6/24/2012

Kissing in the Rain

 
 
Why the predominance of movies featuring characters kissing in the rain (or surf, or snow)?

Any competent English teacher would tell us that rain symbolizes change; kissing in the rain, therefore, symbolizes a change in the relationship between the characters.

A psychologist would probably tell us that being wet symbolizes vulnerability - a state in which we allow our normal inhibitions to lapse.

Cinematographers would probably tell us that this has to do with good film-making - precipitation is inherently dynamic and dramatic.

Obviously, there IS a reason ... how else to explain the number of enormously romantic movie kisses that occur in the damp? The following is not a comprehensive list, but does include some of my all-time favorites.

George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffanys


Rachel MacAdams and Ryan Gosling in The Notebook




Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in Australia


Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in Spiderman


Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell in 4 Weddings and a Funeral



Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly in Pirates of the Caribbean
Channing Tatem and Amanda Satfried in Dear Joh

Colin Firth and Renee Zelwegger in Bridget Jones's Diary


Bill Murray and Andie McDowell in Groundhog Day

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity

6/16/2012

What's Wrong With Our Current Educational System? 7 Fatal Flaws We Must Address



What's wrong with our schools? Why isn't our education system churning out students prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century?  Why don't any of our "fixes" ever seem to work?

The problem is that any real, comprehensive list of what's wrong with education cannot help but shed sobering light on the enormity of the problem(s) we face.  Addressing any of the following would require a Herculean combination of political will, social reform, and disregard of powerful lobbying interests the likes of which our current democratic construct - with its fixation on short-term "fixes" and over-reliance on campaign financing - is wholly unequipped to address.

The irony, of course, is that until we start correctly identifying the problems we face, we fatally undermine all efforts to identify effective solutions.

Without further ado, then, here they are: my nominees for factors that are robbing our students of the education they need and deserve.
  1. Education by Tradition. Schools still look a lot like they looked back in the 1900s: emphasis is on kids sitting in classrooms, learning the three 'R's, and making it home in time to help out with the harvest. And we wonder why they aren't preparing students for the 21st century? We need to "re-invent" how we "do" school - purpose, structure, and curriculum.
    1. Purpose.  Right now our college prep curriculum is training 100% of students to be scholars - which has more to do with "the Great American Dream" than the reality of 21st century America, which requires a healthy blend of both scholars and worker-bees in order to maintain a robust economic structure.
    2. Structure. Why are we still closing schools over the summer?  Research shows that we are wasting too much time every fall re-teaching students what they forgot over the summer.  Shorter, more frequent breaks would be much more efficient
    3. Curriculum.  Our curriculum needs to be completely rethought.  Way too big a topic to discuss here, but if you're interested in some specific ideas, check out my blog post on the topic.
  2. Education by Fad. Perhaps more than any "profession", educators seem delighted to jettison research-proven instructional methods to chase after "fads". Don't believe me? How many of the following "fads" do you remember from your own schooling? Open classrooms, whole language, invented spelling, new math, fuzzy math, touch math, universal design, multiculturalism, self-esteem/praise, discovery learning, thematic instruction, outcome-based learning, classical education, affective learning, cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, brain-based learning, learning styles, mnemonics/memory tricks, alternative assessment, Socratic teaching, grouping, block scheduling, on-line education, response to intervention, vouchers, charters, etc. Believe me now? The problem, of course, is that we have NO VALID (research-based) EVIDENCE that any of these fads actually improve learning.
    1. Just because an intervention worked under certain conditions doesn't mean it will generalize to all conditions. (It usually doesn't.)
    2. Just because something correlates with success doesn't mean it caused that success. (Ex: playing a musical instrument doesn't make you smarter - rather, parents who require their children to play a musical instrument also tend to require their students to take school seriously. They correlate, but one does not cause another.)
    3. Just because someone wrote a book about something doesn't mean they know what they're talking about. (Often they don't.)
  3. Minimum Competency Standards & Testing. No Child Left Behind had admirable intentions, but also one fatal flaw: minimum competency testing.  Why is this a flaw?  Because intelligence is variable (distributed along a bell curve), approximately 10% of students are cognitively incapable of achieving "minimum competency."  Therefore, the only way states can "win" (achieve 100% pass rates) is to cheat - by dumbing down either the standards or the tests.   Not to mention at least three other unintentional outcomes:
    1. Every time we applaud students for passing minimum competency standards/tests, we send the message: "minimum competency is good enough!"
    2. Minimum competency tests "cheats" the ~30% of students with above average IQs by shifting resources away from them.  
    3. Multiple Choice isn't "real life".  Because they're easy to grade, schools and states are increasingly relying on multiple choice tests.  Unfortunately, these tests rob students of the opportunity to develop/practice critical thinking skills by generating their own answers.  Also, they suggest to students that in "real life," questions have right/wrong answers - when in fact answers are almost NEVER wholly right or wholly wrong, and choosing between them requires that students possess the very critical thinking skills that multiple choice tests deny them.
  4. Worshipping at the Alter of Technology.  First it was white boards. Then it was smart boards. Now it's online classes.  I grant that technology is a wonderful thing, but there's a reason it took a $10M computer to compete with humans on Jeopardy.  Technology alone simply cannot replicate the critical thinking or the give/take of human interaction which is modality in which about 90% of us learn best. 
  5. Business Models Can Fix That.  Am not saying that there aren't some business principles that can, and probably should, be applied to education. Just saying that anyone who thinks the "magic bullet" to improve schools rests in the pages of the Harvard Business School Annals is at best naive, at worst dangerous.  Here are some of the reasons why:
    1. Businesses can choose the raw materials they use. Schools have to mold their product from the raw materials (students) they are given.
    2. Business processes can be standardized. Humans learning can't be standardized.
    3. Businesses use money to incent employees.  Schools must rely on students to incent themselves.
    4. Businesses control their own finances.  School finances are doled out at the whim of federal, state, and local agencies
    5. Businesses operate in a relatively free market. Schools are constrained by often onerous regulations (8hrs/day, no summers, no overtime, etc.)
    6. Businesses are run by people who know business.  Schools are run by politicians who often know little/nothing about educational administration.
    7. Businesses have metrics they can use to determine quality/success. Measuring quality of instruction/student "success" is infinitely more difficult.
    8. Businesses can accept a certain amount of loss.  Schools cannot ethically tolerate any loss - not as long as each loss represents a child deprived of the preparation they need to become functional citizens and adults.
  6. The Blame Game.  Just now it's fashionable to assign the blame for what's wrong with education on teachers, implying that somehow "bad teaching" is a recent phenomenon.  Can we not all agree that bad teaching has been around for decades? Here's what hasn't been around for decades: drugs, single parent households, technology distractors (internet/phones/DVDs/etc.), ADHD, universal educational mandates .... just to name a few. At the cost of repeating myself, until we start correctly identifying the problem, we sabotage all efforts to identify effective solutions.  (For a more in-depth discussion of why teachers aren't the ones to blame, check out my blog post on this topic.)
  7. State Funding of Education.  As long as state tax dollars provide the main funding for education - putting schools in competition with health care, pensions, and pay raises - there will always be built-in disincentives to provide adequate funding for schools.  How is it fair (or effective) that the quality of education a student receives depends on the state they happen to reside in?
Feeling hopeless?  Believe it or not, that's not my intention.  But what I do hope is that, after reading this list, citizens will think twice about the next politician or reformer who comes along claiming they possess the "solution" to what's wrong with education.  If you believe that, then I have some nice snake oil you might be interested in ... because there is nothing simple about what it's going to take to implement the reforms necessary to "fix" what's really wrong with our current educational system.

6/07/2012

Ray Bradbury: 10 of his Most Prescient Predictions




People who know me well, know that I've been obsessed with Ray Bradbury's fiction most of my life.  I'm not sure I've read everything he's ever written, but I bet I've giddily consumed about 90% of his catalog.  Few writers combine brilliance and prescience with Bradbury's swoon-worthy gift for story-telling and language.

As a tribute to Mr. Bradbury, who died earlier this week at the age of 91, I'm breaking my habit of posting purely original content in order to repost this thought-provoking list compiled by The Washington Post.   People who scorn readers/writers of science fiction would do well to consider the frequency with which their "flights of fancy" prove prescient.

  1. Earbuds.  The people in the “Fahrenheit 451” society sport “seashells” and “thimble radios,” which bear a striking resemblance to the earbuds and Bluetooth headsets of today.
  2. Flatscreen TVs.  Members of “Fahrenheit 451’s” futuristic society are also as obsessed with their large, flat-screen televisions as are any of today’s technophiles, and the viewing screens in Bradbury’s stories often take up an entire wall.
  3. "The Wall".  In fact, the novel mentions that people are talking to their digital friends through the wall — the same terminology that Facebook would use years later for the digital hub that enables friends to post and see messages.
  4. Social isolation.  The loneliness that can come from constantly paying attention to the screens around you, rather than the life around you, is a prevalent theme in Bradbury’s work. He explores it in his short story “The Pedestrian,” in which protagonist Leonard Mead is arrested for the dual crimes of taking a walk and not owning a television. Far ahead of the research and analysis that have spawned books on the effects of technology overload, such as Sherry Turkle’s “Alone Together,” Bradbury outlined how he feared televisions would change the world. In this passage, he compares a neighborhood of television-watchers to a tomb: “[He] would see the cottages and homes with their dark windows, and it was not unequal to walking through a graveyard where only the faintest glimmers of firefly light appeared in flickers behind he windows. Sudden gray phantoms seemed to manifest upon inner room walls where a curtain was still undrawn against the night, or there were whisperings and murmurs where a window in a tomblike building was still open.”
  5. Self-driving cars.  “The Pedestrian” also features a self-driving — and self-thinking — car that arrests and commits the protagonist to a mental hospital. While far less advanced and much less sinister, self-driving cars are already on U.S. roads, as part of a Google project. As of last month, Google’s cars — clearly marked — can legally drive on Nevada’s roads and highways as long as two people are in the car during the tests.
  6. Rising electronic surveillance.  The idea of electronic surveillance also popped up in Bradbury’s work, way before closed-circuit television became a fixture in major cities around the world. He was early in warning people about how such surveillance could be abused — worries that still echo today.
  7. Short attention span "news".  Bradbury’s criticism of the coverage of live media events in “Fahrenheit 451” is fodder for media critics’ columns today. Bradbury disparaged constant, sensationalized news.
  8. ATMs.  Bradbury also envisioned automated banking machines in the novel, which bear a striking similarity to the ATM and provide 24-hour financial information to their users.
  9. Artificial intelligence.  In “I Sing the Body Electric!” and other stories, Bradbury explored artificial intelligence and the philosophical implications of advancements in AI that could perhaps produce thinking, feeling machines.
  10. E-books.  Books as a medium aren’t banned — thank goodness — in today’s society, but reading a paper and glue version of a story isn’t as common as it once was. Bradbury loved actual, physical books, as my Washington Post colleague Alexandra Petri points out in her tribute to the writer, and would not allow “Fahrenheit 451” to be published as an e-book until last November, the Guardian reported. He once said that e-books “smell like burned fuel” to him, but he allowed his classic to be published digitally because it wouldn’t be possible to have a new contract without e-book rights.















6/05/2012

Book Look - Lord of Misrule, Jaime Gordon


Back in Roman days, the Lord of Misrule presided over the celebration of Saturnalia, a holiday during which the ordinary rules of life were subverted - masters served their slaves, wives and husbands switched duties, etc. If there is a theme in this novel - and you have to look hard to find it - it's how casually (and sometimes cruelly) the lives and expectations of humans are subverted by the ultimate Lord of Misrule, fickle fate.



Appropriate that a story about the subverting of "sure things" should be set at a racetrack. What setting better lends itself to a tale of people needing desperately to believe they can exert some control over fate, only to discover otherwise? Tommy Hanson, the story's reagent, believes he can make a fast buck running ringers in a series of cheap claims races - only to see his best-laid plans thwarted right out of the gate. (Pun, sadly, intended.) Maggie, Tommy Hanson's girlfriend, carelessly indulges her penchant for violence and risk by hooking up with Tommy, confident that she can control whatever chaos ensues - only to find herself in a situation that she genuinely cannot control. Medicine Ed, an old groom at the dead-end racetrack where Tommy and Maggie wash up, believes his "goofer dust" can "magic" horses into winning - but finds himself paying a terrible price when he tries to use it. Meanwhile, various mobsters operate (mistakenly) under the arrogant delusion that they have the power to predetermine the winners of races; a rather decent gentleman by the name of Two-Tie believes (mistakenly) he will be able to protect his niece Maggie from herself (and in the process redeem a mistake he made years before - which doesn't happen either); a female jockey believes (mistakenly) that she can "sing" a washed-up "could-have-been" champion into winning; all of which culminates in a final stakes race in which fate truly has the last laugh, orchestrating the most improbable of all possible outcomes (which, don't worry, I won't spoil here, but be sure to appreciate the glorious chaos and irony of Gordon's big finale when it comes). Ultimately those characters who learn to bow to the whims of fate survive, those who insist on trying to control their own destiny come to bad ends (madness, death), and fate spins on, unflustered and unrushed, God's eternal hot-walking machine.


I mention that the book really is "about" something, because the vast majority of favorable reviews I've read don't even mention the plot, focusing almost entirely on the story's "Runyan-esque characters" and the author's "unique voice" - both of which I found so off-putting, I very nearly didn't finish this. With apologies to the National Book Award people, are you guys sure you weren't so dazzled by Ms. Gordon's literary furbelows - her faux-authentic racing lingo, her nervy employment of dialect, her flashy shifts in point of view (including whole chapters narrated in second person - there's something you don't see every day!), her fearless embracing of physical and spiritual ugliness, her disdain of quotation marks and other grammatical conventions - that you neglected to notice that extent to which these flourishes make the book laborious to read and distasteful to digest? Yes, I valued the humanity of Medicine Ed, Deucey, and the few other palatable characters in the novel; I appreciated the inherent nobility of the horses, selflessly sacrificing their sinews (though never their dignity) to fate; and I definitely teared up at Two-Tie's sacrifice. But even these weren't enough to offset the sense of general "yuckiness" left behind by the loathsomeness of the imagery (too much violence, bondage, humiliation, sweat, stench and snot!) and the moral turpitude of majority of characters in the story; my annoyance over the lack of quotation marks; or my frustration at the author for sacrificing good storytelling to the Gods of Modernism (or perhaps to the National Book Award gods, in this case).


Am not sure I've ever read a book over which opinions were so polarized - half the people loving it, the other half loathing it. I'm willing to come down somewhere in between - but having said that, am not sure I'll be reading anything else by Gordon in the future. This felt like way too much work for way too little reward; too much frosting over too little cake, if you will. Literary critics and book prize judges will have to fawn over Gordon's next tome without me.