What I’ve Been Reading

Would Jesus Support the Death Penalty? Many Christians strangely believe that Jesus wouldn’t support the death penalty even though they do.”

The Tale of Two Schools. Fieldston and University Heights are in the same New York City borough but worlds apart. How much understanding between their students can a well-told story bring? A lot it turns out.

The Hunt for El Chapo. The story of how the world’s most notorious drug lord was captured. Sure to be a movie.

Louis C.K. Against the Common Core. When a comedian points out the way in which the current priorities don’t add up, it earns even the attention of those who haven’t thought much about school since they graduated. But the brutal math of the New York City school system is no laughing matter.”

We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. Entering students at my uni will read this novel and discuss it during orientation in early September. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that steadily gets more and more interesting up to the very end. After 50-75 pages, I may have set it aside if it hadn’t been “assigned”. The story of a family of five. The dad is a psychology professor at Indiana University. Recommended. It will resonant strongly with those most sympathetic to the animal rights movement.

Bill Simmon’s Big Score. How a failed newspaper writer built a new kind of media empire at ESPN. I’ve completely tired of Simmon’s act, but still found this an interesting “new journalism” case study. A few factoids. The four major sports are worth a combined $91.2b. ESPN’s worth $50.8b making it the most valuable media brand in the world. Bill Simmons has 2.6 million twitter followers, I’m up to 46. 

On deck—American Crucifixion by Alex Beam. The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.

In the hole—Family Life by Akil Sharma.

 

Be Less Lonely

By making time to read. Every day. And not just periodicals, blogs, email messages, Twitter feeds, and Facebook updates. Fiction and non-fiction books.

Bookish people are less lonely because they have an endless supply of friends. With the exception of some especially good long running series, television and film characters usually don’t rise to the same level of friendship as literary ones.

Cleo, an eighth grader at a middle school I’ve been helping out at this year, figured this out about eight years ago. She reads incessantly. Averaging about a book a day. Substantive books typically read by high schoolers. And then she reviews them on her blog, Cleo’s Literary Reviews. Apart from sometimes reading in classes she’s not supposed to, I have no idea how she does it.

Our negative preconceived notions of bookworms as socially stunted people ill-prepared for the “real world” are anachronistic. Cleo likes her school and gets along great with her classmates. She appears imminently happy and has a promising future in the “real world”. Cleo will impress with her vocabulary, imagination, and knowledge of the world.

But the longest lasting gift of reading doesn’t have anything to do with competing in the global economy. Most importantly, Cleo’s happiness won’t fluctuate as wildly with the vagaries of “real life” relationships because she’ll always be buffeted by a steady stream of interesting people, created by an endless army of imaginative authors.

Administrivia

• One wonders. Is the recent uptick in readers explained by my heroic cycling exploits in the Eastern Sierras or is it just the inevitable effect of especially brilliant content (remember, italics denotes sarcasm) or was it the off-the-cuff decision to attach a racy snowboard picture to the “Educational Slowdown” post from a few weeks ago? Whatever. Welcome new readers.

• I’ve updated the front page by deleting the “About This Blog” tab. The little bit of text from that tab is now apart of the “First Time Here?” tab. I also condensed and updated the list of most popular posts. New and improved so please share away.

• I could use the help of regular readers. For the first time in awhile, I’ve worked through my queue of post topics/ideas and new ideas aren’t flowing as much as they might. Therefore, I’m wondering, what would you like me to write more about? Thanks in advance for any ideas, links to articles of interest, or questions you’d like to see me bat around. Absent much input, I’ll probably switch to posting twice weekly.

• I may be switching to a different template sometime soon. I want to add copyright protection and I need to switch from wordpress.com to a wordpress.org template to do so. I’m leaning towards “Linen”, but if you have a favorite wordpress.org template you think I should consider, hollah.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

What I’m Reading

Just finished “Republic Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress and a Plan to Stop It” by Lawrence Lessig. If you plan to be, are currently, or ever were a political science major, you’ll lap it up. Lessig is whip smart. I was drawn to the book after hearing Double L interviewed on NPR. An expert on internet law, he said something to the effect of “Scholars should switch topics every ten years.” The higher ed world would be a far more healthy, invigorating, interesting place if profs universally applied that notion.

If you don’t keep a copy of the U.S. Constitution on your nightstand, you may find it slow going. The writing dragged at times. It would have been an even better book if L2’s editors had required him to reduce it by 25%.

Lessig explains why it’s understandable that 89% of the public doesn’t trust Congress. In short, every member of Congress spends 30-70% of their time fundraising because their primary objective is to get re-elected. Also, many see their Congressional work as a means towards an end of becoming high paid lobbyists. Important issues get short shrift and members’ compromise their ideals all in the name of campaign fund raising. The details depress.

Props to LL for eschewing academic norms and offering solutions to the problem. One major contradiction in his otherwise insightful treatise was this—he acknowledges that the public’s passive resignation is a rational response to the dysfunction while at the same time  he argues citizen involvement is the key to his proposed solutions. I appreciated the specificity and boldness of his fixes, but didn’t find them realistic enough.

Unintended effect no doubt, I’m less interested in politics as result of reading the book.

Needing a break from academic social science writing, I just started The Orphan Master’s Son—A Novel by Adam Johnson. Read some great reviews and saw Johnson interviewed on the NewsHour. I keep getting drawn back inside the Hermit Kingdom.

On deck, my first ever cooking/food book—An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler. Awhile back I posited that people don’t change. I hereby amend that, people don’t “Change”, but they can “change”, by which I mean personal attributes don’t change much over time, but interests can. I’ve always been an “eat to live” kind of guy, but in the last year or two, I’ve started to enjoy cooking, eating well, and spending time in the kitchen. Maybe it’s the long-term effects of the fem-vortex. Anyways, look for me to starting cooking with even more economy and grace real soon.

In the hole (baseball term for the sports challenged), the Happiness Hypothesis—Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt. I’ve downloaded the first chapter, just casually dating at this point, so I’m not committing to marrying Haidt (although that may soon be legal in Washington State, but I digress).

In related news, I sent Nineteen this link to Jonathan Franzen’s screed against e-books. She loved it because she’s also hopelessly nostalgic about the printed page. Maybe someday in the distant future Franzen and she will realize you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

How to Improve Your Vocabulary

Some of my writing students want to improve their vocabulary this semester. That’s admirable, but they probably won’t like my suggestions:

1) Read more.

2) Not just Junie B. Jones and Archie comics (for Fifteen). Read progressively more challenging material. Or at least rotate in challenging stuff between the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Harry Potter (for Eighteen).

3) When reading challenging material, take time to look up some of the words you don’t know. (A favorite i-Pad e-book feature, touch the word, touch the definition tab, five-ten seconds, genius. The plus side of an admitted trade-off).

4) Integrate newly learned words into your conversations and writing even if you don’t use them perfectly initially. I called Fifteen a sycophant the other day. She asked what that meant. I told her it was the first word on the aced vocab quiz adorning the frig. That brought a smile. Use em’ or lose em’.

5) The power of osmosis can’t be exaggerated. This is the “try to play tennis with people better than you” concept. Hang with people whose vocabularies are further along than yours. In addition to Modern Family, talk about ideas, what you’re reading, North African and Middle Eastern political unrest, and the Wisconsin state legislature. You become the company you keep.

The problem with my suggestions is most young people prefer multimedia to reading, spending hundreds of hours Facebooking and watching legions of movies for every substantive book they read. Apparently blog posts are even too long. Fifteen rarely chooses to read in her free time, gravitating to Facebook and SuperNanny instead. Interestingly though, whenever she’s required to read quality literature in her English class, she always enjoys it.

In the end, there are no shortcuts. Absent immersing oneself in vocab-rich reading material, dictionary work, time spent in literate small groups, and more vocab-rich reading, don’t expect to light the vocabulary world on fire.

21st Century Reading

When flying, I’m often impressed by the percentage of people reading. Mid-flight, on the return from FL, I walked up and down the center aisle. Interesting to survey people’s reading formats of choice. Like fish that don’t notice the water (Margaret Mead), it’s easy to forget we’re living in the midst of an Information Revolution that will alter nearly every aspect of our lives.

Among the readers, old school hard copy books held a slight advantage over Kindle and Nook-based electronic books. I only saw one other iPadder.

The transformation to reading electronic books will probably take a decade. Sometime relatively soon I’ll tell young people, “When I used to fly, the airlines provided every passenger warm meals on trays.” And “Before and after those meals, we read hard copy books, some that weighed a couple of pounds each.”

I’m a periodical junkie, so to this point, I’ve been using the Pad to read newspapers, magazines, and blogs. Yesterday, I purchased and began reading my first electronic book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life, by Francine Jay.

Today, while reading The Joy of Less through the Kindle app, I came upon an underlined sentence which I of course tapped. Up popped this message, “Five readers highlighted this passage.” Had you been in the Toyota dealership at the time, you would have seen a look on my face that was equal parts shock and horror.

Stunned and creeped out by biblio big brother.

I could not care less about the passages other readers highlighted. A cardiac arrest was averted by the remainder of the message which said I could adjust the settings so that I couldn’t see others’ recommended highlights and also so that my own annotations would not be factored into the recommendations.

Done and done.

I suppose I should go along to get along with respect to the increasing popularity of social networking technologies, but for me, reading is intensely personal. My choice of material, my pace, my interpretations and internal dialogue. Don’t tell, but I sometimes get irked when the galpal reads outloud from the paper.

Are there really readers who want help figuring out what parts of a book are most noteworthy? Or is this feature a technological point of diminishing returns? Just because we have the technology to do something doesn’t mean it adds value. But again, since readers are free to decide whether to opt in, (awful cliche alert) it’s all good.

A lot has been written lately about the impact of electronic readers and the changing nature of book publishing. Traditional book publishers are understandably nervous. The digitization of music provides some clues as to what is likely to happen, like ever shrinking profit margins and the option of purchasing portions of books, but it’s still challenging to accurately extrapolate and identify clear winners and losers.

I’m optimistic that distinctive, clear, creative, insightful, engaging writing will still be rewarded with large, appreciative audiences.

Mailbag

Whad’ up in FL? Mother Dear isn’t getting any younger. Love her a tad bit more than I hate flying. Just hangin’ with her. Helping her with her new iMac, swapping stories from the last several months, even accompanied her to Ybor City for the Saturday morning Cuban coffee/toast confab with the girlfriends. And there’s no (provable) truth to the rumor that I timed this trip to overlap with the Cal Lutheran college roommate reunion at the crib.

Where are the fitness updates? Stopped moving? Nah, still moving. Weird summer in that regard. One week, no teaching, getting every work out in, pushups, stretching, planking, solid 12-15 hours of swimming, running, cycling. Next week, full-time teaching, missing some workouts (no bike in Eastern WA), cutting others short. So not enough of a rhythm. Zero races and I’m skipping our local triathlon breaking my nine year streak. A couple of new events on the calendar over the next six weeks. Average swimming/running shape, slightly above average cycling shape. Getting soft(er). Niece asked me if I wanted to work out with her today at 1p. Heat index north of 100. I politely declined.

Starting college in a few weeks, top three suggestions? 1) There are power outages, dropped internet connections, empty printer cartridges. Never leave printing until the morning something is due. Even if it’s 2 a.m. the “night” before, print all final drafts before going to bed. You’ll sleep better and “tech glitch” excuses are tired. 2) Backwards plan. Who are you going to get to write recommendations to grad school or other post-grad first steps? Go to office hours with genuine questions about the course content and/or your work in the course and get to know at least one prof a quarter/semester. 3) Study abroad. Bonus suggestion: call or (even better) email your dad regularly. 

Best blog discovery of recent weeks? The best five books on everything.

Adolescent Literacy

Felt nostalgic for Europe I guess and took the train to PDX for a workshop on adolescent literacy. I WANT to be a train person, but Amtrak is making it hard. It’s bad enough the train takes longer than driving. My Squeeze and I planned on eating an early dinner in the big city and then returning on the 6:15p. Workshop ended an hour early and so we decided to take the 4:20p and eat at home. Headed to the iMax at 3:40p. At the train station we learned the 4:20p was delayed about an hour.

Long story short, it never arrived, something about a tree on the track. Instead of a romantic dinner, we took a walk and then sat in front of the station reading in the setting sun eating pistachios. The 6:15p originates in PDX so it would have to leave on time. . . right? Longer story shorter, we walked off the train at 7:40p, exactly four hours after leaving the hotel for home. Something about a broken brake line they couldn’t fix. The man sitting in front of us asked if we wanted a lift home, he was bailing on the train, taking the iMax to his car in Clakamass. He had a morning business meeting in Seattle. What a life, or at least, nightsaver.

But I digress.

Stanford research prof was the main presenter. Excellent researcher I’m sure, but how can I put this nicely, his presentation skills were not as well developed. Here’s what Dr. Stanford Expert and his co-presenter, a much better teacher from The U of Utah, recommended.

1. Strengthen adolescent reading fluency, vocab, and comprehension through scientifically researched (read quasi-experimental and other quantitative studies) teaching strategies that have been proven to be effective including explicit vocabulary instruction and classroom discussion of texts.

2. Explicit instruction involves three steps: I do it (modeling). We do it (guided practice). You do it (independent practice). If teaching a complex literacy skill like summarizing, the three steps may take an entire week. Teachers inevitably rush the steps.

3. There are three elements to classroom discussion of texts: 1) efferent (the who, what, where, and why of what was read. . . what did the writer say); 2) analysis and interpretation; and 3) evaluation. . . how did you feel about it, how convincing was the argument or engaging/illuminating the narrative. Research suggests teachers slight part one which low achieving students benefit the most from. Dr. SE made it clear he had “absolutely no interest” in evaluation/students’ opinions.

It was alternatingly interesting and exasperating. Throughout the day there was no discussion of the purposes of literacy; there wasn’t a single reference to digital, electronic, or multimedia texts; nor was there a single reference to the societal curriculum. Nevermind that adolescents are in school 22-23% of the time and outside it 77-78%.

Here’s an alternative, admittedly less scientific, more sociological perspective.

Immerse children and young adults in rich literary environments for long periods of time. Surround them by interesting reading material. Unplug more and read in front of them. Talk about what you’re reading. Demonstrate a love of reading in your daily life. Repeat year after year.

Here’s a related math literacy, or “numeracy” example. One Sunday morning, when seventeen was two or three, she crawled into bed and snuggled in between mom and dad. Dad started counting. “One.” She squeaked, “two.” And thus began Sunday morning math. Overtime, we counted by twos, threes, fours, whatever we felt like. We never called it multiplication. My hunch that my daughter’s success in math is in part explained by those Sunday mornings would not impress Dr. SE one bit.

I was impressed with how candidate Obama talked eloquently about parents being their childrens’ first and most important teachers. I wonder why he’s abandoned the Bully Pulpit.

The teachers and school leaders in the workshop politely and passively accepted the “literacy and numeracy as a teacher-centered science” way of thinking as if there are no alternatives. Few probably realized with that paradigm comes a narrow emphasis on technical skills, test scores, and national economic competitiveness.

Research and what happens in school matters, but magic can happen when young people are immersed in rich literary environments where word and number play are daily activities.

What I’m Reading

The WSJ recently reviewed the top economics blogs and one I read regularly, Marginal Revolution, by Tyler Cowen, was highlighted. The one critique of MR was that Cowen’s sporadic “What I’m Reading” posts make people feel inferior because he’s always reading about 20 different books stretching across about 10 different fields, many quite esoteric. Cowen is a unique dude, incredibly well read, a prolific writter (he blogs 3-5x a day and writes nonstop essays and books), and a connoisseur of ethnic cuisine among other things. 

I’m always reading email, student work, and lots of print and electronic periodicals. On top of that, I have book reading periods, one of which I’m in right now. So with no Cowen-like pretense, here’s what I’m reading.

Nancy Pearl, on Seattle’s NPR station, KUOW, turned me on to “the best teen novel” she had ever read, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart. I purchased it for my soon to be 14 and 17 year olds. I’m reading it before wrapping it and to say I’m wrapped up in it is an understatement. You know how we all have things we wish were different about ourselves, I wish I made more time for fiction. I really believe in the power of fiction, I just don’t make time to drink from the well often enough. Synopsis. . . elite boarding school, 10th grade girl, 12th grade boyfriend, secret all male society, feminist pushback, timely, and smartly written. 

I’m also reading The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner. The subtitle hints at the thesis: Why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children need-and what we can do about it. Overlaps almost directly with my primary professional interests so I’m enjoying it. Wish I wrote it first.

Last, but not least, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. I heard the author, John Gottman, on NPR one night and thought he was the clearest and most interesting and insightful speaker on marriage I had heard. When I told the wife that she ran out and got a few of his books. Should I take that as a bad sign? I negotiated down to taking turns reading alternate chapters of “Seven Principles”. Funny thing, she hammered out chapter one and then we stalled. Yesterday she told me she has to return it to the library soon, a not so subtle hint, but first I have to wrap up The Disreputable History. How can I concentrate on my marriage before knowing how things turn out for Frankie, Matthew, and the other Loyal Basset Hounds?

Gateway Drug

This is the best paragraph I’ve read in awhile. It’s from an essay titled, “The Triumph of the Readers” by Ann Patchett, which appeared in the WSJ on 1/17/09.

Like the chicken pox, getting infected by the desire to read is best when it hits us early. As a child I was so committed to “Charlotte’s Web” that I pleaded for, and received, a pig for my ninth birthday, a gift that segued nicely into my “Little House on the Prairie” obsession. Was I, with my American classics, more noble than today’s middle-schooler who reads and rereads his copy of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”? Was I less noble than my straight-A sister who read “Le Petit Prince” in French? No on both counts. I am a firm believer in the fact that it isn’t so much what you read, it’s that you read. Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone. It gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin. Whether you’re in the life of Wilbur the pig, or Greg Heffley, the wimpy kid, or that little blonde prince in the desert, you’ve stepped outside of yourself for awhile, something that is beneficial to every child. Even if you’re stepping into “Valley of the Dolls,” it’s better than nothing. I’m all for reading bad books because I consider them to be a gateway drug. People who read bad books now may or may not read better books in the future. People who read nothing now will read nothing in the future.

Now I feel bad for nagging my daughters all these years about their affinity for Archie comics.