Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Midwest

I'm reading American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld, and loved this:

Then we were back in Wisconsin, a place that in late summer is thrillingly beautiful. When I was young, this was knowledge shared by everyone around me; as an adult, I've never stopped being surprised by how few of the people with whom I interact have any true sense of the states between Pennsylvania and Colorado. Some of these people have even spent weeks or months working in such states, but unless they're midwesterners, too, to them the region is nothing but polling numbers and caucuses, towns or cities where they stay in hotels whose bedspreads are glossy maroon and brown on the outside and pilly on the inside, whose continental breakfasts are packaged doughnuts and cereal from a dispenser, whose fitness centers are a single stationary bike and a broken treadmill. These people eat dinner at Perkins, and then they complain about the quality of the restaurants.

Admittedly, the area possesses a dowdiness I personally have always found comforting, but to think of Wisconsin specifically or the Midwest as a whole as anything other than beautiful is to ignore the extraordinary power of the land. The lushness of the grass and trees in August, the roll of the hills (far less of the Midwest is flat than outsiders seem to imagine), that rich smell of soil, the evening sunset over a field of wheat, or the crickets chirping at dusk on a residential street: All of it, it has always made me feel at peace. There is room to breathe, there is a realness of place. The seasons are extreme, but they pass and return, pass and return, and the world seems far steadier than it does from the vantage point of a coastal city.

Certainly picturesque towns can be found in New England or California or the Pacific Northwest, but I can't shake the sense that they're too picturesque. . . . But the Midwest: It is quietly lovely, not preening with the need to have its attributes remarked on. It is the place I am calmest and most myself.

* * *

Driving cross-country from New York to Portland last summer, I remembered how amazingly beautiful Wisconsin is, and how nobody seems to know about that--or maybe they just don't give a shit, since it's Wisconsin. But I wrote here that the forests and hills in Minnesota and Wisconsin, also western Oregon (and I guess western Washington too) are my favorite landscape in this country. (What I've seen of it, anyway, which is a lot, but not everything.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

Teaching Censorship

My principal got a second phone call about my censorship unit. Interesting teaching at a school with more involved parents than my previous school. The first call was: "Why are they talking about gay penguins in Language Arts?" This one was: "Why are Ms. Nelson's students reading about necrophilia in Language Arts?"

I explained the gay penguins to my principal's satisfaction. I'd read my students the picture book And Tango Makes Three, the most banned and challenged book of 2007, the true story of Roy and Silo, two gay penguins at the Central Park Zoo. I explained how it fit into the unit and my principal said, "Oh, okay, that makes sense. That's appropriate."

And I explained the necrophilia reference. I was trying to present a pro-censorship angle, so we read excerpts from the terrible Parents Against Bad Books in Schools website. This is the paragraph that prompted the phone call:

"In some of the books there are vividly described scenes of oral sex, brutal rapes, gang rapes, two men raping a woman at once, pedophilia, masturbation, extremely graphic violence, torture, linking of sexual excitement with violence, homosexuality, urinating on holy books, necrophilia, obscenities, vulgar language, and on and on and on. To us some of it is pornography weakly disguised as literature. Unbelievably foul stuff. With all the books available, why do teachers select these? The types of books we are concerned with are far beyond Harry Potter type stuff."

I explained to my principal that the article was representing an extreme pro-censorship point of view, and that we were using it to discuss the strategies and arguments people presented for why censorship is good. He cringed reading it--it's a terrible paragraph--but he backed me up. He did say, "Just don't let them get you off topic," and told a story about a teacher he'd had, an ex-Marine, who'd just go on and on about the War if they got him started. I told him we just read that paragraph and if a student asked me to define any of the words I would, then we moved on.

The same parent apparently also asked why we were discussing Censorship in Language Arts, and how it fit into the Language Arts curriculum. My principal gave her a great explanation (Language Arts is reading, writing, and critical thinking, and students can read, write, and think about any number of topics). He told me he also told the parent how popular this unit has been with the kids--which is so much of why I love teaching it. (I had another parent come to me and say "What book did you give Connell? All he did yesterday was read! No TV, no video games!" [It was Deadline, by Chris Crutcher.] This is why I have the job I have.) Before my principal left my classroom, he did say, "Just don't be reading sexually explicit stories. We have some very conservative families." and I had a moment of worry, thinking back over the syllabus--but in fact, we haven't. I gave a library copy of Forever to one of my girls, and it's making the rounds, and many Chris Crutcher books with sex in them are also being read outside of class (yay!), but in class we've read:

And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
The first chapter of The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patron
"The Pin," by Chris Crutcher
Judy Blume's excellent introduction to her anthology Places I Never Meant to Be
"July Saturday," by Jacqueline Woodson (story from Blume's anthology)
"You Come Too, A-ron," by Harry Mazer (also from the anthology)
The Stupids Die, by Harry Allard

We've also read editorials, reviews, interviews, and other articles about these writers and others, and looked at a lot of the material from the ALA website, including the most challenged books and authors lists and the "Banned Books Week Basics" information.

Our censorship debates were awesome. And now, spring break. After spring break, most of my eighth graders will be reading Nothing But the Truth by Avi, and a few will be reading Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. It's going to be a lot of work and so much fun.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

censorship: vocab quiz

4. Give three reasons why someone might think a book is immoral.

· Someone might think a book is immoral because there are swear words
· Also, it might have sex, before someone is married
· And someone might talk/do drugs


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Coffee shop, Sunday morning

A dad on his computer, his daughter reading a comic book at the table with him. She’s young to be sitting and reading quietly while dad works—maybe five, definitely no older. At the table behind them another dad and another little girl sit down. He’s really grizzly and cute, with shoulder length hair. His daughter is maybe three. The other little girl turns around in her chair, is explaining the details of her comic book to the other dad and the other little girl in intense detail, page by page. Her own dad glances up time to time, smiles, but he’s still on his computer.

* * *

Addendum: Now the other dad is sort of studying, trying to study, and both little girls are sitting with the dad who'd been on his computer, who is now coloring with the kids.

They're all so young. We're all so young. Is this divorced dad morning? Funny, I feel like in Portland I see more couples who are together. In NYC on the weekends divorced dads alone with their kids were everywhere, but I don't notice that as much here. Of course, I don't ride nearly as much mass transit as I did, which is where I would notice it the most, where it stood out to me.

* * *

Addendum the second: Now one dad is working at one table, the other dad is working at another table, and the two little girls are set up with markers and paper at a third table, between them.

* * *

Addendum the third: A slightly older boy and his little sister walk up to the girls coloring. The boy says, deadpan, "Wow. Nice marker station." All three littler girls look at him, just look at him. He walks away and his little sister follows.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Poetry and Metaphor in the Age of NCLB

From a student poem:

Tests are sometimes like poems
They confuse you
into picking the wrong answer.

By Misael