Wednesday, July 11

i heart reading

yesterday, while surfing the inter-net ("series of tubes"), I found an article in some conservative magazine--which I can't find now--about the debate between phonics-based reading instruction and "whole language learning." this was particularly interesting to me, because: a) I like to read, and I'm sort of intrinsically fascinated about how people become literate; b) my mom teaches kindergarten, and has taught lots of kids to read; and c) JD volunteers once every other week to help one particular girl (a fourth-grader) with remedial reading, and some of the stories are really disspiriting.

Advocates of whole-language learning favor a sort of immersion approach - basically, leave kids in a room with a lot of books, and they'll teach themselves. They are opposed to phonics-based reading (those fabled "Dick and Jane"/Houghton Mifflin primers which stress word-repetition and sounding things out--parenthetically, try sounding out 'Houghton'--that's a toughie!) claiming that such education is the most surefire way to kill kids' burgeoning love of reading and to stifle their young imaginations. According to the article I read (but can't seem to find), educational academics, perhaps unsurprisingly, overwhelmingly favor the whole-language approach, but this gets awfully problematic when whole-language learning is mandated from on-high in bureaucratic fashion. Children from higher socioeconomic brackets are less likely to slip through the cracks, no matter which method is taught; someone is going to make sure they know how to read by an acceptable age. The problem comes disproportionately for poor kids, who, whether they lack an English-speaking parent, have little or no reading material in their homes, or just have parents that don't value education very much, often do get lost in the system. When they aren't given the building blocks of language--the sounds that letters make, for instance--they can sometimes manage to memorize singular small books and pass on to the next grade without ever learning to read. This, apparently, is the case with JD's fourth-grader, who can't seem to sound out "baby books"--the words of her taunting classmates.

If I had just heard the two categories juxtaposed, I surely would have unreflectingly supported "whole language learning" just based on the sound of it; isn't "whole" so much more comprehensive than its alternative? And who wants to kill kids' love of reading? But as I think about it, I suspect that a few people with advanced degrees--those that have had a passing acquaintance with Saussure and Derrida, have bastardized the concepts of linguistic structuralism, and are now passing them off as public school policy, shunning (and even forbidding) some crucial building blocks of learning. Language and literacy are undoubtedly complex, and one certainly wouldn't want to watch kids huffing and puffing to sound things out all day, without connecting their utterance to the meaning of the text (Golden Book) or to imaginative flights of fancy. Nevertheless, it doesn't make good sense to disallow an important component of reading in the interest of "academic correctness." Shouldn't learning to read, in all its manifestations, be empowering?

Out of curiosity, do you remember learning to read? Which components were hardest/most intuitive for you?

Tuesday, July 10

the splendor of the seasons

it's raining--and it sure is welcomed. we're not quite living in a dry and dusty land, but the grass is parched. the grey skies and thunder make it a lovely afternoon to be inside, and I'm glad I am. I recently read about a scientist who links that exuberant feeling awakened with the coming of spring to something hardwired in our evolved genes; whether that's the case or not, I have certainly felt that exuberance, as if life were beginning again--and felt as though I myself were capable of absorbing energy directly from all the newly green matter around me. I just finished reading Annie Dillard's The Maytrees, and my thoughts about the seasons as markers of finitude and new beginnings were echoed on each page. That sort of naturalism, combined with the existential reading and philosophy I've been caught up with as of late has me acutely aware of Heidegger's notion of "Being-towards-death." (I'm probably totally freaking my mom out by writing this--sorry, mom, I've been studying philosophy for too long!) I can't help it. From my first class in introductory philosophy with Dr. Neujahr, I've learned that philosophy is "learning how to die well," and I've absorbed so much existentialism along the way--from Kierkegaard's anxiety, to Heidegger's "thrown-ness,"--the state in which we find ourselves, but didn't necessarily ask for--and the practical issues of bioethics which deal inevitably with the end of human life and the possibilities for extending it, and whether the latter is even truly desirable. More conservative critics, in a Heideggerian vein, seem to think that extending life willy-nilly has the potential to trivialize human life, and to rob it of meaning. Our time-boundedness, and awareness of our finitude encourage us to act and to appreciate, to make a mark in the time we have allotted. One's refusal to look her own future death in the face, and to reckon with it, to push it off into the too-distant-future or to pretend it won't happen, can be a refusal to embrace one's own humanity, to live in (presumably) animal-like ignorance and to enjoy animal-like pleasures to the exclusion of a certain seriousness, as well as human and humanizing tasks--culture-building, for instance. I'm beginning to see the ever-closer ties between existentialism, politics, and psychology, a sort of societal-wide procrastination (God knows, I am guilty as an individual!) and excessive individualism that cares not for what comes later, so long as it doesn't affect one's self. This was exemplified to me as of late, when I heard representatives from Chicago's teachers union downplaying the successes of charter schools and other educational ventures, agitating for more money and time. I certainly know that an educational system can't be overhauled overnight, but it seems to me that time is something that early learners don't have in excess. If a child doesn't learn to read by, say, the third grade, what real hope is there for that individual to become capable of genuine learning, or to cultivate a love of civic engagement? The burden for this child does not, certainly, rest on teachers alone, but time is, in this instance, of the essence. A window missed, in this case, will have real consequence, and more for the child than the (presumably literate) unionized teacher. In our time and place, adult illiteracy vastly increases the odds that one's life will be nasty, brutish, and short. One's ability to read (even seemingly pessimistic philosophy) is liberating, allowing one to decode bus schedules and legal contracts (maybe!), but literature also connects us with others and reflexively shows us our place in the world, and gives us hope through access to other possibilities. Literacy is practically and theoretically wrapped up with existential freedom. The changing weather (now the sun is peaking through the clouds), changing seasons, the new year, one's own personal new year (birthday), the start of a school year (or fiscal year), are regular reminders of flux and growth--and finitude. (I just ordered The Now Habit, in an attempt to further my own literacy and to nix my own procrastinating tendencies. Now, if someone would just teach those little kids to read...

Sunday, May 27

fancy drinks keep finals panic at bay

[in the voice of buster]: hey, readers.

i'm "thinking" about my two final papers, during this most lovely of memorial day weekends. jd and I have been sipping on some orange blossom cocktails, which are really quite delicious. I'm pondering hannah arendt and the problem of bureaucracy, and laughing at about a dozen kids across the street, who are invariably in costume. today, I recognize a sponge bob square pants, and they've hauled out a giant hose while their parents yell at them: PARKER!!! GET OVER HERE AND EAT YOUR FOOD!!! (the kid is obviously oblivious to the yelling at the ripe old age of 4, or whatever he is. others get clothes-lined by the hose and look around to see if it's worth crying about, and the birds are all harassing oliver, who also seems pretty oblivious.

Do you remember how your parents and teachers told you to use your "inside voice" when you were inside (presumably you could actually use your "outdoor voice" when out-of-doors?) Well, these kids are definitely using their outdoor voices, and while it's touching to see the very opposite phenomena of "bowling alone" syndrome brewing out here in the suburbs, I'm frankly surprised that no anonymous donor has dropped a Nintendo wii in their driveway.

Friday, April 27

kitsch and vinegar

since I last blogged, I've been through and to atlanta, respectively. on the latter trip, I went to deliver a paper at my alma mater, and I visited with my family, my college mentor, and my best friend from high school. since I returned, I've been processing those events, along with some new ones, and reading freud and kant. okay, so I've been trying to read kant, convinced that I absolutely need to master his writings if I'm ever going to pass my qualifying exams. my college mentor observed me with my copy of "religion within the limits of reason alone" and told me that he liked that book, and that he'd done his dissertation on kant. I shared with him a little ditty I had written:

Kant is with us
Relentless logician
Dead philosopher.

he looked vaguely amused, but like my own father, was probably mildly dismayed that I'd borrowed such a sacred tune. he conceded that there's not much approaching common sense in kant, and that was probably my reason for my difficulty in wading through him. I concurred. I'm still trying to read the book, but on a tip from a friend, I started over with greene's introduction, which is helpful. it's making me wonder how true piety is instilled, because I think one has to be habituated to piety in some sense, but if piety is sheerly commanded, as it was in kant's childhood, an honest soul will soon enough detect its own hypocrisy.

greene notes the equanimity that characterizes the pious. it's true: those who can accept God's will in the face of any tragedy are objectively happier than those who question. ditto for the patriotic americans who can quietly accept that their son or daughter is coming home in a box because their president told them that he or she was fighting for freedom, and likewise for the anthropologist who accepts that female genital mutilation is culturally justified and that it would be imperialistic of me to take too strong a position against it. is it not more pious to be enraged, and to try to do something about it?

I met an angry young man last wednesday. he is about to graduate from the college, and he obviously empathizes with the virginia tech shooter. his mannerisms are brusque and his conversational style combative--I suspect he feels alienated, and I am not at all surprised. he corrected my colleague and I in order to make clear that he knows all the answers, and will, in a year or two, enter a graduate program so that he can prove it. When I was his age, I thought I had all the answers, too, but I wasn't so angry. now I'm angry, but I know I don't have all the answers. I do know that I'm tired of the consequentialist logic of assuming you know all the answers in advance, and that you just have to go through the motions of filling in the blanks to get there. this, according to milan kundera, is the definition of kitsch, "the absolute denial of shit" that functions
by excluding from view everything that humans find difficult to come to terms with, offering instead a sanitised view of the world in which "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. (the unbearable lightness of being).
it's a totalitarian impulse that excludes the ambiguity of the world in which we live, that tries to create a false unity, when we're not even at one with our selves, and for all his unfalsifiability and fabrications, we owe quite a bit to freud for pointing that out.

stay tuned for my next installment:
the mo' meta, the mo-betta: funfetti cupcakes and why bureaucracy must be resisted.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, March 16

Spring Break, WOOO!

ladies and gentlemen, (okay, lady or gentleman)--I don't think this blog gets many hits, probably because I don't blog very regularly, and have alienated my small group of once loyal readers. also, maybe 'cause I'm boring. anyway. somehow, I just blew threw finals week, and uncharacteristically, didn't even blog about it. week 11 (of the academic quarter) is typically my most prolific blogging time, but not winter 2007, rest its soul--oh no--not this time. nada. (perhaps that's why I'm actually finished with my papers--on time, no less?) If you recall my finals breakdown a few months back, you are aware of the anxiety, sleeplessness, chronic writer's block and general insanity that tends to afflict me during these parts of the academic year. what, you may ask, did I do differently this time? I'm trying to figure that out myself, since I'd like to do it again. I did make lots of new year's resolutions and I'm pretty sure on-time papers were intended in there somewhere, and I'm still flossing regularly, but the other ones pretty much all fell by the wayside. oh, and it probably helped that I didn't get hungover this time. baby steps. at the start of the quarter, I entertained the notion of joining the anti-procrastination graduate student group at the school counseling center, but then a few weeks went by, and ironically enough, it seemed too late. I sort of started my research earlier than usual, and that probably helped. but I'm crediting my successes to Jesus...and vitamin C. I guess the first is sort of self-explanatory. I've been praying a lot lately, and He has answered my persistent petitions. not far behind the care of the soul is the care of the body. on that front, I've been ingesting massive amounts of vitamin C in the form of Trader Darwin's Vitamin + Mineral Drink Booster Mix. I get an immediate lift from the fizzy raspberry goodness (could be all the B vitamins, those are important, too), and it makes me feel focused, not jittery. I'm like a pusher for vitamin C--hey kids, ya wanna try some drugs?? I did a little research, and it turns out, humans are very rare in that, unlike 99.8% of other mammals, we lack the enzymatic pathways to create our own vitamin C, which is a powerful antioxidant, and apparently some nobel laureate thinks it's a miracle cure for atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease, etc. I read somewhere that goats, for instance, make loads of the stuff under stress as a way to increase their bodies' immunity. anyway, it worked for me, and it just might work for you, too. better living through chemistry, right?

so after you've prayed and taken lots of vitamins, and turned in your papers, I recommend making yourself a nice rum and coke. (p.s., if you refer to your drink as a "Cuba Libre," it makes it seem like you're making a political statement and that you're all suave and socially conscious--or maybe not at all, but that's what I like to do). I enjoyed two tonight. And now I'm going to prepare to hit the beach.

Happy St. Patrick's Day.


Tuesday, February 13

i love sooouup! (and NY, too!)

JD's parents came to visit this weekend. They like to take pictures. Lots of pictures. Even when they do not travel, they take pictures of the sunset from their house, of the snow outside in their get the [picture]. They are always eager to show us their photos, and to view ours (of which there are few). Since Thanksgiving, we have traveled to Atlanta for Christmas/New Year's, and to New York for a fun weekend. Including the shots we took with JD's parents at the aquarium, the count on the camera for 1st quarter 2007 is about 15. Approximately 2 of these photos feature JD, as I do not particularly enjoy wielding the camera. I am probably doomed by both nature and nurture, as when my parents "go on holiday" they will probably return with a disposable camera, on which 3 shots have been taken (all of alligators on the golf course and perhaps a crane [the bird, not the heavy machinery]). Very rarely are they themselves featured in a shot.

While I lamented that we were not able to see more in New York (I, for one, could have happily parked it in MoMA for a couple of days) JD explained to his parents that, pretty much all we manage to do on trips is to keep ourselves fed. This is true. And it's okay with me. I prefer to see places through the built-in lenses of my own eyes, and to keep as souvenirs the smells and tastes of particular locales.

I'm certainly not knocking sight--I'm very thankful for that gift. And I like watching tv (both the hilarious and the hilariously bad) as much as the next person. (Sweet Moses, I love Go Fug Yourself!) But I appreciate print culture more, and I like the imagination it requires. I recently re-read a book by that dame Iris Murdoch (she really was a dame of the Royal British Order; though she may have slept her way to the top...) in which she argues that visual art plays an important moral function, and that the greatest artists are charged with viewing humanity with justice and compassion, and that they have the ability to show us the world as it really is. I was conscious of this claim for the whole New York trip, and I was on the lookout to recognize such art. I felt both challenged and frustrated...and dumb. I was trying to avoid too-literal interpretations, but found myself caught in interpretive circles:
What was the artist trying to convey? Is s/he mocking us? What does s/he want me to see? Maybe I'm supposed to figure it out on my own? No, I think he's mocking us--somebody was really stupid to pay millions for this solid-colored canvas. I think I can paint that one at home. Yes, Mark Rothko, we get it; you like stripes. Yes, we see the variety of horizons this world has to offer, and the crushing weight of social stratification. What? That's not it at all? Whatever.
But then suddenly, I came face to face with van Gogh's Starry Night and Dali's Persistence of Time, and it was pretty amazing--right next to a painting by some artist I've never heard of, and so much smaller than I imagined--and I got a glimpse of what (an often posthumous) reputation gets you in the art world, and then I realized again how little I understand. But I appreciated that there were so many different people walking around in the museum, looking at these pieces that some cultural elites decided were important--and sharing something together--and I felt like a slightly more enlightened outsider. And I wanted to stay, and try to figure it out.

Murdoch talks about the virtues of "attending"--to seeing, and focusing on people, and places. As a good Platonist, for her, vision reigns. There is something noble about really looking, even at the things and people we see every day. And if it's not noble, it's at least funny:

JD's parents to JD after a day of sightseeing:
...and here's a picture of the building where you work!

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, January 2

happy new year!

happy new year, gentle readers. I hope you enjoyed the merriest of holidays. JD and I are back in town after driving from georgia yesterday, (with cats in tow). They are getting to be very good car riders, except I think Oliver is learning how to cast spells, because last night he was riding in the way-back with his nose smooshed against the back window, and the headlights went out in the car behind us, and the person had to pull over, and I think Oliver was responsible. He is also very good at opening the doors at my parents' house--a cat of many talents. (Can you tell that I read some Ramona [as in Quimby] over the break? I love Ramona!) I think my life to date has been governed by Beverly Cleary, Madeleine L'Engle and Milan Kundera. Every time I re-read their books, I am able to sense the impression that they have made on my life--existential and otherwise. I need to read more fiction.

So it is now 2007, and I am excited. I still have a lot of crap from 2006 to attend to, but I want to take this opportunity to turn over a new leaf. I have many resolutions, but generally speaking, I want to live my life better: do do things on time, to get more involved, to stop flaking out. My OC tendencies tend to flourish around the new year. I become conscious of and nostalgic about my activities: my last shower of 2006; my first hair washing of 2007, etc. but thus far, I am embracing my neuroses, as well as the opportunity for a fresh start. True, nothing really changes, except you have to remember a new date. But a '7' can look so elegant--I'm excited to write it!

Labels: ,