Catcher in the Rye To Be Dropped from Curriculum? Puh-lease

New Common Core Standards drop classic novels in favor of “informational texts.”

The US school system will undergo some big changes within the next two years, chiefly due to a decision to remove a good deal of classic novels from the curriculum, or so the recent media reports would have you think.

The idea behind discouraging or reducing the teaching of old favorites like The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird is to make room for non-fiction “informational texts” in the curriculum. These should be approved by the Common Core Standards of each state. Suggested texts include, “Recommended Levels of Insulation by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California’s Invasive Plant Council,” among others.

Mmmm, I just love me a good read on insulation levels while I soak in the tub.

So, the idea behind this is that children who pass through such a school system will be better prepared for the workplace, their brains packed with useful, practical knowledge rather than brimming with literary fluff (my personal summation). It has the backing of the National Governors’ Association, the Council of Chief of State School Officers, and even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which partially funded the directive.

But is that estimate correct? Will reading more non-fiction in favor of fiction breed better writing, or more informed graduates? The discussion is extremely divided. One Arkansas teacher wrote in this Telegraph article,

In the end, education has to be about more than simply ensuring that kids can get a job. Isn’t it supposed to be about making well-rounded citizens?

Meanwhile, another reader weighed in for the pros of teaching more scientific texts:

I don’t understand how adding non-fiction books to reading lists REDUCES imagination.  Hard science is all about imagination–the “what ifs” of nature and the universe… I am sick of English professors acting like English Literature is the only bastion of imagination/critical thinking/culture.

When I first read that article stating that The Catcher in the Rye and other novels specifically would be gone from curriculums nation-wide, I was alarmed and frightened, though I now know it was needlessly so. The reactions of protesters are a tad hyperbolic, given that the two soporific texts I named above are found amongst a long list of alternate suggestions in various subjects, for instance Circumference: Eratosthenes and the Ancient Quest to Measure the Globe by Nicholas Nicastro, and The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston, interesting and well-written books in their own right. English Literature classes will not be barred from teaching certain classic novels, as some of the reports would have you believe, though they may have more limited time to teach them than before. Yes, the school system will be changed and possibly not for the better, but Salinger and Lee aren’t going anywhere.

All in all, the arguments for both sides make overblown assumptions: on the one, that students will miraculously be better prepared for the job market, on the other, that all imagination and creativity will be drained from impressionable young adults. So, which side do you stand on, if either? Is the teaching of informational texts merited, or best left to vocational studies? Tell us in a comment below!


Two Tales of Campus Fails

cornell

Ahh… idyllic picture of college life, mais non? Well, recently on American campuses, two not-so-wonderful events transpired.

Fail Numero Uno: Let’s begin with that bastion of  the Ivy League, Cornell University. It seems that the school’s stalwart repositories of knowledge, its libraries, have been used for some non-academic purposes, namely the filming of pornographic videos. Perhaps… the videos were an ironic take on the cinematic genre, perhaps, an homage if you will, to youth and freedom and self-expression. Perhaps it was just your standard porn featuring a young lady engaged in some solo activity and co-starring Carpenter Hall, the Engineering School’s library.

One student, who (in the pursuit of education, I am sure) watched the video before the (I assume “frantic”) campus administrators removed the link, offers this analysis:  “She’s facing a window (the one by the bike racks) and it’s broad daylight. And at one point you can see people behind her studying.”

Fail Numero Dos:  Ever accidentally hit “reply all” on an email and immediately realize you’ve spammed dozens of people? Well, imagine that to the tune of forty thousand people. That’s just what happened to NYU student Max Wiseltier, who innocently was trying to simply reply to the bursar’s office. He realized his error almost instantly and tried to do the right thing by apologizing to those who received the email meant only for the bursar. It should have ended there. But, as the campus’ newspaper reported, Max’s email “triggered a rare, University-wide revelation.” That revelation? “We simultaneously realized that any message, complaint, whim, link, video, or GIF could be sent to nearly 40,000 people in an instant.”

It didn’t take long for thousands of students to act on this delightful way to terrorize their campus. The system, unsurprisingly, soon crashed. Not long after, it was discovered that incorrect listserv software was attached to the original message, sparking what is now going down in campus legend as the “Reply-apocalypse.” Whoops.


No More Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Tracking Chips On the Rise for Junior High and High School Students

I have a child in junior high and a child in high school. Every day, both of them must wear their school-issued identification card on a lanyard around their necks at all times. The doors to their schools are locked at 8:30 a.m.  After being checked out on a video camera and buzzed in, parents and other visitors must present a driver’s license upon entering the building, and then that visitor is issued a sticker with a scanned image of their license picture and their name in bold letters.  The sticker must be worn at all times while on school grounds.

My children do not attend school in the Gaza Strip. They are in a small Texas suburb where, honestly, the biggest threat to their well-being are West Nile mosquitoes, all of which, sadly, are too tiny for State-issued sticky-IDs.

Still, it is not enough. Now in addition to their dog-collars…err.. I mean “IDs,”… soon, they, like thousands of other Texas’ kids, will be required to have their IDs “chipped,” as in microchipped with GPS tracking devices that will let administrators and, presumably, teachers, know where they are at all times.

Not surprisingly, there has been backlash. One student, Andrea Hernandez of San Antonio, Texas, just won the right to refuse to wear the embedded identification.  While Hernandez’s reasons for balking at the requirement may be unusual (she believes the tracking is “Satanic”), many parents and students also contend that the practice is invasive and in violation of their rights. It all feels a little too creepily “Big Brother-ish” to lots of dissenters.

For their part, schools are embracing the GPS IDs because increased attendance means increased funding. Additionally, they claim that students’ “rights being violated” is inapplicable since the students are under age. Moreover, there are voices on all sides, parents, teachers, administrators, and students, who argue that there should be nothing to worry about and no objections…if your student (or you) are where they (or you) are supposed to be.

What do you think? Yes to chips or no? And why?


Powering Up: Social Media and the New Classroom

Just a few years ago, when kids began having their own phones in large numbers, schools freaked out. At my daughter’s junior high, phones had to be hidden away in backpacks or lockers. Any teacher who observed a student with a phone was required to seize it. The phone was then taken to the office, and there was a $15 fine to get it out of hock.

Two years later, my son is now in the same junior high. Phones and other electronic devices are no longer pariahs; in fact, students are encouraged to bring their personal phones or iPads. Teachers can request that their students use them during all kinds of lessons, from geography to science, even English, to look up quotes or biographical information. Students can also use their phones during “passing periods” and at lunch. (I suspect there will be a lot more fund raisers this year, seeing as how the cash cow of phone seizing is no longer being milked. )

Of course, it isn’t just the fact that teachers and administrators are tired of fighting the ubiquitous phones and their larger cousins. Slowly, educators are realizing the benefits of social media. And, as those in charge learn more about the remarkable versatility of the internet, the applications are becoming an integral part of the students’ learning experience, arguably making them more engaged and interactive than ever before. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and even one of the relatively new social media sites, Pinterest, are giving education a much-needed boost.

Here are a few of the ways educators are employing the power and persuasion of social media:

Twitter:  “Teachers have been setting up subject or class Twitter accounts that students can follow. The teacher then tweets information related to their class. Some even set homework via Twitter,” reports The Guardian, in their article “Social media for schools: A guide to Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.” Twitter, as many have discovered, is also often the fastest way to find out about breaking news.

Facebook:  I have often asked my own students to post a specific status and have their friends respond. Then, the following class period, we discuss those responses. For example, I recently had them read Hal Niedzviecki’s New York Times article, “Facebook in a Crowd.” Niedzviecki wonders what would happen if he invited many of his “virtual” friends to a real life cocktail party. Of the several hundred invitations, twenty people accepted; one actually showed up. I asked my students to post as their status, “Is a virtual friend a “real” friend?” We had a lively discussion that could not have happened otherwise.

Pinterest:  Not just a place to “pin” your favorite recipes or cute cat photos. Many teachers have found great success, especially for their highly visual learners, using Pinterest’s “Tutorials.” Here, among other things, you can learn, step-by-step, how to create QR codes, or become more proficient in Photoshop, or learn how a touchscreen works.

Tumblr:  Again, a great site for students and educators. More and more companies have begun to “tumbl,” as it is a great way to find archival materials as well as current news and discussions. Some of my favorites, which I often use to prepare lectures, are the tumblrs of “The Paris Review,” Life Magazine, the New York Public Library,  NPR’s Fresh Airand, of course, eNotes

How do YOU use social media in the classroom? Whether you are a teacher or a student, we’d love to know.


Would You Tattoo for Education?

Private schools, well-known for their tolerance of the off-beat,  surely welcomed Kari Smith’s son into their fold (sarcasm). In 2005, unable to afford the pricey tuition, Kari did what…well, almost no one, I had hoped… would do. She offered her forehead as advertising space online and soon had a taker, the virtual casino “Golden Palace.com.”

Like me, you may have hoped that this was a random act of desperation but alas, it was just the beginning. While mobile marketing like wrapped cars are a frequent sight, they just aren’t able to get into tight spaces, like Wal-marts. Did I mention Ms. Smith collected a cool $10,000? That fact motivated dozens of other people to go under the tattoo gun.  If you think this sounds like a dandy idea, check out http://leaseyourbody.com. The website promises you will get “novel attention.” And for those of us who are writers, any attention, especially the “novel” kind, gives us pause.


World Class: Snapshots of Classrooms From Around the Globe

The ever-curious Brain Pickings yesterday shed light on a fascinating project, “Classroom Portraits.” Since 2004, photographer Julian Germain has captured images of classrooms the world over, progressing from his small corner of North East England to include schools from North and South America, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Collected in a new book, Germain’s photos provide unique insight into childhoods both familiar and foreign, sharing what makes schoolkids around the globe so similar, yet worlds apart.

England, Bradford, Year 7, Art

Each photograph captures the same faces we’ve all seen in the classroom growing up: you have the bored and the enrapt, the angry and the apathetic, the eager and the daydreamers. Germain captures all of these and more in his trans-global portraits.

Wales, Felindre, Reception and Years 1 & 2, Numeracy

Yet, just as these photos begin to hark back to one’s own school days, you come across a classroom like the one snapped in Yemen, below. A small room packed with serious-looking men, the only thing belying their young age the dark but faint peach fuzz atop each one’s upper lip.

Yemen, Sanaa, Secondary Year 2, English

Flipping past the slightly militaristic uniforms of a class of Peruvian 4th-graders…

Peru, Cusco, Primary Grade 4, Mathematics

to a colorfully Havanan classroom…

Havana, Cuba, Year 2, Mathematics

and a stark Nigerian one…

Nigeria, Kano, Ooron Dutse, Senior Islamic Secondary Level 2, Social Studies

you are reminded that this (I’m presuming for most of you) is not the childhood you remember.

But while the environments and languages might not be the same, it’s always easy to spot some common ground: in one image a band of sulky pubescents, in another a mob of sticky-fingered kindergartners, and in all the compulsory child with the mischievous glint in his eye, the one who is certainly up to no good at all.

England, Seaham, Reception and Year 1, Structured Play

In each photo Germain has also managed to evoke the gang-like quality found in a room full of students. He positions them with their eyes locked on the camera, staring it down as though ready to pounce at any given moment. Perhaps the one similarity we should be mindful of in every classroom is the courage it takes to stand up in front of a room of these creatures and teach them.

Cuba, Havana, Playa, Year 9, national television screening of film ‘Can Gamba’ (about Cuban participation in Angolan Revolution)

No, in all seriousness “Classroom Portraits” is a joyful reminder of the many fresh young minds out there in the world, and the importance a good education serves in shaping every one of them.

Lagos, Nigeria. Basic 7 / Junior Secondary Level 1, Mathematics

For more on the project, you can visit Germain’s website or purchase his book Classroom Portraits 2004-2012 on Amazon.


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