Sunday, April 22, 2012

the "added value" of literature: an amazing op-ed in response to the state ELA test

This was a crazy week.  I watched my students spend 9 class periods in silence over the course of 3 days while taking the state ELA test (and they have 9 more this week for math).  Then I listened to them talk non stop about "The Pineapple and the Hare" (that's a link to the google search if you haven't read about it yet), the most controversial reading passage we've seen yet on the state test.  My colleagues and I mulled over two of the six questions for our 45 minute weekly meeting, which happened to be later that day.  Our thoughts at the end were that literature and multiple choice just don't go together.

The New York Times published this op-ed today by Clare Needell Hollander, a New York City middle school English teacher that encapsulates everything I've been thinking about this week, rooted in her experiences running literary book clubs with her students.  It brought my thoughts back to the book club meetings that took place in my classroom this week on Monday and Friday that had been clouded in my mind amidst the state test nonsense.  We finally got to talk about Night by Elie Wiesel, and the ways in which my students read this book were incredible, and trying to summarize the conversations I had would rob them of their beauty and depth.

All I know is that if you put solid books in the hands of teenagers, lives and brains and hearts can change and that you should read this article right now.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

silence and fear.

Some context: I love learning about history when it isn't connected to memorizing names and dates, but rather when it encompasses understanding culture and incorporates what was going on in the world of the arts simultaneously.  There are so many complexities and nuances in our collective history as humans that I love digging into. I finished UnbrokenMaus I and II and Night earlier this year and then spent the last week reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larsen (who wrote Devil in the White City), and ordered the biography Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas before I was even finished, which is about the Christian theologian who was a part of a plot to assassinate Hitler.  I'm enmeshed in World War Two and non-fiction (albeit mostly narrative), which is rare for me, but I am loving it.

In the Garden of Beasts is the story of the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family in Berlin in the mid 1930s, when Hitler is rising to power.  Dodd was an unconventional choice for this position, and far from top of the list in potential candidates.  He was a history professor and a self professed "true Jeffersonian" in his manner and politics.  Larsen does an incredible job documenting Dodd's ambassadorship and the politics of the time.  Though I was familiar with the U.S. isolationist stance before World War Two, it was fascinating and frightening to learn about the politics surrounding the way we interacted with Germany during this time.

In 1934, the American Jewish Congress with support from the American Federation of Labor planned a mock trial of Hitler at Madison Square Garden.  When Germany caught wind of this, Hitler ordered Foreign Minister Neurath to demand that it be stopped.  The American government communicated that because of our belief in free speech, there was nothing they could do to cancel the event, though they did not make, at that time, any kind of statement against Hitler.  Larsen makes an excellent point about this:

"One result was a sequence of official protests, replies and memoranda that revealed both Germany's sensitivity to outside opinion and the lengths U.S. officials felt compelled to go to avoid direct criticism of Hitler and his party.  The degree of restraint would have been comincal if the stakes had not been so high and raised a question: why were the State Department and President Roosevelt so hesitant to express in frank terms how they really felt about Hitler at a time when such expressions clearly could have had a powerful effect on his prestige in the world?" (231).

It was easier to hide behind the guise of politics? It was easier to turn a head than to get involved with what seemed to be someone else's mess? People pleasing seems like a good temporary answer?

A few pages later Larsen asks, "What was everyone afraid of?" (241).  This is one of the overriding questions of the entire book, and one that speaks into not just politics at the international or governmental level, but a personal level.  Quietly ignoring things that are wrong offers temporary safety only.

The title of this book is a reference to the Tiergarten, a park in Berlin that was one of the only places in the city where people felt safe to have private conversations.  As I think about its symbolism, I can see two sides: hiding one's true thoughts in a garden, rather than bringing them out into the open, or the concept that we all need to have spaces in which we can be alone and be heard away from whatever metaphorical beasts are in our lives: that maybe we need space in order to stop listening to the fear and actually consider what is right?

It is uncomfortable to think about this because speaking out at this time in history could mean death of oneself or family, and when there are people to protect all of a sudden everything becomes gray.  So, on that note, all I can say is that I cannot wait to finish reading Metaxas' biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the length that he went for what he believed to be true. More on that later.

Ambassador Dodd was asked to resign in 1938 because he seemed to be taking too bold a stance against the Nazis, even though his actions could be described as silent protest.  He spent the remainder of his career traveling and speaking against the regime until his death in 1940.  Gah. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


{photo from Anthony Priestas}

There are days when I miss rhythms of home, even though I have lived in New York City for nine years and even though my parents moved out of the house I grew up in six years ago.  I miss when I used to jump in the car before dinner and find a cornfield to watch the sunset.  I miss the way the air smells when I lived in the updraft of the woods and a creek.  I miss drives through the country of southwest Ohio, especially the odd poetry of it being just south of industrial dinosaur bones.  There are some days that I want to cut down the wall leading onto my fire escape and make a porch.  Gah. It can hurt.

So, I thought I would make a round up of my favorite ways that Ohio has inspired song.  I love that even though not everyone who writes about my homestate loves it like I do (though, thank you, thank you Over the Rhine for understanding), but it inspires nonetheless. And, I don't have plans to move back, but there is no where else I wish I was from.

Ohio/Over the Rhine
Bloodbuzz Ohio/The National
Ohio/Damien Jurado
Carry Me Ohio/Sun Kil Moon
Look at Miss Ohio/Gillian Welch
Ohio/The Black Keys
To Ohio/The Low Anthem

{oh, barns}

{the best friends from high school i could ask for}

{this mixes with Brooklyn, right?}

On belief.

I feel like everything I'm reading lately is asking me to seek out wonder or spend some time in the depths pondering the darker corners of life.  A former student has been begging me to read Life of Pi by Yann Martel for months and I finally did.  Pi is the boy narrator, who is from India and the son of a zookeeper, but most importantly very spiritual.  The beginning of the story chronicles his journey of belief in not only his native Hinduism (though his family wasn't especially religious), Christianity, and Islam.  In response to political is family leaves for Canada on a Japanese ship, which sinks on its journey.  Pi alone ends up in a life boat with a Bengal tiger, zebra and orangutan floating on the ocean for 227 days and is left with his knowledge of zoology and his spirituality.

At the end of the story, Pi recounts his story to two men from Japan seeking answers as to why the ship sank, who don't want anything to do with the story of survival Pi is sharing with them.  Pi then says that he  will tell them an alternate story, in which he substitutes people in for the other animals, like a cook and his mother.  The reader is left to ponder which story is the real story--and in turn if Pi's survival story becomes less meaningful when and if metaphors and substituted for the truth.  This then leads the reader to ponder the nature of truth and faith and story, which is one of the most interesting things I've been asked to think about in a long time and left me wishing, as always, that I had a diverse literature class to discuss it all.

No matter what I think about the ending of the story, though, or Pi's personal theology, I did find that there were a number of moments that spoke into spirituality in a significant way.  When he is speaking with the Japanese men who don't believe him, he says: "If you struggle at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn't love hard to believe?  Love is hard to believe, ask any lover.  Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist.  God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?" (page 297).  My mind has been consumed lately with the concept of belief--and I have found myself missing the wonder that often accompanies belief in things beyond sight and frustrated at how difficult belief can be.  Pi, earlier in the book, spoke into this concept.

"Words of divine consciousness: moral exaltation; lasting feelings of elevation, elation, joy; a quickening of the moral sense, which strikes one as more important than an intellectual understanding of things; an alignment of the universe along moral lines, not intellectual ones; a realization that the founding principle of existence is what we call love, which works itself out sometimes not clearly, not cleanly, not immediately, nonetheless ineluctably. 

I pause. What of God's silence? I think it over.  I add: 

An intellect confounded yet trusting sense of presence and of ultimate purpose," (page 63).

This is the condensed version of what I took away from it.  First, I had to look up the word ineluctable.  I'm not ashamed.  Ha. According to the Oxford English dictionary, it means "unable to be resisted or avoided; inescapable."  This makes so much sense to me, because as much as I try to hide from the confusing, unexplainable parts of having faith in something I can't see, it continues to haunt me.  The divine, to me, is indeed ineluctable.  In the book Pi is troubled by God's silence, but he lives in the confounded, rather than hiding from it because of its nature.  This kind of trust is really beautiful to me and reminds me that I don't have to have all of the answers I want right now.  I can live confounded alongside of my belief, too, that "the founding principle of existence is what we call love." 

Friday, April 6, 2012

You should read this now.

I randomly revisited David Foster Wallace's commencement speech for Kenyon College that he gave in 2005.  It is the best text I have read in a long time and at the same time heartbreaking, knowing that he died three years later.   You might click on the link and think that it's too long, or think that it requires too much mental gymnastics for a Friday afternoon, but I don't think you'll be disappointed.