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Archive for February, 2010

I did a school show the other day at 2 pm. There were about two hundred kids sitting in the school auditorium No one died, but it was a dead crowd. Teachers and kids came up afterward and told me that they liked it, but you woudn’t have known it during the show. Most of them sat there, semi-comatose. Great periods of silence. Quite the contrast to the show I had done in the morning. That morning, it seemed I could do no wrong. What was wrong with my show in the afternoon?

I don’t think it was me.

If you’ve been performing for a while, you know a dead room almost immediately – three minutes into the performance, you’re pulling out all your tricks, every thing you’ve learned to get some kind of reaction, but they sit there, deep in their seats, and they ain’t moving for you. It’s just something to get through, and you accept it. It’s not always about me – it’s just where they are.

That show was a dead room. And the truth is, most school shows in the afternoon are much more difficult than the ones in the morning. The teachers don’t react. It’s harder to get the kids to participate. Their attention wanders. Everyone is tired. You can see it in their eyes and in the way they sit.

Generally, I try to avoid doing afternoon shows.

All this has me thinking about the move towards having longer school days. I would like to know whose bright idea this is. Who thinks that kids can learn more than a certain amount in any given day? Who thinks that extending the day will raise the almighty test scores?

Ask any teacher when they teach math and reading. Not at 2:30 in the afternoon, that’s for sure. It’s too late, at that point. As my memory serves me, that was when the health teacher taught us how to brush our teeth – a lesson I was taught every year, and a lesson I still haven’t learned, according to Peggy, my dental hygienist.

More instruction is not the answer to greater learning. It’s a simple answer, and easily instituted (ah, then, perhaps the politicians…), but not an intelligent one. The proof to this is the kids I meet who are taught well at home in a home schooling situation (and not all home schooling situations fit this description). Academics can be handled in a couple of hours, when the kids is alert and attentive. Another class at 2:45 is not going to solve the problems faced by the American educational system.

This observation is so transparent it boggles my mind that there’s any discussion about it. Who does anything well at 2 pm in the afternoon? A good time for a kickball game, I think. Or for doing something with your hands.

There are two arguments for a longer school day – one sad, and one logical, but not really about education. The first is that instituting a longer school day frees adults from having to deal with children for another hour or so. This is the argument for school as warehouses or holding bins – not a particularly positive aspect of education. The other, with more merit, is that for many kids, especially in urban areas, the late afternoon hours are fraught with danger – it’s when kids are most at risk for bad things happening. But this is not really an argument for more instruction, but instead an argument for a safe place for them to be.

Other than that, I don’t know why anyone thinks more hours of school is a good idea.

I sure don’t.

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There are a thousand songs I know and never sing. Many of them I learned when I was very young – so young I don’t even know where I learned them. The assumption is that they are genetic material, right next to the gene that houses my eye color and my predilection for large amounts of Heath bars.

Bu, of course, that’s not true. And there’s no reason a kid will know “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”, or “Do You Know the Muffin Man” – someone had to sing those songs to the kid – probably at least seven or eight times, and they had to sing it themselves.

We kind of figure that will just happen, but I’m not so sure.

I was at workshop of librarians recently and one of them said that she had visited ten pre-schools, and there was no singing in any of them. I would like to believe that the parents were taking care of the singing, but, um, that is a generous assumption. Most people don’t sing – they leave it to the experts (if I’m the expert we’re in trouble), and of course, singing isn’t for experts, it’s for humans in general.

How long does it take to lose a song? Jane Jacobs, in one of her last books, Dark Age Ahead, says it only takes one generation to lose part of a culture. If the parents don’t sing, and the pre-school teachers don’t sing, the kid ain’t gonna sing either. The song is gone. It may be in a book, but a song in a book, unsung, is a very sad little piece of information, and not really breathing.

Is something lost if we don’t sing something as simple as those songs we know but don’t sing?

Well, yes, something is lost. First, of course, because singing is part of being human, so not singing is approaching something else entirely, and I don’t want to see that permutation of the gene pool as it devolves. But second, those songs, those melodies, form a part of our common understanding. For sure, there are issues of cultural sensitivity, or white-guy dominance (“London Bridge” may have less value than “De Colores”, if those things are measureable) and we need to expand what we have in common. But those cultural references are important in conversations and community.

Songs we all know, in that way, are building blocks for a community we build. And I’m guessing songs do that better than guidelines for behavior or credos or laws.

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Last week the NY Times had a great op-ed piece about what schools need to teach. It’s so commonsensical it’s stunning, and  echoes what many of us feel about the current direction of education. Here’s the link – Playing to Learn. The discussion page of the article is good, too.

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J.D. Salinger, YA Novelist

Through an inexplicable set of circumstances, this letter has fallen into my hands, and I think it only fair to share it with my friends.

February 6, 2010

Mr. Jerome D. Salinger
New York, NY

Dear Mr. Salinger,

Thank you for submitting your manuscript, Catcher in the Rye, for consideration. We receive thousands of submissions, and apologize that it took fifty years to reach this point in our deliberations.

We love your writing, and think you show great promise. After a careful reading, our twenty-two year old intern has commented and we agree with her observations.

Perhaps you committed an oversight  in submitting your manuscript to the adult fiction department of Random Grouse. This is, quite clearly, a young adult (YA) novel, and should be considered by Random Grouse’s YA division, not the adult division. There is a current backlog there of seven years, but we think they are in a much better position to market your book. There is nothing to be ashamed of in having written a YA novel – the market is a good one, and we think that a book like yours will find a place on the shelves of many middle school libraries, and even a few high school collections. Many YA novelists have gone on to successful careers in the world of adult fiction, when they move on to a more mature subject. You will agree a pimply, callow high school boy is not the stuff that holds adult readers.

So, while we have to pass on your manuscript, we have forwarded your book to Delilah Scrum, a new editor (now a senior at Sarah Lawrence! Majoring in Communication!), at the YA division, and we certainly hope you hear from her.

With that said, I might note that we have several suggestions that might aid in the marketing of your book. Titles usually are chosen further down the line in the publishing process, but all of us believe that “Catcher in the Rye” is a rather obscure reference to a forgotten folk song; it will be hard to drum up excitement in the market. We suggest, “Don’t Be a Phony, Holden Caufield” as a possible replacement. It has the kind of snap young readers like.

Even though it is a YA novel, we think it might have a little more edge, too. Don’t forget, we’re competing with the new media! Underage drinking is one thing, but perhaps an estranged parent comes to him for help after some drug deal has gone awry  – that might add some interest! Does Holden have a distant cousin, a recent refugee from a war-torn country, engaged in the arms trade, that might show up pregnant on his doorstep?

And finally, we’re wondering if you have ever considered adding a vampire as a character. They’re hot right now!

Once again, we think you have a bright future as a writer for young adults. It is the one part of the market that seems to be expanding, and perhaps you should set your sights there.

Like, really.

Sincerely,

Flora Lipid
Senior Associate Assistant Editorial Consultant
Random Grouse Publishers

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Here’s a piece I sent to NPR – they didn’t record it, but put it up on their web page – so why not mine?

So I’m sitting in a fish and chips place in Valdez, Alaska, about 5,000 miles from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. At the next table are two guys that must be fishermen — big and burly, wearing their Extra-Tuff boots — sitting with two little kids of about 4 and 6. The kids are messing around, playing with their food, getting up from the table, waving french fries around, using them for helicopters or guns or conductor batons. The guys are trying to hold a conversation, which is nearly impossible with the constant movement and babbling of the kids.

Finally the one who is obviously the dad says, “Look, you’ve got to eat this. There are kids starving in Haiti. They don’t even have a place to sleep. They’d love this food. Now don’t waste it.”

Well, some things are eternal.

Most of us heard something like that when we were growing up. I heard it about the kids in Europe, and the kids in China. The next generation heard it about the kids in Biafra, or Bangladesh. Then Somalia.

Today, it’s Haiti and the words are being spoken by an Alaskan fisherman.

From the perspective of the kids, the statement suggests that not cleaning the plate is a moral failure on their part, and it rankles. I hated it, and couldn’t see the connection. I always figured my mom’s haranguing was because I was a lousy human, measured by my ability to clean my plate. When I was 5, I suggested we could send my bread crusts to Europe — an early student of sarcasm. Kids think they’re being judged and that the comparison is ridiculous. They don’t know what the parents are really thinking.

Watching that big guy, I realized it’s not about the kid’s need to eat bread crusts or chicken fingers. It’s about the parents’ world, and the parents’ unspoken judgment on themselves. The parent looks at the planet, sees the sadness in it, and is afraid that his kid is taking too much for granted. Afraid he hasn’t taught his children what they need to know about the world — how lucky they are. We have so much, compared with these who have so little. The chasm is huge, and it’s not that the kids are failing us; it’s that their playing with the food only points out the disparities.

The kids quieted down and ate a little more. The father shook his head — at the world, I think.

I watched it all, then ate all my french fries. It didn’t help anyone in Haiti. I’ll have to do something else about that.

Click here for the NPR link.

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