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Fri, Jun. 30th, 2017, 07:12 am
nonfiction: Al Franken, VW, military science, child violence, Patricia Lockwood, teaching poor kids

Al Franken, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate: Wry account of how Franken became, and remains, a Senator, with enough humor to carry you through despite the fact that he wrote it after the 2016 election, and thus there’s a lot of grimness to the humor. Also, it’s hilarious how much everyone hates Ted Cruz. 

Jack Ewing, Faster, Higher, Farther: The Volkswagen Scandal: Basically a company history framed by the emissions cheating scandal. As one of Germany’s preeminent manufacturers, Volkswagen enjoyed official support (indeed, mandatory government involvement in governance through voting power, until that was ruled to interfere with the operation of the Common Market) and didn’t have too much in the way of internal controls to stop demands for greater performance from overriding regulatory barriers. It’s a classic story: boy works at family company, boy gets in charge of family company, boy terrorizes subordinates until they decide that keeping him happy is more important than obeying the law. 

Mary Roach, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War: With her usual morbid humor, Roach investigates various military science issues, such as how to make a fabric that is both bomb-resistant and actually wearable, and how to protect soldiers against blasts from IEDs embedded in a roadway. Her specialty is the gross but intriguing, like the unique kind of fat that is found in a human heel and nowhere else in the body, the removal of which makes walking excruciatingly painful.

Brian D. Johnson & Laurie D. Berdahl, Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression: I’m not sure the people who really need to read this will do so (e.g., parents who spank), but it sure frightened me with its numbers of kids who are hurt (and who hurt) in the US every year. Here’s one of the many numbers: “Between 1955 and 2005, the number of psychiatric beds in the United States shrunk by 95%. Between 2005 and 2010, the number decreased by an additional 14% and has continued to decrease since.” That number may be bigger because of treatment improvements, but it’s still a real problem. I suspect many of my readers will disagree with the authors’ assertion that it’s legitimate to monitor your kids’ online communications, at least every once in a while (quality control) or when something bad seems to be going in their lives that they won’t talk about; they say that children who won’t provide their passwords shouldn’t be allowed to use the internet or cellphones. They also think pot is dangerous in itself (it promotes violence, I guess through disinhibition) and also a gateway drug; I’m more open to arguments that taking psychoactive drugs in general constitutes playing with fire in the still-developing brain, and shouldn’t be done unless the benefits clearly outweigh the risks. Likewise, they think that downloading music and movies without paying is a gateway to “scamming and hacking.” So there’s a teeeeeny bit of alarmism, and the basic advice to have a good relationship with your kids is not all that simple, but there were some specific scripts for difficult conversations that people might find useful—and I liked that they dealt with victimization and perpetration, with discussions of how to teach boys the importance of consent and how to deal with a child who is a bully.

Patricia Lockwood, Priestdaddy: A Memoir: Lockwood is a genius with words, tossed-off observations and metaphors that make you sit up and take notice, which makes 330 pages of memoir a pretty rich buffet. Examples: she describes her flight from home to marry her husband, bundling up her “worldly possessions, which included eight androgynous sweaters; two pairs of cascading jeans; various immortal manuscripts, no longer extant; a selection of electronic music that sounded like robots making up their own religion from scratch; four hundred books I needed to live; and deodorant.” “I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, or be silent in the presence of men, I would have to do it. To have that bold dynamic of power on display in your home every day, pretending to arch over and protect you—it does something to a person. The seminarian [who lived with them during his studies] calls women ‘the tabernacle of life.’ The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds.” She focuses on her father and mother, though mostly on living with them as an adult, when she and her husband were too broke to do anything else. Her father is a Catholic priest who, as a priest who converted from being a minister in a Protestant sect, was allowed to keep his wife (by special dispensation from the Vatican). There’s a lot of pain here, surfaced most obviously in Lockwood’s discussion of pedophilic priests and the way the Catholic Church curled its protective robes around them, both in general and as individuals, but that’s only a tiny fraction of the book. I was also struck by her account of how many people around her got sick in Missouri, because of the environmental pollution. “We prayed so much, and were so determined to carry our crosses with good grace, that sometimes we took our suffering for granted. As an outsider, though, I was occasionally uneasy: why were so many of us limping, feeble, milk-white, ill?”

Christopher Emdin, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education: Emdin frames teaching black and brown kids in urban/poor environments as a matter of neoindigeneity; the book is about the encounter between the kids and well-meaning teachers (whether white or otherwise, as he discusses how he—a black man who’d come from the same environment—was socialized into thinking of the kids as deficient and opposed to the “right” way to learn). Many kids are looking for the “socioemotional stability” of a family, and can find it in school—or they can find it in a gang, which they will often think of as their family if it’s the group that values them.

I was struck by his discussion of how the kids often thought of themselves as ready to learn and on time when they were near the classroom and prepared to borrow materials from classmates if they needed to write something down or read. (I did wonder how the classmates ended up with the materials if that counted as ready to learn.)

But the broader point was about, basically, presuming good faith and lack of deficiency—understanding that there’s a culture clash and not assuming that the traditional white school culture is in the right. He responds to scholars who conclude that black kids view doing well in school as acting right by noting that they fail to consider “that teachers may perceive being black as not wanting to do well in school”—that resistance to methods may be misread as resistance to education, to everyone’s detriment but most of all to the kids’. “In a school system that positions black and brown boys as loud, abrasive, and unteachable, and that rewards black and brown girls for being submissive, teachers often give students good grades for being ‘nice and quiet’ at the expense of ensuring that they are learning.”

Emdin argues that students “who receive preferential treatment because of their performance of teacher-defined smartness become targets of ridicule by the students who refuse to perform, not because of any false notion of ‘acting white,’ but for being fake.” Those who can’t or won’t do that perform disruptiveness by exaggerating elements of themselves and their experience that teachers have chosen not to recognize. Students who perform smartness are busy performing rather than learning, while noncompliant students lose the opportunity for academic challenges by focusing on disruption.

Emdin advocates “cogens”—collaborative teaching with students, selected at first by the teacher and then by the students. Students who prepare lessons learn the material better and are empowered to interact with—even interrupt—a teacher who isn’t doing it right. Students should get credit for teaching—tests and classroom behavior shouldn’t be the only things that schools value. Indeed, not compensating students for doing classroom work like this can be more demotivating than ordinary bad grades—when students get bad grades for “not engaging in school in the ways they are expected to, there is some satisfaction that comes with knowing where one stands within the institution,” but if students engage and still fail to get recognition, the alienation may be terminal. Students should also work in pairs with complementary strengths/weaknesses, and the stronger student should get points for how much the weaker student’s scores increase. Emdin also suggests routine use of competitions like Jeopardy-style quizzes (and rap battles), which are fun and motivating and shouldn’t just be used at the end of the year for relaxation.

One really interesting point was about style: “the art of teaching the neoindigenous requires a consideration of the power of art, dress, and other dimensions of their aesthetic. Teachers often fail to understand that the bleak realities of urban youth and the drab physical spaces they are often confined to contribute to an insatiable desire to engage in, and with, artistically stimulating objects and environments.” This has implications for how the teacher should dress and decorate a classroom as well as what projects might be appropriate. “Reality pedagogy functions with the general principle that the work of raising rigor or guiding students to think more deeply is achieved through identifying phenomena that emotionally connects or motivates the student, and that the most significant emotional connections we have are to the art we consume and the most powerful and healthy emotional releases we have is through the art we create.” And yet students are expected to learn in environments hardly distinguishable from prisons (which themselves shouldn’t be soul-destroying, by the way).

In order to equip students for the expectations of the dominant culture, Emdin argues for explicitly teaching them to code-switch; uniforms and standard vocabulary/grammar are not required as long as the students can recognize which modes are important in which contexts. “To validate the codes of young people in the classroom and then fail to arm them with the tools they need to be successful across social fields is irresponsible; students must use what emerges from the enactment of their culture in schools to help navigate worlds beyond the classroom that have traditionally excluded them.” Likewise, he advocates integrating social media into the school experience, and tells a really sad story about laptops that were brought in with great fanfare, then crippled so that all they could do was play a dumb math game, then vandalized by the now demoralized and bored students, then removed because the students “couldn’t be trusted” with the equipment.

In the end, Emdin says, teachers must decide whether “to do damage to the system or to the student.”

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Sun, Jul. 2nd, 2017 01:43 pm (UTC)

Fascinating reads, especially on education - thanks!

Sun, Jul. 2nd, 2017 01:48 pm (UTC)

I'm glad they're of interest!