Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Case of Wall Street Journal Vs. To Kill a Mockinbird

The next case before the court; Wall Street Journal vs. To Kill a Mockingbird.

In this piece in last Thursday's Wall Street Journal, Allen Barra takes on the pressing journalistic task of attacking a 50 year old book. Critiquing literature considered to be sacrosanct isn't so much the job of journalists as it is of undergrad lit. majors, but let's put that aside and take the piece on its merits. The thrust of Barra's critique is that the book is juvenile because the points it makes are obvious. "There is no ambiguity in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'; at the end of the book, we know exactly what we knew at the beginning: that Atticus Finch is a good man, that Tom Robinson was an innocent victim of racism, and that lynching is bad." In contrast, Barra praises books which contain "...some quality of moral ambiguity, some potentially controversial element that keeps the book from being easily grasped or explained. One hundred years from now, critics will still be arguing about the real nature of the relationship between Tom and Huck, or why Gatsby gazed at that green light at the end of the dock across the harbor."

I teach Mockingbird, and will continue doing so despite Barra's dismissal. For one thing, I teach the book to 9th graders. Not to insult the intelligence of my students, but they are learning to read literature, and what a more experienced reader calls "moral ambiguity", a younger reader often calls "confusing". It's wonderful when a class can really get into a rip-roaring debate about why Gatzby fixated on the green light, what it symbolized, and how their interpretations changed their reading experience, but contemporary students lose interest not just in the story they are reading when faced with such ambiguities, but may also lose interest in reading literature all together. Books like "Mockingbird" give them a foundational positive reading experience which they can fall back on when they want to dismiss all literature as a waste of time; it produces a fond memory of a book they understood and enjoyed. Moreover, the book is not easy. In the first chapter, Lee uses words like "taciturn". Students may not wrestle with moral ambiguity in the book, but they do have to struggle with comprehension, so that when they understand the text they feel they've earned something, and that confidence follows them into more intellectually demanding books.

Clearly Barra isn't a teacher, and doesn't make claims about when the book might be developmentally appropriate. Instead, one gets the sense that he finds the book so lacking in value that it should be shelved all together. First of all, good luck with that. Does he think public schools can afford to buy more books? I'm sure he would dismiss that concern as more "bloodless liberal humanism [which] is sadly dated". In education, we call that reality.

But his critique is fundamentally flawed. The notion that the injustices presented in the book are too obvious ignores the way literature often works. Symbols are often obvious, but gain their power from the fact that they represent signified which can be incredibly complex. When this is done poorly, it's reductive. It can make the reader feel like solutions are simple because the symbols are transparent. But Mockingbird does nothing of the kind. When we recognize the injustice done to Tom Robinson, this does not immediately translate into justice for him. When we recognize Atticus' virtue, this does not provide him with success or happiness. This incongruity produces complex questions just as challenging and far more relevant than Gatsby's green light. Why, when we know something is unjust, can't we simply make it right? Why does virtue not produce success? Why doesn't goodness necessarily lead to happiness? If the morals of the story are easy enough for ninth graders, I would challenge any adult of any age, any level of education, or any position with any newspaper of any reputation, to provide answers to these questions that aren't replete with ambiguity.

Beyond this literary analysis question, I doubt Barra's central assumption that the ideas he dismisses as overly obvious are so straightforward to all readers. Perhaps he's unaware of some facts:

Our country, over the last decade, has repeatedly taken innocent people from their homes here in the U.S. and abroad, prevented them from having legitimate trials wherein they could prove that innocence, tortured them (using the same techniques we deemed to be torture when prosecuting those who did the same things to our solders during WWII), and in a few cases killing them. If lynching is bad, a kangaroo court producing a ridiculous verdict is bad, Tom Robinson getting shot while ostensibly escaping from jail is bad, and we all find these to be so obvious, why do we allow the terror policies of our government to remain?

During the last election some students at George Fox University (where, full disclosure, I received my Masters-in-Teaching) hung an effigy of Barack Obama from a tree. If it's obvious that lynching is bad, why didn't they know better?

In the state of California, in the next few days or weeks, a judge may allow the voters of that state to strip legally married individuals of the social contract conferred in their marriage licenses because of the voters' prejudice against them. If it's so obvious that Tom Robinson is an innocent victim of racism, and if we should teach superior literature which contains more moral ambiguity, wouldn't we assume that adults possess the skills necessary to abstract from one straight forward symbol to a similar instance of injustice?

I will concede to my dated, liberal humanist beliefs, but they aren't bloodless. In fact, it gets my blood pumping pretty fast when anyone implies that we don't need to keep on hearing lessons we've still failed to grasp.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Oregon Writing Project: What Color Are You? Poem

As I do my homework to prepare for the Summer Institute of the Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University, I thought I'd post my attempts here. I'm pretty pleased with this one. Today's prompt:

Assignment #12
What color are you? Write a poem using similes and metaphors to compare you to colors.

What Color Am I?

“The thoroughly well-informed man--that is the modern ideal. And the mind of the thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.”

-Oscar Wilde
The Picture of Dorian Gray

There is a small bookshop in my town,
Where tall shelves, eight feet high
Stand shoulder to shoulder, leaning over thin aisles
And each is nine months and two weeks pregnant with books.

Used, tattered, their spines lined from over-reading
Pages dog-eared, dust jackets missing,
Cardboard peeking through the corners of the covers
Or paperbacks, bent by back pockets
Their artwork lined and faded.

In this shop a book is hiding.
From some Paleozoic era before glossy jackets
It’s covered in fabric.
Most was once bright red, now sickly pink
But the spine was gray, is gray, shall be gray.
The pages were once white, now yellowed.

Outside, I am the colors of that book
Pale pink and yellowed-white and gray
But inside, in the darkness of the closed cover
I am monsters and romance and heroes and tragedy
Or a biography of a forgotten poet,
Or do-it-yourself carpentry projects,
Or a collection of essays on semiotics and post-modernism.
Perhaps there are full color photographs.

A cover does not know the colors of its pages
And when I think I am black and white
Symbols ordered into words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters
I fear
A rainbow of Greek and Sanskrit
Straining to describe colors that have not been named.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Michelle Kerr's "The Right Way To Assess Teachers' Performance"

A shout-out to a fellow pink-slip recipient!

Having written a bit about my support for teacher's unions here, I was intrigued to find that I agreed so much with this piece in the Washington Post by a teacher who declares herself to be "not a union fan". She lays out four plainly reasonable conditions by which teachers could be assessed using student test scores (something I argued against here). Moreover, she acknowledges that, "I suspect that my conditions will go nowhere, precisely because they are reasonable." She's right about that, too, unfortunately. Her conditions are:

(1) Teachers be assessed based on only those students with 90 percent or higher attendance.

(2) Teachers be allowed to remove disruptive students from their classroom on a day-to-day basis.

(3) Students who don't achieve "basic" proficiency in a state test be prohibited from moving forward to the next class in the progression.

(4) That teachers be assessed on student improvement, not an absolute standard -- the so-called value-added assessment.

She explains all these well, though I think the first three, at least, don't need much explanation. After reading her piece, I wonder why she doesn't like the unions, and I have to suspect that it has something to do with issues unrelated to teacher assessment, because I'm inclined to believe that the unions would be far more amenable to the use of student test scores in assessment if these conditions were met. In fact, if these conditions were set down in black and white language and enforced consistently, I would go so far as to say that unions would accept somewhat aggressive merit pay systems. Speaking only for myself, I would love to see critics of unions try to call the unions' bluff by implementing these reasonable policies. These reformers would also need to pony up the money to hire the teachers needed to teach all the remedial classes her third concession would require. They would also have to guarantee that teachers not be prevented from implementing the second by threats of dinging them in their annual reviews for kicking out disruptive students. If union-bashers would make these concessions, and unions still refused to allow student data to drive the assessment of teachers, I might side with Miss Kerr in her "not a union fan" position. But I think that's just about as likely as the possibility that these reasonable concessions will be implemented.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Oregon Writing Project: Brainstorm about Nicknames

As I do my homework to prepare for the Summer Institute of the Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University, I thought I'd post my attempts here. Today's prompt:

Brainstorm- a list of all the nicknames you’ve ever had, thinking back to childhood, camp, sports and family get-togethers. Try for a baker’s dozen or so and word process the list. Any patterns revealed? Focus on a particular nickname that you loved or hated. When you say it, where does it carry you?

Benjamin Douglas Gorman (when in trouble)
Ben Kenobi
Benedict Arnold

I’m not sure if it’s something intrinsic to my name, or to my personality, but based on the list of nicknames I can remember, it seems I don’t earn many. The story of how I shot down “Benji” as a young child has become a legend in my family; though I don’t remember the incident I have heard it recounted many times. Some older person in my mother’s congregation in a small town in Michigan called me Benji during the coffee hour one Sunday morning, and I spun on the person and shouted “Benji’s for dogs!” The nickname wasn’t used again, and I guess I decided this strategy might work for other things, because the next time I was served re-fried beans (which I hate) I shouted, “Beans are for dogs!” and wasn’t forced to eat them again. Missing from the story is the fact that my parents must have laid down the law about these outbursts at some point after that. Otherwise, I’d be going around yelling that my pet-peeves are “for dogs” and wondering why that doesn’t make them go away.

Ben Kenobi and Benedict Arnold were attempts at insults when I was in the early years of elementary school. Of course, no one really knew who Benedict Arnold was, and as a Star Wars geek I probably wasn’t properly offended by the Ben Kenobi reference, so they didn’t stick.

My favorite of the bunch was coined by my wife. Back in college, my now-wife, then-girlfriend Paige would often come over and hang out in my dorm room, where a group would gather to watch TV, eat Ramen noodles, and even occasionally do homework. I have a tendency to hover. Rather than simply sitting down, I pace when on the phone, and sometimes I prefer to stand behind the couch to watch TV. I also move quietly, especially when barefoot. Once, while watching TV, Paige looked up and found me standing behind her, watching over her shoulder. I startled her pretty badly, and she shouted that I was like a “Ninjaben”. That stuck, and she still calls me that sometimes out of nowhere.

The next on the list was an attempt at an insult which failed marvelously. While walking across the courtyard at Newberg High School, where I worked as an Ed. Assistant before becoming a teacher, a student I didn’t know shouted it at me. I think it was an attempt to make fun of me for being bald by associating me with the singer Moby, but I was instantly reminded of the kids in first grade trying to get a rise out of me by calling me Ben Kenobi, and my face lit up with delight. The student didn’t know that my first name was Ben (even the students in our classes rarely know we have first names) so his joke was more clever than he could imagine. I beamed at him and told him I liked that one, and he looked crushed. After that I used it as a password for my email for a while.

To some extent, the same thing happened with Pelón. My Spanish speakers called me that, first sheepishly, waiting to see if I’d be offended. I had to ask around to find out that it means “baldy” and is slightly derogatory, but I like the sound of it. Unlike “baldy”, the strong emphasis on the accented last syllable makes it sound like a particularly powerful title, like the nickname people might be forced to use for a mustachioed South American dictator to express feigned affection. I loved introducing myself as Pelón on parent-teacher conference nights; the parents would be shocked that their kids called me that, and when I told them that I didn’t mind it immediately made them more comfortable with me, since, despite the sound to my gringo ears, it made me less of an authority figure. After introducing myself as “Mr. Gorman, the one your kids call Pelón,” to a room full of parents, most were instantly on my side, though a few did come up to me and tell me I should not let them call me that, as it isn’t respectful enough. I’d then tell them that their particular child didn’t actually use that nickname for me, as he or she had obviously been raised better, and those parents would like me, too.

I heard my full name a lot, as a kid, when I’d misbehave. Apparently that didn’t work, because, in college, my then-girlfriend (now-wife) would use it the same way when I’d cross the line and say something tactless in public. As I do that a lot, my friends heard it all the time. One friend, Phil, confided in me that I was the only person in the whole school whose middle name he knew, for precisely that reason.

Ultimately, I suppose that makes my full name the nickname that suits me best. Ninjaben might sound cooler, Pelón might be useful, and Moby-Wan might be the most clever, but I have to concede that my full name is the one most often demanded by my words and actions. So when I inevitably cross the line and make some crass joke, feel free to scowl and hiss, “Benjamin Douglas Gorman!”

But don’t call me Benji. Benji is for dogs.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Oregon Writing Project: Song

As I do my homework to prepare for the Summer Institute of the Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University, I thought I'd post my attempts here. Today's prompt:

Song: Choose a song that has your name in it and tell the story of how it was written for you, or make up a song with your name in it.

(With apologies to Layli, Neil, Teri, Mariko, Jim, and Mari who have the misfortune to happen to be in the class for which this is written.)

How Do You Write a Song About Benjamin?

(Sung to the tune of (How Do You Solve a Problem Like) "Maria" from The Sound of Music)

The emphasis is on the first,
It has syllables three.
Try to find it in lyrics on Google,
And you will quickly see
No one writes songs about Benjamin.
I guess it will have to be me.
I have a feeling this will come out badly!

It doesn’t sound like English.
We don’t mix our “n” and “j”.
Try to think of some examples
You’ll ponder it all day
Shoe-horning it into a chorus?
I don’t think there’s a way.
I have a feeling this will come out badly!

I’m not trying to be cynical.
My detachment is clinical… oh!

How do you write a song about Benjamin?
The name doesn’t fit in any rhyme.
How do you write a song about Benjamin?
And who would think that it was worth the time?

Many a name you know would fit in better.
Many a name could fit into a song.
Try Layli or Neil or Teri
Mariko or Jim or Mari
But Benjamin will always come out wrong.

How do you write a song about Benjamin?
This Sound of Music rip-off is so long!

And the man with such a name?
He is not the one to blame.
Nor are his parents who thought for the best
But their son takes on this job
And comes off like a snob
He’s a show-off, and a braggart, and a pest.

He knows what folks will think
It makes him want to drink
When he thinks of the way this song will bore us.
But he likes this prompt a day
His wife says, “No F---ing way.”
She thinks he’s crazy. Oh no! Not the chorus!

How do you write a song about Benjamin?
The name doesn’t fit in any rhyme.
How do you write a song about Benjamin?
And who would think that it was worth the time?

Many a name you know would fit in better.
Many a name could fit into a song.
Try Layli or Neil or Teri
Mariko or Jim or Mari
But Benjamin will always come out wrong.

How do you write a song about Benjamin?
This Sound of Music rip-off is so long!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Oregon Writing Project: One Sentence Story

As I do my homework to prepare for the Summer Institute of the Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University, I thought I'd post my attempts here. Today's prompt:

One Sentence Story: Write a one sentence story that describes who you are. Include some alliteration with your name.

In a blundered attempt to brighten the bored expressions on the faces of his bucolic students, Ben bounced lightly on the balls of his feet as he bloviated about the benefits of the best British books.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Oregon Writing Project: "I am the one who..." poem

As I do my homework to prepare for the Summer Institute of the Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University, I thought I'd post my attempts here. This one is a bit long, but I like the way it coalesces. Let me know what you think! Today's Prompt: I am the one who…: make a list that portrays the details of your likes and dislikes, idiosyncrasies and crotchets, beginning each line with “I am the one who…”

I Am the One Who Is Trying to Be Better About That

I am the guy who considers Ritz crackers and Tillamook extra sharp cheddar cheese a meal.
I am the guy who sometimes forgets to eat for two days straight.
I am the guy who drinks too much Mountain Dew and has the triglyceride count to prove it.
I am the guy who hasn’t heard a clever or original bald joke in a long time.
I am the guy who doesn’t like the way he looks, but is too lazy to work out.
I am the one who’s trying to be better about that.

I am the son who wishes my family lived closer. But not too close.
I am the husband who buys a new song and listens to it over and over until my wife hates it.
I am the husband who says he will do the dishes, forgets, and then says, “I was going to do those.”
I am the father who Noah is allowed to punch in the chest but not the face or the crotch.
I am the father who gave Noah that awesome Mohawk haircut when he was into reciting Mr. T quotes.
I am the father who cuts Noah’s hair, and always wants to cut it a little shorter around the ears.
I am the father who has cut Noah’s ear with the clippers. Twice.
I am the one who’s trying to be better about that.

I am the teacher who likes to be in front of his students more than behind his desk.
I am the teacher who likes books better than movies, but watches more movies for sheer expedience.
I am the teacher who keeps a jar of creamy peanut butter in my desk and eats a spoonful during third period to keep my energy level up.
I am the teacher who, on bad days, wonders if I should have gone to law school.
I am the teacher who shaves less and less frequently as the school year goes on.
I am the one who’s trying to be better about that.

I am the guy who actively wishes ill for douche-bags like Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck.
I am the guy who does not romanticize ages past when men beat their wives, whites lynched blacks, gays were considered mentally ill, and books had to be written by hand or typed on typewriters.
I am the guy who used to be religious and is now a reluctant agnostic who misses the certainty.
I am the guy who often can’t understand the Red State point of view.
I am the one who’s trying to be better about that.

I am the writer who tries to set aside at least one night a week to write until dawn.
I am the writer who smokes a pipe because I’m an addict and I enjoy it, not because I’m professorial, contemplative, or cerebral.
I am the writer who overwrites. Who has to add just one more idea. Which should be edited out. But isn’t.
I am the writer who posts political rants online and delude myself that somebody out there gives a rat’s ass what I think.
I am the writer who powerfully, passionately, solemnly, resolutely hates the overuse of adverbs. Especially in dialogue attribution, I might add laconically, ungrammatically, and unnecessarily.
I am the writer who writes novels but gives up on each one after only a handful of rejected query letters.
I am the one who’s trying to be better about that.

I am the guy who does not handle embarrassment well.
I am the guy who stopped feeling guilty about watching good TV shows.
I am the guy who is embarrassed to admit how much I love singing karaoke.
I am the guy who is still self conscious about the length of my pants because kids made fun of me for wearing “highwaters” one day more than twenty years ago.
I am the guy who is always wearing two clashing shades of black.
I am the guy who assumes strangers are laughing at me.
I am the guy who still imagines what my NBA career will be like, despite the fact that I’m too short, too slow, can’t jump high, can’t shoot the ball well, almost never play, and am now getting near retirement age.
I am the guy who wishes he lived in New York City, and wishes he could afford to.
I am the guy who is never happy where I am.
I am the one who’s trying to be better about that.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Oregon Writing Project: Fabulous Autobiography

As I do my homework to prepare for the Summer Institute of the Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University, I thought I'd post my attempts here. Today's Prompt: "Fabulous Autobiography: create a one paragraph autobiography of the life you could dream of living if you weren’t so busy living this life. Be imaginative and tell your untrue autobiography." I couldn't quite stick to the one paragraph limit (Surprise!). Let me know what you think:

…and, strange as it may sound, at that moment I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. “All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” He’d said that to a group of striking garbage men. In a way, that was precisely my vocation. It caused me to reflect on the life I might have lived, had I made other choices. What if I’d married my girlfriend in college, Paige, the one with the quick wit and the large brown eyes? Might we have had a child together? Would he have had her eyes, or mine? And what job might I have had? Would I, perhaps, have taken a job as a high school English teacher, and in that position taught that very quote to students somewhere, as a way to motivate them to focus on their work in the classroom and their own occupations in the future?

I shook my head. Clearly, though she looked to all the world like a woman who was merely sleeping, the creature before me was tricking me, using her powers to encourage my mind wander from my present task so she could buy precious minutes until sunset. No, the trash had to be taken out.

I carefully set the point of the wooden stake in its place on her chest. She didn’t stir as it dimpled her skin. Then I raised the mallet and struck it. The stake pierced the soft flesh, then the cartilage and bone of her sternum, then the un-beating heart. She thrashed and tried to rise up, but I held onto the stake and pushed her down. Leaning her head back, she screamed. The sound echoed off the walls of the mausoleum, bouncing through the door, across the graveyard of the small Coptic church, and up between the high crags of Eastern Anatolia, where the Pontus and Taurus mountain ranges meet. The haunting, inhuman sound reverberated off the mountains, and persisted longer than any human’s could.

“Oh, shut up,” I said, more irritated than frightened, since I’d heard that sound a hundred times before. I raised the machete to finish the job. The first cut sank all the way through her neck and stuck in the base of the coffin below, but, as is often the case when I slice a tomato in my kitchen back in London, some bit of flesh held on, and this was enough to keep her alive, allowing the nearly severed head to continue screaming. I pried the machete free, raised it again, and finished the day’s work, watching her body dissolve into dust in a matter of seconds.

As I climbed out of the mausoleum, I thought of her last gambit, her desperate attempt to hold on to her half-life, and I admit I doubted the dignity of my chosen profession.

The Oregon Writing Project: Acrostic Poem

As I do my homework to prepare for the Summer Institute of the Oregon Writing Project at Willamette University, I thought I'd post my attempts here. Our first assignments all relate to our names. Here's my first whack at an acrostic poem:

The Sound more than the History

Beginning with Hebrew
Even though I’m not Jewish
Never bothered me.
Jealous of that tradition, really.
Ancestors did wander in the desert
Millennia ago.
I feel I missed out on something
Not being counted among the Chosen.

Descending from Scotland, too.
Our ancestors wore kilts.
Undeniably ostentatious.
Guess I have to admit to some of that.
Listing my middle name here
Advertises some deep-seated need to show off,
-----though not confident enough to wear

Got here from Ireland, as well.*
Over the Atlantic with my other ancestors, the blood
Running together: ancestors traveling from
-----Poland, Romania, England, Germany, Portugal...*
Makes one think
About all the struggles and sacrifices,
-----scrambling and scratching and surviving.
Name should sound a lot stronger, but…

-----I’ve grown to fit the sound more than the history.

(Note on 6/14/10
*#1 This line read, "Got here from Ireland, too." Switched to "as well" because I just noticed I had "too" twice.
*#2 This line was edited after my Uncle Doug, for whom I received my middle name, wrote to inform me that the original line was inaccurate. It read: "Running together: Hungarian, Polish, German, English, Portuguese..." It turns out that, though some relatives came from Poland, they were not ethnically Polish, but Ashkenazi Jews. Similarly, the Hungarians referenced were not Hungarian, but also Ashkenazi Jews. Only it turns out they probably didn't live in Hungary, but in Romania. Hence the new line. Frankly, I think the line is a bit clunkier now. Before the blood ran together and made one think. I like that. Now the blood runs together (need to use the "r" after all) but it's the ancestors traveling which makes one think. Ironic that I'm sacrificing a bit of the sound of the poem to get the history correct, considering the poem's last line.)