Monday, October 16, 2017

Dystopia cornucopia

Usually being late to the party, reading or otherwise, I'm not surprised to be into dystopian fiction long after the genre's popularity wave has likely crested. This past weekend, I chomped through Francisco X. Stork's latest, Disappeared, and Emmy Laybourne's Monument 14. The former, a serendipitous library find prompted by a past winner from the same author (e.g., Marcelo in the Real World); the latter; a breathless eighth-grader's recommendation.

Stork's fiction hews close to realism, tracking the challenges of two siblings in northwestern Mexico: a brother being tempted into the drug trade and his sister, a tenacious journalist, investigating her best friend's disappearance. Their stories generally unfold by the numbers, nonetheless revealing a corrupt society unraveling even as people with integrity struggle still to do the right thing.

Laybourne travels a more sensational route: a weather apocalypse triggering numerous catastrophic dominoes. Despite this sky-is-falling scenario, the book's perspective proves intimate, focusing on a small band of teens, tweens, and younger kids marooned in their town's big-box store. I expected the story to devolve into Lord of the Flies in Walmart, but it sprang different surprises.

Most recently, I've begun The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, which a friend of a friend touted while we watched playoff baseball. This one is aimed at adults -- its spartan, brutal style and subject matter for older readers. As with the previous titles, the world we know has ended. (It's not yet clear why.) I'm in the company of two perhaps paranoid survivors with access to a junky prop plane. Where we'll go, I have little idea.

Writing this slice, however, I have a better sense of my motivation for this three-book genre streak. Dystopian dysfunction mirrors a school year herky-jerkying its way through October's annual minefield.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Reading eyes wide open

I favor reading widely, and I encourage students to do the same. That partly explains why something I recently read in Nabokov's Favorite Color is Mauve sticks in my brain.

In this accessible nonfiction text, author Ben Blatt crunches numbers about writing and literature. Quirky inquiries abound. He uses big data, for instance, to see how well Elmore Leonard and other authors heed Leonard's advice to spend exclamation points parsimoniously. In another chapter, Blatt compares professional and amateur authors regarding how much (or how little) they deploy cliches.

Blatt also explores, in his calculating fashion, how language might reveal implicit bias. One way he does this is by determining ratios of gendered pronouns in various texts. That leads to this observation on page 41:

Reading this, my brain felt like a record being scratched. I wondered: Should I now think less of The Hobbit and its author? Did the text still belong in a formal English curriculum? If so, how might I frame it to account for its slanted grammar? Should I go out of my way to tout, say, fantasy writer Tamora Pierce to balance Tolkien on this particular seesaw? (For that matter, might gender be more complex than a seesaw analogy?) Does a crude he/she ratio even qualify as a sufficient hook on which to hang my abashed hat? Lastly, to adapt a notion from Grace Lin: How much should reading mirror the lives we live versus open windows onto different -- sometimes unsettling -- experiences?

For now, I'll reach back to my first sentence like a life preserver: read widely -- in terms of text selection and keeping my eyes and mind open to what I find therein.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I can't believe it's not a run-on sentence, #3

In this mountain-studded, aspen-robed state that touts some 300 sun-splashed days each year, the current stretch of low gray skies and nine days of rain in the last ten disconcerts the denizens, yet even this seemingly aberrant meteorology -- an unsettling gambler's fallacy of drab forecasts, a radar loop of gloom -- fades inconsequentially in the somber shadows cast by Monday's headlines.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

It takes a toll

As I scanned September's credit-card statement, an unfortunate voice in my head blared, "Fake news!" (Another grumbled, "Curse you, Equifax!") One weird charge stood out.

The billing company was a rental-car toll entity. Its charge dated to July, a time when I was (to the best of my straining recollection) responsible for a rented mobile. However, the date was off: one day before the second driver returned the vehicle to the airport and, deducing from the amount, the tolls applied on a road to the airport. Doubly weird.

I called the rental-car toll business, whose representative curtly asserted I was responsible for these charges.

"Do you have a picture of the car going through the toll?" I asked.

"We can order one from the toll authority," the representative said.

"Please do," I said. "And may I get a copy of the bill?"

"We can email you one," the rep said.

"Thank you, please."

That document landed in my email moments letter. It listed toll fees along with three cryptic numbers where those had been collected. I had to call the toll-road operator to learn how those digits corresponded to real-world locales. Turned out they're on a stretch of airport access road opposite the direction from which I typically travel. I live to the northwest of the airport, but these tolls were collected to the southeast.

I rang back the rental-car toll mafia, eager to report my detective work.

"Without photographic proof of you and the car someplace else, you're still responsible for these charges," I was told.

"I know I have to wait for the official pictures," I said, "but do your records tell us the make and model of the vehicle I was driving?"

"Let me see," the increasingly disinterested voice said, "red Ford F150."

"My rental car was a green Toyota Sequoia," I said.

"Oh," came the reply. "You'll need to call the rental-car company to remove this charge from your account. I can't do that here."

A fifth phone call finally erased the red from the ledger. Or, at least, that's supposed to be the result in three-to-five business days.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Data driven off the deep end

Pam Allyn, Feb. 2017: Have we "medicalized reading" -- made it sound like a health emergency?

I remember, years ago, the first time I heard the phrase 'false positives.' Unsurprisingly, the context was medical. More surprisingly, it was awkwardly social as I found myself the plus-one at a a dinner sponsored by a medical imaging company. (Back when that sort of event was deemed kosher.)

Taking in the presentation along with some chocolate mousse, I reached the layman's conclusion that the spotlit imaging technology proffered both wonderful benefits and needless worry. For every legitimate problem detected, the cordial company representative warned, the equipment might flag false positives -- benign spots that looked, at first, malignant and might prompt unnecessarily invasive, costly treatments.

Now wearing my professional hat and considering digital reams of reading data for middle-school students, this notion of false positives looms again. The data are the fruits of the latest effort where I teach to screen kids (note: medical term) universally via online tools. The first broad strokes have me scratching my head about how best to prioritize next steps.

According to this one measure, sixth graders demonstrate a reading range from first through ninth grade; seventh graders from second through ninth; and eight graders from third through 10th.

My mind, untethered, spins with numbers. I feel urges to triangulate and validate. ("How much can the data be trusted?" a little voice in my head wonders.) I feel desperation to intervene, helping students progress at the low end, keeping students engaged and growing at the high end, not losing sight of students in the middle. ("Isn't this deficit mindset hurtful?" the same voice frets.)

Hundreds of snapshots of student literacy now in hand, I'm far from certain what I know even as there's no doubt I can't un-know it.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Celestial & existential

Today, I heard a radio piece about this, which led to me browse this, which led me to write this:

Early in the second year of my career as teacher,
NASA coincidentally launched the Cassini orbiter.

By the time that spacecraft reached Saturn seven years later,
I had relocated west, discovering myself to be a mountain creature.

For 13 lucky years, Cassini became one more ring├Ęd feature,
of that remote planet, its moons pocked by countless craters.

Just shy of a 20th anniversary, Cassini's to be an atmospheric breacher,
disintegrating harmlessly (in theory), not unlike some careers.

Monday, August 28, 2017

An English teacher has a sobering realization

A sucker for animated features, I watched The Red Turtle yesterday,
a story told almost entirely without words.

That power inherent in speaking. writing, reading?
Sometimes, it's optional when pictures prevail.