a Watchman, was one of the most highly-anticipated novels of 2015.  Her compelling first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird is a standard in most English curricula across the world, and it has been named by many as a life-changing work of literature.  While many remember the trial of Tom Robinson as the most compelling episode in the novel, it is in reality a coming-of-age story, not just for Scout Finch, but also of her brother, Jem.  It's also a revealing look into small-town, Southern America.  Memorable characters such as Jem and Scout's Aunt Alexandra, Boo Radley, Walter Cunningham, Dill Harris, and Mrs. Rachel Dubose populate this small town with their quirks, virtues, and foibles.  Through her experiences, Scout encounters many realities of life and begins to understand the ways of the world.

Go Set a Watchman may be another novel about Jean Louise (Scout) Finch, but it is far from a sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird.  In Watchman, Jean Louise, now age 26, has returned to Maycomb, Alabama for a short visit--she's been living in New York City for the last 5 years.  She's been dating, long-distance, Henry (Hank) Clinton, who is working as a lawyer in her father's office.  The novel details her reconnection with the community and people of her home town.  It is the early years of the Civil Rights movement, and Jean Louise feels the tension of the age.

On a literary level, Watchman does not even read like a sequel to Mockingbird.  The cadence and beauty of the language in the first novel is absent from the second.  Scout's story in Mockingbird is told in first-person, allowing the reader to more fully identify with Scout as she navigates her childhood.  Even though the first-person narrator is an older Scout reflecting on her childhood, you still see Scout's world through childlike, innocent eyes.  The Jean Louise of the novel does not seem to be a grown-up Scout Finch from Mockingbird

Watchman is told in third-person, albeit from Jean Louise's perspective.   This narrative choice separated me as a reader from Jean Louise and I did not feel the same emotional connection to her.  Another result of this narrative choice is that it made the novel seem to have been written by someone other than Harper Lee herself; as if someone else was attempting to write in Lee's style and yet failing to quite hit the mark.

The story itself was appealing, but it did not have the same intensity or personality as Mockingbird.  The charm of Mockingbird was the portrait of a small, Southern town filled with unique personality.  The Maycomb of Watchman is devoid of this charm.  There are several flashbacks of Scout's childhood escapades with Dill, Jem, and others.  While these scenes were charming and engaging, reminding me of similar scenes in Mockingbird, they did not do much to redeem the rest of the novel's shortcomings.

I am not going to share any spoilers, but there were several characters from Mockingbird whose absence in Watchman was significant.  These characters' absence wasn't sufficiently explained, and this left a lot unresolved in my mind.

Even if you haven't yet read Watchman, you may have heard that there is a shocking revelation about Atticus Finch at the climax of the novel.  This shocking revelation was not what I anticipated: my thought was that Atticus had a long-term relationship with Calpurnia, and that some of Calpurnia's children were Jem and Scout's half-siblings.  This is not the case; I will only reveal that the revelation in the novel was a letdown compared to what I had anticipated.  In fact, I had to go back and reread the scene to really fully understand how "shocking" it was.

I am not disappointed that I read Go Set a Watchman.  I entered reading it knowing that it would not be To Kill a Mockingbird, Part II.  I did not expect it to live up to the beauty and intensity of Mockingbird.  If you loved Mockingbird, read Watchman.  Read it for what it is: another novel about Jean Louise Finch, age 26.  

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Who knows education best?

Recently I have been following a thread on Facebook about a "Common Core" math problem.  Somebody shared this link on their timeline.  Usually I know better than to look at the comments, but they had a train-wreck type of fascination for me.  The original article itself misunderstands the concept of the Common Core, or any kind of educational standard. 

In the article on Diply, the main commentary is, "For starters, it lumps kids together by their age, determining what they should know by the end of each grade, and doesn't take into account the fact that everybody learns differently and excels in different areas. Common Core teaches to a test, and if kids don't pass that test, they are usually held back, and made to feel inferior- which is totally, absolutely absurd."

Academic standards of any kind are simply guidelines for the scope and sequence of skills in any academic area.  The Common Core's web site itself states that the standards' purpose is to, "provide clear and consistent learning goals to help prepare students for college, career, and life."  In our increasingly mobile world, having a relatively standardized set of learning goals makes sense. 

The Common Core standards are not intended as instructional methods or curriculum.  They are simply guidelines for what to teach and when.  Good schools and teachers will take these standards and use the instructional methods best suited to their teaching styles and the learning styles of their students.  Most of the critics on this Facebook thread did not seem to understand the purpose of Common Core.  Many of them seemed to think that "Common Core" is a way of teaching rather than academic standards.

Of course, many of the critics discounted the Common Core because the instructional methodology used to achieve the standards differs from their own experience as students.   This led me to thinking about the reason so many people outside the field of education seem to think they know so much more about teaching than teachers.

I believe that the main reason so many people have this attitude is because everyone has been inside a classroom as a student.  This means that they believe they know how teaching "should" work.  The problem is that, to borrow a bad metaphor, teaching is like an iceberg.  What you see in the classroom is only a small part of the picture.  No one sees the research and planning behind the lessons.  No one sees the assessment that happens during and after the lesson has been administered.  No one sees the modifications made in order to ensure that mastery is achieved. 

I like the idea of standards.  I need to know what concepts need to be taught and when they should be taught.  I need to know what skills and knowledge my students will need when they leave my classroom for other educational ventures. 

Let's take a look at one of the standards.  In the Reading strand of the English Language Arts standards, students should be able to "determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text."

To translate this to non-pedagogical language: students should be able to read a text, figure out its main idea and how the main idea is developed by looking at the details in the text, and ultimately state the main idea in their own words.   The last time I checked, this is the main goal for reading anything.  You read the words to determine the message the author is presenting.  You use the details the author shares in order to figure out that message.  I believe that this is a skill that is absolutely necessary in all aspects of life.  If I want to understand the directions for using a new appliance, if I want to understand the fine print of a credit agreement, if I want to know the main point of anything I read, I need to be able to do this.  I need to ensure that my students can do this, so they can be successful in a career or college.  This standard is essential knowledge for life.

I suspect that many of the critics in this thread do not even know what the standards are.  If they read them, they will understand exactly what the purpose of the standards are.  They will understand that essentially the standards are skills students should have in order to progress academically.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Inspirations from a Fitness Instructor

I have to admit that I am generally a lazy person.  I do not like to do heavy-duty housework or yard work (although I will do yard work more willingly than housework.)  I don't like to exercise.  The main reason is that I don't like to get sweaty and nasty.  Unfortunately, this laziness does nothing for my health.  My high blood pressure, diabetes, and general health should improve with the addition of exercise and healthier eating habits.  As a teacher, I have a very stressful job, and living a healthier lifestyle contributes to stress reduction.

So, several years ago, my mom and I decided that we needed to add some exercise into our lives.  Given that both of us don't particularly enjoy exercise, and that we don't really like to get all sweaty and nasty, we decided that water fitness classes would be ideal.  It's lower impact, yet a good cardio workout at the same time. 

We found a place that offered classes at a reasonable price, and attended those classes regularly for about three years.  Then we had to locate another place for classes, because that place closed.  We joined a ladies-only health club and discovered Aqua Zumba.  Aqua Zumba modifies "classic" Zumba routines to the water.  When the Aqua Zumba instructor opened her own fitness studio, and then the health club closed, I had to find another option.  So I followed my Aqua Zumba instructor to her studio and now regularly participate in two other Zumba variations: Zumba Gold and Zumba Toning.  Unlike "classic" Zumba, Zumba Gold is designed for people who require lower-impact exercise.  It's ideal for someone who is clumsy like me.  In Zumba Gold, there's less jumping, hopping, and twisting, and the routines aren't quite as fast either.  Zumba Toning uses weight sticks, and again there's no hopping or jumping allowed because of the weights.  Also because of the weights, there isn't as much traveling or twisting.  Like I said, both of these are perfect for someone like me who can easily trip over her own bare feet.

So what's the point here?  I will repeat that before I started water fitness all those years ago, I HATED exercise and simply didn't exercise. Now, I am really motivated to attend classes and I'm disappointed when I am unable to attend for any reason.  I actually look forward to my Zumba Gold or Zumba Toning classes.  Not only have I improved my health by exercising more, I have learned some behaviors I can apply to my own classroom teaching.

First, she always seems to genuinely enjoy what she's doing.  My Zumba instructor always has a smile on her face, even if she's feeling under the weather.  She finds ways to make us smile when we're in the middle of the workout.  She makes working out fun, and I actually WANT to do it.  She's a regular person like the rest of us, and I imagine she has days when she feels down and grumpy.  She never takes this out on our class: she is always friendly and pleasant.  This motivates me in my own classroom to try and find ways to get my students to enjoy our classroom materials.

She notices us as individuals and encourages us individually.  In Zumba Toning, there are two weight sticks available: 1.5 and 2.5 pound sticks.  After I had been using the lighter sticks for a while, she told me individually I should try the heavier sticks for some of the routines.  She's also specifically encouraged me in other ways.  I have noticed her do this with other classmates as well.  She doesn't say something every day, and sometimes her individual encouragement just includes eye contact and a smile.   Those little pieces of encouragement also motivate me to try harder and keep committed to my exercise.  People like to be noticed for their accomplishments.

She has a routine and procedure for certain parts of the workout.  Each Zumba Gold and Toning routine includes warmup and cooldown.  The moves and sequence for each of these parts are always the same.  She changes the music for those parts of the routine, but it's still predictable.  It provides a level of comfort and confidence.

She introduces variety and allows for individual differences.  Each hour of Zumba consists of 6-8 different routines set to different styles of music.  The music for these routines varies from hip-hop, 70s disco music, retro dance music, name it, there's a music style with each routine.  Some of the music is specifically made for Zumba routines, some of it is pop music from all decades.  Of course, the moves with each song match the music style.  Every 8 weeks or so, she replaces half of the songs with new ones.

Sometimes I can't coordinate my hands and feet, and can get frustrated in the workout.  When she notices that class members are struggling with moves, she shows us alternate ways to effectively perform them.  We even have some Zumba Gold class members who can use a chair for their workouts, to decrease the impact of the moves.  She knows it's important for us to keep moving and to enjoy our workout.

If we are doing the moves wrong in such a way that could cause injury or not exercise the parts of the body she's targeting, she will correct us.  She always takes the time to show us, and she's even stopped the workout to give us that proper instruction.

Motivation is really important for classroom instructors as well as for fitness instructors.  Ensuring that students are motivated will increase the likelihood that they will be more successful and take responsibility for their own success.  I have been trying a lot to use the inspiration of my fitness instructor as I encounter my students every day.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars"

When you teach English Language Arts to high school students, you become accustomed to the fact that your audience is not always as enthusiastic about books and language as you are.  Therefore, when even non-readers are enthused about a book, you take notice.  Such was the case for me with the much-maligned and praised Twilight series, The Hunger Games and Divergent series, and this recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  I make it a point to read these books, because if my students are interested in something, I want to know why.

My first summer adventure in reading did not disappoint.  The above quotation from the novel sums up a reader's dilemma.  A true reader will encounter books that move them to that point of "evangelical zeal", but what to do with that zeal?  A reader who encounters such a book runs the risk of recommending the book to someone who does not eventually share that enthusiasm, which then disappoints the reader.

The Fault in our Stars is such a book for me.  It has been a long time since I have found a book that I could easily have stayed up all night to finish. 

A teenage romance whose principal characters are cancer patients.  A novel about cancer patients that presents the feelings of cancer patients in a realistic manner.  A novel about teenagers that captures their insecurities, mannerisms, and strengths.

Hazel often comments about the "typical" cancer kid story: the child battles bravely, never complaining in spite of the suffering the treatments cause, and so on.  But neither Hazel, Augustus, nor Isaac (all members of the Cancer Kid Support Group) can always be described this way.  Hazel does not seem to want to be viewed this way.  She says to her parents, “I'm a grenade and at some point I'm going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?” 

Augustus is similarly realistic about his diagnosis: '“Some wars," he said dismissively. "What am I at war with? My cancer. And what is my cancer? My cancer is me. The tumors are made of me. They're made of me as surely as my brain and my heart is made of me. It is a civil war, Hazel Grace, with a predetermined winner."'  The honesty with which Hazel and Augustus's romance is portrayed makes the overall story that much more poignant.  Having watched someone die of cancer, I could appreciate more what he went through.

It is tragic when someone suffers from a terminal disease, and the tragedy is magnified when that someone is young.  It is obvious that young people like Hazel and Augustus can't experience life in the same way that those without terminal illness can.  The most striking element of this novel was that Augustus, Hazel, and Isaac were "regular" teenagers, with one minor difference: they had cancer.  Hazel and Augustus experience a "typical" high school romance with the added complication of cancer. Isaac experiences a horrible breakup in light of a second surgery for his recurrence of cancer.  He's broken by his girlfriend leaving him AND by the recurrence of his cancer (which has made him completely blind).

On the back of my copy of the novel, the novel is described as "insightful, bold, irreverent, and raw".  Whether you have lived with childhood (or any kind) cancer or not, you will gain an understanding of the disease and how it affects everyone involved in the "fight."

Finally, a significant insight I gained from this novel, in the words of Hazel:

"According to the conventions of the genre, Augustus Waters kept his sense of humor till the end, did not for a moment waiver in his courage, and his spirit soared like an indomitable eagle until the world itself could not contain his joyous soul."

But this is the truth, a pitiful boy who desperately wanted not to be pitiful, screaming and crying, poisoned by an infected G-tube that kept him alive, but not alive enough."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

It's the Rule, OK?

Last week a story went viral, which is nothing new.  The outrage was typical.  A school SUSPENDED a young girl who shaved her head to show support for a friend with cancer.  Kamryn Renfro's suspension was eventually overturned, but not after my Facebook feed exploded with outrage about the incident.  How DARE that SCHOOL kick out such an innocent, lovely young girl whose intent was only to show care and concern for a sick friend!

Even The Today Show got into the mix.  A Google Search will provide a wealth of links about the story.

As a classroom teacher, though, I feel the need to come to the school's defense.  It's not that I don't support Kamryn's motives.  I do.  Her friend, Delaney Clements, even said that it really helped her to cope with the treatments and disease, knowing her good friend was willing to take a step such as that.  I can imagine that for Kamryn it is a way to deal with the very scary reality of her friend's illness. 

But...the school had a clear policy about hairstyles.  It WAS against the rules for Kamryn to shave her head.  I get the impression that Kamryn and her parents took the step of shaving her head and then sent her to school on Monday morning.  This immediately put the school into the position of being the bad guy.  They HAD to enforce the rule when confronted with a student breaking the rule. 

Schools do not perfectly create or enforce rules.  (Zero tolerance policies come to mind.) Consistency is very important when it comes to rules and policies.

In my classroom and with the students at my school, I do my best to be as consistent as possible.  This means that if I notice anyone, and I mean ANYONE, who is in violation of a rule, I will enforce it.  Even if it is 3:00 PM, and that student has been in violation of dress code all day and no one else has done anything about it. 

I do not notice every dress code violator, and if they never cross my path I cannot notice it.  But I believe it is my obligation to uphold and enforce the rules as consistently as possible.  Whether it's the principal's kid or the detention-every-second kid, a rule is a rule is a rule.

Kamryn's family could have contacted the school when they made the decision and asked for an exception.  Based on what I've read, the school does make allowances for special circumstances.  I can't imagine that an administrator would have said "No" to such a request.  I could even foresee that some kind of fundraiser or event could have been set up for the whole school. 

Please don't get me wrong.  I love the gesture Kamryn made, and commend her for it.  It's a small tribute to the love she has for her friend Delaney.  I just think that the hullabaloo could have been avoided if she and her family had gone to the school ahead of time. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

So When Does it Become Gossip?

Recent events have led me into some musings. 

Well, I muse a lot.  Sometimes those musings solidify into blog posts.  This is going to be one of them.

On Monday I received some terrible news, via one of my former students who is my friend on Facebook.  The news was about the tragic death of one of her classmates, another former student.  She asked me to let my mother know, because my mother was also her teacher.  Of course there are still some of my colleagues who knew this young lady, so I asked one of the girls if she thought I should let some of them know (privately, of course). 

Not long after she messaged me, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and two other former students and her classmates also posted the news, albeit without naming names.  Then I received two private messages about the tragic loss from two other girls in her class.  My mother posted in her status about the loss, again without naming names.  Some others messaged me privately asking for names, and since it was a private message I responded.  I also sent an email to the colleagues of mine who knew this young girl.

There were some circumstances surrounding her death, revealed to me by her close friends, that I shared with my mother and my colleagues.  I did share these details with some of those who privately messaged me, but not to others.

On Tuesday, the name of the former student went public on Facebook among the various circles of friends.  I have not yet seen any public postings about the circumstances, and I personally do not intend to share that detail in public.

Which leads me to my musings.  The beauty of social media such as Facebook is that it allows people to connect with each other quickly and efficiently.  We can offer support, criticism, and news to a wide circle of individuals. 

Hence my question in the title...when does this sharing turn the corner and become gossip?  Is gossip in the intent of the reporter?  Does news become gossip if the recipient takes it as such?  Has social media made it easier to gossip or is it just another avenue for a vice we all share?

That's what's worrying me, in this situation in particular.  And I don't know the answers to any of my questions.  It is certainly NOT my intent to share this news as gossip, but I worry that I am feeding the desire for gossip in some of the recipients.

As often happens, ANOTHER former student posted a link to an article about social media that had some relevance to my musings.   Again, I'm still not sure of where I stand on whether or not I'm gossiping, but this article was quite interesting.

5 Questions to Ask Before Posting to Social Media

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sunday Night is Clean Sheet Night

Ah, Sundays.  One of the best and worst days of my weekend.  Why is it the worst, you may ask?  Because it's the last day of the weekend.  But the reasons it's the best day of the weekend far outweigh the reason it's the worst.

Sundays mean several things for me.  I start the day off with worship and Bible study.  Or Bible study then worship.  Or just worship.  It all depends on if the choir sings.  If I have to sing for choir, I go to the 8:00 service and then stay for Bible study, then sing at the beginning of the 10:45 service.  Sometimes I sleep in and skip Bible study. 

After church I like to have something special to eat.  Usually I make myself breakfast food of some kind, or my mom and I will go out to eat. 

Then....naptime.  If I can swing it, I'll take a nice little nap.  Sunday afternoons are perfect for naps, especially gloomy and cold winter afternoons. 

But the best part of Sunday is clean sheet night.  One of my former students, who is a Facebook friend gave me the inspiration for clean sheet night.  She would post "Clean Sheet Night!" or a variation thereof, every Sunday night.  I asked her about it, and her idea made sense.  She likes to start the week out with fresh, clean sheets.  Her week goes well when she has clean sheet night.  She has also mentioned that when she's had a bad day, she'll do clean sheet night that night for a fresh start.

This sounded like a good plan, so I initiated this habit for myself.  On the occasions that I talked myself out of clean sheet night, I've regretted it.  So for the last several months, no matter how late it is, no matter how tired I feel, I refuse to skip clean sheet night.  Maybe it's psychological, but my week does seem to go better when I make sure to have clean sheet night.

Sometimes I cut it pretty close with clean sheet night.  I have several sets of sheets and usually at least 2 sets are clean and ready to go.  There have been times when I have pulled out the sheets from the dryer at 10:00 at night and put them directly on the bed.  But those clean sheet nights are the best, because what could feel better but to crawl into bed with sheets freshly warm from the dryer?

Once I started my own clean sheet nights, I have tried to remember to post about it on my Facebook page.  And you know what?  Many of my friends have adopted Sunday night as Clean Sheet the joy is spreading!

So, my friends, try it yourself.  I promise you that Clean Sheet Night will not disappoint.