Friday, May 27, 2011

Return to "Foundation"

I don't have any major summer reading projects this year.  I had planned to read Infinite Jest this summer, but got pulled into an online reading project last fall and finished it in March.  I do have a sizable stack of books at home just waiting to be read, so I'll work my way through those.  One will be Noah Andre Trudeau's Gettysburg, since I'm going to a wedding there in July and I'd like to know more about the battle before I see the battlefield.  I have a few other non-fiction history books to read, such as a book on the Jewish Resistance during WWII and David McCullough's book about the Johnstown Flood.

But before I dive into all of that boring history nonsense, I'm re-reading Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels.  I devoured Asimov's fiction (and some of his non-fiction) as a kid.  I tore through the Robot novels, the Empire novels, and the Foundation series, all before I was in high school.  I remember them as fast reads but I don't recall much of the detail.  I do remember enjoying the Foundation novels more than any of his other books.  I think it was the concept of psychohistory that captivated me more than the ideas of robots solving crimes or a decaying galactic Empire. When I was home last October, I grabbed all five of the books I have in the series (not counting the two prequel novels, which Asimov wrote much later in his life) and brought them back to New York.  I think I'll read a Foundation novel, then read some non-fiction, then read another Foundation novel.  I think of them as palate cleansers.  Also, it means I'll spread out the fun over the summer.

I rarely re-read books.  The last time I remember re-reading anything was 2001, when I read the Lord Of The Rings trilogy for the third time, in preparation for the movies.  But every once in a while I think it's worth revisiting books that I've loved.  I listen to the same music over and over (though I introduce new albums all the time, I return to my favorites far more often) and I re-watch movies I love.  Why not re-read books and see what I missed the first time around?  Also, it's an excuse for me to keep all those books on my shelves.  I can always say "hey, I might want to read that again" when it comes time to clean the apartment.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Don't kill off high school English!

As an English major in college and a fan of great reading and writing, I read Kim Brooks' essay "Death to high school English" in Salon with more than just casual interest.  Brooks' descriptions of her students' high school English classes sound similar to my own experience with the same curriculum twenty years ago.  And I could see the roots of the English education that students receive now.

My parents claim that I would read the TV Guide to them before I was two years old.  I was a "gifted" student in elementary and middle school.  In my school district, the "gifted" class was mostly a double period of English, with some special projects in other areas (never math and science, though) thrown in.  I was probably atypical even then; I would read longer books than my classmates, like novels by Asimov and Clarke, and even George Orwell's 1984 in 1984 when I was 10.  (I admit that I was too young to understand much of that book, but I wanted to read it anyway.) 

When I got to high school, the students in the "gifted" program merged into the rest of the class year, and while we had a more advanced English class, we read much of the same material as everyone else in our freshman year.  I remember reading Romeo and Juliet, then watching Zeffirelli's movie of the play.  Then we watched West Side Story, because why not?  It's the same story, or so our teacher told us.  In my sophomore English class, the material became more challenging, and our teacher assigned a few of us Faulkner's Light In August as a small group project.  We had to give a presentation to the class, and after our bumbling effort she acknowledged that the book had probably been too difficult for us.  (It definitely turned me off to Faulkner -- I haven't read any of his other books yet.)  We wrote papers and took exams as well, but there were always group projects.

I took AP English my junior and senior years, and these classes were the reason I became an English major in college.  We read some of the same books and plays as our non-AP classmates, in particular Richard III, Macbeth, and King Lear in 11th grade and Hamlet in 12th grade.   And we had group projects.  But we also had surprise essay tests in junior year, which I realized too late were meant to prepare us for the AP English test.  (I never took the AP English test.)  Our 11th grade teacher taught us the MLA style manual and worked with our AP History teacher on grammar and spelling, since many of us took history as well.  She was tough but fair, never fun and seldom funny, but we learned a lot. 

My senior year English teacher took matters a step further.  We kept a journal four or five days a week, in which we had to fill two pages.  At first, she would give us a topic every day, but as the year went on and our ability to fill those two pages (and sometimes more) increased, she would give us a "free topic."  My friends and I used those free topics to write about our lives, comment on the news, and even dabble in fiction.  I researched and wrote a long paper on humor in literature and a senior theme on science fiction.  She was also tough but fair, and she encouraged us to be creative and find our own voices. 

I think I enjoyed my music and history classes a little more, but when I think about high school I remember reading Beckett's Waiting For Godot aloud as a class and writing an almost passionate explanation of Godot as God.  I think about writing that science fiction paper and editing it until it was perfect.  I think about those English classes and how they prepared me for college-level writing.  I left for Georgetown thinking that I would major in history, but my experiences in high school English and a few classes with excellent professors showed me that English was the better path.  But I was in high school English classes with other bright, creative thinkers.  I don't know what the rest of my classmates were doing, but I have a feeling it was more along the lines of what Brooks describes.

Brooks points out all the deficiencies of the modern high school English curriculum but doesn't offer any suggestions on how to improve it. Problems like class size, teacher workload, and classroom time aren't going away and are likely to get worse.  She talks about the need for greater emphasis on teaching how to research and on teaching style and grammar.  But the bottom line is here, from a discussion with her friend Amelia Shapiro, a writing tutor in Hawaii:

When I ask her why she thinks there's such resistance to prioritizing and teaching writing, given its numerous applications, given its overlap with critical thinking skills, analytical skills, basic communication skills, she hesitates for a moment, then answers in three words: "It's not fun."
My experience in high school was that writing was something fun.  I looked forward to writing in that journal senior year.  I still look forward to writing, even if it's just emails at work.  Despite all the obstacles, I hope that more students can see the value of good writing skills, and that those skills are the most important thing they can take away from their twelve years in the school system.  Any animal can eventually pound out a barely coherent email or text message.  Writing is what makes us human.   

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Were you voted "most likely to succeed?"

I was voted "Most Musical" in high school and I think I've lived up to that as best I could. But I hadn't thought about it at all until I saw this article.  If you're 30 and still dwelling on something from high school, you might want to talk to a professional.  You've got bigger problems on your plate.

Also, this (from Gawker writer Jeff Neumann):

The takeaway here? High school still sucks long after it's over.

Amen, brother.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Emanuel Ax and Mahler at the NY Philharmonic

Saturday evening's concert opened with a solo performance of Debussy's Pagodes, a “slide show” for piano (as Ax and music director Alan Gilbert explained before the concert).  Gilbert said that they decided earlier in the week to perform the Debussy work back-to-back with Olivier Messiaen's Couleurs de la cité céleste, as the two pieces were similar in style and theme.  The Debussy was a short but pleasant work, and Ax's work was delightful and charming.  Gilbert, who had been standing at the podium through Ax's performance, then cued the small ensemble (horns, trumpets, trombones, winds, and percussion) for the Messiaen piece.  I'm not a fan of Messiaen's music.   The only thing I could think during the performance (which was excellent, by the way) was that his music sounds like what happens when you try to make sense of a two-year-old banging on a piano.  His music doesn't sound like music to me.  It's barely controlled random notes.  And I say this having performed Messiaen with NYRO a few years ago.   I didn't understand it then either.

After intermission, I returned to the hall to a stage filled with chairs and percussion for Mahler's Symphony No. 5.  I heard Gustavo Dudamel lead the Philharmonic in this work a little over two years ago, and I think Saturday night's performance with Alan Gilbert was ever so slightly better.  Gilbert was in full control at the podium, using every inch of space he had to hold the massive ensemble together.   Each movement had moments that gave me chills and I hung on nearly every note.  Phil Smith on trumpet and Phil Myers on horn were both magnificent, and each received well-deserved cheers at the end of the piece.   I've been to every New York Philharmonic Mahler concert this year, and I think this one was my favorite.  I'm going to be thinking about this performance for a long time, or at least until they open next season with Mahler's Symphony No. 2, my all-time favorite.