Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Teaching Books: Teaching with Adolescent Learning in Mind by Glenda Ward Beamon

[I'm not going to try to review the books I'm reading as part of my transition to becoming an educator. However, I do want to at least do summaries, both for myself and if anyone's interested. Consider these mini-reviews, if you will.]

This book, which is a bit dated in terms of references and use of technology in the classroom, focuses on the idea of using what we now know about how adolescents learn to change how we teach students in the classroom. This is referred to as Adolescent-Centered Teaching, or ACT. (The problem with this acronym is that ACT to me and probably most people is a particular type of test.)

A lot of time is spent on talking about the emotional needs of teens and how to approach them in terms of trying to get them to learn. This book argues that the key is to engage them by bringing the learning to them in ways that they can relate, or by giving them activities that draw them into the material.

There is a high priority given to teaching knowledge, not test content, using group activities, and varying learning methods on a regular basis. The idea is that teens do not learn when lectured to. The book also argues that a teacher must be careful not to do anything that will emotionally damage the student, such as putting them on the spot in front on their peers.

The author uses a lot of studies of learning to make her points, but it's hard to know how many of these studies are valid, as sample size is never referenced. There also seems to be a bit of a gap between the ideas espoused (get a DNA testing machine!) and a teacher's ability to actually gather such a resource. Also, nothing is said about working with proscribed curriculum. The book's focus is on ideas, but placement within reality of a teacher's situation is not discussed.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Noir by Olivier Pauvert

The time is somewhere in the near future. A typical everyman who indulges in one vice too many now and again wakes up to the most gruesome sight possible--a dead woman hanging off a tree, completely mutilated.

Soon enough, he's the chief suspect, and under a totalitarian regime, he's guilty before the eyes of those who find him. But fate spares him and now he has the time to figure out what really happened.

There's only one problem--our protagonist seems to have shifted out of time. Not only does he no longer feel part of the world around him, that might just be true! Searching for answers on a multitude of questions, our "hero" must travel all over France to find his answers. They just might not be the ones he's looking for!

This was a random library grab, one of my favorite things to do when I have those rare moments with room on my card. As followers of my two review sites know, I like noir stories, so a book titled like this is going to catch my eye.

The thing is, while this was a pretty good story overall, I felt like it was trying to do too much in only about 250 pages. There are all kinds of concepts thrown about as our present-tense narrator walks about in this world that's changed because the white majority voters give in to fear. I'm a big fan of shorter novels--I prefer them, in fact--but in this case, it seems like the book is a platter with too many ideas piled on it, and as they shift off, I want to look over the edge and see what happened to them.

Here are just a few of the ideas brought up by Pauvert that don't get much room to breathe: A resistance movement, French minorities as guerrillas, the fate of the protagonist's family, and the implications that what we see has happened to France ends up quite possibly infecting the world.

That latter question is given about one paragraph with only a few pages to go, thrown in as part of a conclusion that rushes to get everything in that the writer wants to say before hitting the last white page. It honestly annoyed me more than anything else--why include such a tantalizing idea if you aren't going to do anything with it? I was perfectly happy living in the world of France only; there was no need to go outside the boundaries.

I understand that in a first person present tense novel, we aren't going to see anything that isn't in front of the narrator's nose, but I felt like there was a better way to go about addressing these issues. While his family is a priority early on, by about halfway through, they're barely mentioned. These kinds of omissions bugged me as I was reading.

I also had a problem with the fact that this book really does fall into the traps of a book like this, where everything is so bleak. Every character you meet is going to die after talking to the protagonist, because the Police State will get them. The hero will have all sorts of narrow escapes, usually one per place setting. Everything is bleak, but that doesn't seem to make more people want to resist. The back cover blurb mentions that this book echoes other books written in this style. What they don't mention is that this book copies them almost like a formula.

There are some good things about Noir that I did like. The idea that people who voted for the horrible government that takes over end up being used as their bag men is a great concept. Only minorities can see through the haze of lies, even as they are the worst treated. That echoes how Europeans have always seemed to find a way to harm people of color, basically from the date of first contact. Experimentation with dangerous drugs to control the masses probably happens today, in some laboratory no one knows about.

I also liked the very natural way in which our narrator realizes what's happened to him. I thought his revelations occurred steadily based on what he discovered on his quest to make things right, and his final fate made sense. His love of motorcycles and use of them in the book was a nice humanizing touch as well. One could blame the lack of focus on his need to keep moving, but I think that's a bit too easy. There had to be a way to get some answers added into the book via our narrator, and the book suffers for lack of it.

Overall, Noir was a quick read, but one that did not satisfy me as much as I'd hoped. I's a perfectly okay book, but it's not special enough to warrant some of the praise listed on the back cover. There were a lot of great ideas contained within, but the execution is a bit too derivative for my taste. Combined with the fact that the book leaves too many unexplored ideas on the table, I just can't recommend this one for others to read.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Child 44 byTom Rob Smith

In the middle of the secretive world of Stalin-era Russia lies a set of murders that keep getting written off as accidents. After all, there is no crime in Communist Russia--that's a capitalist problem.

Leo Demidov is a man who believes in the actions of the state. It's served him well, and he and his family are secure within the system. Are there problems? Maybe, but those who think too hard about them end up at the wrong end of the interrogation room.

Before he knows it, Leo is just such a man. He's angered a person below him, and as he well knows, sometimes the only way up is to ruin those who control you. On the run, Leo is mixed into a strange set of murders.

The only way to clear himself seems to be to solve the crime. But how can he do that with no police help and with an entire system trying to kill him?

That's the fun of Child 44, which stunningly is the first novel of writer Smith. This novel reads like it was in the careful hands of a veteran, not someone who was forming his first long work. We get a great set up that seems unrelated but you know will go somewhere, then an introduction to the main players in the drama. The plot takes twists and turns all over the place, but never feels like it's bogging down or adding scenes just to pad page count. By the climax, everything fits together, and the reader is not left feeling like there are any loose ends.

It's so tightly woven, and done in a historical context, to boot. Smith made a brilliant choice in opting to use Stalanist Russia as a place setting for a noir book. The perpetual suspicion, betrayals, murders, and conspiracies not only work within the context of the genre, but really did happen! I can't speak for the historical accuracy of the novel, but from what I know of the time period, it seems right to me.

About the only thing the book lacks to be a true noir tale is a faithless woman. Leo's wife is the main female character, and her only perceived faithlessness is disagreement with the way the government operated. For Leo, however, that's almost enough, given his devotion to the cause.

I absolutely love the way that Smith uses his setting to drive the book. Obstacles don't have to be made up to thwart Leo--Russia's bureaucracy does it naturally. The idea of lying or moving blame is so second nature to everyone in the novel that Smith can do whatever he likes with the characters and it is completely believable in context. A bit part of what makes this book so good is Smith's manipulation of circumstances.

Despite moving at a rapid pace, Smith makes sure you understand the settings he moves Leo and the other characters through. You know what it's like to live on a rail line in Russia or to have better accommodations because of State connections. We even see the horrible side of things, as the Soviet use of torture is not avoided or sidestepped. (Let this be a notice to the more squeamish among you.)

Though the murder mystery and suspense of Leo's flight are the biggest parts of the book, there are other concepts as well. Leo sees first-hand the way that the system he's trusted for so long can betray the very people it's meant to protect. By the end of the book, Leo understands that so much of his life, from the personal to the professional, is a lie. But in order to survive (another key theme), he has to accept this dualism. To a certain degree, don't we all?

Layered and intricate, Child 44 is one of the best books I've read. If you like historical fiction, mysteries, or suspense, you owe it to yourself to check it out. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Teaching Books: Bridging the Literacy Achievement Gap Grades 4-12 edited by Dorothy S. Strickland and Donna E. Alvermann

[I'm not going to try to review the books I'm reading as part of my transition to becoming an educator. However, I do want to at least do summaries, both for myself and if anyone's interested. Consider these mini-reviews, if you will.]

This book presents a series of articles by a large variety of authors addressing what is called the achievement gap. The first section discusses the idea of the achievement gap and what it means to education. Next is a section showing how various districts attacked the achievement gap and the progress they made.

That latter section is by far the most interesting, showing concrete examples from "failing" schools and the ways in which they overcame issues ranging from funding to violence to teacher indifference.

Almost every case study stressed that doing things as they'd always been done cannot be accepted. They also were frank about what worked and what didn't. Often, plans had to be changed after they did not work as expected. A lot of times, the first thing that had to change was the culture. Once new ideas were accepted, change happened.

Most interesting to me was the idea that in the cases that seemed to work the best, plenty of time was given to make the necessary changes. Success was not expected in year one, two, or even three, nor was failure condemned. The key was working on things, tweaking them, and reaching a goal within a set period of time.

Somewhat more dense and academic than it needed to be, but the content definitely makes up for it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Teaching Books: Stupidity and Tears by Herbert Kohl

[I'm not going to try to review the books I'm reading as part of my transition to becoming an educator. However, I do want to at least do summaries, both for myself and if anyone's interested. Consider these mini-reviews, if you will.]

A series of five mostly theoretical essays about the difficulties Kohl sees for teachers who want to break outside the mold of standard education, particularly in the school districts with severe problems in the achievement gap.

Mr. Kohl makes no secret of his political leanings, which is very refreshing, as most non-fiction writers tend to bury that part of themselves. He is a educational thinker on the far left, and his ideas about what should go on in the classroom reflect this.

The book brings up a lot of questions, but is very short on answers. He talks about teachers wanting to quit rather than work under new guidelines and laments the loss of talented, caring people. However, there are no suggestions for how to solve this problem.

Another section offers questions to consider when teaching students today, but again, does not offer guidance on how to approach these questions.

Essay Four, about how talking in the classroom is more than just words, comes closest to offering advice. Kohl cautions that what might be appropriate in a college setting will not work in a classroom. He urges teachers to set a level of trust and understanding, so that learning can begin to happen. Kohl also notes that students are listening far more often than one might think.

Overall, this is a book designed to bring up issues in the classroom and get people thinking about how they might address them. It is a call to action, but what actions to take are only vaguely hinted at.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Teaching Books: Letters to a Young Teacher by Jonathan Kozol

[I'm not going to try to review the books I'm reading as part of my transition to becoming an educator. However, I do want to at least do summaries, both for myself and if anyone's interested. Consider these mini-reviews, if you will.]

Long-time education writer Kozol returns to the archaic practice of using letters as a narrative structure for this book. Like C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, these missives are directed at one person, but really are written to the wide audience Kozol hopes to reach.

In this case, the subject of the letters is a teacher called "Francesca," who is apparently a real person fictionalized to keep her safe from any repercussions. She also incorporates some other points about teaching that Kozol wishes to express to anyone who is starting on their teaching career.

While Francesca is nearly perfect in these letters (Kozol admits in the afterward that he did not focus on her struggles but instead praised her achievements--a teaching technique within a book about teaching, I'm sure), there is a lot of discussion about things that the author feels are not perfect about the education system.

For instance, Kozol praises his model teacher for allowing students the time to experience wonder, but decries the reliance on testing that can put a student on the failure track as early as kindergarten. He has strong words about this, as well as the idea of corporatizing education. Francesca resists these urges and Kozol praises her for this.

Kozol also dislikes the jargonizing of education training, school vouchers, and argues that the American education system is almost as segregated now as it was before Brown. (He even goes so far as to say that the current funding system does not even meet the separate but equal requirements of Plessey v. Ferguson!)

The book features a lot of Kozol arguing against what he dislikes, mixed with stories of what Francesca is doing to combat these issues and his own struggles as a young teacher in the Boston system. However, he also stresses the positives, such as taking the time to get to know the parents of your students, even advocating home visits where possible.

He advocates listening to children and letting them learn, using testing as an opportunity to grow their knowledge, not just a way to ensure scores are meeting political metrics. His final words are to remind teachers that sometimes, they must get political for the sake of their students.