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On page 262 Kozol inveighs against the state of things in poor urban schools (He’s such a passionate fella; it kind of revs my progressive engine I must say): “These children are not the citizens of Illinois, New York or California. They are (most of them are, at least) the citizens of the United States; yet the flag that hangs above their classrooms and their schools does not defend their interest where it comes to preparation for adulthood in their nation, and the words of the pledge we ask them to recite can only mock their actual experience.”

I choose what I think is indecent and what should evade reproach. I laugh at morals police and double standards on nudity and violence in movies and the telly. Janet Jackson’s skin is lovely to look at, but why would CBS fear actual reprisals for showing it during their telecast?  I won’t explore why I can bottle up my ire for things like nudity in the media and reach instant apoplexy on others. I do though. I think it’s criminally indecent, for example, that our civic and cultural priorities can neglect the educational needs of any child, much less those who inhabit less favored demographics, all while lavishing on children of privilege. We turn our energies to other things and let kids spend their days, August through June, in broken down, unsafe institutions. Once out, the influence of a substandard education sticks to a person like the smell of cigarettes. It gets in their clothes and stains their enamel. It last longer but carries a taint that isolates and reduces someone to an miserable and undesirable spot.


What warm and glad news from 1954; Jim Crow’s been banished to the dust heap and our adolescent country might be showing signs of precocity. With relief and hard-gained wisdom we can put that cruel unseemliness behind us. Did I fantasize that out loud just now?

The same court (and any other court) is powerless to address the de facto segregation found in our schools today. I know those justices have shuffled off their mortal robes, but even with their clear ideals and decisive rendering, our population has become physically polarized to an degree that would make judicial fiat of little consequence.

On page 263  of “The Shame of the Nation” Kozol quotes Alliyah who attends elementary school in the South Bronx section of New York. She wrote him a letter which ended “We do not have the things you have. Can you come help us?” He added, “America owes that little girl and millions like her a more honorable answer than they have received.” That is a compelling assessment that I’m saddened to say isn’t absolutely supportable to enough of our citizens. Some would consider it a matter of opinion.

There’s a pragmatic side to what some business leaders and political conservatives say about curricula at some school which sidestep deeper academics in favor of classes that train their students for specific jobs. They’re called school-to-work programs and most claim that they’re designed to help people who need it. They guide students who weren’t interested in the Boxer Rebellion or covalence toward skills they can use. Since so many of these students live in poor families that already need money more than anything, why not help them become (limited) earners. They can’t sidestep a damning and reductive double standard I’m afraid, the one whereby a person asks the children of another couple to engage in activities he would never require of his own.

Charles Murray, the big hearted humanist who penned “The Bell Curve” considers these programs shrewd and widely beneficial. “For many children these schools provide students their only chance to learn how to adults companies can train.”  (page 105) Most students don’t fit into the “thin layer of the gifted who will determine whether we remain the world’s most preeminent nation.” (Everybody chip in so our millionaires can strut about the World Economic Conference at Davos!) Murray sidles up to ascetic progressives like Thoreau as he justifies this kind of segregation, but his association seems inauthentic. Murray needs to get out more and learn more from actual humans than from charts. But he’s not an administrator or a policy maker; he shouldn’t be heeded or followed. A terrific scholar I’m sure, what with double Ivy sheepskin.  I’m stopped in my tracks by those who enact these ideas in the name of reform. The actual school principals who think it’s best for their students to aspire to manage a Wendy’s and who devote school hours to training just to that end.

I, for one, am heartened whenever a worthwhile idea gets its due acclaim. My heart warms whenever brilliance gets recognized. Doesn’t yours? Sometimes an idea has such force that it gets borrowed and adapted. Reusing and recycling aren’t just meant for the ecologically minded; artists and writers borrow like mad, and sometimes to wonderful effect. Epic poetry, for one, is a form that is particularly open to appropriation of this sort. As we read in our handout “What is an Epic?” in merely the retelling from generation to generation, these tales undergo adaptation. They almost have to; it would have been like telephone, but in ancient Greek. In contemporary terms we’re more likely to see film versions of old tales. One I can think of and would recommend to any of you who enjoy a high quality and comic mock epic, is the Coen Brothers version of Homer’s Odyssey “O Brother Where Art Thou?”

Can you think of any other stories that have been adapted from the classics? Don’t limit yourself to epic poetry. I know of a stage play that riffs on a famous movie starring a girl with red shoes. Or a movie about a kid who goes to a heavenly kind of summer camp. Post your ideas and give a review of the works if you’ve seen them. What do you think about the idea of borrowing stories for movies? Are the books always better? Or maybe the movies.

Here’s one  from me: Clueless is a movie that came out in 1995 about a girl who’s a student at Beverly Hills High School. She spends most of the film trying to orchestrate relationships for her friends and stumbles into an unexpected romance herself. She has bit of a ditzy way of carrying herself and  she seems like a girl of her time. Until you consider that the story is taken from a novel written in the nineteenth century by the English novelist Jane Austen called “Emma”.

For my literacy inquiry project I was interested in the following:

Does one get better at reading informational materials such as how-to instructions, public notices and news articles if one also reads items of one’s own choosing simply for pleasure? Are the skills involved in different reading disciplines distinct?

During the run up to the STAR test this spring I designed and gave two lessons that pertained to reading and understanding informational materials. (Language Arts Reading Comprehension 2.0) I assigned work for the students in each lesson.  For one I gave them a handout that had an advertisement, a warranty and a news story. The students studied the documents and answered questions about what was in each and how they related. The other had them read a sample business plan and then follow the precise steps I detailed to create one of their own, plus a business letter.  The results of these assignments varied from brilliant and original to indifferent and mimetic. Did the students who breezed through this read more on their own?

I choose three students who each performed at different levels on the assignments to see if I could begin to resolve my query. I interviewed the students and asked if they read voluntarily and if so, how much? I asked them how they felt about the assignments: were they onerous and restrictive or enjoyable and inspiring. If a student didn’t read I asked about what he did while at leisure.

Bevin M. completed the assignments with ease and added some surprising flourishes. She also reads young adult fiction, for enjoyment most days of the week. Mercy M. took longer to finish the work and she showed little originality in her responses. She doesn’t read when it’s not required. David C. did very well on the work, but didn’t creatively riff like Bevin did. He included sophisticated and clever drawings to augment his business plan, though. He also won’t read unless it’s required but he does assiduously sketch as a hobby.

Questions lead to more questions, naturally, but I’d like to explore David’s case and it’s implications. Bevin’s a literate workhorse and her work shows it. Mercy enjoys many things but reading can’t be counted as one. David too, won’t pick up books but his competency is evident.  Does his artistic bent translate to literacy of any sort?

This School in England Is the Worst School Ever

This School in England Is the Worst School Ever

Photo: iStockphoto

During a fire drill at a middle school in Worcester, England, students aged 10 to 13 looked on in horror as “as a man appeared brandishing a gun and appeared to shoot dead Mr. Kent, their science teacher, as he ran across a field.” It was only ten minutes after the shooting that teachers revealed the whole thing to be fake. The exercise was apparently “intended to teach Year 8 pupils how to investigate, collect facts and analyse evidence.” They couldn’t have just pretended to lose the class rabbit, or something? [Telegraph UK]

Big Jon ready to pounce.

To think we forced economic sanctions and took a hard diplomatic stance against the white government in Johannesberg. We would not stand for that, nor would we cotton to that kind of institutionalized racism. Our tut-tutting resonated worldwide. We ourselves had passed a wide ranging civil rights bill and we visited with the Huxtables once a week on Thursdays. Our race relations had been repaired. We didn’t have a problem to speak of.

From South Africa in the late 1980’s we heard how Nelson Mandela had been jogging in place in his cell for 29 years and that they locked him up because he spoke out and acted out against a cruel status quo. We knew of their system of racial separation; this apartheid, it incensed us to hear, was the whites way of keeping their share away from everyone else. From an absolute point of view this was unjust, that much we knew. We were correct on that count.

I’ve chosen “The Shame of the Nation” by Jonathan Kozol as my supplemental book. Jonathan is an educator. Jonathan is an author. Jonathan rouses the rabble. Jonathan rubs our noses in our own mess and reminds us of how unsightly it is to talk out of both sides of one’s mouth. The shame he refers to is an apartheid system of our own in this country’s urban public school systems. Things are bad and they’re right here. Or right under the interstate we’re speeding by on, dipping below 75 only when traffic slows us down, as we head to town to go see Wicked. What most of us do, what I do and what I think most of us do, is to look away. To participate in and condone a large scale social crime by not shouting angrily. Many thousands of kids are subject to misery and isolation at school. Many have it worse than their folks did. We’re sliding backwards into a dreary muck. Mr. Kozol sat in this muck along with many other students who had no practical alternative ( it’s where they live and they can’t quite afford the down payment on a split level in Westchester County) and he shared a stream of unsavory reports.

Next time I’ll dip into the book and get dirty with Jonathan.

-The authors attack a tangly thicket from a few different angles in this chapter. Namely, a student whose heart isn’t in the task won’t do what you’d like him to do. An  adolescent is overrun by his emotions to begin with, so if anything about you or your classroom strikes him as drab, gauche or threatening he’ll resist with an unfavorable portion of his triunal gray matter. This chapter presents specific constuctivist ways to appeal to the great and terrible affective side of our young masters.

-Smacks of benevolent trickery but if it works, so be it? Some studies and suggestions that appeal to me include: allow students to read material of their own choosing; write persuasive essays in the form of text messages or a blog to a real person; always speak well of reading; make the students feel that a class is theirs as much as the teacher’s.

So it begins.

This ought to cause a ripple among the intelligentsia. A ripple? Kerplunk. Archimedes wouldn’t have the words to tell us just how broad and deep this new thing will be. The editorial staff at R.W.G estimates that, due to just how dag-blamed provocative and in tune with the prevailing zaftight zeitgiest this stuff promises to be, they caution us to look for  the sort of the blowback that probably hasn’t been seen since Scarface, (but in his case no one did in fact get their blow back, did they?).