By Ryan Tibbens
Public school teachers will attend tens of millions of hours of division-prescribed professional development this year. Almost none of it will help teachers learn more about ‘what’ to teach and ‘why’ to teach it. Nearly all of it will focus on ‘how’ to teach. That is ridiculous.
First, let’s acknowledge the power of pedagogy and honing one’s craft. Teachers should be constantly learning and sharing methods, increasing their arsenal of strategies to engage and affect an increasingly distracted and diverse student body. Teachers must also work purposefully to learn about new technologies and how to implement them (or not) in order to build “21st Century Skills.” Professional development must always include a consistent and sincere focus on pedagogy.
However, ‘how’ to teach is useless if the teacher does not know ‘what’ to teach or ‘why’ to teach some topics in depth, others in brief, and others not at all. Because teachers have traditionally been regarded as gatekeepers of knowledge, and because the first requisite qualification for work is a college degree in the discipline, many people falsely assume that teachers already know enough about their content. That is patently untrue.
Before we even worry about content-specific knowledge, let’s consider teachers’ general academic aptitudes. On average, teachers scored below average on the SAT when they were in high school. 54% of elementary teaching candidates fail the Praxis I test on their first try. Most data indicate that teachers have an average IQ of, well, around average. Praxis II (content-specific test) data is harder to come by, but even basic score ranges indicate great variation and suspicious pass rates. I’ve heard more teachers make the “Cs get degrees” joke than I care to count.
I’m not arguing that teachers are stupid. Most teachers are smart, hardworking, and functional in the classroom. Approximately 10% of teachers earned SAT scores in the top 20% (still a striking underrepresentation though). I’m simply arguing that teachers, on average, are average (particularly in lower grade levels). And we can all probably agree that, on average, we don’t remember too much detail from our own public schooling. But that’s what college is for, right? Uh-oh. Check out what the National Council on Teacher Quality found in a survey of elementary teacher preparation programs:
The teacher does not need to be the most intelligent person in the room based on IQ, but the teacher does need to be the most knowledgeable, the most aware, and the most (justifiably) confident. I remember being in classes when there was no doubt that the teacher was in the bottom half based on IQ and only somewhere around the top quarter based on content knowledge – it was the worst part of school for me.
So what do we do? Let’s get real. Let’s stop pretending that pedagogy and technology are the only things that teachers need to be trained on. If we’re going to sit through dozens of hours of mandatory professional development each year, is it crazy for a couple days to address content knowledge? Public school leaders always talk about creating “life-long learners” and “critical thinkers,” but how is that a likely outcome when teachers don’t learn more about their content and, to promote interdisciplinary connections and PBL, the other content their students study? If you don’t know stuff, you can’t think stuff; and if you can’t think stuff, then you can do much. Let’s empower our teachers.
Pedagogy is great. Technology is fine. But if we spend all our time worrying about “how” to teach without supporting “what” and “why,” then we’ve done our teachers, the taxpayers, and, most importantly, our students a great disservice. Bring back content-based professional development to inspire teachers’ curiosity, passion, and overall performance.
By Ryan Tibbens
I was recently shocked and amazed and horrified by certain responses to a popular tweet that read “Serious question... What is one non-salary related incentive your district could offer you to boost teacher morale? Superintendents, listen up.” Around 20% of the early responses focused on wearing jeans to work. Are you fucking kidding me?
Administrators: Quit bitching about teachers wearing jeans. And quit charging money to wear jeans – that’s not even a sensible fundraiser. That’s it. Just shut up and deal with real problems.
Teachers: Quit bitching like your pants are your most severe professional problem. If jeans are actually among your biggest concerns, then one of these statements is true: 1) You work in a nearly perfect school, are compensated well, have students who are well cared for and prepared, and have full community support (i.e. You’re delusional); or 2) You are too damn stupid to identify real problems and prioritize them, and, as a result, you should not be teaching. That’s it.
The Great Teacher Jeans Debate.
Some of you just rolled your eyes: “Not again.” Others had a very different response: “What debate? They’re just jeans…” Interestingly, both responses are appropriate. A tweet by @ModestTeacher helped bring this “problem” to my attention. Modest Teacher writes, “Serious question... What is one non-salary related incentive your district could offer you to boost teacher morale? Superintendents, listen up.” Through a bit of luck and selective memory, I was generally unaware that teachers’ legwear is such a contentious issue. I quickly scrolled through the hundreds of comments/replies to his tweet and counted no fewer than 20 comments about jeans, possibly more. Reducing class sizes, giving teachers unencumbered planning time, and increased autonomy are the only topics that appear to have received more support, and their counts are only marginally higher than jeans. Somehow, this is a big deal, but it shouldn’t be. Let me explain.
In some school divisions, the school board, superintendent, or building administrators have made rules against teachers wearing jeans to work. In some places, the policy is sacrosanct. I recently saw this post in a private principal/administrator group on Facebook: “Sadly, I just have had a staff diagnosed with cancer. Staff wants to raise funds. Original though was pay to wear jeans, but jeans are a no. Other ideas?” That principal went on to clarify that it is a district-wide policy; the rule is absolute with no exceptions or adjustments.
I student-taught at a high school that had a strict faculty dress code: men must wear button-down shirts with ties, dress “slacks,” no visible tattoos, no facial hair. At all. I had a friend who worked in a neighboring school and had to wear long sleeves, athletic compression sleeves, or gauze bandages to cover a beautiful tattoo on her forearm – as though making a 6th grade teacher look like a recent suicide survivor was less concerning than body art. As a student teacher, I had no choice in my placement, so I objected to the facial hair rule, and once they made that exception, I took the liberty of wearing a polo shirt on Fridays (and sometimes Mondays). The principal was quite serious too. After student-teaching there in the early spring, I was hired as a long-term substitute at the end of the year. The principal called me into his office to discuss the dress code (I kept using my modified version), general “professionalism,” and a picture of me holding a plastic disposable cup on my MySpace page (STFU, I’m old). After making passive aggressive assaults on my shirt, beard, and social media presence, he offered me a full-time job beginning the following fall. He saw no humor or irony. Since the quality of my work warranted a job offer, despite my “unprofessional” appearance, I took the additional liberty of wearing jeans on my final two Fridays at that school.
At my first full-time teaching position, the principal was relatively strict about pants as well. During my tenure there, at least two teachers were stricken with cancer and one birthed a child with severe disabilities. In response, the school community rallied together and supported each person in need – through paid “Jeans Days.” The concept was simple – Pay $5 (or maybe it was $3 at first), and wear jeans to work, with all funds going to the faculty members in need. I never really objected to helping those people, but the idea that my pants somehow affected my work was patently ridiculous. I made a habit of wearing jeans on “Jeans Day” without putting my money in the collective jar (I occasionally paid; other times, I slipped a few bucks directly into those teachers’ mailboxes. Sometimes I didn’t pay at all). I have no problem helping coworkers in need. What I have a problem with is the idea that I should pay to wear a pair of cotton pants textured differently than my normal cotton pants because one texture is somehow better for education.
Let’s be clear – pants CAN matter, but usually they don’t. In arguing that the “Jeans Debate” is stupid, I’m not arguing that we should entirely disregard pants. Assless chaps, thong bikinis, Daisy Dukes, or stinking, dirty, unwashed pants can present actual impediments to learning. But how are blue cotton jeans substantively different from tan cotton khakis? Sometimes people say, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” That’s how you can spot the future administrator-wannabes early – too many suits, too many pleats. For me, dressing for the job I want would mean sweatpants or mesh gym shorts or loose, comfortable khaki shorts – the job I want is “retired.” But the analog to that is dressing for the job I have. The job I have is educating high school students, a job I can perform better when the students find me both professional and relatable. Things 16-year-olds don’t find unprofessional? Jeans. Things 16-year-olds don’t find relatable? Pleats.
As we push for more and more motion in the classroom, more “active” learning, more kinesthetics, it seems reasonable for teachers to be comfortable enough to move. This is one more reason that PE teachers are the smartest people in any high school – they receive the same pay and benefits but do a small fraction of the planning, grading, and remediation of core content teachers AND they get to wear warm-up pants and shorts all the time. If a PE teacher can wear comfortable pants because they dress appropriate for their tasks, then I ask you: shouldn’t an English teacher wear whatever kind of wild Bohemian, beatnik writer bullshit he wants? Or maybe he’s thinking about reading… so he should wear pajamas. Right?
If you are a public school administrator who feels that jeans must either be banned or paid for, I have bad news for you – you’re an idiot or asshole. Maybe both. You probably have several thousand things that are more important, more pressing, in your building (namely, students). I started out by saying that I’ve had the good luck to forget all about the jeans controversy, and that is because I’ve spent nearly ten years working in a great school that prioritizes students and education. Our administrators focus on things that matter, and while professionalism certainly matters, wearing iconic American pants is not interpreted as a problem.
If you are a public school teacher who feels that wearing jeans is among your top professional needs or priorities, I have bad news for you – you’re an idiot or asshole. Maybe both. You probably lack the big-picture awareness necessary to accurately identify your students’ needs, your own professional needs, or the needs of your school system. You probably lack the intelligence and critical thinking necessary to teach students well. You also probably lack the attention span and reading skills to have made it this far down the page.
EVERYONE – FOCUS ON THINGS THAT MATTER. Jeans don’t matter.
(And yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of writing something like this about something that doesn’t matter.)
by Ryan Tibbens
I love to read and learn, but I don't have much free time.
Optimistically, I have a 45-minute one-way commute. I have a lovely wife and two children under the age of three. I teach high school English. I run a small private tutoring operation. I keep a large garden, a cat, and two dogs.
My reading life consists of "How to Keep [something] Alive" articles, current events, students' essays, children's books, and street signs. When I'm lucky, I find time to read a Facebook argument or a handful of Twitter posts. When I'm super lucky, I get to read an honest exposition as I'm falling asleep in bed.
In the summer of 2017, I subscribed to Audible in hopes of stimulating my brain and improving the quality of my 90-115 minutes in the car each day. It worked. Below, you will find a running list of my Audible listens. They are listed (mostly) in the order I finished them. Short reviews are provided; some works deserve their own short articles, which when ready, will be linked.
If you intend to purchase one of these texts via Amazon, please click the links here -- you pay nothing extra, but your purchase supports Read.Think.Write.Speak. We receive a small percentage even if you buy a different format (hardback/softback/Audible/Kindle/etc.) than the one linked. Finally, we highly recommend the Audible audiobook service. By clicking the links above and signing up, you receive a free one-month subscription, including two full books and two Audible originals, all of which you keep even if you cancel at the end of your trial. PLEASE use the links!
106) Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz -- ............ -- In Progress
105) Born a Crime by Trevor Noah -- ............. -- A
104) The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt -- ............... -- A+
103) Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond -- ................................ -- B+
102) The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Goodwin Woodson -- ............................... -- B-
101) Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie -- .............................. -- B
100) Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents -- ...................... -- A
99) Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World by Joel Salatin -- .................... -- A+
98) Animal Liberation by Peter Singer -- ...................... -- A
97) Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Watatsuki Houston -- .................. -- B-
96) No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State by Glenn Greenwald -- .......................... -- A
95) A Mind of Her Own by Paula McClain -- Historical fiction about Marie Curie.... -- B
94) Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover -- ................................. -- A+
93) Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell -- ........................ -- A
92) Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom by Kerry McDonald -- ............................. -- A
91) Napoleon Hill's Outwitting the Devil: The Secret to Freedom and Success by Napoleon Hill (and Sharon Lechter) -- ........................... -- C+
90) I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara -- I'm not much of a 'true crime' fan, so I didn't expect much from this book. However, it was highly recommended by several friends and fellow teachers; it was also written by the wife of comedian, actor, and Broad Run High School graduate Patton Oswalt shortly before her death. I gave it a shot, and I'm glad I did. My only real complaint about the book is that it is incomplete -- it presents a portions of the book, plus draft material, plus excerpts from other articles and essays, plus some material written or heavily edited by McNamara's friends and research team -- all because she died before it was complete. If we excuse this unavoidable flaw, the book is excellent. The writing is crisp and engaging, and the story itself is unbelievable. McNamara dives deep into one of the worst, and least known, serial killers and rapists in American history; she tells it all in a way that is both suspenseful and informative. I only wish she could have lived, both for her family and to see her obsession come to fruition. Even if you don't normally love true crime books, this is worth your time and attention. -- A-
89) Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum -- If you have ever attended or worked in a school (or anywhere else) with diverse racial and ethnic demographics, then the title should grab your attention. It grabbed mine. While the book does contain some excellent research and perspectives, it rarely offers anything truly new or unique. This book might function well as assigned reading in a college course, but adults who choose this text will likely already be familiar with many of the concepts and issues addressed. Personally, I felt like the book was at least twice as long as it should have been, and the new prologue goes on forever without making any clear connections to the purpose of the rest of the book (aside from general discussion of race in society). If you haven't read much about race and racism through anthropological, sociological, and psychological lenses, then this will be an informative, if somewhat boring, read. If you already have some reading and knowledge on the subject, then this might not be fulfilling. -- C+
88) Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (Book 1 of original 007 series) -- I'm a long-time lover of Bond films, but I had never read any of the books, so when 'Casino Royale' went on sale, I jumped at the chance. Just like the movie, the gambling scenes go on (perhaps) a bit too long, but the writing is good, surprisingly good. Fleming's attention to detail both build suspense and create realism. Despite loving the movies, I really didn't expect much from the book and was pleasantly surprised. I now hope to read more of the series in the future. -- A
87) Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote -- Full confession: the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's is my all-time favorite "chick flick," though its use of a male protagonist might technically remove it from that genre. I've read that Capote disliked the film and thought Audrey Hepburn was the wrong actress for the part, which seems insane to anyone who has seen the film. However, now that I've read the book, I understand his concerns. The book is a bit more realistic than the film, less flighty, less whimsical, and even a bit dark at times. Holly Golightly is still charming and spontaneous, but there seems to be more vanity, more selfishness and shallow behavior; well, maybe not more, but the negatives are certainly more obvious and bothersome in the book. Despite the differences, I liked the book quite a bit, and its short length and character-driven story make it a good pleasure-read at the beach or on a rainy day. I might still like the movie better, but the book is excellent as well, for slightly different reasons. -- A-
86) Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling -- ........................... -- A+
85) Hacking Darwin by Jamie Metzl -- ........................... -- A
84) The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien -- ........................... -- A+
83) Lying by Sam Harris -- ........................... -- B
82) How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About... by Michael Pollan -- ........................... -- A
81) I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong -- ........................... -- A+
80) Free Will by Sam Harris -- ........................... -- A-
79) Candide by Voltaire -- ........................... -- A-
78) The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump (listened several months ago and accidentally missed it lower on this list) -- ........................... -- B+
77) Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama -- ........................... -- A
76) Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance -- ........................... -- A+
75) The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell -- ........................... -- B+
74) Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts by Annie Duke -- ........................... -- B+
73) The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein -- ........................... -- A-
72) Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell -- ........................... -- A
71) Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut -- ........................... -- A+
70) The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin -- ........................... -- C-
69) Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl -- ........................... -- A
68) On the Duty of Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau -- ........................... -- A
67) Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom -- ........................... -- A
66) Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo -- ........................... -- C
65) Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon -- ........................... -- A
64) The Greatest: Muhammad Ali by Walter Dean Myers -- ........................... -- B+
63) The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde -- ........................... -- A+
62) Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger -- ........................... -- A
61) On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder -- ........................... -- B+
60) Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll -- ........................... -- B+
59) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl -- ........................... -- A-
58) Anthem by Ayn Rand -- ........................... -- C+
57) The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway -- ........................... -- A+
56) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle -- ........................... -- B+
55) The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch That Changed My Life by Rick Ankiel -- ........................... -- B+
54) The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan -- ........................... -- A+
53) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander -- ........................... -- A+
52) Bill Bryson's Appliance of Science by Bill Bryson -- ........................... -- B+
51) The Circle by Dave Eggers -- ........................... -- A-
50) You Need a Budget: The Proven System for Breaking... by Jesse Mecham -- ........................... -- B
49) What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman & Ralph Leighton -- ........................... -- C+
48) Gilgamesh: A New English Version by Stephen Mitchell -- ........................... -- C+
47) Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team by Steve Sheinkin -- ........................... -- A
46) The Art of War by Sun Tzu -- ........................... -- C+
45) TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson -- ........................... -- A
44) A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore -- ........................... -- C+
43) Apocrypha Now by Mark Russell & Shannon Wheeler -- ........................... -- A-
42) The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan -- ........................... -- A
41) The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels -- ........................... -- B
40) The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad -- ........................... -- B+
39) King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild -- ........................... -- A
38) God Is Disappointed in You by Mark Russell & Shannon Wheeler -- ........................... -- A+
37) Widow Basquiat: A Memoir by Jennifer Clement -- ........................... -- A
36) Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari -- ........................... -- A-
35) The Stranger by Albert Camus -- ........................... -- A-
34) The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert -- ........................... -- A
33) The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli -- ........................... -- C
32) The World According to Mr. Rogers by Fred Rogers -- ........................... -- A-
31) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari -- ........................... -- A+
30) Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, translated by Sam Torode -- ........................... -- B+
29) The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston -- ........................... -- B-
28) Money Management Skills by The Great Courses, Michael Finke -- ........................... -- B+
27) In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan -- ........................... -- A+
26) Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell -- ........................... -- A
25) When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi -- ........................... -- A-
24) Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande -- ........................... -- A
23) The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch -- ........................... -- A-
22) The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff -- ........................... -- A
21) I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers Edition) by Malala Yousafzai & Patricia McCormick -- ........................... -- A
20) What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel -- ........................... -- B-
19) Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary by Walter Dean Myers -- ........................... -- B+
18) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley -- ........................... -- B+
17) Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin -- ........................... -- B
16) Meditations by Marcus Aurelius -- ........................... -- A+
15) On Power by Robert A. Caro -- ........................... -- C+
14) Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk -- ........................... -- B-
13) 1984 by George Orwell -- ........................... -- A
12) One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey -- ................... -- A
11) Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel -- .............. -- A+
10) The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Human Cooperation by Matt Ridley -- This book serves as some kind of extension or re-telling of the development of morality within human evolutionary psychology as told by Robert Wright in The Moral Animal (below). As a fair disclosure, I loved The Moral Animal, and I've read several other books by Matt Ridley. The Moral Animal is more literary somehow, perhaps due to the use of Charles Darwin's letters and life as a case study of human morality. Still, some reviewers were not as positive about Wright's work as me. Enter Matt Ridley. What this book lacks in literary stylings, it makes up for in thorough research and more clear explanations of the modes of evolutionary psychology. If you have a sincere interest in the subject, I recommend reading both books. If you prefer the literary, go with Wright. If you prefer a more direct expository approach, go with Ridley. I recommend this book -- A.
9) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque -- This is one of the greatest war novels (and anti-war novels) of all time. Taking the perspective of a young German soldier in World War I, Remarque shows war for what it is -- sad and scary and confusing and terrible. Hemingway and a slew of other authors changed how the world thought of war after WWI, but perhaps none did it better than Remarque. Hemingway said, "They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason." Remarque breathes life into that same concept. Teachers might pair this with Johnny Got His Gun, Born On The Fourth Of July, The Things They Carried, War, or Tribe (and a dozen others). Highly recommend -- A+.
8) Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk -- Probably the crowning achievement of Palahniuk's ever-expanding catalog, Fight Club offers immense insight into a spiritual erosion that has become so common in modern society that we often don't even notice it. Consumer culture, discomfort with masculinity, and finding meaning all share the stage. The movie is fantastic, one of my all-time favorites, and this book deserves the same respect (plus, with some dialogue changes and a different ending). I highly recommend -- A+.
7) Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut -- Vonnegut's best-known work, this modern classic is equal parts science fiction and anti-war novel. The writing is crisp and direct, the morals are generally good, and the innovative plot structure deserves analysis and respect. That being said, this was my third or fourth time reading the book, and for some reason, I think I like it less with each additional reading. So it goes. This book is great, and if you've never read it, you should. Strongly recommended -- A-.
6) The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley -- While it may not be the most entertaining read, this book is an argument for progress and a defense of it. An antidote to the usual doom-and-gloom that dominates academia and major media news outlets, Ridley's central thesis is that quality of life is, and has been, improving for nearly everyone on the planet for decades. One of his many sub-claims is that our progress is largely the result of capitalism, which will make the book more controversial to some, particularly political liberals and progressives. However, Ridley is very much in agreement with mainstream history, most economists, and accepted scientific theory, so while we might ~feel~ like we disagree with him, it is difficult to do so while thinking clearly. Even if you prefer the doom-and-gloom caution so common elsewhere, The Rational Optimist is a book deserving of your attention to provide balance and critical thought in otherwise dogmatically pessimistic conversations. I highly recommend. A-.
5) The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac -- A couple of my friends from high school LOVE this book and have recommended it to me since we were around 16. I read On The Road at least four times between high school and college, so I can't fully explain my hesitance about The Dharma Bums. The book does start slowly with far too much (fictional) name dropping and introduction, but once the characters make it to the mountains, the story and message become more clear. It's not On The Road, but it is quite good and in some ways might be more thoughtful. I recommend it -- B.
4) The Martian by Andy Weir -- I'm not a huge science fiction fan, but this is a very good book and a GREAT audiobook. Something about the writing style and the reader's style came together to bring this book to life. The movie is quite good too, and if I was reading the book (as opposed to listening), I'd say they're even in value; however, the audiobook does something special. I strongly, strongly recommend the audiobook to anyone who likes science, science fiction, adventure, or character-driven dramas. Excellent. A+.
3) The Evolution of God by Robert Wright -- One part history, one part theology, one part psycho-analytic criticism of traditional western religious texts, this book offers a crash course in religious teachings, Middle Eastern and Roman history, and cultural evolution. When I cross-checked some passages with my favorite priest, he agreed with ~nearly~ everything and even suggested that most of it was 'old news,' at least to him and those with similar educations. I doubt most Jews, Christians, and Muslims would see it that way. If you have an interest in religion, history, and/or cultural evolution, I highly recommend. If not, then I still think it's worth checking out, but maybe borrow it from the library and wade in cautiously. A-.
2) The Road by Cormac McCarthy -- This harrowing tale of a father and son surviving in a post-apocalyptic world is both beautiful and terrifying. I'm glad I waited to read it until after having children; my inability to stop thinking about my son during particular passages made the book one of my more intense literary experiences. And if you have seen the movie, promptly forget it and check out the book -- much, much better. A modern classic, I highly recommend it -- A+.
1) The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology by Robert Wright -- An intriguing look at human evolutionary psychology and the evolution of morality, this book is both well written and well researched; it also provides an intimate, basic biography of Charles Darwin. For those with curiosity about, but limited background knowledge of, evolutionary psychology, this is a great place to begin. Highly recommended -- A.
By Ryan Tibbens
Before proceeding, please read this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education in which they detail JMU’s X-Labs class, a new project-based, experience-based, experimental design in which students work collaboratively and creatively. At least read the first half. Okay, fine, here’s the essential concept for you bums: "Tackling big problems is the point of JMU X-Labs, a four-year-old experiment in undergraduate education. Through a blend of interdisciplinary collaboration, project-based learning, and unscripted, open-ended research, each course takes students through the long and often aggravating process of developing new ways of thinking about complex problems. They might design drones to help with environmental problems, tackle foreign-policy challenges, build autonomous vehicles, or develop medical innovations to help with the opioid crisis. If everything goes well, students will produce a prototype of a product, plan, or service in 15 weeks." [Link]
If that sounds interesting, check out the article and JMU X-Labs’ website. If that sounds ridiculous, it might be even more important for you to check out the article because the education pendulum is swinging fast, and project-based and/or interdisciplinary learning (hopefully) is coming next. Whether you want to ride or dodge the pendulum, you should know more about interdisciplinary learning than your school’s mandatory training is providing, including what is happening at the college level.
I find myself in an interesting position because of my age and role as former student and current teacher. See, before No Child Left Behind was implemented, there was already a growing call for some standardization or assessment to merit a high school diploma. I graduated from high school in Pennsylvania in 2001, which means I completed a “Senior Project” as my standard assessment to earn a diploma. Of course, the PSSAs (statewide standardized tests) were introduced soon thereafter, and the project-based graduation requirement went by the wayside. As a student, I neither loved nor hated the Senior Project. I complained about it with all my peers because it was new and because the previous graduating class didn’t have to do it and because none of my teachers seemed too interested. But in process, the work wasn’t bad because I picked something I liked, and I made my own plans, timeline, and goals. The only real requirements were that the project must take a minimum of 100 hours to complete (between freshman and the beginning of senior years), it must yield demonstrations of learning in three or more subject areas (I think), and it must culminate in a 15+ minute formal presentation to school shareholders (teachers, parents, administrators, and community members) with a Q&A at the end. Now, as states try to reduce the number of standardized tests students take (particularly in non-Common Core states like Virginia), “Senior Projects,” internships, and performance-based assessments are all the rage.
While many teachers, students, and researchers will argue that a shift away from the intense, nearly-constant testing of the last two decades is good overall, few seem clear on what should be next. This is usually a discussion about assessment – not learning. Most states and school divisions have no serious plans to abolish the traditional subject areas, to reduce the number of required courses in each subject, or to give students more choice or opportunities to specialize. Public schools (and their governing bodies) seem content to continue the status quo in terms of curriculum and course offerings (after all, they’re noncontroversial, safe, and easy to schedule). Instead of offering real choice, as learners might experience in college or the job market, schools are now promoting more “student voice and choice,” more station work, more targeting of learning styles, and ubiquitous differentiation within each separate subject. And that is insane.
This kind of planning is time intensive and complicated, reducing a teacher’s ability to work one-on-one with students, reducing relationship-building, reducing any potential “authentic” experiences by keeping them divided by subjects, reducing the efficiency of planning and grading. Sure, a project in my English class might include content from history or math, but the students will receive no credit for it in those classes because not all my students are in the same maths or at the same levels or with the same teachers. Instead, they’ll surely be assigned yet another project or learning-style-station activity in that class, further burdening them with time-consuming projects that won’t cross over to other subjects.
Enter true interdisciplinary learning. Rather than have teachers in each subject area pretend to provide choice (I’m serving up one entrée, but you can pick your sauce), why not give students a real opportunity to choose their classes? Why not give them the chance to enroll in a class that exists solely for the purpose of activating their brains through self-selected, interdisciplinary, project-based learning? More and more universities are creating interdisciplinary, project-based courses; more and more companies are looking for young employees with these experiences. These experiences lead to a wide variety of personal and academic growth, and because everything occurs in one class, it is no harder to schedule than anything else. How can we make it happen? While the final goal might be for all school work to take this form, we have to start somewhere. First, offer the interdisciplinary class; then, to make sure students actually enroll, adjust the number of required courses in each subject area, or allow the new class to substitute and earn a credit in whatever subject area the student chooses. Rather than push for more choice inside each strict, narrow subject area, we must give students real choice (while giving teachers expectations they can manage AND giving administrators courses they can facilitate).
“Student voice and choice” within mandatory classes in separate, traditional subject areas is fake, phony, fraudulent. If we really care about student engagement, creativity, and higher order thinking, we need to create a class solely based upon the principles of interdisciplinary, inquiry-based problem-solving. And once we do, I want to teach it.
Extra: For additional commentary on the problems with education dogma, including learning styles, check out ClassCast Podcast Ep.016: Learning Styles < Relationships.
Pictures courtesy of JMUXLabs.org.
By Ryan Tibbens
Check this out: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/performance-artist-eats-120-000-banana-duct-taped-wall-calls-n1097696?cid=sm_npd_nn_tw_ma. It's funny, right? An artist, previously best known for creating a $1million solid gold toilet (recently stolen from a British palace), created a new piece called “Comedian,” which is composed of a real yellow Cavendish dessert banana duct taped to a wall. Someone paid $120,000 for it. When stories of this “art” sale hit major media outlets, those media outlets also reported the public’s “outrage.” Then, two days later, the same media outlets reported that a man claiming to be a “performance artist” ate the banana, without permission, in a performance piece he calls “Starving Artist.” Again, we were told that people were outraged. People can act outraged by the money wasted, the people who could have been helped, the degradation of art, or even the general stupidity; but reality is even more outrageous.
First, we are asked to believe this is newsworthy – some jackwagon tapes a banana to a wall; then some rich idiot pays the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree worth of tuition, room, and board for it; then some other jackwagon eats the banana. Then the art gallery curator “replaces” the banana – new banana, new tape. Their spokesperson said, “[The performance artist] did not destroy the art work. The banana is the idea.” If this is newsworthy, then we have two options: we're all idiots, OR the artists are geniuses because they are forcing us to reflect on what art is, what money is worth, what people are worth, and how to deal with idiots.
Consider the absurdity of the following screenshots from NBC and Fox News:
Second, in terms of wealth, the top .01% of Americans (~200,000 households) own as much wealth as the bottom 90% (~110,000,000 households). The top 10% own as much wealth as the entire middle class. I’m not a communist, but when there are nearly 500,000 unconvicted people sitting in jails, most because they can’t afford bail, and some wealthy paint-sniffer buys a banana and eight inches of tape instead of freedom for thousands of people… Well, ready the guillotine. 12.4% of US households live below the poverty line (and a whopping 48% of people in Puerto Rico). There are tens of thousands of families who earn less than $15,000 per year, and all those families know that bananas cost about 60 cents per pound – PER POUND. They also know that an entire roll of duct tape costs about five bucks. Some people don’t know what things cost because they don’t have to pay attention. The current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is massively wealthy – her family controls more than $5,400,000,000 (BILLION) dollars, nearly all of it inherited. Despite the fact that she’s never held a regular job, DeVos could buy “Comedian,” the taped banana, 45,000 times and still live like a middle class person. When the people running the country live like THIS (seriously, click the link – you will be amazed and nauseated), while the median American home is approximately 2,300 sq.ft., we have a problem, and it’s bigger than some banana art.
It seems every time I hear a debate over refugees and asylum, somebody says, "It's not that I'm opposed to helping, but we can't even afford to take care of our own." But that's not true. We can take care of our own. We can take care of every person in the country if we want, and substantially more than that too. We choose not to.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that this artwork isn’t the real story – wealth inequality is. You don't have to be a communist to agree that something is wrong, and you don't have to be a communist to see that massive wealth inequality is bad morally and economically. If you’re outraged by the banana art shenanigans but don’t connect the absurdity to excessive wealth, then your outrage is misplaced. The banana art is just a symptom of the problem. And who knows? Maybe the artist was trying to make this point all along. For now, eat your bananas, and eat the rich.
By Ryan Tibbens
(Order information available at the bottom.)
The novel, which follows a white tweenager and black man as they run away from abuse and oppression down the Mississippi River, is not only anti-slavery, but anti-racist as well, an uncommon position in the 1880s. Many modern Americans fail to realize that even most abolitionists held intensely racist beliefs. However, Mark Twain was not among them. After being asked about black students entering prestigious universities in 1885, Twain had this to say: "I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it." Twain went on to pay the full tuition and costs at Yale Law School for Warner T. McGuinn, one of the first black students at the school and later a lawyer praised by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and others. The point here is that the novel is not a promotion of slavery or racism; instead, it is biting satire of all the worst parts of American culture (in Twain's eyes) -- racism, slavery, abusive parents, alcoholism, blind nationalism, religious revival movements, bawdy entertainment, con men, and stupid, ignorant, gullible, and mean people of all kinds. Unfortunately, people have always misunderstood the book. After its initial publication, it was criticized as "indecent" and "shameful" because of its humor, its use of a child narrator, its use of dialect, and even its anti-racist message. By the second half of the 20th century, people began to object to the book's inclusion of the dreaded "n-word." However, even that criticism was not always genuine or fair. Many people who objected to the book's message of racial equality and inclusion used the racial slur as an excuse to remove the novel from schools. More recently, people offer sincere objections to the book's racial slurs. One professor, Dr. Alan Gribben, recently revised and republished The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn through a company called NewSouth Publishing; in his text, he replaces every instance of the word "nigger" with the word "slave." Gribben claims to have made the change to reduce teachers' and students' discomfort with the text and class discussions; however, it renders the book colorblind. Gribben's edits put modern readers' focus on slavery, which had been illegal for nearly two decades when Twain published the novel, rather than race, which is the real core of the book. Consider that Twain writes and publishes this book in 1884 but sets it in the 1830s or 1840s. Why? Because a story with a race-related moral would be better understood by his audience if put in the context of slavery. When we replace racial terms with slavery terms, we confuse the issues. We forget that the vast majority of slaves in world history have not been black and that the vast majority of black people who have ever lived have not been slaves. Surely Twain opposed slavery, but the slavery issue was mostly settled at the time of publication. This is a book about (and against) racism. People's objections to Twain's use of the n-word are fine on the surface, except that the book is among the most anti-racist books of its era, perhaps any era; the language is more symptomatic of time period and realism than intent. That is not to say that readers' concerns, objections, and feelings aren't legitimate -- they are. Revered history professor Sterling Stuckey says, "In my judgment, 'Huck Finn' is one of the most devastating attacks on racism ever written.'' As intelligent, culturally-literate Americans, we must deal with a tough question -- should we ever be asked to experience discomfort on our journey to enlightenment?
Enlightenment is at the heart of this great novel. In perhaps the plot's most important moment, young Huck grapples with society's ethics, his own morals, racism, slavery, and his loyalty to his friend Jim, a runaway slave. When faced with a decision between leaving Jim to be re-enslaved far from home, returning him to his 'rightful' owner and be re-enslaved, or defying all his school, church, and social learning by working to free Jim from his new captivity and continue to help him find freedom -- a decision between doing the 'right thing' according to society or the 'right thing' according to his heart -- Huck declares, "All right then, I'll go to hell." Huck may not have achieved true enlightenment just yet, but he makes a choice that he never regrets and that shapes his future acts -- he will always do what is right, regardless of what society says.
Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a leading candidate for the title of 'Great American Novel.' It incorporates important elements of our national ethos: rugged individualism, naturalism and realism, complicated history, racism, slavery, coming of age, and -- above all -- the ongoing struggle between personal morals and social ethics. Because of the book's language, fewer and fewer teachers use this book, often deciding that "it just isn't worth the trouble anymore," but growth is rarely easy, progress requires a struggle, and art thrives on challenges. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, though not perfect, is special, is purposeful, is thoughtful, is moral, decent, and a must-read for any person desiring better understandings of morality, racism, or American culture.
This book deserves an A+ for its literary innovations, cultural significance, and educational offerings.
Support ReadThinkWriteSpeak by using these links for purchase. You pay nothing more, but Amazon sends us a small portion of each sale to support this website and local classroom needs.
ORDER INFO: The first book link above (McDougal Littell Literary Connections) is recommended because it the copy that Mr. Tibbens has and that the school offers. Class discussions and lectures will include book references and page numbers from that edition; it is available for purchase via the link AND for free borrowing from the school book room. The Bantam (2nd above) and Dover (3rd above) editions are of similar cost and quality, though the Bantam version has slightly larger margins for annotating. The Norton (4th above) is a nicer binding and includes analytical and informative support texts, but it does cost a bit more. The 5th book is a reprinting of the original text, including illustrations and other extras from early printings. Any original, unabridged edition of the book is acceptable for class use. Ebooks and audiobooks are widely available (often for free/cheap), but they make annotations extremely difficult, so they are not recommended unless paired with a traditional hard copy. Contact the teacher with questions.
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Because no one else