The Not so Great American Read

Ask professional basketball fans to name the best player ever and chances are LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan would appear at the top of that list.  Meanwhile, Wilt Chamberlain, who put basketball on the map, recedes further into oblivion.  People who remember him playing are dying off; footage of him playing is usually in blurry black and white film clips.

Too often people don’t consider history before they were born.  This pitfall can be seen with PBS’s The Great American Read, an eight-part series which encourages viewers to vote for their favorite book of all time based on a pre-selected list of 100 books.

Last week in the opening episode, host Meredith Vieira informed the audience that the list was based on a survey by YouGov that accounted for “gender, ethnicity, age, and region.”

It is that pre-selected list that is problem-some.

Here are some eye-openers about the Yelp-ized list.

While 16 out of the 100 books were published before the 20th century, 18 were published in the 21st century, seven in the past nine years (one from 2016).

Many recent titles were made into movies including the Twilight and Hunger Games series.   So, did those who listed these books actually read them or did they just see the films?

The most dubious selection:  Fifty Shades of Gray.

Surely, the producers could have set some ground rules for the list such as a book has to have been published at least 50 years ago to ensure the title has lasting power.

While Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer made the list, the more adult The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn did not, though it is often referred to as the greatest American novel ever written.

One could argue that as long as people read, it doesn’t matter what the book is.  But it actually does.

If all we wanted was to get people reading, they already do that via tweets, Yahoo headlines, and Facebook posts.   However, the physical act of looking at words is not the same as reading well written books that require concentration and often re-reading, works whose authors took time to craft.

The Pew Research Center survey in January revealed that 24% of all U.S. adults did not read a book in any format in the past year.

Usually the only opportunity for people to read classic books is when a teacher assigns one for a class.  And even then, too many young people bypass the actual text for websites which provide short summaries of chapters.

On the show, many people interviewed said that a book meant something special to them because a character or situation mirrored their lives. Women gravitated towards books written by women about women.

However, one does not have to find a book that is an exact replication of one’s life in order to find it relatable.

When I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, I connected with Atticus Finch even though I was 15 years old, not a father and not from the South.  It was his moral core that resonated with me.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I was with Maya Angelou emotionally when she described the pain she felt when a dentist refused to treat her because she was black even though I am not African-American, female, and have not felt the indignities of racism.

If we all just choose to read books written by people with the same race, religion, and age, we are just like those who only watch and hear programs that espouse their own political views.

Not long ago, Angelenos participated in a Big Read of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  Such a city-wide undertaking united people in the goal of reading the one book.

And that is truly the power of a writer when you can see yourself in an Oliver Twist or a Ma Joad, a person unlike you who is human like you.

 

Call the Early Start of School as Sumfall

One of the most asked questions I get as a teacher is why does school start so early in August instead of September.

Even though the change took place several years ago, as both a parent and a teacher I still am not used to summer ending with so much of the season remaining.

When Glendale children return to school on August 10 (August 8 next year), only 54 percent of summer days will have transpired leaving 46 percent to come as part of the fall semester.

We should rename summer vacation sprummer or at least rebrand the first semester as the Sumfall term.

Educators who work summer school only get two and a half weeks off before the new year restarts.   That is not enough time to recharge one’s batteries in a field as demanding as education. The same goes for students who attend summer school; they get three weeks off.   So their summer vacation is basically the length of winter break.

The main reason why districts began the August shift is for secondary school students to finish their semester before winter break, the notion that kids having two weeks off diminishes their retention level when upon their return final exams commence shortly thereafter.

Such thinking gets canceled out, however, since for the past few years Glendale students have had the whole week of Thanksgiving off, meaning they still end up returning for only a couple of weeks of class before finals.

Meanwhile, the elementary school students don’t need to start so early since they don’t take final exams making semester breaks meaningless.

Often overlooked is how hot it is in August, and that despite most classrooms having air conditioning, children need to play and exercise outside, something that frequently gets curtailed with heat advisories.

Some states such as Florida have passed laws to push back the start of school to late August. The New York and Chicago districts, number one and three in terms of size in the country, continue opening school the second week in September.

Over the years I have found few people in favor of an early August start date so why aren’t school districts listening?

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Update on Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

As I commented last time, publishing the early version of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a mistake. Now that I have read the book, I can confirm that it was a monumental mistake.

There are parts of “Watchman” that exhibit a talented writer; however, the story is plotless and I found myself struggling through long-winded passages where essentially nothing happens. And then there’s the less than idyllic portrayal of Atticus—not the righteous father figure he epitomizes in “Mockingbird.”

What bothers me most is that by seeing how Lee originally intended to tell her story about racial issues in the South compared to the altered version two and a half years later in “Mockingbird,” it is clear that Lee’s editor in 1957 Tay Hohoff deserves much credit in reshaping the novel.

It goes to show how even in a field like writing which is viewed as the result of an individual’s work one can’t assume that the author did it alone. What “Watchman” proves is that Lee needed significant assistance.

Sales for “Watchman” have substantially slowed down since its initial release two weeks ago perhaps due to negative reviews and word of mouth.

Let’s hope this doesn’t ignite a trend of publishing early drafts of other great novels. I wouldn’t care to read a version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” where Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up still a miser, and ends with the death of Tiny Tim.

Goodbye Nurturing Elementary School, Hello Terrifying Middle School

This week I attended my youngest son’s spring dance at his elementary school.   After 12 spring dances (counting my oldest son’s tenure), this was my final one.

Recognizing the significance of this milestone, I stayed for the whole program. The transition from 5-year-olds to 11-year-olds reflected in the song selections. I watched the younger kids dance to the Jackson Five’s “A,B,C” and the fifth graders dance to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” As the kids got older, their music became newer and bolder.

The playground was packed with parents, some with the ubiquitous monopods, jockeying for position behind their child’s group of chairs to capture the memories.

I even remained for the finale where all the teachers performed a group dance. Usually by this time I’m already in my car headed toward work. But this was my last spring dance, my last elementary school event (not including the promotion ceremony), and I wanted to soak it all in.

Watching the joy on the children’s faces, I couldn’t help think about how different their academic lives will soon become.

With the end of elementary school vanishes all the support and protection and peace of mind that goes along with a small campus with comforting instructors and staff.

At middle school, the 20-minute recess gets cut in half, and the population nearly doubles.

How quickly the highly confident fifth graders will transform into terrified sixth graders as they attempt to navigate to six different classrooms, some located on opposite ends of campus, in breathless five-minute passing periods.

The one nurturing all-day teacher gives way to six one-hour teachers who hurriedly corral a fresh group into the classroom hour after hour after hour.

I have never understood why public schools long ago decided that the best thing for children right before they are about to enter puberty, the most dramatic change in their lives, is to be thrust into an environment that negates much of what they thrived in during the primary grades.

Middle school is the stage where many kids get lost educationally, some never getting back on track, struggling throughout high school.

The transition from elementary to middle school should be smoother, involving only three teachers: one in the humanities that teaches English and history, one in the math and science field, and one skilled in the arts.

Or, follow the lead of some preparatory schools by extending grammar school through the eighth grade.

Whenever I encounter a troubled student, I try to imagine him as a young child. He must have been cute once, respecting his elders, unafraid to dress in Spiderman pajamas out in public, still believing in Santa, preferring Disneyland’s Dumbo ride to Six Flags’ Goliath roller coaster.

If only we could freeze the innocence of our children, shielding them from growing up too fast.

At the conclusion of the dance, as I returned to work and walked to my classroom, a few male students passed by me spewing out filthy language about sexual acts, unconcerned that I was a teacher.   I wanted to stop and ask them, “What happened to you along the way?”

Atticus Finch tells his son Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird that “there’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you.”

I may not be able to hold back the ugliness in the world, or the shock of middle school, but I can celebrate this upcoming summer by delighting in my son’s present view of the world before it disappears.

He will never be as carefree as he was that day on the playground dancing with his fifth grade classmates, overflowing with childhood. Per the title of the American Authors song also played that day, this was the “Best Day of My Life.”

Banning Of Mice and Men is Detrimental to Education

Full disclosure: I am an English teacher, I expose my students to the best literature, I consider John Steinbeck one of America’s greatest writers, and so I teach Of Mice and Men.”

There, I’ve admitted it. If I taught in northern Idaho, however, my job might be in jeopardy for the Coeur d’Alene School District on Monday decided to recommend that the Steinbeck’s classic novella no longer be taught in classrooms, a final decision to be rendered next month.

The Associated Press reported that a member of the district’s curriculum review committee said that he “thinks the language is too ‘dark’ for ninth-graders.”   Do these people have teenagers in their homes?

When one pauses to realize the bombardment of pervasive vulgarity everywhere today, it is astonishing that any school district official in 2015 would object to Steinbeck’s language that, quite frankly, can easily be heard on daytime television. There are worse words used on the Internet and in PG-13 movies not to mention music and video games.

This is not the first time such action has happened to Of Mice and Men.”

On the American Library Association’s website is a list of dozens of school districts who have either banned the book or seriously discussed such action. Among the reasons given is that the book contains “depressing themes” and “vulgar language,” and “does not represent traditional values.”   Sounds like a description of Amazon’s TV show “Transparent.”

“Of Mice and Men” is in good company with other books which have had the threat of banishment such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild,” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”   What parent would not be proud of a child who read these books during their high school years?

It wasn’t that long ago in 2011 that here in Glendale there was initial disapproval for having Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” used as a book for advanced 11th graders. While the novel eventually earned approval, it shows that there are certain matters in society that resurface from time to time despite the common thought that such issues are no longer prevalent.   Who would have thought riots over police brutality would revisit and haunt today’s times?

The one benefit of these proposed bans is that it calls more attention to the work in question and probably does more good than harm. If I was a teenager and told not to read something, that would be the first thing I would read. Maybe we should ban art museums, operas, vegetables, and charitable work.

I’ve been to Coeur d’Alene and there is a wonderful lunch counter called Hudson’s Hamburgers that has been in continuous operation since 1907. It has withstood the test of time, and the taste of generations.   You don’t have to eat meat to recognize that there must be something worthy about the place for it to last as long as it has.

And the same view should be taken of “Of Mice and Men.” Just because one person may not like Steinbeck and might be offended with a word or two doesn’t mean it shouldn’t remain in circulation in classrooms for students to decide for themselves whether it’s worth reading or not.

Lori Wood, Interim Co-Director of the National Steinbeck Center, said that “part of the wide appeal of Steinbeck’s work is that he told the stories of ordinary people and brought their voices to life.”

Studying fine literature is akin to studying human nature. Depriving students of such an experience is detrimental to their lifetime education.