Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Fat Celt Wept

We're studying Japan and Korea in my grade 7 social studies class and this week, among other things, we've been talking about the atomic bomb. Yesterday I thought it would be a good idea to read Eleanor Coerr's Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes aloud to my students. Since I was in 4th grade the last time I read that book, I had forgotten just how sad it is. It's probably the saddest kids' book I've ever come across, after Charlotte Graeber's Mustard. So anyway, I got to the end, where it reads

The next time she awoke, the family was there. Sadako smiled at them. She was part of that warm, loving circle where she would always be. Nothing could ever change that.

Already lights were dancing behind her eyes. Sadako slid a thin, trembling hand over to touch the golden crane. Life was slipping away from her, but the crane made Sadako feel stronger inside.

She looked at her flock hanging from the ceiling. As she watched, a light autumn breeze made the birds rustle and sway. They seemed to be alive and flying out through the open window. How beautiful and free they were! Sadako sighed and closed her eyes.

She never woke up (Coerr 63).

and of course I had tears streaming down my face like a goddamn girl. Gah! I'm 6' tall, 240 lbs with a shaved head and a chinstrap beard and I'm crying like a baby in front of a bunch of preteens. All I could think to say was, "Sorry, guys, It's a sad book." It's part of my nature to be a sentimental mangina on the best of days, but I'm good at covering it up with my relatively scary appearance, deep voice and witty faux cynicism.

But not yesterday.

I'm not a "new age" guy. I'm not "emo." In fact, my wife can probably testify as to how insensitive I am. But I'm easily moved to tears by literature. That part in Chaucer's "The Knight's Tale" when a dying Aricte cries, "Mercy, Emilie!" gets me every time. Never before, however, have I gotten all weepy in front of a class full of kids.

I guess the point of this story is twofold: a) I'm a big, bald pussy; and b) If you're going to read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes to a grade 7 class, practice in private and make sure you can get through it first.

Jezis Maria.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Golden Compass: Atheist Propaganda?

I just read The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked, a 23 page tract by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights about how Phillip Pullman wants to turn my kids into atheists. I get the impression that this is the kind of controversy he's been looking for all along, but the stupid things people are saying about his books still get under my skin.

According to the Catholic League, the point of The Golden Compass movie is to slip a camouflaged, diluted form of atheism in under parents' radar to get kids hooked. These brainwashed youngsters will then ask for the trilogy of novels for Christmas, and their atheist indoctrination will be well underway. I haven't seen the TGC movie yet, and I've heard Hollywood has watered it down and omitted some of the more explicit connections between the Magisterium and the Catholic church in order to give it a broader appeal. If this is true, it's unfortunate, but the filmmakers obviously did this to placate Christians (who probably comprise the majority of the film's U.S. target market), not hoodwink them.

I wonder what the halfwits who are up in arms about The Golden Compass would make of the works of William Blake or John Milton. If they can't even get through 3 children's books, relying instead on secondary sources like the "synopsis" in the aforementioned pamphlet, it's probably safe to assume that it won't ever become an issue.

Rupert Kaye, chief executive of the Association of Christian Teachers, claims it is "revealing... that Pullman chose not to add Allah to his list of names" (for God, depicted as a mendacious angel called the Authority in the books). Now that's food for thought: the atheists in league with Islam. Mr. Kaye has obviously considered this scenario carefully.

Says Caroline Moore, comparing TGC to Narnia in The Spectator: "Lewis's version is informed by his Christianity; Pullman's driven, far more explicitly, by militant atheism." Apparently Christians are informed but atheists are driven, just like the animals they believe we're descended from. When Richard Dawkins compared atheist and homosexual politics in The God Delusion (a book I found snide and disrespectful of religion and which, incidentally, sings Pullman's praises), I thought he was being melodramatic. Now, I'm not so sure.

I support Philip Pullman unequivocally and I will continue to encourage my students to read his books. Censorship, ignorance and hysteria are enemies of truth and beauty, of civilization and of God.

Monday, December 10, 2007

It's Monday Morning Again

I hate Mondays. The following is a small but representative sample of what my morning has been like:

ME: Turn to a clean page in your notebooks. I'm going to put our Venn diagram up on the smartboard.

GRADE 7 GIRL: I don't have my notebook.
ME: You can go to your locker and get it.
GIRL: I don't have a notebook in my locker, either.
ME: Then take out a piece of paper. I don't care, you need to get this down.
GIRL: I don't have any paper.

At this point, the homunculus who sits in my frontal lobe and keeps me from getting fired (or arrested) most days caught me getting ready to shout, "Are you goddamn fucking RETARDED or something? This is SCHOOL!"

Fortunately, what actually came out was, "What did you think we were going to be doing today, [name omitted]? Get some paper from someone else. Now, please."

After class had ended, I found she had left me an origami crane on my desk (made out of paper) with a note (written on paper) that read as follows: "To Mr. Mac: Sorry about the silliness today in class. I'm just trying to make friends. I only have two good friends like I said SORRY!"

If I had any hair, I'd be tearing it out today.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Monday, December 3, 2007

Rest in Peace, Daniel Pearl (1963-2002)

I just watched the film A Mighty Heart, which tells the story of the abduction and murder of journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan in 2002. After I watched the movie I went online and found the actual video of Pearl's beheading here. Warning to anyone who follows that link: it's pretty graphic.

Human life is sacred, and so are its remains. I only hope Mr. Pearl's murderers get the chance to meet their God.

(Photo found here).

Let's Pretend Our Kids Are 20% Smarter

Where I'm from (Nova Scotia, Canada) the minimum passing mark is 50%. Here in Maine, it's 70%. At first glance, it seems like students are being held to a higher standard, but in reality the kids simply receive easier tests and assignments so that few or none of them get low marks. A 70% pass makes it harder to encourage struggling kids to put more effort into their studies (what student will believe hard work pays off when her score of 16/20 earns a C grade?). It also makes it harder to convince high achievers that it's OK to take risks and make mistakes (the two best ways for gifted students learn to think critically and self-critically) when a 2% loss drops their scores a full third of a letter grade. Most gifted kids are smart enough to see "the game" for what it is, but they are less likely to experiment with changing the rules or pushing the envelope if their college applications are at stake.

Now, I'm no information theorist, but it seems to me that a complex informational entity (e.g. what a given student has learned over, say, a 5 month period) can be more subtly and accurately represented by 50 smaller units of information than by 30 larger, more blocky chunks of information, just as a greater number of smaller pixels can draw a more detailed character in a video game. There is an elementary concept at work here that even a mathematical ignoramus like me can grasp.

When the minimum passing grade is high, educators have 2 options: they can give out more failing grades, or they can make the work easier. Since more failing students cause a teacher to have to deal with more headaches and meetings after school with concerned or angry parents, I'd be willing to bet a lot of teachers just inflate grades (Sally's project was great so she gets 105%, but Leon's was mediocre so he only gets a 92%) and dilute the curriculum (What are 10 things about Japan that everyone in the class will be able to memorize at least 7 of?).

According to the principles of "differentiated instruction," it's practically undemocratic to fail a student anyway.

After spending some time working in public schools, I am seriously considering sending my own children to private schools, if and when I can afford it. These may well breed elitism, but at the end of the day I'd rather my kids end up elitists than complacent illiterates.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

H.P. Lovecraft on Church

This passage is taken from H.P. Lovecraft's short story, "The Silver Key":

In the first days of his bondage he had turned to the gentle churchly faith endeared to him by the naive trust of his fathers, for thence stretched mystic avenues which seemed to promise escape from life. Only on closer view did he mark the starved fancy and beauty, the stale and prosy triteness, and the owlish gravity and grotesque claims of solid truth which reigned boresomely and overwhelmingly among most of its professors; or feel to the full the awkwardness with which it sought to keep alive as literal fact the outgrown fears and guesses of a primal race confronting the unknown (Lovecraft 54).

I don't go to church. I find Christianity philosophically and aesthetically interesting, but in my experience its public practice, at least in this part of the world, is rather uninspiring.