Snobs

Going into Snobs by Julian Fellowes, I thought I was going to see more criticisms of the upper-class.  That wasn’t the case and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The story begins with a group of late twenty, early thirty-somethings who are trying to find their way in life and the British class system.  The Narrator, who’s name isn’t given, meets a young woman named Edith at a mutual friends from the weekend.  All of these friends were educated at the big name private schools, brushing elbows the upper-class, landed gentry.

SnobsIt seems that half of them are happy with their upper-middle class lives, but most of them are trying to break into the upper-class either through marriage or through intimate friends.  This is where the novel of manners begins.  Edith finds herself romantically attached to an heir and Narrator ends up being her only ally in this new world.  Apparently, Narrator has some connections and Lord and Lady Uckfield are happy to accept him into their circle to act as their ambassador to Edith’s world.

What follows is the consequence of all of Edith’s jockeying to make the leap into the aristocracy.  Narrator keeps up with them all and is our guide into this odd world.  The ultimate point of the novel is that while every one admires the upper-class, their world isn’t perfect.  The sacrifices it takes to make it into the upper-class through marriage comes with consequences.  The choice is whether one is willing to take responsibility for it.

With a mix of Austen and Dickens, a dash of Ishiguro, and a side of Fitzgerald Julian Fellowes draws us into the the landed gentry of contemporary Britain. It’s not quite a criticism of class but rather an exploration of the consequences of our decisions and how people face challenges no matter the class.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

IndianI’ve had this on my to-read list, but it wasn’t until the Cannonball Book Club chose this as their August pick that I was propelled to bump this up on my list.  Focusing on a member of the Spokane River tribe, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian shows us what it’s like for Arnold who exists in two different worlds.  He soon realizes that his potential is limited by staying on the reservation, but leaving the reservation and going to nice school nearby comes with challenges.  Amongst all of the white kids, his “Indian-ness” becomes an obstacle to integrating into the school’s culture.  Back on the rez, because he left, he’s treated like a traitor.  Did I mention that he’s only 15?

The voice of Native Americans is really lacking in American literature. I’m really sad that there’s not more writers who give us a view into a world that many people either ignore or are ignorant of.  I’m glad that Sherman Alexie has given us a glimpse into the lives of Spokane River tribe.  For me it showed me that while the reservations across the U.S. have their own governments and cultures there is more that connects us than divides us.

I was shocked at the world that Arnold and his best friend, Rowdy, inhabit. Not because I don’t think it’s real, but because it is. At the same time, Alexie showed readers that those young men are people too. He stripped away the “other” and brought out their humanity. For teens and adults I think this is a great read that’s entertaining and eye-opening.

Peak

Apparently this is the year of Everest.  Earlier this year I read Into Thin Air in hope that I Peakcould teach it.  It didn’t fit into what I was looking, but I happened upon the book Peak.  It’s the story of a young man, Peak, who’s parents are rock climbers but are now divorced.  Due to climbing a New York skyscraper, Peak has to either face juvy or go live with his Dad in Asia.  Making the choice to live with his dad, Peak soon discovers that his Dad doesn’t just want to travel around Asia, but wants Peak to climb the northern face of Everest.

As the book progresses to getting Peak onto the mountain, I worried that this was going to turn into a less-traumatic version of Into Thin Air.  Luckily that didn’t happen.  And it was set in Tibet while Air was on the southern, Nepalese side of Everest.  I appreciated this change of scenery because I feel like most people aren’t as familiar with the northern face.

Hidden amongst the usual coming-of-age troupe with the father-son conflicts as well as recognizing first-world privilege, Peak also gives us a view of just how political it is to climb Everest.  If you’re climbing on the northern side, you’re in Tibet which is under Chinese control.  That creates some conflicts especially since many of the sherpas on the northern side are Nepalese.  We also get to see some of how the sherpas are treated and how there’s almost a class system that has emerged between the wealthy, Western climbers and the sherpas who work with them.

I liked reading about this new point of view and I thought the young adult narrator was reliable and realistic. Although I did find their path to the summit a little too easy to be believable. All in all a good summer read.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

I’ve been looking for a science fiction text to read with my Sophomores.  Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is one of those books that ends up on sci-fi book lists.  Plus those that like the book REALLY like the book.

The plot’s basically about an earthling (Arthur) who gets rescued by an alien (Ford) when an alien raceGalaxy comes and destroys Earth.  The rest of the novel is the exploits of Arthur and Ford as they encounter a galactic politician, Zaphod, who’s out to get rich.  This is a series so the first book ends leaving room wide-open for the sequel.  Throughout their journey they actually refer to the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy.  Which is a guide written in a wiki-style by authors all over the galaxy and is housed in what we’d call today a first generation Kindle.

One of my favorite characters is Zaphod’s cynical robot, Marvin.  Everyone hates him because of the cynicism and this just adds to his own hate for himself.  He adds a nice dose of dark humor to what can sometimes be very snarky humor.  Speaking of humor, if you like British humor then you’ll really like this book.  If you don’t like British humor, you’ll not.  There’s a lot of on-the-nose puns and jokes, and while it’s not my favorite it’s at least entertaining.

It feels like the “point” of the book is to look at how technology doesn’t really make civilization any more advanced.  It just adds bells and whistles to the follies that are present wherever people are trying to build a better life.

Dust of Eden

I’ve been looking for a text to accompany some nonfiction pieces for my Sophomore English class.  The non-ficiton pieces are about the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII and I’ve been looking for a novel to give the students a better idea of what happened during this program.  I really liked The Invisible Thread , but sadly that’s out of print.  Then I came across Dust of Eden.  It was recommended to me by a colleague (God bless fellow English teachers).  It’s interesting because it’s a novel in verse.  So not only is this a topic that most students haven’t been taught about but it’s in a style most are unfamiliar with.

I find it shameful that we don’t talk about the internment of Japanese-Americans in school. DustEspecially because in today’s tumultuous racially charge politics there’s already talk of registering Muslims and the like.  If we don’t study the past how do we know what will happen in the future? It wasn’t until I was in college that I learned that we put Japanese-Americans into concentration camps. And I even lived on the West Coast! 

One of the most poignant scenes from this book is when the son in the family is thinking about joining the military.  Now, the family has lived in the camp for almost a year now.  They’ve lost everything that took them generations to build, yet the U.S. military is willing to draft their young men for the war effort (talk about a good example of irony aka hypocrisy).  The son wants to join to show the U.S. that he’s American and not Japanese.  The father, however, doesn’t want him to join up.  He makes the argument that if Japanese-American men are good enough to die for the U.S., they’re good enough to live freely like every other American.  Point taken, sir.

The young woman who narrates the story also brings up a good point during the time when they are first ordered to leave their homes and jobs and be taken under military custody.  She notices that there’s no Italian-American or German-American families and at first she’s confused and then she realizes with a deep bitterness that it’s just Japanese-Americans who are being targeted.  Not only that, but Chinese and Korean Americans had to prove that they weren’t Japanese in order to avoid the internment camps.

The further the story progresses the more the stanzas are shortened and the choppier the lines becomes.  It’s almost as if she’s talking into the readers ear and you can sense her anger and frustration.  In the few moments of happiness and joy, the stanzas are longer and the lines are filled out. I thought this was a beautiful way to add a visual touch to the text.

 

Education

Being a teacher is rewarding and I enjoy most things about my profession.  But being a teacher in a Christian school always gets people to ask, “Why don’t you work in public school?  You’d make better money.”  First of all, this is true although more money more problems because there’s a lot of politics involved in public schools.  Also, no teacher public/private/parochial decides to go into teaching for the money.  Let’s be honest.

EducationAt the turn of the twentieth century, this book, Education published that was purposed as a raison d’etre for Christian education as well as what any teacher should strive to achieve in his/her classroom.  A lot has changed in education since 1903, and when I started reading this I figured a lot of it wouldn’t be relevant to today’s educators.  While there was a lot that has been deemed inapplicable due to history and social change, there was more that is still relevant that I suspected.

One of the challenges the author proposes is that teachers know each of their students personally so that they can connect material to the students’ interests and abilities.  Today we call this differentiated instruction.  Besides that pedagogical title, most teachers worth their salt get to know their students personally.  And as students we all remember those teachers best who got to know us.

Another feature that we keep talking about in our society but aren’t doing anything about is the importance of physical education.  We all know the studies that childhood obesity is rising at alarming rates.  Yet, across the country, schools are being forced to cut physical education programs and recess.  Scary to think that even in 1903 people thought it was important to have recess and yet here we are, more “advanced” and we’re cutting it like nobody’s business.

I wouldn’t recommend this read unless you’re really looking for a book on Christian education and are ok with archaic language. For me it was good only because it exceeded my already low expectations.

Living the Christian Year

Not coming from a liturgical church community, it’s only been recently that I’ve discovered Yearthe other Christian “holidays” outside of Christmas and Easter. Living the Christian Year is a good introduction to the idea of living a year with Christian rhythms and seasons.  In the protestant denomination I grew up in, Advent and Lent were seen as Catholic.  Not something that was bad, just not something that our community participated in.  The downside to this is, that it seems pretty boring to just wait for either Christmas or Easter to arrive.  As a kid it felt like there was nothing to break up the monotony.  Even reading the Old Testament, I saw that the ancient Israelites had some sort of festival happening at least once during each season.

I shared this experience with one of our friends, who just happens to be a hospital Chaplain, and she recommended that I read Living the Christian Year. The book showed me how in many liturgical churches, one holiday (aka season) leads into another. Advent leads into Lent which leads into Easter, which leads into Pentecost, etc.  Rinse and repeat.  While it was a lot of information to process, I did like the idea of a cycle or rhythms.  I can see how some who are new to this idea might see this as being more of a burden, but for me, looking for something to anticipate, something to enrichment my faith, it was exciting.

If you’re new to the liturgical Christian community or maybe want a refresher, I would give this a read.  There’s a lot of references in the back of the book for further exploration if you want to go deeper.

East of Eden

I’ve read The Pearl.  I’ve finished 80% of The Grapes of Wrath.  But I’ve never tackled any of Steinbeck’s other works.  Then came my book club’s pick for July, East of Eden.  I didn’t realize how long it is until I plucked it off the shelf at my library.  I was excited (I love long books) but also worried (bad long books are grueling reads).  Sadly, my worries paid out more than my excitement.

EdenThe first chapter opens with a brilliant setting of the topography and geography of the Salinas valley and West-Central California.  Having been to the Salinas valley and lived in Central California, Steinbeck painted it exactly as I remember.  One can tell from reading it that he has a connection to the place.  How else can you capture the beauty and the essence of it?

But then the whole thing fell apart.  There were chapters that did not forward the plot.  I’m still trying to figure out why he felt he needed to include them and the random details they shared.  And the way in which he wraps up the entire tome with a neat ending was aggravating. I ended up giving it a 3 out of 5 stars.  I just feel that he seemed to be writing to impress himself.  He even goes so far as to include a character named John Steinbeck into the plot.  Yet this isn’t non-fiction.

There were moments of brilliant artistry that made me want to give this a five stars. What ends up being a modern retelling (twist?) on the Cain and Abel story ends up being a meander through philosophy, California history, Steinbeck’s own life, and religion. The lack of organization and the odd way Steinbeck writes women kept me from really appreciating this book. I’m glad I read it, if just for the moments Steinbeck captured California and some of the characters.

Everything Is Teeth

Sharks.  They are my Achilles heel.  For some reason they are my irrational fear.  Yes, I lived in California, but I’ve never been deep enough into the Pacific to actually be in danger of sharks nor have I seen one in the wild.  Ever since I was a kid though, they have been the one fear I couldn’t explain.  As an adult I’ve just learned to own it.  And I’m not the only one.

I was browsing my library’s new arrivals section and meandered over to the graphic novels section and saw the cover of Everything Is Teeth.  I flipped through and saw that there were sharks and a little girl who was working out her own relationship with her fear/awe of sharks.  I knew that was the book for me.

TeethEvie Wyld shares in this memoir about her awe of sharks as a child. She visits her family in Australia every few years and each time she visits she has some encounter with a shark.  Whether it’s receiving shark jaws as a gift, being shown a recently beached shark, or hearing stories from her relatives of finding bull sharks in the water. Side note: if you live or visit Australia, why are you getting in the water?!?!  Everything wants to kill you!!

Mixed in this narrative is that of a family growing and changing with time. I enjoyed how the shark theme because a subplot that is woven into the story of how she adjusts and alters her relationship with her family as she ages.

As a kid who also had a mix of fear and awe for sharks I can relate to Evie. I’m glad, as an adult, she recognizes that sharks aren’t killers but should be protected as much as other sea creatures.

Rethinking Grading

Previously I had read a book by Cathy Vatterott called Rethinking HomeworkRethinking GradingGrading which is also by Vatterott.  Grading harmonizes a lot with Homework and shares Vatterott’s base philosophy that grades should be grounded in learning objectives, should be as objective as possible, and behavior should be kept separate.

For example, some teachers incorporate attendance as one of the categories that factor into the overall grade.  While attendance is important to the educational process, does it relate to how well you wrote an essay?  Now, is participating in a group discussion or presenting a speech to the class part of an academic grade? I’d answer yes.  It’s topic like these that Votterott discusses in her book that made me think about what I give grades for and what a grade in my classes represents.

Another topic that I thought about a lot was what an “A” represents on my rubrics.  Does it mean exceeds expectation or does it mean that it meets expectation?  When Vatterott asked the question in the book it seemed like a no-brainer, but then she posed the next question, does earning a 100% (what an A usually means) show that you’ve exceeded the expectation or that you’ve completely met the expectation?  And if “A” means you’ve exceeded the expectation, does a “B” or 80% mean that you’ve met the expectation?

Vaterott gave me a lot to think about and like I’ve said before I appreciate that she presents the material in a conversational/dialogue style and avoids sounding preachy.  My only critique is that I would like to see concrete evidence of how other teachers have incorporated what she’s suggesting into their classes.

If you’re looking for an introduction to standards-based grading including where the idea grew out of, this is a great book. There are a few specific suggestions for how to implement the program in a classroom but since this is only a jumping off point, I recommend looking at some of the resources mentioned and digging deeper.