Category Archives: reading

An Asian Revelation

So regular school is over and I’m back teaching Asian summer school, otherwise known as Book Club/PSAT. Week 1, I had still been teaching, so I only covered the afternoon class in PSAT prep. Week 2 was the first week we had both classes, and as usual, I started out with a lecture that goes something like this:

“Anyone in here have a GPA below 3.9?”

No hands.

“Yeah. Okay, you’re sick little punks.” They laugh. No, really. “So you just wrote an essay about goals, and you all said you wanted to become better readers and writers, and I know you said that because you think that’s what I wanted to hear, even though I told you otherwise. What you really want, most of you, is an A. And that’s what your parents want, too.”

Laughs again.

“But here’s the thing: I don’t grade you. There is no A to be gotten here.”

Silence.

“So that’s what you have to consider, boys and girls, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese, and my lone Nepalese. What does it mean to do well in a class that doesn’t have grades? How do you actually become a better reader and writer?”

Silence.

“I’m waiting.”

“Um. A higher PSAT score?”

“Hahahahaha. That’s a good one. Come on. Raise your hand if you personally know someone who hates to write essays, hates to read for fun, and got over 700 on the Reading/Writing PSAT. Oh look, everyone’s got their hand up. Hell, Sonya here is in 8th grade, she took the SAT twice last year for CTY and got, what, 550? 560? on reading and writing? Without prep. (It goes without saying that Sonya’s math score was over 700.) If all you want is higher SAT scores, come back next year for boot camp.”

“But my parents want me to do something other than watch TV this summer.” from Sam.

“You have TV?”

“Well, not cable, but I have a computer and I watch hulu.”

“So really all you want is higher PSAT scores?”

“….No. I really want to do something other than play computer all day, and I get to hang out with friends. Plus….I always am close to getting a B in English.”

“I actually got a B last semester,” this from Wan “and my parents were not happy.”

“Okay. So here’s the thing. You’re still talking metrics, grades, scores. I don’t have those. So if there are no grades, no scores, how do you know if you become a better reader or thinker?”

Carmella raises her hand. “I’ll know how to write essays. Like, when I have to write an essay on social justice and To Kill a Mockingbird I’ll know what to say.”

“How?”

She starts to backtrack. “No, no, Carmella, that was a great answer. That’s a good goal. I’m asking you how you achieve it. How do you know what to say?”

Karthi: “Improve your grammar?”

“Really? Knowing correct comma placement will help you convince some annoyingly liberal English teacher that you give a crap about the damage done by segregation and white prejudice?”

“Well, at least I would get a higher grammar score on the rubric.”

“Ah, which brings up another point. What does it mean to be a better writer? Do I teach you how to make a perfect cursive Z? Lorna?”

“There’s, like, grammar and stuff, and then there’s knowing what to write.”

“True. So at least two ways of becoming a better writer. First, the actual quality of your written expression: be it grammar, vocabulary, varied sentence structure. Second…..?”

“So like how you say it and….what you say?”

“That works. Okay, so let’s take it as read that you will learn the rules of grammar and punctuation and get a higher score on that section of the rubric.”

“And will learning more vocabulary make me a better writer?”

“Sure, if you internalize the vocabulary knowledge. It’s not something you can do with a test score.”

Saba: “Yeah, but if I do better on tests I’ll have more vocabulary.”

“You will? Huh. Let’s put that aside for a minute. How do you know what to write?”

Alan: “That’s what I was going to ask! How does a better vocabulary help me know how to analyze literature?”

“It doesn’t. What do you need in order to analyze literature.”

“I need to know how to analyze, what to analyze.”

“And now we come to my favorite mantra. You are saying, Alan, that you are happy to learn how to write, but you don’t know what to write.”

“Yes!” the whole class is nodding.

“Which leads me to some terrible news. Writing is thinking.”

Silence.

“See, when you say you don’t know what to write, you are actually saying…..”

“I don’t know what to think.”

“Bingo.”

“Crap.”

“Indeed. How many of you google other essays and, please god, don’t copy them directly but take the ideas and rewrite them?” A few hands go up. “Yeah. DON’T DO THAT.”

“But I have no idea what to write.”

“Okay. So when you say you want to become a better writer, you are actually expressing the need to…”

“Become a better thinker?”

“Now, I realize I’m talking to a crew who doesn’t want an opinion per se, they just want to know what their teacher wants them to say.” Far too many nods. “But this particular teacher wants you to say what is on your mind.”

“But what if there’s nothing there?”

“Welcome to adolescence, puppy. But seriously, a big part of this class will involve you thinking. And if you don’t know what to think, then I’d rather you write articulately and carefully about why you don’t know what to think, instead of making something up.”

“And that will help my vocabulary?”

“Indirectly. But what also helps your vocabulary is thinking about words. Form opinions about words. Connections to words. Remember stories I tell you about words, phrases. Like, for example, what did I say about the word ‘dint’?”

“By dint of.”

“Which means…”

“Um, by that way of doing it, or something? So you’d say ‘by dint of working my butt off, I finished the essay on time.'”

“Okay. So memorizing vocabulary will not help you. But if you think about words, if you do the homework assignments I give you thoughtfully and google usage and spend time on the process, you will slowly form memories around the words and, over time, improve your vocabulary.”

“But that’s really slow.”

“Yeah, it is. One last thing: learning vocabulary for reading is entirely different from learning vocabulary for writing. In reading, approximations do just fine. Aggregate, monolithic, bevy all have something to do with groups. Castigate, chastise, berate, reprove, admonish all have something to do with criticize. In reading, that’s all you need to know in order to dramatically increase your comprehension of the material. But using vocabulary in writing is a whole different story. So when I assign ten sentences using vocabulary words, and you write ‘I collected a monolithic of shells’, I will not be happy. I want well-written sentences, sentences that imply the meaning of the vocabulary word chosen, and I want precision in definition.”

And they nod, and I know they didn’t understand a word I said, really, but I feel better for saying it.

So yesterday, I gave them a vocabulary quiz, which I only do to make the parents and school happy. I gave them notice, so they all studied hard. They were surreptitiously studying during class, which is insane, and it was all for nothing.

Because here was the test:

All of these phrases describe moods. Your vocabulary list contained words that accurately characterize these moods.

  1. Shocked disbelief
  2. Alert watchfulness
  3. Uncaring, uninvolved
  4. Blissful happiness
  5. Dismayed disbelief
  6. Argumentative, easily angered
  7. Cranky, whiny
  8. Sensible, wise
  9. Passionate, enthusiastic
  10. Caring, concerned

The kids get out their lists. “No lists.”

“So where’s the word bank to choose from?”

“Not giving you one.”

“It’s not multiple choice?”

“DID YOU PEOPLE LISTEN TO A WORD I SAID THREE DAYS AGO????????”

“But I…”

“What do you think I meant by THERE IS NO GRADE? This isn’t a frigging test to get an A on and then forget. You all told me you wanted a stronger vocabulary. Well, then. This test is designed to make you THINK about vocabulary, what words you learned, what words might qualify for these definitions. Write down all the words you remember studying, and their definitions, and, just to reiterate, THINK ABOUT THE WORDS and what they mean. In fact, if you know a word not on the list that describes one of those moods, that’ll do just fine.”

I can’t say they did a great job, but the kids were quite pleased that they got any at all right, and bragged about it after class.

“I figured out five!”

“Man, I only got four, but I didn’t link solicitous to concerned. I should have.”

“I can’t believe it. I studied for like three hours, but I thought it’d be multiple choice! I only got 2!”

I love these kids. I really do. But realize that, speaking broadly about a large group, Asians’ grades and test scores do not reflect their actual abilities. Still, I’m doing my best to change that, fifteen kids at a time.


Acquiring Content Knowledge without Hirsch’s Help

I don’t remember not knowing how to read. My mother tells me that she’d first thought I memorized certain Dr. Seuss stories, and it took her a while to figure out that I could read independently. I was 3.

My father’s IQ is probably less than 100, but not much. He has exceptional conversational fluency in languages; put him anywhere in the world and he’s exchanging stories with cab drivers and waiters in less than a week. He’s an equally fluent and improvisational musician. When he learns something it stays learned: he spent two hours explaining to nine-year-old me how airplanes flew and to this day, that’s the best explanation I’ve ever gotten. Ask him about any major plane crash that occurred before 2000 (the year he retired after 45 years in airline operations) and he can tell you exactly who was at fault, why, and what changes were made to reduce the risk of reoccurrence. Unlike my highly concrete father, my mother is a better abstract thinker. She mastered technology easily, moving from shorthand secretary to working with faxes and computers in the 70s and 80s,and moved up the ladder from temp secretary to executive secretary for bigwigs at a major technology company, to network support technician for her last few years when she got tired of secretarying. She has a somewhat higher IQ but none of the improvisational fluency of my dad; you can see this best in their individual approaches to cooking, at which they both excel. Dad never uses recipes, Mom rarely ventures off without a cookbook, both of them produce meals you’ll remember forever. Dad’s second wife got a college degree in her 30s and made the Dean’s list but works as a skilled technician in the same job she had before college; Mom’s second husband has two doctorates from a top ten university, spent his life in a high-octane brain job, but his real love is carpentry and gardening, which he did as a side business before and during retirement. Politically, Dad is a blue-collar Democrat, Mom a hippie-dippie liberal.

At no point did my blue-collar parents take any steps to develop my intellect, even though they were fully aware that I was at or near genius IQ. My mother refused to allow me to move up a year in school because she’d been advanced and didn’t like it. My parents could have sent me to Phillips Academy, all expenses paid; they decided not to. They saw no difference between my going one of the top public universities schools in the country and a local state college except cost, although they did think I should “major in business” (hey, it was the early 80s). I went for cost and in those days, that was a terrible call. In my twenties and thirties, I resented their decisions which seem inexplicable today. However, two master’s degrees at top-tier universities (which took up a lot of my 40s) have convinced me that the only thing I would have gotten from a better education is more amusing stories about how much trouble I caused the schools and how glad they were to get rid of me.

Anyway. Up to a few years ago, I said I was a book and TV lover. Now I know I’m just an obsessive who needs to keep a busy brain. Regardless, I consumed information reflexively as a result of keeping my brain busy. I grew up overseas with no TV, but when we came home for summers I was literally glued to the set. I watched game shows, Bonanza, Medical Center, SWAT, and Scooby Doo until age 10, when I discovered movies and stayed up late to watch whatever was on. (I discovered Star Trek reruns at 12).

TV-watching never interfered with my reading; I read 2-3 books a day (1000 WPM, clocked and reclocked), before, during, and after TV. On weekends during the year when I had no TV, I’d easily go through 5-7 books. I quickly read through the school library. No public library overseas and no English bookstores in that country, and I could only talk my parents into buying me five or six books at airport bookstores, which I ran through in a couple days. I read the back of cereal boxes and Clorox bottles, which was convenient when my baby brother appeared to have taken a swig from the jug. (Unfortunately, we lived in a place that didn’t have ready access to milk, the recommended remedy. But he survived.) My grandfather, bless his heart, used to send me a huge box of paperbacks, picked at random from the general and genre fiction section, which took me a bit longer to run through than books for kids my age—and they had far more interesting plots. So when I ran through Gramps’ gift, I turned to my parents’ books; I know everything there is to know about the works of John D. McDonald, Agatha Christie, and Dick Francis. Just ask me.

Some early reading memories:

  • The Middle Sister, age 5—odd little book, but I’ve found that many remember the plot, if not the story. One of my earliest memories of a “chapter” book; an older cousin was reading it. Most of my reading at this age were junior high basal readers that I stole from school. I hadn’t figured out I could read my parents’ books, and everything else I’d ripped through a year or more earlier, apparently.
  • The Trojan War,age 6: Not until years later did I learn that The Iliad didn’t have the Trojan Horse scene in it, but ended with Hector’s death. I found parts of the story confusing. Not the gods, I figured out what was going on, there; the gods had magical powers and subdivided areas of interest. (An agnostic from birth, best I can tell, I had no bias for or against polytheism. The Greek pantheon seemed an entirely reasonable way of explaining things. But then, I wasn’t entirely clear on the difference between God and Santa Claus.) No, what confused me was why all these battles seem to happen one at a time. What was everyone else doing while Hector was killing Patroclus or Achilles was killing Hector? How did the Greeks have time to discuss who got Achilles’ armor? Where were the Trojans while the Greeks were building the horse? I developed this confused idea of an arena, with the kings watching each scheduled battle—I must have seen a gladiator fight on TV. One thing I was clear on, though: everything was Paris’s fault.
  • King of the Wind, age 7–I am the opposite of artistic, but this image fascinated me. I read every Marguerite Henry book I could find, but I only enjoyed Justin Morgan Had a Horse and Born To Trot.
  • Madame, Will You Talk?, age 7—we were in an isolated European village, and I’d run through my dozen books. Desperate for something to occupy my brain, I picked up this romance-thriller when my mother had finished, thus meeting my earliest genre title. I didn’t quite understand the plot, which had something to do with Nazis and Jews and getting revenge for a Jew that was killed—apparently, Nazis killed Jews? I looked it up later when I got home; it may have been my first intro to WW2 and the Holocaust, although I can’t be sure. I suddenly understood a lot more of Hogan’s Heroes, though. I read Airs Above the Ground a year later, because it had a teenage boy in it and not as much love stuff. Mary Stewart, by the way, is still with us at 96. Holla!
  • David Copperfield, age 7—Suddenly Dora’s gone. David’s sad. What the hell happened to Dora? I had barely figured out what happened to Emily. Something dire with Steerforth. But where did Dora go? I had to read “Another Retrospective” three times before I realized that “Do I know, now, that my child-wife will soon leave me?” meant Dora was dying and when Agnes was sad, she’d died. Wow. Couldn’t you be more specific? I read fast, I miss things.

    Years later, I was quizzing my son on A Tale of Two Cities, which I hadn’t read, and asked him what happened to Madame Defarge. “I don’t know; she just disappears.” “Naw, that can’t be true. I’d have heard if she just disappeared.” So I leaf back through the book. “Oh, here it is. Miss Pross kills her.” “What? Miss Pross? No way? How’d I miss that?” “The bastard buried it in the middle of a paragraph, like he always does.” “That’s annoying.” “Tell me.” (My son’s ACT reading score: 36.)

  • The Black Stallion, age 7—This was the kind of stuff I was looking for when I read all those Marguerite Henry books! Unfortunately, he just kept writing about the same damn horse. But the first one is an awesome read. Still. I tried nibbling seaweed a few times, but ick.
  • Oliver Twist, age 8—I figured out that Nancy died. In fact, I think this was the first time I saw the word “corpse”. But how? He just hit her. You could die from people just hitting you? It didn’t take a gun or a knife? Or a car? Or jumping off a cliff like in Snow White?
  • The Happy Hooker, age 8 or 9—She didn’t seem very happy. But I wasn’t clear what a hooker was. When I figured out it was linked to prostitution, I looked that word up. Still not entirely clear. I had a vague idea that Nancy in Oliver Twist did something like that, but again, not happy. Hmmm.
  • The Quick Red Fox, also age 8 or 9, after The Happy Hooker—ah. Some women don’t charge, some women do. I wasn’t quite sure for what, but McDonald was actually much more informative on this point than the Hooker lady. I wasn’t sure which McGee thought was preferable, although he never seemed to pay.
  • Nerve and Enquiry, age 9—I read Dick Francis books from 1971 until 1999 or 2000; I think the last one I read was To The Hilt. I have fonder memories of him than any other writer, and not just because of his unreasonably perfect heroes (which made much more sense when I learned that his wife wrote most of his books), but because he was a living writer in my life for nearly 30 years. From these first two books, I learned that horseracing wasn’t just about who ran the fastest, but about “steeplechasing”, which involved jumping over fences and mud pools. With the horse. I also learned that marrying first cousins was a bad thing, and that jockeys were a lower “class” than trainers. But I wasn’t sure what “class” was. Not the school kind.
  • Cards on the Table, age 9—I’m reasonably certain this was my first Christie novel. Death on the Nile was second. I didn’t realize it was a bad idea to peek at the end until I was 12, and by then I’d read the entire Christie canon. All those endings, spoiled. But I learned more about this “class” thing, which also had something to do with “titles” (not books). I thought “class” complaints were restricted to the English until a distressingly short time ago. I also became familiar with a number of poisons and confirmed that yes, just getting hit on the head could kill you.

Not a complete list. I know I read Madeleine L’Engle and Laura Ingalls Wilder during these years, and all the Hardy Boys canon. (The Twisted Claw was the bomb.) I read Little Men at 7 or 8, and eventually Little Women. I also read a lot of history books and almanacs. And some really strange books that I can’t remember clearly which is extremely annoying. But these are the memories that seem relevant.

What’s my point? As I’ve mentioned before, my measured vocabulary has spiked hard to the right side of the bell curve, leaving the 99th percentile in the dust since I was first tested at 8. And my vocabulary is far weaker than my analytical reading skills. While I scored a 730 on the SAT (which at that time was 99+ percentile), I scored an 800 on the English Lit Achievement Test (known now as the SAT subject test), which even now is a rare achievement, and much less frequent back then.

And yet, as I hope this little tale has revealed, I did not live the life of a middle class child with that literacy-rich environment that gives children the background content knowledge. Or, based solely on my story, E. D. Hirsch has it wrong:

[Students learn new vocabulary] by guessing new meanings within the overall gist of what they are hearing or reading. And understanding the gist requires background knowledge. If a child reads that “annual floods left the Nile delta rich and fertile for farming,” he is less likely to intuit the meaning of the unfamiliar words “annual” and “fertile” if he is unfamiliar with Egypt, agriculture, river deltas and other such bits of background knowledge.

I am living proof that “understanding the gist” does not require background knowledge, that some people, like me, acquire content knowledge through the books that they read and TV that they watch. In fact, it’s clear that I, god save me, constructed my knowledge of the world through the books that I read. If you were to go by me, the progressives have it exactly right—teach them to read, and knowledge will follow. But you know, progressives are never right about their idealism, so let’s laugh off that possibility and return to Hirsch, who is right, but for the wrong reason.

Hirsch isn’t the only one emphasizing the importance of specific instruction in content knowledge because of poor environment. Lately, advocates on all sides of the debate have been focused on Hirsch’s argument (aka the Core Knowledge solution) “knowledge-rich” environment of the middle class and higher kids, the “language deficient” environment of low income kids, and how the latter group is starting behind.

One might think that these guys think academic achievement is purely a matter of environment, that individual ability has nothing to do with it.

But then, this essay is long enough. More later.

Update: One of the more idiotic commenters I’ve ever run into on this site argues that what I describe is a typical, middle class knowledge-rich environment. Sigh. I called her an idiot. But I’ll update with a bit more information, just in case there’s other zealots who think they’ve got a point.

My reading was considered incredibly weird by everyone who knew me. I was teased constantly. I was “grounded” by losing access to any reading material; my father once upset me terribly by pretending to throw my book out the window of a Greek hotel room when I wasn’t in bed by 10:00. (He hadn’t, but he didn’t let me have it back for a day.) My parents did not have a lot of books, they bought books to read on planes when four kids allowed them the time. They did not read otherwise, but (like me) rarely threw things away, so there were ten years of books lying around the house. The Dickens books were from the library. I was far better-informed than my parents were in a distressing number of subjects, but granted them total expertise on cooking, music, sports, and airplanes—and would accept their knowledge of current and recent events as somewhat reliable but needing confirmation. I was, undoubtedly, incredibly annoying.

As for the traveling, we travelled on passes as an employee benefit. My parents were, and are, extremely adventurous (particularly my mother, who just came back from a month in South Africa). We traveled everywhere and saw everything on the cheap. I hated it a lot of the time, although I’m glad now I did it. I did not gain any content knowledge from the travel, although I learned flexibility and patience.


The End of Pi

No, not π. This is the English teacher speaking, although most of my English lit work is now in enrichment classes.

I’ve taught Life of Pi in my book club two or three times. For most of the book, I focus on literary terms: metaphors, similes, personification, metonymy, didactic (my lord, the amount of time Pi spends instructing the reader!), understatement and hyperbole. I also draw attention to Pi’s exceptionally unusual character. Adolescent readers have a distressing tendency to take everything they read at face value without thinking about what the events reveal. When Pi joins three religions, they don’t think, “What idiot is this?” They’re like, “Well, Pi was born a Hindu, but he really liked the Muslim religion, so he joined that, too. Then he became a Christian. His parents got really mad; they think he should just be Hindu.”

So I prod them a bit, ask them if they belong to three religions, and if they don’t think Pi’s a little odd for this and other reasons. Who is more reasonable, really, Pi or his perplexed parents? (who, ultimately, let him have his spiritual advisers). The early lessons focus on reading and appreciating the imagery, but also on gaining an understanding of the character in the first third or so of the book. Why, given what we know is going to happen, does the author spend so much time on zoos and religion?

This preparation helps them make the most of the middle third, which is the book’s claim to fame, the reason Ang Lee made the movie in 3-D. We again focus on imagery and literary terms, practice writing analysis of said literary techniques and how they emphasize ideas,themes,and so on.

But then there’s the last third, which I’ve attached here–actually, I copied it from this site, but it didn’t have the font changes for the Japanese conversation.

I start by having the kids draw a sketch of the entire section (chapters 97-99). I encourage the kids who hate drawing by telling them that whatever they do, my sketch will be the worst. (They know my boardwork, so they believe me even before they see it.)

Why a sketch? Because after two-thirds of a plot-rich story, loaded with action, thoughts, and imagery, the sketch helps student see that the entire third section is three people talking in a room. All the insights, all the discoveries come through conversation. That is, the final third is much like reading a play, a profoundly important switch in a book thus far rich with imagery and thought with relatively little dialogue.

Right around here, we discuss the fact that Pi introduces a second story, that we now must question his original story. Enter the notion of “unreliable narrator” (I usually bring up The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

So leaving aside event specifics, what patterns of interaction did the class notice about Pi and the investigators? We build a list:

  • The Japanese insurance investigators are hungry and cranky.
  • They speak their minds in Japanese, and their interactions are often very funny.
  • Pi is hoarding food, something that the readers know he is still doing as an adult. (We discuss the hoarding impulse and why a prolonged bout of near-starvation would bring it on.)
  • The Japanese men give Pi food, first grudgingly, then with more understanding of his need.
  • Pi constantly challenges the investigators, making facially compelling arguments (that are nonethless ridiculous). These arguments nonetheless stop the investigators with frustrating frequency, because Pi won’t simply accept that a Bengal tiger in a lifeboat is ridiculous, that man-eating plants are absurd, and so on, but rather argues with seeming logic about other absurd realities.
  • The frustrated investigators constantly remind Pi that they are investigating a tragedy, and Pi stops them again in their tracks by agreeing, and reminding them of what, exactly, he had lost. Over time, these reminders have their impact, and the investigators start their later questions by acknowledging his pain.
  • Mr. Chiba, the assistant, is a good-humored and open man; Mr. Okamoto, the senior, is more analytical, and the more easily frustrated by Pi’s antics.

I make sure they see the humor for example, Mr. Okamoto’s irritation as shown by “[long silence]” when, dammit, the bananas do float, or the fake laughs, or Mr. Chiba’s offering of his uncle the bonsai master, and their pauses as he asks for more and more and, ultimately, all of their food. The kids see that humor is not really anything howlingly funny about any individual event, but the overall story of these increasingly frustrated investigators faced with a recalcitrant Pi. We talk about how it’s easier to see the impact of Pi’s behavior because of the POV change, from first person to third person limited omniscient (we know what the Japanese are thinking because of the translated dialogue). So it’s easier to realize how frustrating it is to deal with Pi.

Then we go through the specific events.

  • The investigators ask Pi for an accounting of the events.
  • Pi tells them the events as he recounted it later to the book’s author, and as we the readers read.
  • The investigators are skeptical, and attack his logic. But Pi tries to build a logical chain by inference: if illogical events have happened elsewhere, they could have happened in the lifeboat.
  • The investigators try to win his favor by giving him cookies, their lunch, chocolate bars, all while arguing with him and asking for a more realistic story that they can believe.
  • After many cookies, chocolate, all the investigators’ lunch, Pi tells a second story, one that makes the reader wish devoutly for brain bleach, a story of horror, the degradation of humanity, and Pi’s own unwitting betrayal of his mother.
  • The investigators don’t like that story either, and after further pushing, they give up. They realize that the sole survivor of the tragedy will not be able to enlighten them as to the cause of the sinking.
  • Pi asks them a question: Given that neither story helps them resolve their investigation, which is the better story?
  • Mr. Okamoto starts to analyze the question, but Mr. Chiba answers without hesitation that the first story, “the one with the animals”, is the better story. Mr. Okamoto approves of his underling’s answer privately, and chimes in with agreement.
  • Pi thanks them, saying “and so it goes with god”. He starts to cry.
  • The investigators sit in silence and wonder. After a while, they get up to leave, assuring Pi that they will look out for Richard Parker, the tiger at the center of the story they said was the better story.
  • Pi offers them three cookies each. Up to this point, he has hoarded food and given it up (like the bananas) only to ask for it back.
  • In a letter written years later, Mr. Okamoto restates his belief in Richard Parker.

It often takes some additional prodding, but after a while, my students notice that Pi did not ask which was the more believable story or the true story, but the better story. And yet, both Pi and the investigators behave subsequently as if the investigators have accepted the true story. Pi cries in clear relief. The investigators refer to Richard Parker.

Up to now, we do it as a class discussion, but I promise I’m not forcing them to “discover” what I want them to. In fact, many of the details I list above were original offered by my students, that I hadn’t originally seen (e.g., I hadn’t noticed the pattern break of Pi offering the investigators a cookie until a student pointed it out).

But now they break up into small groups (2-3) and I ask them this question: Why do the investigators accept Pi’s story? What answer does the text support?

I’ve taught this book three times, and in all cases, all my small groups come back unanimously with the same answer, the only answer I believe is possible after a close read of section three: Mr. Chiba and Mr. Okamoto declare “the story with the animals” the better story out of kindness, of sympathy for a young boy in tremendous pain, who they’ve come to admire, however grudgingly, for his ferocious determination and creative arguments. The students always point out the same key evidence—Mr. Chiba, the more empathetic and less purely analytical investigator, interrupts his superior to give the “right answer”, that his superior, Mr. Okamoto, says “Yes” in Japanese, signifiying approval of and consent to Mr. Chiba’s answer, abandoning his usual commitment to analysis and logic to reason his way to the correct answer.

So then we take the story as a whole. I point out that “dry, yeastless factuality” is a phrase that has appeared before, in a rather startling slam on agnosticism back in Chapter 22. Agnostics, it seems, are in danger of missing “the better story”….hey. That’s a term we’ve seen before. So Pi, and probably the author, is drawing a link between an insistence on facts and the refusal to choose, and choice is essential. We must choose. And we must choose the better story, to Pi. Hence his various comparisons of creation myths in Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. So why does Pi return to this “yeastless factuality”, to a clearly religious context, when talking about his own stories and the choice he offers to the investigators?

Back to the groups, but despite lots of passionate discussion, the students aren’t sure if they have an answer. I tell them that there doesn’t have to be AN answer, but that they might find the notion of creation myth, understood broadly, to be helpful. I also tell them that I am leading them to my own preferred interpretation when I do so.

What continually hangs up the discussions, for good reason, is the book’s conflation of “better” with “true”. Which story is better? The one with the animals, of course. But which story is true? Is Pi relieved when the investigators choose the story with the animals simply because it speaks well of his story-telling? All my students reject that; Pi is clearly moved to tears because the investigators accept his story, in the absence of all relevance, as true, that they begin to discuss Richard Parker as a real being.

Each time I teach this book, we come to this impasse, and I always tell them that they can decide that the author meant true, not better, if they clearly qualify their interpretation with this decision.

At that point, coupled with my hint on “creation myth”, most of the kids come up with some form of this, which we then define as a group: Pi is struggling to survive his trauma, and comes up with a fantastic, beautiful story to mask the brutal reality. It’s more manageable to remember a hyena eating a still-living zebra than a Frenchman slicing up a Chinese sailor, the hyena breaking an orangutan’s neck preferable to the decapitation of his mother. The new story isn’t just a story of his survival, it’s his own “creation myth”, the creation of his own religion, the Life of Pi. He must have a basis, a religion, a credo in order to move forward with his life. He can’t live with the reality, that he was the brutal, savage, yet beautiful Richard Parker.

But all religions must have adherents, people who accept the creation myth. Hence the importance of the Japanese investigators. In refusing his original story, they show the rigid adherence to fact that Pi finds in all agnostics. Their insistence that he tell a “true” story forces him to tell the horrors he experienced. But the endlessly creative Pi, in the midst of his pain, finds one more logical way to ask the investigators for the validation he needs. Since the story of his survival has no relationship to the sinking of the ship, can they tell him which is the better story?

At this point, I usually tell the students that the best part of the book, for me, lies in the extraordinary sympathy Mr. Chiba and Mr. Okamoto show Pi. Mr. Okamoto, the logical one, begins analytically but is saved by the more humane Mr. Chiba, who interrupts his boss to give the answer Pi so clearly craves. And then, as Pi cries quietly, Mr. Okamoto finds a way to reinforce the fact that better does indeed mean true, by reassuring Pi that they’ll be careful not to run into the tiger. These are the acts of kind men, men who were distracted by the demands of the job, frustrated by the fruitful inventions of this confusing survivor, but ultimately moved to help him take the first step past his pain. I always snuffle when Mr. Okamoto agrees with Mr. Chiba.

Then I pass out copies of this Yann Martel book club interview (pages 3 and 4), and let my students read the Wrongness.

They are outraged! Martel ignores the agency of the investigators and says they chose the “better” story because they responded to the more “transcendental” story, the one with the unreal elements. Martel wants readers to choose the unreal story because of their revulsion with the “true” story, but he wants the “better” story to have an unreal element to make it a more difficult choice.

“Wait. He’s basically making the whole story really about people and religion, rather than about Pi. He’s got this whole agenda!” said one of my strongest students one year.

“THANK you,” I growled.

And of course, the students are then bummed because they have spent all this time deciphering a story and coming up with a meaning that’s wrong.

“Who says so?” sez I.

“The author.”

” We can always focus on author’s intent, but when his intent conflicts with your own reading, and you’ve got the evidence to back it up, then the author’s just this guy, y’know? He doesn’t get the last word. This is why J.K. Rowling should be drummed out of civilized society, for acting like she’s the only interpreter of Harry Potter novels. As if there’s much to interpret in a damn Harry Potter novel in the first place. She should be skewered on Voldemort’s wand for her arrogance. Instead, when Salman Rushdie comes up with an interpretation clearly supported by the text, this lowlife fool explains patiently why he’s wrong—to friggin’ Rushdie, whose worst novel is of a quality that Rowling could only dream of. But I digress. Look. If Yann Martel wanted us to swallow his bilge, then he should have done a less excellent job with the Japanese investigators. There’s no way around it.”

“Are there other cases of authors being wrong about their work?”

“More specifically, are there other authors who I believe I can prove are wrong about their work? Sure. My favorite and earliest example (that is, the first case I realized I thought the author wrong) is William Faulkner and A Rose for Emily. Many people think Flannery O’Conner is wrong about her interpretation of A Good Man is Hard to Find; I’m not sure I’d go that far, but she definitely makes the grandma’s redemption case stronger than it is. And it’s very common in movies to see a different vision than the director and creative talents intended.”

So to finish the unit, I have them write a freeform essay on one of two topics. They can write up their own interpretation of the ending, or they can explain why they think Martel is wrong. OR right. Anyone who wants to argue that Martel is right because he’s the author can do it, but I tell them they still need to support from the text—or explain why I should ignore the text.

**********************************************************
This came up, of course, because of the movie. Reviews suggest that the adult Pi asks the question, “Which is the better story” of the author, not the adolescent Pi of the investigators. Rod Dreher says that the Japanese investigators reject the story with the animals and accept the horrible story—in other words, do exactly the opposite of what they did in the book.

It’s worth realizing these are not trivial changes. In the novel, no one other than the Japanese investigators got a choice. When the author is sent to Pi with the words, “This is a story that will make you believe in god”, the speaker refers to the “better story”, the story with the tiger. The author learns of the alternate version from additional research. The adult Pi has completely adopted his creation myth. His listeners are to believe in God because he has survived nearly a year on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, not because they are given a choice between a brutal, lifeless fact-based horror and a beautiful fantasy.

I suppose it’s inevitable that the interpretation of this book has been stuffed into the “Reader Response” funnel. Our just a tad short of narcissistic president wrote a letter telling the world that he and his daughter made the right choice of the “better story”, which makes him pretty much the equal of every book review , which also ended with the reviewer’s declaration of what he or she, personally, thought was the “better story”. Reader, do you believe in God, with no proof but the better story? Or are you one of those yeastless agnostics, dependent on fact and reason? Make your choice! Talk about how your response to the book is nothing more than a reflection of your finer qualities! Let us all bond together in congratulating ourselves on making the “better choice”, rather than critically analyzing and discussing the many fascinating ideas the book raises, often accidentally.

I don’t think Pi is a particularly excellent book, but the ending is its best part. It’s a shame that it’s been ruined by the Let’s Make Every Book All About Me school of faux critical analysis. (Ruined the book, that is. I can hardly blame Lee for playing to the bigger crowd.)

I believe the book offers considerably more profound insights if we accept that Pi’s survival is beautiful, regardless of how it happened, and that the kindness of two busy men faced with a young man trying to cope with horrors beyond their imagining is as much evidence of God as is the carnivorous island.


Why I teach enrichment, reasons #1138 and beyond

I teach summer school because compared to regular school it’s like free money.

But then, I teach enrichment classes in reading and composition, as well as PSAT prep, to kids whose parents make them show up and are too compliant to rebel–that is, I teach Asian first generation immigrants (Chinese, Korean, Indian, and the occasiohnal Vietnamese). I tease them about their compliance mercilessly, and they are, for the most part, fascinated by a teacher who tells them they should go home and watch more TV.

Brief anecdotes:

  • I gave them an essay question, “Should school grades be determined entirely by an end of year test?” All but two of the 18 students took positions emphatically in the negative, and all gave the same reason: kids would just goof around and cram at the end.

    I pointed out the implicit value system inherent in their answers: kids only care about grades, not about learning. I said tht this was a big problem, as I saw it, with their attitude towards school and it was something they might want to think about. However, I said, regardless of their opinion, they could make their essay much stronger by attributing this unattractive behavior to other students. “Regrettable as it is to consider, many students have no interest in learning, and are only interested in getting a good grade.” Now they have distanced themselves from the value system, while still holding onto their position and their argument—which had obvious merits.

    And I reminded them that my course had no grade. So why were they in the class? What was their purpose? I hoped they would focus on my big three: better thinkers, better writers, richer vocabularies.

  • Every year, we get a day off for the Fourth of July. Every year, I ask my class what the holiday celebrates. Every year, at least one kid doesn’t know. Every year, at least one of the kids who does know doesn’t know the year. And every year, that kid got an A in 8th grade US History. Every year, I point out that this is a symptom of a kid who wants to get an A, not learn about American history, and that all of the kids in this class have similar gaps—stunning ignorance in subjects where they learned to get the A and never thought about it again.

    And what I truly love about this class is that every year, this lecture makes a huge impression. The kids understand my point. They understand that I value knowledge, not grades, and for the first time, they realize the utter emptiness of an A achieved without actually learning anything.

  • Another “every year” conversation:
    “What courses are you signed up for?”

    Typical rising sophomore answer: “Calc A/B (or Math Analysis), Honors Chem, Spanish III, World History, English II.”

    “Why not Honors English or WHAP (World History AP)?”

    “It’s too hard.”

    Please remember that, the next time you hear about how Asians take tough classes. They don’t take tough classes. They take classes that everyone else (read, white people) find tough. The classes they find tough, they skip.

  • It is not at all uncommon to find exceptional writers. This is not encouraged by their parents.
  • One of my few classroom rituals is “do your two”. Students are required to read two detailed columns four times a week. The column must either be an opinion piece or informational reporting. It can be on any topic: sports, movies, politics, news. They have to report back. I then intersperse my opinions, ensure that they’ve read it accurately, and understood the purpose. Over the course of the summer, I observe the kids picking up more general content knowledge (the purpose of the exercise), but they also start building on each other. So one kid reports on the Euro status, and another kid sees an article two days later that they click on because of the first kid’s report. It’s a very useful exercise.

    Today, one of my students discussed a new study showing that most people don’t actually listen very well. (I’ll find the link later) This generated a fun discussion, culminating in my announcement that I liked to think my students listened to me. Was I wrong?

    Joey started suddenly, looked up, and said, “Uh, what?”

    Little punk.


What I learned: Year 1

I thought I’d capture my big teaching discoveries year by year. In some cases, the learning will be expanded in a later post; I’ll link to any expansions later.

My first school was extremely progressive. We had weekly staff meetings; signature petitions for various Democratic causes were commonly passed around. We had a moment of silence when Edward Kennedy died. The school dedicated an entire day to propaganda about school funding. The principal met with me and mentioned that I didn’t seem, er, enthusiastic about matters that were important to the school which was unfair because I worked very hard to keep my opinions off my face and my mouth shut. That meeting was one of the few times any administrator acknowledged my existence. Weird, uncomfortable year; without question, I was let go because I wasn’t deemed sufficiently left of center.

Teaching history

I teach an AP US History Survey course every year and have excellent content knowledge in US and European history. But I’d never had to think through units on countries or eras, and my ed school work was all in math. All the discoveries I discuss were my own, although for all I know they’re basic equipment and I was just never told.

  • When studying a country, start with the physical and give the kids a map activity. Coloring in the Khyber Pass does much to help cement India’s vulnerability to invasion, and the Philippines’ placement in Southeast Asia does much to explain the term “strategically located” which, in turn, does much to explain the history of the Philippines. Be generous with the colored pencils and clever with the location activities.
  • Give them the nuts and bolts
    Logistics and economics can be unexpectedly fascinating, and I don’t understand why so many teachers ignore them. I don’t mean formal economics, but the simple nuts and bolts of money, need, and incentives, as well as the interesting unconsidered cause and effects. Male students in particular find this approach interesting. So, for example, when archaeologists found the Globe Theatre, I pointed out what a complete drag it was for the business that owned the location, which had to go through all sorts of negotiations just to get the use of their space back. Or the importance of dung in the Agricultural Revolution, and how the nitrogen-rich plants just happened to be the perfect food for livestock, which thus became more affordable, and so dumped its droppings into the land, providing still more fertilizer. A month later, we were reading a book on post-colonial India later on, in which a character picks up cattle dung to burn for fuel. Bam! Connection. The kids understood why manufacturing alone wasn’t sufficient to grow a new economy, that food production had to become much more efficient, and that using dung for fuel was robbing the land of nutrients. But they also realized that the character had no choice, which led to a greater awareness that England’s success wasn’t necessarily replicable.

  • Give them the gore.
    Trotsky got axed. Magellan got ripped to shreds. The Russian royal family got shot. Bad things happen, baby. (I had them draw pictures of Magellan’s demise. They were a hoot.)

  • Memorization isn’t automatic
    The first quiz revealed that the history facts had simply gone in one ear and out the other for several of my kids. I sat them down and gave them a talk about the importance of memorization and studying. This was news.
    “You mean, we just keep reading them over and over?”

    “Well, you can also work with a friend. Ask questions until you remember them. Come up with memory tricks to help. But here’s what will also help–understand that all that stuff we talk about, in class? It’s supposed to stay in your brain. That’s why you should take notes. But just writing it down isn’t enough–you have to remember what you write down, what you hear.

    Again, this was clearly new information (presumably because they didn’t listen the other 30 times they’d been told). But my non-performers made a quantum leap in performance that year, simply because I told them explicitly to remember what they learned. So, you know, don’t forget to tell them. And give them time to study; early success will reinforce the behavior.

English

As I described here, I designed a content-rich SSR/SSW program that did not involve the kids staring at a book they didn’t care about.

Math

I taught Geometry and Algebra I, using the CPM curriculum.
Most of my “aha” moments were more useful for the following year.

  • What kids learn, they forget.
    I love teaching test prep, but its short-term nature meant I hadn’t yet learned the merciless lack of retention skills that most kids had. And it’s much harder to remember processes (math) then facts (history).

  • Multi-step equations
    It’s May, and I suddenly notice that my kids can’t do multistep equations if I mix and match distribution and combination. This realization was essential to the ephiphany I had early the next year; without it, I might have gone another year without realizing why my kids could handle 3(x+7) = 24 but not 2x +3(x-2) + 3 = 6x + 2.

  • Binomial multiplication and factoring
    While I’m not a huge fan of CPM, I really like the generic rectangle model for this process. I still use the techniques and the documents I developed this year.

Teaching Humanities, Part I

I got lucky my first year out and was able to teach math and humanities.

Were I ever to get a full-time job teaching either English or history, I would feel guilty for abandoning math and taking the easy way out. That’s how much easier it is to teach either subject. Do not picture me as short-timer, stuck teaching math as some sort of dead-end, droning on praying for the day that I get to teach my true passion. No. I find teaching math, constantly struggling to find a way to make abstract concepts understandable to uninterested students with no inherent ability, to be one of the most fascinating tasks invented. I’m hooked. But teaching English or history is a hell of a lot easier, and my lord, is it fun.

I taught 9th grade humanities at an extremely progressive school. (You’re wondering why on earth they hired me. They were desperate and got rid of me as soon as they decently could.) I planned out the curriculum with two other teachers for most of the year. As a rule, I did tests, grammar, and history (I was the only certified history teacher of the three of us, had considerable experience with standardized tests and–also as a result of my test experience–a lot of background in teaching grammar). They did literature and most of the actual planning (weeks spent on each section and so on). It was all collaborative and lots of fun–I learned a lot about planning out a book, and they gave me great feedback on how to simplify a history lesson for freshmen, while I taught them how to keep the rigor in even if the vocabulary is simplified.

We did the history of India, history of the Philippines, a brief history of Russia from the freeing of the serfs to the Russian Revolution, and the Age of Enlightenment, Age of Discovery, and revolutions industrial and agricultural. The kids read Nectar in a Sieve, a book on post-colonial India, a choice of three books on the Philippines (can’t remember their names), Animal Farm, and Twelfth Night. They also did some sort of project on natural disasters, which interested me not at all except I learned a good deal about geography, and some sort of personal narrative.

There was a great deal of indoctrination in the course material from years past, but I convinced the other teachers to dump a lot of it (without ever mentioning my opinion of the indoctrination) and the rest of it I just cut from my lesson.

The kids’ reading abilities ranged from 6th grade to college level, as did their writing. We were supposed to do “sustained silent reading/writing” each day for 20 minutes (it was a block class of 100 minutes) and it was supposed to be based on student choice, but I realized that most of them were just sitting around doing nothing. So I instituted my own hand-made SRA program of three levels. I just went to the bookstore, picked out some enrichment materials at various levels (and yes, bought them with my own money), and made copies for the kids. The kids read nifty little passages on all sorts of subjects, answered questions, did crossword puzzles with new vocabulary, and had little tests at the end of each unit that I checked on.

The kids gained tremendously in content knowledge at all levels. My favorite example: when we were talking about Russian history and Trotsky, I mentioned in passing that Stalin hunted down Trotsky even after he fled to Mexico, where he lived for a while with two famous artists, Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo.

One of my weakest readers perked up. “Is that how you say her name?”

I laughed. “I think so, but I’m not sure. I’ll go look it up later. You know about Frida Kahlo?”

“She was in the reading packets. She was famous for painting herself, or something.”

“Self-portraits?”

“Yeah, that was it. She wasn’t happy with the Diego guy, right?”

“Oh, is that the one that had a car accident?” pipes up another weak reader.

Another boy pops in. “She crashed into something.”

A strong reader (who therefore had not read about Frida) was interested. “When was this?”

“Yeah, this was like….it was after 1900. I think it was a lot after 1900, but not like 1950 or anything.”

“I think her car crash was in the 1920s, but don’t quote me,” sez I. (It was.) “That was very useful information, and thanks for the interesting details. Back to Trotsky and the axe.”

Content knowledge, baby.

Anyway, the segment on Twelfth Night we were expected to do was designed by a student teacher, and it was all about identity and examining their own navel—exactly the kind of nonsense I don’t like to do. By now, I knew I wouldn’t be back next year and this was the last segment of the year, so I went off the reservation. I did two weeks on Twelfth Night and two weeks on Elizabethan theater, and every minute of it was joyous fun. For the kids sometimes, too.

This post is getting long, so I’ll put the lesson plans and a story about in subsequent posts.


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