States debate over voluntary social studies standards, or, what I learned in Social Studies

March 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

I don’t know about you, but when I was in school, our well-meaning social studies and history teachers rarely made it through their intended curriculum. In high school, no class I took got beyond the Vietnam conflict. We were lucky to make it to World War II. Even in college, my American history courses usually got stuck near the civil rights movement. Consequently, my knowledge of recent history (say, 1950 to 1997, when I became conscious enough to start paying attention to the world around me) is rather lacking. Most of what I know comes from quick Wikipedia scans after reading news articles referencing something I haven’t heard about before, or something I am vaguely familiar with, but don’t know enough detail to understand why it’s relevant to the story I’m reading/watching/hearing.

Heck, let’s be totally honest.* Even the stuff we managed to cover in class is rather fuzzy to me. Sure, I know when the American Revolution took place, the reasons behind the Civil War, that there was something called the Teapot Dome or some such, that FDR was the first and last president to be elected to more than two terms. But local history? Women’s history? Some element of detail? Not so much.

I certainly don’t fault my teachers (well, maybe a couple, but definitely not most). I remember quite vividly some of the lectures, discussions, and assignments from their classes. They were trying their hardest, and doing a good job, in my opinion. And I definitely learned something, even if we didn’t get to everything they had planned or hoped.**

Now, I bet you’re wondering why I’m rambling on about my experiences in social studies and history classes. Well, it’s because I’ve been reading several books about accountability, testing and curriculum, and because I read this in Education Week today.

I was far out of school by the time NCLB came into being, so I really don’t have much of an idea on the impact it has had in the classroom, other than what has been described to me and what I have read. But it seems to me that if social studies, history, and other non-tested subjects have been increasingly marginalized in favor of math and reading, then students who are currently graduating from high school (like my younger brother), will have little chance of knowing even the few things I managed to hold on to from the classes I took when I was in school.

Yet, part of me wonders what kind of impact voluntary standards like the ones described in Education Week. Obviously, there is political debate over what should be included in the standards. There always will be. But if there is a state-wide requirement of what must be covered, no matter the political “leaning,” teachers may be forced to go from in-depth coverage of subjects (usually the reason the class falls behind schedule) to a more cursory coverage of the required items. I have trouble seeing how that will benefit the students’ understanding.

One last thought, on a positive note. I am happy that states are deciding to emphasize the importance of social studies, history, and other subjects which are not included in testing. Whether or not this importance gets translated into class time, or into actual learning and understanding by students, will be seen in time.

*The two people who read this won’t judge, after all.

** Here, I bet some of you are thinking, “But Courtney, you have a BA in history! Surely you know more than you let on!” Which is true… if you want to know anything about the reign of Mary I of England, or Cardinal Reginald Pole, papal legate to England during her reign. Outside of England in 1553 – 1558, I’m fuzzy about quite a lot.


New books in the main library!

March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

The following books will be shelved in the CHILD LIT section in the lower level of the library:

Crossing Stones (CHILD LIT PS 3556 .R5982 Cro 2009)

Purple Heart (CHILD LIT PZ 7 .M13679 Pur 2009)

Lost (CHILD LIT PZ 7 .D29392 Lo 2009)

Jumping off Swings (CHILD LIT PZ 7 .K7621 Jum 2009)

The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had (CHILD LIT PZ 7 .L57842 Bes 2009)

After (CHILD LIT PZ 7 .E273 Af 2009)

Gringolandia (CHILD LIT PS 3613 .I5626 Gri 2009)

Check them out soon!


March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Another book ordered by a faculty member. Who can resist a book in a bright yellow cover, with a peace sign and a psychedelic school bus? Not me!

Capricorn Anderson and his grandmother, Rain, are the last holdouts living on the commune Rain helped to found in the 1960s. Cap knows only his grandmother, who is his caregiver, friend, and teacher. Though he occasionally ventures into town with Rain, he knows nothing about modern society; they do not own a TV, computer or phone.

When Rain falls out of a tree while harvesting fruit, Cap gets in trouble for driving her to the hospital (he’s only 13). He is placed in temporary foster care while Rain recuperates in the hospital, and for the first time in his life, finds himself navigating the social melee that is public school.

Cap soon finds himself elected 8th grade class president! Only, it turns out that the honor is really a joke played on the geekiest 8th grader each year. Cap more than fits the bill: homemade tie-dye shirts, long hair, tai chi on the school lawn, general naivite about everything that is important to his new classmates. Much to the annoyance of his would-be bullies, Cap refuses to let anything get to him.

The story is told from multiple characters’ perspectives, giving us differing views on the same situations. I appreciated this much more than an omniscient narrator; the character personalities could literally speak for themselves, rather than being described by the narrator.

I found myself chuckling throughout this book. Cap’s innocence is endearing, if hard to believe. The book deals with social issues such as bullying, cliques, and materialism while remaining light in tone and entertaining. It is a quick, satisfying read.

Fun with books!

March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Not only can you read them, you can make poetry with them! This is like the literary version of magnetic poetry. Love it!

I haven’t worked out logistics, but I think this would be a great way to introduce students to a library collection, as long as you don’t mind putting all those books back when they are done.

Teens charged after classmate’s suicide

March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

In the last few years, there have been many reports of bullying resulting in teen and pre-teen suicides. In Massachusetts, nine teenagers are facing felony charges after a 15-year-old girl hung herself.

Some seem to blame high levels of media coverage of teen suicide with a rise in suicide rates. Others blame teen’s use of the Internet, texting, and social networking sites to extend bullying “beyond the schoolyard.” Whatever may be the case, this is a sad phenomenon.

As educators, future educators, or simply those with children or teens in your life, what do you think? What could be done differently by parents, teachers or communities to prevent more tragedy?


March 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

I have wanted to read a Chris Crutcher novel since I saw him speak at the Iowa Library Association in 2007. It was my first professional conference, and he was both a keynote speaker and a presenter. During his keynote address, he read the first few pages of his book Deadline, and explained the plot. I remember thinking it sounded pretty good.

Like many of the other books I have already written about, I purchased Deadline last fall per the request of a faculty member. As soon as it was barcoded, I read it. I also recommended it to a friend, and she read it at the same time so we could discuss our opinions about the book.

The verdict? We both loved it. My friend told me she was surprised by the fact that she did, since the book revolves heavily around the main character’s experiences on his high school football team, and the subject is pretty morbid. I agreed on all points.*

Growing up in rural Idaho, Ben Wolf is old for his grade. As a child, he was small, so his parents kept him from starting school for an extra year, in the hopes he would grow to be the same size as the other children. As a result, he turns 18 the summer before beginning his senior year, and is in the same class as his younger brother.

Shortly after turning 18, Ben discovers that he has a terminal illness. He forbids his doctor from telling his family (which he can do, since he is “of age”), and decides to keep his diagnosis a secret.

Despite his short stature, Ben was a cross-country champ. His new mission, however, is to pack as much life into the year he has been told he has left. He drops cross country and tries out for football. He asks the girl of his dreams on a date. He drives his American Government teacher mad, asking tough questions, and debating him on every point. All the while, he fights to keep himself as healthy as he can, and debates the wisdom of keeping his condition to himself.

Crutcher packs a ton into this novel. And when I say a ton, I mean a TON: physical abuse, sexual abuse, family bonds, mental illness, racial tension, politics, religion, the pain of loss, the meaning of life… you name it, it’s probably there somewhere. I think he deals with all of these subjects extremely well, especially given the novel’s length (about 330 pages). I appreciated that no character is depicted in black-and-white terms; every person Crutcher introduces us to has a nuanced personality. A less-skilled author would not have been able to pull off so much in so little space anywhere near as effectively.

Ben’s voice is authentic. Having a brother who is the same age, I can vouch for the mannerism, phrases, thinking and speaking patterns of Ben and the other teenage characters.

If you read this novel, and I think you should, be prepared to be shocked, amused, enraged and saddened in turn. Also expect to stay up way past your bedtime, because you won’t want to put it down.

*Though, here I must confess that I really love depressing stories. The more depressing, the more I usually like it.

The Agency: A Spy in the House

March 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book after reading the review on Misfit Salon.

1850s London. Mary narrowly escaped the gallows at the age of twelve. Convicted of stealing, she is sentenced to hang. But she is rescued by the ladies at Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, where she is receives an education, and eventally, employment. When Mary is 17, she discovers that the school is also a front for an agency of female spies. The Agency banks on society’s low expectation of feminine intelligence and ability, and places its agents as domestic servants. Mary’s first assignment is seemingly simple: act as a paid companion in the Thorold house, and listen for any discussion of illegal shipments being handled by Mr. Thorold’s shipping business. Of course, the situation turns out to be more complicated than Mary or the Agency originally suspect.

As I have said before, I tend to avoid books that place girls and women in stereotypical roles. This book is exactly the opposite. Nothing is as it originally seems, and strong female characters abound. Several times, Mary lets a male acquaintance “have it” for underestimating her.

The action in this book moves quickly, keeping the reader’s attention. In fact, I found myself needing to go back a few pages several times to pick up an important bit that is mentioned seemingly in passing. Though I guessed the end (I’m very good at guessing plot twists, and there are subtle clues for those willing to be on the lookout for them), I was surprised at how it came about, and several details caught me off guard. Kudos to the author, Y.S. Lee for keeping me guessing.

I was very impressed by the character’s dialogue. To me, it seemed accurate for the period. In comparison to the “journal entries” in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, the syntax and word choice in The Agency: A Spy in the House is more believable for the Victorian era.  I attribute this to Lee’s expertise in Victorian England (she holds a PhD).*

Finally, I agree with Misfit Salon that I wanted more detail about Mary’s training as a spy. Though it is believable that a young woman who was formerly a thief, and whose life depended on being stealthy, would need little training in the art of spydom, detail into her brief training would have proved interesting. Perhaps this will be fleshed out in one of the planned sequals?

*Or, perhaps, I am more accustomed to reading English works and letters than American of that period.

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