There Is No Dog

There Is No Dog by Meg Rosoff

There is No Dog

In this YA novel, God is a teenage boy who falls in love with a human girl, and his turbulent emotions trigger catastrophic natural disasters. The book’s action takes place in heaven, where God, his assistant, his mother, and her poker buddies argue over the fate of the universe, and on earth, where God courts his chosen one and floodwaters threaten to swamp an entire town.

I’ve read some books before that present an image of the cosmos that I find either fascinating and inspiring, like His Dark Materials, or confused and objectionable, like the Fallen trilogy. This book mostly fell somewhere in the middle. The idea of God as a teenager with a short attention span, wildly creative but careless, has some resonance, but doesn’t get me excited. His pursuit of his little girlfriend is creepy and stalkerish, not really romantic at all. I liked and sympathized more with Mr. B, God’s workhorse assistant, and his poor neglected pet, Eck.

The best part of the book is the surreal imagery, like when fish start swimming through the air at a crucial moment of the plot. Rosoff begins with several fun, witty, poetic passages that riff on the creation story. There’s a wry sense of humor about the more pathological characters’ actions; this really seems like the only way to present them unless it’s going to be a horror novel.

Neil Gaiman Speaks Truth

In an amazing lecture published in The Guardian, Neil Gaiman defends literature, libraries, and everything that’s good in the world:

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. …

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. …

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Deadline

Deadline by Mira Grant

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Deadline is second in the Newsflesh trilogy, which is about intrepid bloggers uncovering the conspiracy behind the zombie apocalypse. The previous book, Feed, has a sad and shocking ending, which leads to the narrator, Shaun, behaving erratically and suffering from delusions in this novel. The action is nonstop, as Shaun and his crew travel from Oakland to Portland to Memphis and back to Portland, dodging zombies and tornadoes and security forces. Things get bad and then worse, as the Second Rising rages and the information the team exposes endangers them all. A bit of romance is introduced in this sequel. There’s a great twist ending too. I recommend these books for anyone who likes zombies and suspense tinged with humor.

I’m featured on Liberating Working Moms!

I’m going back to work in 6 days, and the thought of being apart from my baby is making me feel things. And when I feel things, I write. And if it comes out halfway decent, I try to put the writing somewhere people will see it. I’m thrilled this little piece found a home on the smart and empowering blog Liberating Working Moms.

Here’s a permanent link to my article.

And here’s a clickbait pic of my baby. This is what it looks like from my perspective when he reaches for me to gnaw on my nose.

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In editing this essay, a few paragraphs got cut out, as they often do. Though what appears on Liberating Working Moms is the essay’s best, most concise form, I thought I’d share the outtakes here. These three paragraphs weren’t consecutive in the earlier draft, so that’s why they don’t flow together here at all.

He’s rolled over three times, and each time, he rolled toward me. My hands are one of his favorite toys, second only to his own toes, and apparently almost as tasty. When I change his diaper, he grabs at my elbow and hugs it to him. It’s so adorable I don’t even mind the extra minutes at the changing table.

A baby’s laugh is quite possibly the best sound in the world. Parents will do some pretty dumb stuff to hear it. I’ve never seen my husband clown so much as when he’s trying to get a giggle out of our son. He exhausts himself jumping out at him, playing peekaboo, and tickling him. I think it might be the most fun he’s ever had.

He has even learned to show his enthusiasm and appreciation for his milk. When I set him on the nursing pillow, he knows what’s coming. He moves his body rapidly in excitement, making a big open-mouthed smile and curling himself around me, clutching at my shirt, feet at my shoulder. Sometimes he’ll interrupt himself, look up at me and make some sounds, then get back to it, like he’s chiming in on our dinner conversation. When we’re done, he’ll look up at me with a lazy grin. Nursing hasn’t been easy for me. They told me it would take two weeks, maybe four, to get used to it, but my body needed two months before my oversupply regulated itself and I didn’t get painfully engorged so often, and the baby’s mouth had to grow a little for his latch to improve too. There were also days when he resisted nursing, crying at the breast to protest my fast letdown, as if I could stop it. Seeing how much my baby loves to nurse now, I’m glad I had the stubbornness to stick with it–and that’s really all it was, stubbornness–although I’m sure he’d have been fine if I’d had to give him formula.

Favorite Characters

Inspired by a recently published friend, Jillian Kuhlmann, I decided to write a post about my favorite literary characters of all time. This list is not a list of the objectively greatest characters of all time, if there is such a thing, but my personal favorites, the characters who have meant the most to me personally because of the unique way they appeal to my particular interests and personality.

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Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series is a source of hope and deep identification for bookworms and nerdy girls everywhere. She may not be the title character, but she runs the show and saves the day.

I can’t forget the original graybeard wizard, Merlin. Merlin is such an influential and mercurial character that it’s easier to pick him for a favorites list than it is to choose which version of him to include. So when I put Merlin on my list, I’m doing it in an archetypal way, including every Merlin, from Mallory to Tennyson to contemporary YA. If I had to pick, though, I find him more fascinating when seen through the eyes of young Arthur than when he’s given his own book, as in The Crystal Cave. The Merlin I know best and find most charming is T. H. White’s from The Sword in the Stone.

Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet is best described by her creator: “I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.” I feel the same, Jane.

I love the humor, wit and strategy of Lyra Belacqua from the His Dark Materials books (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). She begins the series as a ragamuffin wild child and ends it as a young woman who sacrifices love and her only talent for the good of the universe.

Quentin from The Magicians and The Magician King is not really a super admirable person, but I sympathize with him so much in his reactions of wonder to his encounters with the world of magic. I think I love this series so much because it makes a gigantic metaphor of the conflict between the real world and the worlds we escape into through literature, and dramatizes this conflict with Quentin’s life and choices. The third and final book of the trilogy is in the works.

Honorable mentions are the way to take the pain out of picking favorites. Here are mine.

Jane Eyre has the conviction to stick to her high standards, refusing to accept marriage when it is bigamous or loveless, even when it means damn near starving.

Jo March, the original bookish tomboy, making the pixie cut hot since 1868. I think of her and Professor Baer every time I share an umbrella with my husband.

Atticus Finch, upright defender of justice. Wouldn’t it be nice if judges and politicians asked themselves, “What would Atticus do?”

Three-way LotR tie: Frodo, Sam, and Gandalf. Courage, loyalty, and magic.

City of Bones

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare

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This is the first book in the Mortal Instruments series, in which an ordinary girl. Clary Fray, discovers the world of Shadowhunters and demons in her New York neighborhood. I already read the prequel series, The Infernal Devices, in which the ancestors of the current cast fights demons in steampunk Victorian London. Like that series, City of Bones is fast-paced, with action moving quickly from one exciting encounter to the next. The uncovering of the backstory of the main characters’ parents is the source of drama and mystery.

The love story, which was shaping up to be a triangle, generally seemed a bit clunky and obvious. The romantic lead, Jace, is supposed to be super hot, but I just found him petulant and annoying. I don’t understand why arrogant guys who mouth off to everyone are so often presented as the epitome of sexiness. Jerks are not attractive. It seemed a clumsy attempt to craft a Byronic hero. He is inferior in every way to Will, the hero of the Infernal Devices books. When Will acts like a jerk it’s because he feels he has to drive others away from him to keep them safe. When Jace acts like a jerk, it’s just who he is.

I also found the heroine, Clary, annoying sometimes for her self-righteousness and her tendency to run toward danger without thinking. Maybe it was the immature protagonist or the contemporary setting, but I felt this writing was less interesting and well-crafted than in the prequel series. Maybe Clare has improved since this book’s 2007 release. Maybe her writing is the kind that needs several volumes of a series to build to a satisfying ending. In that case, I look forward to the later books in the series. In the meantime, the movie adaptation seems to have been a bust; its reviews were terrible.

Internet Roundup: Education, Part 2

Yesterday I introduced a handful of random articles about education that I thought were worth sharing. But today’s three are the best I’ve read in a long time. I feel like they really get to the core of the biggest problems in schools, and I only wish the people making big decisions about education, especially the ones who have never been in charge of a classroom, would take these ideas to heart.

This article is great because it reveals the unstated assumptions behind most of the rhetoric we read and hear about education, and shows why they’re wrong.  I love the description of test-prep-driven schooling as a “hamster wheel”:

“Five Bad Education Assumptions the Media Keep Recycling” by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post

My favorite points are the ones attacking standardized testing, the international competition mentality, and the idea that students should be motivated to learn because it will get them a good job someday. This last myth, #4, is spurious for a couple reasons. First, learning should be intrinsically motivated. Second, the idea of eventual financial reward is only motivating if a student can look that far into their own future and reasonably believes they will get that reward. Very young students have no concept of adult careers, and don’t know how present effort is related to eventual success (and when they’re young is precisely when they begin to fall behind). But what’s most depressing to me is how cynical some students are about whether their hard work will ever pay off. They have never known anyone personally who succeeded in real life, so they figure there’s no point in trying too hard because they’ll be discriminated against, or be unable to afford college, or success will elude them in some other way that’s out of their control. When that’s the case, it’s totally rational and even smart for them to put in a bare minimum of effort. Sad but true.

Once you’ve debunked and rejected those myths, the question remains, what is wrong with schools and what can be done to help the situation? This article does a good job of explaining why trying to reform schools by focusing primarily on teachers is misguided:

“Poverty Is What’s Crippling Public Education in the US–Not Bad Teachers” by Anthony Cody

I don’t think many people know that the statistic about four years of good teachers in a row closing the achievement gap is based on extrapolations, not on some experiment with lucky low-income children who had four great teachers. Researchers took measurements of student growth from one year of good teaching, and projected that out to see how many years it would take to close the gap, using equations based on predicting the growth of corn, because children’s learning is exactly as predictable and regular as the cultivation of a genetically engineered crop. Policy makers are focusing on teachers because of research like this, but they’re ignoring the biggest factor, poverty.

Poverty is one main focus of Diane Ravitch, who may be my new favorite education policy person. She has a new book out, called Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. I’ve started reading the book, which is long and involved, with lots of graphs and charts and citations. I’ll review it here eventually, but no promises as to when. Ravitch has been giving great interviews to promote her book:

“Diane Ravitch: Testing and Vouchers Hurt Our Schools. Here’s What Works” by Sara Scribner for Salon

And what does work? She suggests better prenatal care, early childhood education, and health services in schools. My favorite of her common sense solutions:

The research on class size is overwhelming — kids who are struggling do better in a small class because they get more attention. A teacher can spend more time with the children who are behind and figure out what’s going wrong.

I guarantee you will never find an actual teacher who will disagree with that. And here’s more Ravitch, summing up all of our problems in education in about two sentences:

the research is very clear that family is far more important than anything that happens in the school, and when the family is economically secure and when the parents are educated and when they pay attention to what happens to their children, their children get higher test scores. When families live in poverty and their kids don’t get medical checkups, and they have eye problems, ear problems, asthma, they have lower scores.  That’s just a reality. That’s not an excuse.

Amen, Diane. This is the bottom line: our schools and our communities are reflections of each other. You can’t improve our schools without improving our communities at the same time. Any effort that focuses too narrowly on one or the other will fail. As long as our society has incredible income inequality, there will be incredible inequality in educational opportunity.

Internet roundup: Education, Part 1

I’m still on maternity leave, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped thinking about teaching and education and the problems facing our schools. I’ve read a few articles on the topic this fall and wanted to share them, along with some of my thoughts. This is part 1 of 2 posts. Today I’m presenting a few kind of random pieces and a personal rant, while tomorrow’s three arguments fit together more logically and really point to what I think is the root of the problem in education today.

These first two articles today are really kind of depressing. This first one is about how test scores are going to drop and why:

“What Big Drop in Test Scores Really Means” by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post Answer Sheet Blog

As messed-up as that situation sounds, I believe it. I’ve heard all about how scores can be and are gamed by the people who set the benchmark. My fellow teachers and I have typically heard that one reason why it takes so long for us to get our test scores back is because the powers that be need to look at the distribution of scores and determine where to draw the cut-off line, not based on the amount of knowledge and skills needed to be “proficient,” but based on how many students are “supposed to” pass and fail in order to make certain people look good and other people not so good. What scares me the most is the idea of the Common Core Standards being unreasonable and unresearched.

The second depressing article is written as a letter from a retiring high school teacher to college professors, explaining why incoming college students are not really ready for college work:

“A Warning to College Profs from a High School Teacher” by Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post Answer Sheet Blog

The criticism of the AP Government test (which I never took) and the way it emphasizes recalling a wide breadth of content knowledge over presenting that information in an organized way, to the point of creating bad writing habits, is troubling indeed. However, I doubt many college instructors really blame high school teachers for the way their students are ill-informed and under-skilled; they typically understand how little control educators have over their professional lives. They are more likely to blame the very education policies denounced here, or poverty, or busy, troubled families, or the students’ own poor work ethic.

Enough doom and gloom. I always enjoy Malcolm Gladwell, and I like this article’s emphasis on selection effects as determining the outcome of education:

“Getting In: The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions” by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker

We like to think that education is transformative, and at its best I do believe it is, but you can’t ignore the direction of causation Gladwell reveals here. He’s looking at Harvard, but the same thing is true of charter, magnet, and private schools. Kids from these schools do well because they were always the kinds of kids who were going to do well no matter what school they attended, largely because of the families they’re coming from. I also think it’s interesting how anti-Semitism shaped Harvard’s admissions policies and how they’re looking for future leaders, not just the smartest students, and the indicators they use to find them.

This next essay is about a school that did the unthinkable, especially in Texas: shut down the athletic program, and how it helped improve academics:

“The Case Against High School Sports” by Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic

Some of the numbers in this article were really sickening, like the school that spent four times as much money on cheerleading as on math instruction. I really like how Ripley discusses the ‘hidden costs’ of sports, the expenses you don’t think about but that add up, like bus travel and field upkeep. The effects on the school’s culture are probably even worse, though less quantifiable: the lowered morale of non-athletes, as well as the way games, travel, pep rallies, and practices eat into instructional time. I’ve seen all these things happen in the schools where I’ve taught and learned, and it sends a strong message to students about what the schools’ priorities are.

It’s so hard to come up with a nice way to say some of the things teachers need to communicate about their students without euphemizing the information into meaninglessness. This article discusses the results of this struggle on the level of language, which is always the first place where sense devolves into nonsense:

“You’re Not Stupid, You’re Slow” by Ben Orlin on Slate

I love Orlin’s rhetorical analysis of what teachers mean when they call kids words like slow, weak, low, struggling, and behind. It makes a great case for using language as a more precise tool to describe why students fail. Here’s a telling excerpt:

Calling all these kids low is like calling all the patients in a hospital sick—technically true, but not terribly insightful. They need individual diagnoses, individual treatment.

The problem here isn’t with our language. The problem is that teaching 100 or 150 kids each day doesn’t leave much time for heart-to-hearts with failing students. Unable to develop real insight into their academic ailments, a content-free word like low is sometimes the best that teachers can muster.

So huge class sizes and unmanageable workloads are what lead teachers to talk in this empty, ineffective way. Makes sense to me.

This essay on attention spans and the way they seem to be shrinking says a lot of things I’ve thought myself over the years.

“Attention Must Be Paid!” by Barry Schwartz on Slate

I’m willing to accept my share of the guilt for not pushing my students to learn to pay attention for longer periods of time and to longer texts. I’ve been discouraged from assigning homework and from assigning novels, and directed to stick to short stories, poems, and plays. But it’s true that without someone making students learn to focus for longer periods of time, they’ll never learn a skill that’s necessary for success in any job and in life. It’s also true that in order to teach this skill, impeccable classroom management needs to be in place, because students are sure to resist learning this lesson. Stretching the attention span hurts.

This next one is about how good teachers are quitting because they see themselves losing the freedom to do their job as they see fit. This seems especially true of older educators, who have memories of teaching with more autonomy, justifiably offended because those in power don’t trust their judgment and experience:

There is something I’d like to add about teacher attrition, something not addressed in this article, which mostly seems to address veteran teachers. This might be a tangent, and it might show my personal agenda, but I think it’s relevant, and it’s my blog, dammit. You hear a lot of statistics about how many teachers leave the profession in their first five years. Some of that is because of early burnout, sure. Some of them were probably not meant to be teachers. Some of them may be frustrated by the issues discussed in this article. But there is one thing people trying to explain why teachers quit don’t take into account to the extent they should: teaching is a female-dominated profession. The first five years of teaching usually coincide with the middle of a woman’s twenties, when she’s likely to start having babies. Teaching is not like medicine or law, where women say to themselves, “I want to finish my residency before having a child,” or “I need to make partner first.” It doesn’t have the prestige, earning potential, or career progression of those fields. Some women probably choose teaching because they are nurturing people who love children, so of course they want to have their own as soon as they can. And once they have their own kids, they may want to stay home with them if they can. It’s what my mom did; she taught 8th grade in the early 80’s before my birth. It’s what I’m sometimes tempted to do, and may still do someday, most likely when the childcare bill to salary ratio tips too far against me. That doesn’t mean that my mom or I have had any of the problems discussed in this article; it just means that we care a lot about our own kids, and that childcare is ridiculously expensive.

With this in mind, I’m convinced that the best way for a school district to keep its brightest young teachers, women and men, is to offer free, high-quality, on-site child care. Imagine how hard it would be for a teacher to leave a job that allowed her to walk down the hall to nurse her baby in person during a break, rather than hooking herself up to a machine like a cow at a factory farm. And I’m sure a young father would enjoy the chance to visit his son or daughter between classes as well. This is the best perk any district (or private school) could possibly offer, which would give them the most ‘bang for the buck’ as far as improving staff retention and quality. I’m convinced it’s only once child care is a standard benefit for all educators, or perhaps once the profession is 50/50 in terms of gender representation, that we’ll be able to really talk about problems in the profession that cause people to leave it. Until then, statistics on teacher attrition are clouded to the point of meaninglessness by women leaving the workplace to care for their families, a choice that is usually not really a choice, and one that says more about pressures on families than about the workplaces being abandoned.