Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book #45

I tried to write this blurb last night on my new Kindle Fire, but while I could figure out how to cut the HTML code for the graphic above, the ability to paste it into Blogger is as of yet beyond me. So, back to the laptop!

I believe The Dispossessed is the first novel I've read by Ursula K. LeGuin. I've been reading her fine short fiction in the Best American Short Stories for years, and I recall reading with wonder the novella The Word for World is Forest about 30 years ago in Again, Dangerous Visions. But an early abandonment of sci-fi left her books in the lurch until recently, when Zadie Smith wrote an ecstatic appreciation of Le Guin during her too-brief tenure as book reviewer at Harper's and I ordered a few from Amazon.

The Dispossessed is a philosophical meditation on TIME and POLITICS and individual FREEDOM and the cycles of all three and how they intertwine. Shevek lives on a moon which was colonized by anarchist rebels from the planet it circles. Almost 200 years after the settlement he is a physicist isolated by his genius on this small world, and he opens channels of communication with the home planet in the hopes that he can contact its brightest minds and bring the ideals of his world to theirs. Of course the home world is a capitalist "propertarian" place, with the 1% controlling most things and the 99% living in various degrees of comfort and misery on what trickles down, while Shevek's moon is a "paradise" of mutual aid upon which everyone is obligated to work by fear of shame and nothing of beauty is really produced and your true labor is often disregarded as you sludge along in some necessary function for the benefit of all.

When Shevek gets to the home world he is incapable of completing his unifying theory of time and space. He is sickened and distracted by the lavish and sheltered life prepared for him by his hosts, and slowly realizes he is being used by them to produce a theory which will give them a technological, military, and profit advantage over others. Back home he was manipulated by bureaucrats and his ideas watered down to fit political orthodoxy; here he might unleash his theory with catastrophic consequences for the Universe.

What will Shevek do? You'll have to read to find out. Le Guin's worlds are rich and her presentation of these convoluted ideas are not at all dry. It's kind of endearing to imagine that thousands of years into the future and light-years away our descendants will still have debates across the same political spectrum.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Baltimore's Best Back Yard

Took advantage today of global warming's gift to Baltimore--60 degrees and sunny leading up to and following Xmas. I walked up to Druid Hill Park, as I often do, and though the Park is more regularly occupied now than it was when we moved to Reservoir Hill almost 5 years ago, I still often have acres to myself.

I passed by familiar statues: pockmarked marble George Washington, defiant granite and bronze William Wallace, deteriorating Colombus, and found a tiny unpaved footpath into a corner of the Park I rarely visit on foot or bike. The path meandered through a small wooded area littered with Magnum and Lifestyles wrappers--obviously a pleasant spot to bust a nut or two. I emerged somewhere southeast of the zoo, back by the fenced pond. There, on a sloping hill, was an impressive bronze bust of Wagner I'd not noticed before. An inscription announced that a Baltimore choir won first place at a singing competition in Brooklyn, and this statue was awarded to the city on their behalf.

The Park is full of such surprises: disused old fountains half-buried in the woods, abandoned and decrepit cemeteries, formerly segregated swimming pools now filled with dirt, paths and antediluvian light posts hidden away. I love it. It's the best back yard in Baltimore, and I don't have to mow or rake a goddamn thing.

Unfortunately I had no camera today; it's quite lovely despite the absence of leaves. The reservoir was an astonishing blue, like something mixed by Vermeer.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Catching Up

My first day off for holiday break and I woke early to catch up on some reading. The current issue of Cabinet has an interview with Sianne Ngai in which she says "Cuteness is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness."

I wonder what she makes of Angry Birds?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day #66

It's been two weeks since I blogged about school. I've blogged, in fact, exactly twice this entire month so far. That's because I've been at school 11 or 12 hours a day, and working my tail off on weekends, since Thanksgiving break. I'ma shoot myself soon if this keeps up!

Not really. I'm writing report cards, and at the lovey-dovey charter school it's done different. There's no grade book with an average score that I type into the BCPSS system at the end of the semester; I have to look at growth for each skill and decide on current levels of understanding, and have proof with which I can justify my grades, and I have to keep in mind learning styles and IEPs and all that other jazz. It's philosophically the way I want to do grades if I have to, but it takes a beastly long time. Humanities teachers have it particularly rough because we report on two subject areas: Social Studies and Language Arts, and we have to come up with a trimester grade for five or six different learning targets for each, and narrative comments, and a section on reading and language assessment data, and behavior comments: it takes between 30 and 45 minutes to write most of these report cards. Multiply that times 65 kids, and add in the usual planning and assessment and teaching time, and you're talking brutal long ass days.

But because I worked my tail off I have only 7 cards left to write tomorrow, and then I won't have anything to do this weekend. Next week the kids present their learning at student-led conferences, so they only have classes on Monday, and SLC prep means no planning. Tuesday I have my homeroom kifd all day to get them ready to present and then I just chill and watch the shows Wed and Thursday, with a couple planning meetings for next trimester here and there.

Writing report cards has been exhausting but also rewarding. Many of my 7th graders made vast improvements from last year to this; the hard work we did last year to teach them class routines, to work on their characters, to build intrinsic motivation, is starting to bear fruit. I wrote some rock star report cards for kids who were C students last year. I'm loving that.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Books #43 and #44

I managed in between agonizingly long bouts of at-home work and staff parties to find a few moments to polish off Mockingjay, book 3 of the Hunger Games trilogy. I finished book 2, Catching Fire, some time ago but never got around to announcing it on the web.

I like Katniss Everdeen. She's sometimes a bit thick-skulled, a bit aloof and distant, and doesn't really respond well to love. She's also dutiful and determined and independent, which offsets her flaws and makes her real. I think the fantasy hero she most resembles from my own teen reading is Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, and I can see why tweens find her appealing.

Katniss morphs over time from a desparado to a militant radical to (briefly) a sort of Ghandi, then she becomes Machiavelli and finally General Curtis Lemay. I got a bit distracted during the finish of the 3rd novel, which felt abrupt and a bit of a let-down after all the build-up, but I can see what the fuss is all about. Collins has written a book for kids which demonstrates the future of America if Grover Norquist gets his way. The next time I teach Hitler to middle grades kids I'd like them to do a novel study for connections. These might suffice!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Haint that a shame Part XIII

Things go missing in the classroom. It happens. People borrow your stuff and forget to return it. People come in your room after school when the cleaning crew has all the doors open and they rummage and occasionally take stuff. We've had a couple break-ins this year, and a couple times kids have been jacked up for crimes of opportunity. We've even had some dudes pretending to be parents roaming the school and taking cell phones out of teachers' desks.

So when I come in at 6:30 am and stuff isn't where it's supposed to be, I don't freak out. I look around, I wait a couple days, I ask questions. Usually someone borrowed the stapler I left on my desk, or my tape dispenser--it might take a while for me to get it back.

But there have been damned peculiar things going on of late. Like my floor wasn't swept because the cleaning staff said my chairs were down, when I know for a fact I had the kids put them all up during detention the previous day, and the chairs were all up when I arrived in the morning. Or my cabinets will be open but not rummaged, with perhaps a rubber ball or two out on the floor. I've spoken to the custodial staff a couple times about things like this. I've asked if kids have been in my room late at night. Sometimes the maps are pulled down and the screen put back up, or vice-versa; little things which aren't harmful, but stupid and time-consuming.

The trip to the Holocaust Museum a month back was exhausting. I got back to school at 6:30pm. I went up to my room, which I'd left at 8:30am. Everything was as I'd left it. The cleaning crew was actually in there when I dropped off some stuff. I said hey to Greg and D as they vacuumed and swept. They said hey back.

There were no students in the school. The only present adults were custodians and Mrs. P and I.

When I arrived at 6:30 the next morning, my chairs were down, my rubber balls were out of the closet and all around the room, a couple bulletin board displays had been torn down, several hallway displays had been removed and strewn along the floor, and my stapler and tape dispenser were missing again. My file cabinets were open and the classwork files were in reverse alpha order.

I went to see Sheryl, the chief custodian. I told her about being in the room the night before and then early the next morning. I said Greg or D wouldn't mess things up. I explained there were no kids in the building, and asked if one of the staff had their own children around. She said no. She scrunched up her face and kind of thought about what she was about to say. Then she just said it.

"I think there's something weird in your room," she said. "The staff don't like it in there at night. They hear things."