Feel-Bad Education

Feel-Bad Education And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling by Alfie Kohn

Kohn takes self-evident facts of human psychology and applies them to education, pointing out how conventional schooling goes against obvious principles like “Students are more likely to learn what they find interesting.” I appreciated how he defines progressive education and explains why it’s so rare; this concept is something you often hear about in education circles, but one that I have never personally seen in practice. Some people might find Kohn kind of extreme: not only does he oppose standardized testing of any kind, he’s even against all forms of number and letter grades. But even though he argues for ideas that most would consider radical, he always traces them back to principles that most people would agree with, and thoroughly and persuasively explains his position. His work is very well-researched and based on evidence, as well as on his progressive views on the purpose of education.

 

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The Teacher Wars

The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein

Often, in debating education issues, people talk about getting things back to the way they were in some golden age. But a careful look at the history shows that there were problems of some kind at every point in the past; there was no golden age, no perfect time that we need to return to. If anything, a broader perspective shows how much better things are now than even in the recent past. Still, it’s useful to know how we got where we are, especially when the mud starts slinging.

Goldstein goes back to the beginning of American education to illuminate how the teaching profession has changed over the years. I particularly appreciated learning about how teaching became a female-dominated profession: women teachers were pitched as a chance to save money on salaries. The missionary zeal of these pioneering young women is compared aptly to that of college graduates who join Teach For America today. I was fascinated by the stories of school integration and teachers’ strikes.

It becomes clear in this longer view that there is no one party or group that has always had the moral high ground in debates on education. At various times and places teachers’ unions have fought for both what I would consider ‘the good side’ and ‘the bad side,’ while concepts like local control have been used for good and for evil–to resist both charter schools and racial integration, for example.

I agreed with the majority of Goldstein’s concluding recommendations, especially improving teacher pay, using tests appropriately, and giving teachers time to collaborate and observe each other. I am more sanguine about teachers’ unions than she is, but that’s probably because I have had a positive personal experience with mine, while she has reported and written about cases where unions were in the wrong. Even so, a sympathetic, well-researched book like this can only improve teachers’ working conditions and professional standing, so even though she argues for ending “outdated” union protections, it’s a net positive for teachers.

Into the Water

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins

This engrossing thriller from the author of The Girl on the Train is about a body of water with a history of dead women. The related deaths of three women in the same “drowning pool” over thirty years are investigated, the truth finally revealed–suicide or murder? The most recent victim is Nel Abbot, a photographer who was researching the various women who died in the drowning pool over the years. Her theory was that the pool was a place for disposing of “troublesome women.” There are several narrators–Nel’s teenage daughter, her estranged sister, the detectives, the mother and brother of a recent suicide. The final twist is worth it.

Hausfrau

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

I will remember this book for a long time. It’s a chilling tragedy about infidelity that seemed a little like an update of Anna Karenina. This Anna’s tragic flaw is passivity. The setting is Zurich, Switzerland, where Anna, an American has never felt at home. The close third person narration switched frequently between present and past, with other short scenes that made thematic statements or puns interspersed. There was a lot of wordplay, especially with Anna’s German lessons, and her appointments with a Jungian psychoanalyst. It was absolutely heartbreaking and hard to read at times. Very intense. I needed some recovery time from this one, and not just for the ending, for almost every time I had to put it down.

Lord of Shadows

Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare

In this continuation of the Dark Artifices series, the Shadowhunters of the Los Angeles Institute go into Faerie to save a friend from execution, then search for the Black Volume of the Dead, which is in the hands of a recently resurrected woman with a grudge. Then they are pursued by legendary deathless faerie warriors and astonishingly kill one of them. The heart of the story is the forbidden love between Julian and Emma, parabatai with a magic bond that is supposed to stay strictly platonic. The angst in this installment comes from Emma trying to deny that love to Julian, while he pines. Their climactic scene is some of Clare’s most intense and sexy writing yet. The relationships of Julian’s siblings, and their new friend Kit Herondale also develop. Julian’s ruthlessness in protecting his family is revealed. 

I was particularly pleased by the political turn that the story took in this volume, making it seem more timely than Clare could have anticipated when she was writing the book a year or two ago. At the end of the Mortal War, covered in the Mortal Instruments series, the Shadowhunters declared the Cold Peace, which penalized and stigmatized the Faeries. Here’s an astute description of the effects of that agreement, very applicable to today’s political climate: “When a decision like that is made by a government, it emboldens those who are already prejudiced to speak their deepest thoughts of hate. They assume they are simply brave enough to say what everyone really thinks” (105). In this book, a group of young bigots calling themselves the Cohort is making a power play, and Julian and his friends are hoping to stop them.

Life and Death

Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined by Stephenie Meyer

So for the 10th anniversary of Twilight’s publication a couple years ago, Stephenie Meyer published a gender-switched version of the story. I think the point was to address her critics who say the story is sexist and stereotyped. Like, “See, it’s not sexist, because you can totally switch the protagonists’ sexes and it still works!”

Except it doesn’t.

When you change Bella Swan to Beaufort, and Edward Cullen to Edythe, it only draws attention to how gender-stereotyped the original characters are, because they are so much less believable as the opposite gender. I think it would be theoretically possible for believable characters to do and say some of the things Beau and Edythe do, but not the way they’re presented here. Making Bella into Beau without adding any more work in characterization only draws attention to the vacuum at the core of this character, perhaps because we’re less used to reading flat male protagonists than flat female protagonists. The reason Bella has no substance is so that she can better serve as a vehicle for her female audience’s wish fulfillment. Female readers are used to identifying with male characters, even in romances, but not with vacuous male characters meant to be their stand-in for masturbatory fantasy.

Ironically, one of the passages marking the gender change makes Beau significantly more secure and confident than Bella. His masculinity isn’t threatened by Edythe’s strength.

I wondered if it was supposed to bother me that she was so much stronger than I was, but I hadn’t been insecure about things like that for a long time. Ever since I’d outgrown my bullies, I’d been fairly well satisfied. Sure, I’d like to be coordinated, but it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t good at sports. I didn’t have time for them anyway, and they’d always seemed a little childish. Why get so worked up about a bunch of people chasing a ball around? I was strong enough that I could make people leave me alone, and that was all I wanted.

So, this small girl was stronger than I was. A lot. But I was willing to bet she was stronger than everyone else I knew, kids and adults alike. She could take Swarzenegger in his prime. I couldn’t compete with that, and I didn’t need to. She was special.

Because its language is so bad, Twilight is not usually the kind of book I re-read . Putting aside the merits of the story, or lack thereof, the sentences are plodding, exaggerated, and repetitive. Though I admit the wish fulfillment aspect of the story took me in pretty strongly on my first reading, I still remember being incredibly irritated by the flowery way Edward was described, and the unrealistic social scene at Forks High School. You would think Meyer would try to improve on this aspect of the story, given the chance to re-write it, but maybe she just doesn’t have the skill, or the material brings the language down to this level.

There are very few changes to the story, though I would think that for an author, making changes would be half the appeal of a retelling. The car accident happens exactly the same way. The science classes do the exact same experiments. Most of the dialogue is copied word for word. I would advise no one to read this rewrite unless they have a burning desire to re-read Twilight itself, the experience is so similar, with so few new insights delivered by the gimmick of the gender-switch.

I found so many of the choices Meyer made in this rewrite odd. She gender-switches almost all the characters, including making the school secretary and nurse men. In my 12 years as a student and 8 years as a teacher I have never once run into a male secretary or nurse in a school. That’s just not realistic. Choices like that take you out of the story and draw attention to the gender-flipping. At the same time, she leaves Beaufort’s parents the same, and they certainly have a much more strongly gendered impact on the story than minor characters like Mr. Cope.

Spoiler alert! The ending is one big change. I assume since Meyer wasn’t going to rewrite the whole series, and since making the human character male meant there wasn’t going to be any vampire baby anyway, it made some sense to change Beau into a vampire at the end. One odd part of this ending is that there is a lot of superfluous information inserted there, parts of the larger world that Meyer built that fit in New Moon and Eclipse, but had no place in Twilight. Another part is that the epilogue just goes on for way too long, and doesn’t have enough kissing. Jules Black, the female Jacob, kind of gets the shaft here. She doesn’t appear in person in the way-less-dramatic-than-it’s-trying-to-be vampire/werewolf confrontation scene, and the gender-switching has prevented her soulmate from being born, so I guess she’s going to die alone, but hey, at least Beau told her mom that he wants to be her friend.

Midnight Sun, Meyer’s unfinished, unpublished novel that tells the story of Twilight from Edward’s point of view, might have been more a interesting text to gender-switch. It’s the same problematic story, but Edward’s voice is stronger, and he’s a much more conflicted, complicated character than Bella. Allowing female readers to identify with a strong, immortal female vampire as she falls in love might have allowed them to feel powerful and bad ass.Twilight is all about wish fulfillment; a gender-switched Midnight Sun might have given female readers a chance to experience an even more subversive fantasy–a relationship where she’s in control and worshiped for it. But, again, I don’t think Meyer was ever doing anything revolutionary with gender roles. And this book is proof.

All Grown Up

All Grown Up by Jessi Attenberg

This novel reads like a bunch of linked short stories with the same narrator, Andrea Bern, a single graphic designer living in New York. Her voice is cynical and hip, but also vulnerable and searching. I was hooked by the first story, the only one told in second person, a claustrophobic meditation on artistic frustration and thwarted ambition. One organizing principle of the book seems to be that each chapter/story is about a different relationship or person in the protagonist’s life. Dysfunctional and doomed relationships, frustrated artistic ambitions, a family heartbroken by the impending death of her young niece. I didn’t relate much to the terrible romantic relationships, though they were fascinating to read about. I wish Attenberg had explored Andrea’s failure as an artist more. The thought of her terminally ill niece hangs ominously over it all, kept away because of her own fear of approaching this deep sadness. The ending is open to interpretation in a way that’s a little frustrating, but also hopeful and depressing at the same time. It’s a short, very engrossing and perceptive novel that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.