Daniel Deronda

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot

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This is a really, really long book. I picked it up because I liked Middlemarch, and I think most people who liked Middlemarch would like it too. The beginning was a little hard to get into, as a long flashback confused me initially about the order of events. But once I got to know Gwendolyn, especially the cheeky, haughty thing she is in the beginning of the book’s chronology, I was hooked. I’m still not sure what to think of the education she receives in the book. In a way she’s broken down, and there’s surely an argument to be made that she loses the thing that attracted me to her–the fact that she had a mind of her own. According to the book’s strict morality, she is improved, and she and her family are materially more secure, but her spark seems to be gone, and she’s kind of submitted to male authority, even if it’s just Daniel gently speaking as her conscience.

The one part of the book that I found boring and sentimental and annoying was the character of perfect, meek Mirah, her saintly brother, and the Jewish community in general. I’m sure it’s very progressive for the time to portray Jewish characters in a positive way, but I found them sentimentalized, idealized, and unrealistic. But considering the ending, I can see why that material kind of has to be in there, and sentiment is kind of a general hazard of lots of books of this time period.

There’s also an extended gambling metaphor, lots of business with jewelry, paintings, and singing, and a long-lost mother resurfacing near the end (she might have been the most fascinating character in the whole book). This is one story that might actually be improved by adaptation to screen, assuming it’s a lengthy, faithful adaptation like the ones the BBC usually does. I’m going to try to find it and watch it. I love costume dramas.

Books on Teaching, part 2

Here are two books I’ve read recently that are written for teachers about improving their classroom practice. My favorite things about these books are their titles, and for once they actually live up to them.

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Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn R. Jackson

The title of this book comes from something I’ve seen and done many times–a teacher working really hard in front of a passive group of students–working so hard she’s actually doing stuff they should be doing, like answering her own questions, and voicing all sides of a discussion. A lot of this book’s info is stuff I learned in my MAT classes–begin with the end in mind, zone of proximal development–but it’s the kind of stuff that’s good to hear again in a new way. I liked that Jackson is so reasonable in her expectations of what teachers will be able to actually accomplish. For example, she acknowledges that you can’t teach every standard, so she gives you a principle to help you pick which ones to teach and which ones to skip. Her advice is grounded in the reality of a teacher’s classroom experience and she acknowledges at every turn how hard this job is.

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Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom by Daniel T. Willingham

Again, the title of this book was tailored to appeal to me. I’ve joked that the reason I became a teacher is because I like school, am good at it, and never wanted to leave it. Even 7 years in, it’s honestly a little baffling for me when students don’t feel the same. This book is organized around questions teachers might ask about classroom challenges that psychologists can answer. The title question is also one answered in Thinking, Fast and Slow: the brain isn’t made for deep, abstract thinking, but for doing minimal work with minimal effort. Willingham focuses a teacher’s attention on whether or not the specific actions they’re asking students to do will help them build skills and remember facts or not, pointing out that “dog and pony shows” are often counterproductive (no matter how much principals may like them). He also gives a few concrete strategies, like storytelling and building background knowledge.

I loved the way this book debunked several myths about the brain and education that create more work for teachers without enhancing student learning, especially the idea of multiple intelligences, and the idea that students need to learn to “think like scientists” and other experts.

Best of 2016

There is general agreement that 2016 has been a terrible year for the world in many ways. I’ve written a little about why it was hard in my personal life. But books are always my escape from that hard stuff, the personal and the political, and even in a bad year, there are good books. Here are a few of my favorite books I’ve read this year.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

 

Mereader: Year Five in Review

2016 was a tough year for the world, and in a smaller way, for me personally. I’m relieved that it is over. Here’s what I did on the blog this year.

I was published in the LA Review of Books!

I had a baby and took a break from the blog

I spoke at the school board and shared some links about education issues

I wondered why writing can be so hard for mothers

I attended the Southern Festival of Books (with my baby)

After the election, I resolved to get involved

In all, I read 122 books, reviewed 35 of them, and wrote 4 essays, for a total of 36 blog posts in 2016. Tomorrow I’ll post a list of my favorite books of the year.

Internet Roundup: Education Part 7

Betsy DeVos, who Trump has announced he will nominate to be Secretary of Education, is like many of his cabinet picks, a fox put in charge of the henhouse, vowing to destroy the institution he has chosen to entrust her with. If Detroit’s terrible decentralized all-charter school system is any indication of what she intends to do with the rest of the country’s schools, we are all in trouble.

DeVos and those who agree with her about educational issues talk a lot about “school choice,” which is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but does not work as advertised. The logic of free markets does not apply to education for a few reasons. First, education is not a consumer product, it is a public good and a human right. Second, all parents are not necessarily able to act as “informed consumers” where schools are concerned, and are constrained in their choices by geography, transportation, and a lack of time to research different schools. Third, allowing companies to profit from education incentivizes them to spend as little money on educating students as possible, so that they can keep more for themselves. Fourth, “choice” does not guarantee quality. It doesn’t mean “pick any school in the world.” It usually means “pick one of the two terrible schools in your neighborhood.”

Here are a few articles that fully explain the folly of charter schools, vouchers, other “school choice” policies, and debunk the arguments behind them.

“The Problem with Choice” by Pauline Hawkins

The Essential Selfishness of School Choice” by Steven Singer

“Why Is ‘The Decimation of Public Schools’ a Bad Thing?” by Nathan J. Robinson

If school choice isn’t the answer, what is? This article discusses in a very comprehensive way the concrete reforms and changes in education that would actually work. The author is a Texas legislator who visited all 55 of the schools in his district and conducted many interviews. Time, stability, resources, support staff, wraparound services: it’s really common sense, but also expensive.

What They Said: What I Learned from Conversations with Texas Educators” by Diego Bernal

Reading the Election

Sometimes when an issue is preoccupying me, I see it everywhere. Almost everything I’ve read in the past month or two, I’ve read in light of the election. I’m looking for explanations, solutions, and sometimes just escape. Here are some books that feel especially relevant right now.

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Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray

This book describes how Americans have isolated themselves from each other, based mostly on class and politics. He focuses a lot on coastal elites who live in a few “super ZIPs,” ZIP codes populated by the wealthy, many of whom also attended the same schools and work in the same industries, and who have a disproportionate influence on national policy and culture. His analysis seems extra important as a way of understanding the difference between urban and rural voters and what it would take to overcome these differences. Murray is pretty conservative, so some of the points he uses his data to make are definitely determined by his ideology. It’s also just interesting to think about the cultural touchstones that make up these different American subcultures. Here is a quiz you can take to see if you live in a bubble or not.  I scored 45, which puts me pretty solidly in the middle of the middle.

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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum

This book makes a passionate argument for why broad education in the liberal arts widens our perspectives in ways that seem needed today more than ever. Putting aside the intrinsic values of the arts and humanities for improving individuals’ lives, she focuses on how the widespread study of literature, history, and philosophy creates a population capable of sustaining democratic institutions. The lack of this kind of education is probably why we are in the situation we’re in. I found a further explanation for our current predicament in her examination of child psychology, especially her discussion of the narcissism of children and their shame in their essential helplessness. Nussbaum’s prescription is for critical thinking taught by Socratic pedagogy, and lessons on empathy and compassion toward those who are different or far away, using the arts and play. In this way, we can overcome narrow us/them thinking, learn to identify with others, and become educated for global citizenship.

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The Taming of the Queen by Phillipa Gregory

This historical novel is told from the point of view of Katherine Parr, the sixth and last queen of King Henry VIII. The parallels with Trump should be obvious here. The narcissism, the womanizing, the tantrums, the physical grossness. Henry’s policies are incoherent because he changes his mind so frequently, and purposely plays his advisers off each other. Katherine lives in fear as she watches Henry’s behavior toward her change and fall into the pattern of the way he acted toward Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard before he had them beheaded.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

This book is told from the point of view of several immigrants from Central America. The main narrative is about a romance between high school age kids, one of whom is mentally handicapped because of a severe brain injury. It’s touching to see how the close-knit community of immigrants helps each other adjust and survive, and heartbreaking to watch them struggle with the language barrier and with bullying and intimidation. I wonder how much more uncertain and scary the characters’ lives would have been if it were set in 2017. Novels help us to empathize with people who are different from us and to see them as three-dimensional and fully human. If there were one book that I could make every Trump voter read, this just might be it.

A Little Life

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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This book needs just about every single kind of trigger warning that exists: abuse, sexual abuse, rape, child trafficking, domestic violence, sexual humiliation, self-harm, eating disorders, suicide. The violence is unending and detailed, so physically graphic and psychologically damaging that at times it seemed almost fetishized.

The beginning of the book didn’t grab my interest immediately. It seemed like a bunch of whiny bohemian men, and I wasn’t looking forward to hundreds of pages of that. I wasn’t hooked until almost 100 pages in, when the narrative turned to Jude, the main character, and his past. Jude is the one character who experiences all of those forms of violence, most of them in childhood. But through luck, the help of friends, and deep, deep repression, he goes on to lead a remarkable, even a charmed life: he becomes a lawyer in New York surrounded by successful artists and actors, traveling widely. However, he is deeply scarred by his trauma and the painful chronic medical conditions it has caused. His pathological need for privacy and refusal to accept help and to talk about his past are understandable, but frustrating. The most disturbing part of it is probably the way it gets inside his severely traumatized mind and shows the effect on his self-image. His self-hating ruminations are painful to read.

The heart of the book, though, seemed to be the friendships that make Jude’s difficult life worthwhile, the deep gratitude he feels for simple pleasures despite his past. It will be hard to forget because of the graphic violence, but also because of that touching, quiet humility and surprising optimism. The ending is not really happy, but I think it is realistic.