Saturday, August 2, 2008

Johnny Rotten -- Defender of Family Values

Now Johnny Rotten is quoted in the AP as saying that the punk movement was all about "family values". What happened to this guy?

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Buddha by Osamu Tezuka

As history, I have no doubt that Tezuka Osamu's Buddha has taken some liberties with the narrative of the Buddha's life. As a piece of writing, however, this is an excellent retelling of the life of the Buddha. In the first volume of this eight volume series, the reader is given a general overview of some of the main characters and the background story. The Buddha himself only makes an appearance late in the book and even then, he's a baby. There are several narrative paths all of which converge by the end. The narrative flows smoothly and Tezuka does a great job creating between the reader and the several characters and even manages to make some of the more unappealing people rather nuanced and sympathetic.

There will be some people for whom the historical inaccuracies will get in the way of their enjoyment of the book. I would remind those people, however, that some of the most beloved works of literature are themselves gross distortions of history. Shakespeare's "history" plays border on fabrication, Mallory's Mort Darthur isn't exactly accurate and in fact literary representations of historical events have always taken a good deal of license with their subject matter. Yet somehow, there are a group of literary snobs who won't accept contemporary historical fiction and turn up their noses at all contemporary retellings of history. They have no apparent problem with their beloved cannon doing the same, but if contemporary authors do it, it's an outrage. Buddha is a literary retelling of the life of the Buddha and as such, it is most definitively not sold as nor intended to be a historical retelling of his life. It's an enjoyable introduction to this topic and has undoubtedly inspired lots of people to learn more about the life of its subject.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Watchmen

It's hard to categorize The Watchmen. It's a graphic novel, to be sure, but it's got many layers to it. It's a period piece, set in the Cold War. It's an ethical treatise, pitting rival versions of morality against one another. It's an explication of human nature. It's a postmodernist deconstruction of the superhero genre. And it's many more things -- I suspect reading it again will reveal further levels.

Alan More and Dave Gibbons set their story in an alternative universe where superheroes are real, Nixon was elected for a third term,and the U.S.A. won the Vietnam War. The Superheroes, however, are not all that super. In fact, they're pretty pathetic characters whose powers are pretty much non-existent (with one notable exception). The plot centers around the death of several of these superheroes and a few of their rivals and twists into an incredibly detailed (and at times convoluted) story. There are also multiple subplots and numerous secondary characters as well as a comic within the comic and an intriguing text-based extracts from various primary sources set in this alternative timeline.

This isn't a book I enjoyed in they way I enjoyed some other graphic novels, and it's almost more akin to the comic equivalent of Franz Kafka. It's a disturbing and morally ambivalent universe that Moore and Gibbons create and the good guys aren't all that good and the villains are more pathetic than evil. Most of the heroes are pathetic vigilantes and their political philosophy is pretty much racist and fascist. Liberals aren't portrayed much better and come across as either hopelessly naive or as ruthless as their conservative counterparts. The illustrations do a great job of reflecting the atmosphere and Gibbons does a great job of recreating the style of earlier comics; there's a grimy and depressing quality to everything.

The Watchmen deserves its reputation and it deserves all the praise it's received. It won the Hugo Award and was named one of Time Magazine's top novels of all time a few years back. If you have a preconceived notion of comic books or superheroes, this book shatters everything you've thought about the genre. I don't think that everyone will appreciate this book -- there's just something odd and demented about it. I also found it a bit slow to get going but I think that's because I had trouble getting past my preconceived notions about superheroes. If you're patient with the book, though, and give yourself some time to reflect on the book once you've read it, you'll be more than rewarded.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Disrupting Class

Most of us in education are pretty resistant to having people in the business world tell us how to do things. I'm not taking sides on this one, but it's a professional bias. I've learned that the business world actually does have some things we in education could learn. Since everyone went to school, everyone feels they are an expert in the field and as such are qualified to offer their recommendations. One often hears the lament that schools need to be run like a business. Of course, one could argue that schools are actually far more successful than businesses, but that's another story...Like I said, I see both sides of this issue.

So when I picked up Clayton Christensen's Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, I felt all my old biases coming back to me. He's a professor at Harvard Business School and I figured he'd drag out all the old saws we educators hear. But the book was a bit of surprise to me and I found myself agreeing with much of what Christensen had to say. Essentially, the book argues that new technologies ("disruptive technologies") are about to pose a serious threat to traditional education. With the current emphasis on differentiated instruction and individual learning styles, technology-based, individualized instruction is going to subtly, but rapidly, overtake traditional education. I've heard Faith Popcorn raise the same issue at the National Association of Independent Schools' conference, but she was not nearly as convincingly.

These new technologies are developing primarily in the form of online courses offered outside of the traditional school structure. This is an important point for Christensen and he draws a parallel to how home computing developed in the shadow of mainframe computers and eventually gutted that industry. Right now, the online education field is meeting a completely unmet need, serving primarily kids who cannot receive certain types of instruction in their own schools. As this "industry" develops, it's going to be able to provide kids with far more customized instruction to meet kids' different learning styles. He predicts that by around 2012 or so, that around 50% of seat time in classes will be through online courses. I think that's a bit too quick, but I don't necessarily dispute the general point.

He points out that the current system is inherently incapable of adopting this revolution precisely because it is successful. At best, the system will attempt to cram new technologies into the existing paradigm. He points out industries that have tried to do this and failed and he also points to some educational efforts with the same results. None of this is actually an assault on traditional education per se. He argues that it is doing a very good job on its own terms. The problem is that these disruptive technologies are creating a paradigm shift that will make whatever improvements we've made obsolete.

He's not predicting the end of schools as such, but he is arguing that schools are going to look very different in the future. He foresees charter schools and pilot schools becoming more prominent and he argues that we will need to recognize that the idea of comprehensive schools will go by the wayside. We're going to need to customize schools to meet all kinds of learners in the future. He also sees that what teachers do will also change pretty dramatically. He uses that hackneyed line of us becoming "guides on the side" rather than the "sage on the stage". I hate the line, but see his point.

The end of the book seems to drift off topic a bit and has a fairly extensive critique of current educational research, but for the most part, Christensen's argumentation is crisp and concise. His conclusions are definitely controversial and will undoubtedly upset some. I don't know that I agree with him 100%, but I do think he raises some important issues that we as educators need to look into and address head on.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Arab in America

Toufic El Rassi's "Arab in America" is a graphic novel depicting his life in the U.S.A. He's of Lebanese/Egyptian ancestry but grew up in the U.S. His experiences have not, to put it lightly, been pleasant. He tried to assimilate as a young man, but anti-Arab sentiments continually pushed him away. Much of the book is a chronicle of how El Rassi feels American culture has pushed him away and denigrated his heritage. He relates stories pre- and post- 9/11 of how Arabs are portrayed in popular culture; lumping all Muslims under the inaccurate moniker of "Arav"; portrayals of Arabs as inherently anti-American and potential terrorists. He's frustrated at liberals who "speak for him" but don't quite get the source of Arab resentment. He rails against the "War on Terror" and the indiscriminate renditions, imprisonments, and deportations. El Rassi also looks at how his fellow Arabs respond to these conditions -- from attempts to assimilate even more to efforts to embrace their Arab (and Muslim) identities.

The U.S.A. depicted in this book is not a welcoming place and is certainly not the U.S.A. we'd like to think we are. I'm not sure El Rassi's entirely fair to portray this nation as such an uncharitable and intolerant place, but I think he's got legitimate grievances. The anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments are clearly visible as are the violations of civil liberties endemic in our "war on terror". Sikhs have been attacked because they "look Arab" or "look Muslim" (they're not). One of my students, himself a Sikh, brought in a poster that local Sikh businessmen were displaying in their offices and stores that said "Sikhs Love America", in an attempt to stave off misunderstandings and discrimination and (possibly) violence. Arabs and/or Muslims are in an even worse situation than the Sikhs.

"Arab in America" is an unsettling book. I'm sure some on the right would call it an at anti-American work. Indeed, the author ends the book by leaving for Lebanon and seriously thinking of not returning to the U.S.A. But why did he leave? For El Rassi, we rejected him, not the other way around. In my (admittedly limited) interactions with Arabs (and Muslims), there is not so much a sense of anti-Americanism as much as a sense of having been rejected by us. Are there genuine anti-Americans out there? Absolutely. Are there terrorists in the Arab and Muslim world? Surely. But there's also another group of people who are far more complex in their hopes, aspirations, fears, and resentments. To lump everyone together in one category is inaccurate and, to me at least, rather Un-American.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Using A Wii in the Classroom

Another great Edutopia article, this time on using the Nintendo Wii in the classroom. I suspect this is for the younger grades, but the author shows interesting ways to utilize some of the sports games t reinforce math concepts. There are apparently also some features on the Wii that might allow kids to do work in geography and meteorology.

I have to say that the Wii seems a bit on the silly side, but the article does make the case to at least consider using it as a tool to engage kids. I don't know that there's much here for Middle and Upper School kids, but who knows?