Saturday, April 28, 2012


          One of my students was actually upset the other day because one of her classmates asked her if there are Spark notes for M.T. Anderson’s Feed. Our AP class had read it early in the year, and now the rest of the seniors had been assigned to read it. This student pointed out the irony of a book about the devolution of language, education, and thought being summarized. We (the teachers) loved that the book was not on Spark notes. Yet. I’m sure by next school year, it will be. And in that form, that book will lose all meaning.
            Why do so few high school students read? Does it take too long? Probably. Does reading lose out to the myriad other distractions coming through the feed? All the time. These distractions work on me pretty often, and two of my favorite things in the world are reading and writing, and I grew up in a semi-print culture.
            I was writing a satire for my ninth grade class this past week, about a teacher (me) assigning an ancient and incomprehensible text (Pride and Prejudice). It was supposed to be a lighthearted, funny satire. But it came out bitter. I’ve been teaching this book for over ten years, and each year it gets harder for the students to understand. Part of me says give it up and replace it with something that’s easier to read.  But the other part says that if all the me’s in all the schools out there give up on all the complex texts, we’re one step closer to a world like the one in Feed, where people go to school to learn how to shop.
            This year, I’m showing the BBC miniseries, as usual, as we read, but I think I may use the Kiera Knightly version next year. It cuts to the chase. I mean, so what if Elizabeth goes from being a forward thinker for the nineteenth century to pretty much an actual twenty-first century person? At least Wickham’s actually cute this time.
            Maybe in twenty more years, if I make it that long, I’ll just show the Lizzie Bennet diaries on Youtube and be done with it. By then, hypotaxis and complex vocabulary will perhaps be beyond the reach of all but the very old. We’ll sit around trying to get the young folks to turn off their brain-internet for a few minutes so we can tell them about the books made of paper and how great it was in the olden days.
            Long sentences in a long book seem to genuinely frighten many of the youth of today. After all, we make everything short these days (#trending.) At first, I shied away from Twitter and its woefully inadequate 140 characters. But then I got in the swing, and now I’ve actually even sunk to using numerals 2 stand 4 words. My thinking is that if this #trending is even working on me, then the next generation to be born could maybe have the attention span of a gerbil.
            I was thinking about our culture’s skill with blurbing the last few weeks while teaching a unit on film history to my media studies class. I’ve shown the trailers (thanks, Youtube) for a lot of older movies, and my students said about each one: snore, that looks terrible. Some of these have been really excellent, classic movies, but I have to admit, they’re right: the trailers kind of suck. They used to show whole scenes in trailers, and they just didn’t pack the punch that trailers do today. Today, editors string together a million micro-scenes. Moments that don’t go together, some that aren’t even in the final movie, and then they add a great song! I pretty much want to see every movie for every trailer I see, as long as it doesn’t involve a cartoon rodent or Nicolas Cage. The trailers all look amazing. Too bad that most of the movies I’ve seen in the last two years have been crap. Most of the time, I should just download the trailer on my iPad, have ten kernels of popcorn, and call it a night. 
            I do worry about a Brave New World like the one in Feed. As Neil Postman said, maybe the problem in the future won’t be that they’ll take away the books, or burn them, but that there won’t be anybody left with any interest in reading them. All forms of art evolve to reflect the culture that spawns them. But what if, as so many authors of dystopian novels have suggested, we are going the other way?

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Faction Factor

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
 –F. Scott Fitzgerald

What house are you? I’m a Ravenclaw, for sure. I mean, I’ve taken the tests online, and I always get Ravenclaw. It’s not just process of elimination (I’m not particularly brave, I’m not particularly evil, I don’t want to be in anything called Hufflepuff). I identify with not only the house motto about the importance of scholarship, but in a more meta way, I kind of dig the fact that Ravenclaw’s the underdog house. Cho Chang and the diadem aside, you’re basically left with subtext if you want to learn more about the ‘claw.
            The world of Harry Potter has been a big part of my life. My best friend and I ran summer camps for kids for years, and we hosted the release party for the last two books at our local Borders. I got the opportunity to meet a lot of other folks—kids and adults—who identified with the same house as me, as well as a lot of Gryffindors and Slytherins (I have to say it was a pretty big relief to not be the only adult in the room who’d gone online and ordered an embroidered House Badge).
            While the resonance and power of the Harry Potter series transcends any individual element of Rowling’s work, I do think that House-factor added a great deal of appeal. Fans of the series were encouraged to identify not only with Harry or one of the other characters, but to virtually join a house whose traits and ideals matched their own.
            Of course, identifying with fictional worlds is as old as, well, fictional worlds. But perhaps this type of identification is even more seductive in the postmodern world. We live in a hyper-specialized world. Cable and dish television services offer thousands of channels. The internet offers a myriad of niche worlds. Are you a fan of Goth and Golf? There’s a web community for you (I’m not even kidding). Do you love that show on the CW, but you’re really rooting for two characters who will never be together on the show to hook it up? There’s a shipper community for you. With a high-speed connection, you can join fifty communities before breakfast.
But though online communities have their advantages, and are certainly an undeniable part of our present and certainly our future, it’s possible that all these micro-worlds can pull us apart rather than bringing us together. In the old days, when there were three channels and we’d all heard of the same twenty bands, my friends and I could find common ground very easily. Today, if you Venn diagrammed my friends and I, we’d look like pies that were attacked by ninjas. It’s harder to find common ground when the ground’s so cluttered. I used to like music; now I like retro-progressive and electronic.
Maybe all this identifying with small niches leaves us hankering for the communal spirit of a good old fashioned club or a tribe. We want to join a group of like-minded people who all wear the same colors and the same badge. The latest YA novel to tap into this need, I think, is Veronica Roth’s Divergent. I’ve been invited recently to join Team Dauntless, Team Amity, and even Team Abnegation (though if there’s a teenager out there who would willingly identify with the quality of denial of self, I’d like to meet them and ask them how they enjoyed the trip here in the time machine from 1880.) Roth’s book ups the ante on our identification with these factions: unlike in Rowling’s world, where fate (in the form of an insouciant hat) made the final call, teens in Divergent-land have to make their own choice once they come of age. What would you choose? I’m still not brave, and I’m too sarcastic to pass for Amity, so I guess I’d have to sign up with the Erudite again. Roth was wise, I think, to offer the bookworms a virtual home, though again it’s a marginal team (I think its interesting that the protagonist’s team in both series values bravery above all else). Don't we all wish were were braver? 
I predict this series will continue to flourish, as the film invites even more teens (and adults) to identify with a faction. A lot of other novels and series that are very popular now offer a similar chance to join a team (are you Team Edward or Jacob? Peeta or Gale?). In each case, one of these potential love interests is more about the brains, the other, more about the brawn. This binary choice still invites us in to the world of the story, to commune with those who are of like mind (and sometimes rail against those on the other side.)
We teachers know about the power of teams—even rather arbitrary ones. The race for our House Cup back at camp was often quite bloodthirsty. We all want to belong. In this digitized world of Goth Golf, I think we need it even more.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


          I sometimes watch truly awful TV. At the end of a day of teaching, my brain is probably not that much snappier than my dachshund’s (sometimes on a Friday she seems a little quicker on the uptake than me, actually). So mindless entertainment is just the R/x sometimes. So I watched the pilot for a new show on the CW, L.A. Complex (which is a really ironic title, is all I’m gonna say). I watched it mostly because Jewel Staite, Kaylee from Firefly, was in it, and she was the last of that cast to find a new job in anything visible, so I was curious to see how she’d fare without Joss.
Not very well.
            The protagonist (it’s not Jewel—she’s playing the older character—kill me now) is a human female, and that’s about where my ability to identify with her begins and ends.
            This delightful character, Abbey, spends the first five minutes of the episode breaking into her own apartment because she can’t pay the rent, in a gambit that was sort of tired when it played under the opening credits of Pretty Woman in 1990. She then lucks into another place to live (with no down payment, no credit check, and no first and last month’s rent, because they don’t have those in telereality). She then goes to a party and accepts a hit of ecstasy in an alarmingly casual way. When I was growing up, that kind of thing constituted a Very Special Episode of 90210, and there were always terrible consequences and lessons learned by the epilogue.
            Abbey goes on to miss an audition (she’s an aspiring actress, natch) miraculously get another audition for the same role (consequences also not part of TV land), and then when she blows the audition she verbally vomits all over the director, telling him all the sordid details of her life: her eviction—everything (suffice it to say the e was not even the naughtiest part of her night).
            Thank God the show didn’t depict her getting yet another chance at the role, although I didn’t finish watching it. The thing that struck me most about this character (beyond her questionable morals) was how she felt the need to over-share every sordid detail of her life with everyone she met. Her own bad behavior became an excuse as she tried to talk her way into what she wanted.
            There isn’t much of a filter on language or behavior these days. And I can’t help but think that TV is a big part of why.
            Is it good news that the teens on television and in movies are no longer Hollywood-ized, sanitized versions of the real thing? In the eighties and nineties, teens on TV and in movies were sometimes so far removed from reality as to be almost laughable. One truly terrible movie that always stood out to me was Drive Me Crazy, which was made in 1999. Melissa Joan Hart, who is elementally not cool, played the “cool” girl who gives Adrian Grenier a makeover. She takes him from looking like a normal, messy guy in a T-shirt and jeans to a complete dork with slicked-back hair and a cheesy leather jacket. In no high school in 1999 was that ridiculous get-up going to land him a spot in the popular crowd. And to prove it, Grenier went on just four years later to play the very cool Hollywood actor at the center of Entourage—wearing the same ratty jeans and T-shirts that some delusional filmmakers thought he needed to ditch to move up the social ladder.
            I don’t think a misstep like Drive Me Crazy would happen today. But a part of me misses this brand of fiction. As seriously uncool as Melissa Joan Hart’s character was in that movie, she was ambitious, a control freak, a good student. I’d rather my students idolize someone like her than Abbey from the doubtless soon to be cancelled L.A. Complex. When I think about these characters as an influence on the real kids who are watching, I miss the Hollywood gloss, even when it was unrealistic.
            Hollywood kids still look unreal, but their behavior is often pretty common (sometimes as in lowest common.) On The Jersey Shore, for example, nothing is filtered out. Behavior that used to happen behind closed doors is no longer off limits—even the bathroom and what happens there are shown and discussed.
Is there shame, anymore? Kids today are often exposed early to everything. In his book The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman pointed out that the very existence of a separate phase of life that can be called childhood is predicated on there being separate spheres for child and adult. An important part of what separates these spheres is the keeping of adult secrets. We don’t really do that anymore.
            There are certainly those who would argue that the Afterschool Special tone of teen shows from ten or more years ago were puritanical, preachy, and maybe even disconnected with most kids’ reality. But I’m just not sure about some of the messages taking their place. In most adult jobs, a filter is still required. You have to show up, dressed properly, say the proper things (and avoid saying improper things), and you have to do it every single day. I sometimes worry that the culture of it’s-okay-because-it’s-how-I-feel has led to a generation with no filter. And I really kind of think we need that if we’re going to continue to pursue the whole civilized-society thing.
            In the meantime, maybe that show will be cancelled and Kaylee can find a show that seems less like a harbinger of the end of civilization as we know it. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Young Adult

          So I was watching the movie Young Adult last week, and even though it was a well-written and acted movie, it was sort of awful anyway. I was writing last time about the dearth of positive teacher-characters out there, and now here comes a film about a young adult writer, one of my other hats, and it’s a pretty grim picture too. For me, the really memorable image of Mavis, the main character, is her habit of taking her laptop out to coffee shops and bookstores to write the final book in her young adult series. She keeps overhearing actual teens talking, and she types their words right into her book, so that it sounds legit young. I myself learned about “legit” by overhearing one of my ninth graders, and I wrote it down and included it in my first YA. So I guess I’m who Jason Reitman was making fun of on this one.
The majority of YA books are written by O(lder)A peeps, and we’re straight faking it. I mean, we have to be, right? At least I don’t have to stalk teenagers at like Chipotle to write down what they say, though. I actually end up being accused by non-teacher adults of sounding like a teenager myself. Which is sort of demoralizing unless you find a way to turn it into a second career.
            I read a lot of YA, and I also have an addiction to shows that I am not in the target demo for. Of course, a lot of these shows were books for teens first: Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, Secret Circle, Lying Game were all YA series first. Why do I like them? Do I wish I were seventeen? Um, hell no. I mean, there are things to miss, which are too depressing to enumerate. I mean, I didn’t used to pay much attention to gravity. But no, happy to be all grown up. Am I a case of arrested development like Mavis from Young Adult? Those folks make crummy teachers, and I was actually always sort of a middle age person in disguise (well, not so much in disguise these days ;)—so that’s not it.
The thing is, I just like these books and shows more. There, I said it. This might be a bold claim, what with all the recent uproar in cyber-book-land over Joel Stein’s NY Times piece the other week claiming “Adults Should Read Adult Books.” I do read books written for adults, and I watch a few adult shows. But the stuff I’ve been the most excited about over the past few years has all been designed for and marketed to the teen set.
In TV land, if I’m a person (of any age) who likes science fiction, fantasy, or soapy romance, there’s not that much to choose from. In a parallel universe, I can watch Firefly. My all-time favorite TV moment last year came when in a flashback to 2003, Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon wrote a Friday night viewing clause into his roommate contract with Leonard “Might as well settle it now. It’ll be on for years.” What’s on now? Ringer? Okay, it’s sudsy, but that’s about it. Castle’s okay, but it’s yet another police procedural. I now know far more than I ever wanted to about the rate at which human flesh decays. Most of the fiction shows out there are either one of the nine million Law and Orders or CSIs…or they’re for teens.
I think when marketing TV to adults they figure we’ll all just eventually give up and either become armchair forensic doctors or just stay glued to HGTV. But I hate watching other people remodel their bathrooms. I’d rather see vampires try to turn werewolves into hybrid monsters.
And once you’re using words like “hybrid” and you’re not talking about energy efficient vehicles, you’re in the realm of lowbrow entertainment. I think that’s the point Mr. Bossy McSnobby pants was trying to make with his proclamation about adults and adult books. That books written for teens are not as complex, and therefore mature minds are wasting their time with them. But wait—not all books written for grown-ups are highbrow. Did he really mean that all adults should read Serious Literary Fiction? Sometimes I like to read that. Sometimes I enjoy broccoli, and I’m sure kale would also be fine if I knew what it was. But I also really, really love French fries. I could write poems about them. They are an important part of my world, just like hybrids and spaceships and Hogwarts and Hunger Games. Wait a second…those last two worlds might not impress the folks who only read books originally written in French, or written backwards, or as an homage to Finnegan’s Wake. But I don’t accept that that Harry and Hunger are lowbrow. Rowling transcended genres and demographics, and there are just as many adults as kids who cried their way through that last installment.
A good story takes you someplace. That’s it. For every story that makes its way into the world today, somebody’s going to label it. Those of us brave enough not to care about the label are probably going to be a hell of a lot more entertained, captivated, transported. We might miss out on knowing more about necrosis and stuff, though.

Here’s that article I was talking about, in case you haven’t been outraged yet:

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Curse

So I watch this show, Once Upon a Time. It’s a very popular show, and I enjoy most of the episodes, though the other week they definitely lost me with their high-end-Halloween-store fairy costumes and cantankerous dwarves (Fred from Angel, what’s happened to you?!) Anyway, last week I was watching when something hit me: Mary Margaret/Snow White is the mortal enemy of the Wicked Queen, right? This same queen’s the one who sent all the fairyland folks into exile in Storybrooke. And so everyone from the fairytale world has a new reality, one that in some way reflects their former situation. Jiminy Cricket was a sort of insecty-conscience dude, and now he’s a shrink, for example. But not Snow White. She was sort of an arrow-shooting, knife-wielding princess chick before. It seems clear that because her new situation doesn’t reflect her old life, that Regina designed hers as a punishment. And what job did she get? Teacher.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to notice this. For one, Snow’s ass-kicking past was revealed over the course of several episodes, so might not have noticed right away that Snow’s new life was probably part of some sort of curse from the queen.
            Why am I upset about this? I am a teacher (and some days it does feel like a curse) but it’s also a calling. As I’ve told several generations of students, we are not in it for the fabulous compensation package, the glamorous lunches in brown bags (eaten while grading papers most of the time—those of us who are lucky enough not to have lunch duty). So after making a certain amount of if not sacrifice, then certainly adjustment in my life to answer this call, it does bug me when so much of what I hear and see about teachers when I turn on the escapefromrealitydevice/television is so…bad.
            Of course the vast majority of teachers who make it into the news are accused or guilty of something terrible, and that’s upsetting enough. But news aside, because let’s face it, when a teacher of children does something despicable, it is going to be (and should be) on the news. But the part that really gets me, because I’m not only a teacher but also a fiction writer, is the way we show up in stories.
            So we have the cursed Mary Margaret, serving out her life sentence on Once. Where else have teachers appeared on recent shows I watch? I watch Ringer (because Buffy’s in it, come on!) The Sarah Michelle Gellar character’s stepdaughter had a teacher who was recently featured in the show. At first he seemed like a great guy, concerned about his students. But he was actually working for the girl’s mother, involved in a really atrocious sex-scandal scheme and out to make a few million dollars. Not a great role model. (Made all the more heartbreaking because the character was played by Jason Dohring from Veronica Mars). Then we have Gossip Girl, where kids magically managed to attend only one year of college, so obvi education is not really a priority over in the 212. But back before they jumped the shark, Dan had a torrid affair (in the costume closet AT THE SCHOOL) with his teacher. Ick.
            The only show I currently watch with a teacher as a main character is The New Girl. And I really do love and adore this show. But I’m not too sure I’m a hundred percent in love with Jess as a teacher. It seems like making her a schoolteacher might have been a conscious choice by the creator/writers to give Jess a nurturing but essentially innocuous profession. I read an article in EW recently about backlash against the show, and Jess’s overly “girly” manner of dress and speech. The show’s creator, Liz Meriwether, created an episode of the show meant to answer those who thought Jess’s girly adorkablity was anti-feminist. The character Meriwether designed to go head-to-head with Jess? A lawyer. A “serious” girl wearing a suit. Jess defended her love of polka dots and whimsy, and we were definitely meant to side with her, but I’m still a little bugged. The opposite of a teacher is not a lawyer. We’re both professionals. It’s true, many teachers don’t wear suits. But many of us have advanced degrees, put in the (very) long hours, and take our work very seriously. The difference is, I don’t think the girls who grow up to be lawyers ever have to hear that most heartbreaking of phrases: She’s just a lawyer. I’ve heard just a teacher (I’ve even thought it... maybe even said it myself in a weak moment.) I think many of us have soaked up the cultural ethos that makes this idea okay.
            The teachers in YA books are often absent, along with the parents. There are of course some bad ones in the mix there as well. The teacher who receives a tape in Thirteen Reasons Why, for example, is a pretty terrible person. But I think his character might at least serve a purpose. All adults need to keep in mind that kids are fragile and the things we say or don’t say to them matter.
            The things we say—and write—do matter. So as I continue work on my next YA I’m going to make a conscious effort to write in a teacher who is not only present but admirable in some way. There has to be room for a few of those. After all, fiction reflects life, right? And in my career I’ve worked with some amazing people who also happen to be teachers.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


            I’m still on a break from the middle of that trilogy, mostly because the e-book I’ve switched to reading is on loan from the library, and I’m running out of days on it. I’m enjoying its very realistic teen narration…as a high school teacher, I know what sounds like an actual teenager. I’ve read some great YAs that come thisclose, but then they add in just a couple of wrong words or phrases, which I just can’t hear coming out of my students’ mouths.
            I thought my students would really like this one too, and since we’re revamping our summer reading list this year, I came thisclose to putting the book on the list. But the chapter I read today had an awful lot of f-word, and then a graphic reference to some sex that wasn’t even happening—and I changed my mind. It’s not that I will only send home books about girls with two fat braids who live on the prairie or in very tidy cabins, whose floors they keep clean with regular, dutiful sweeping. I can hang with a bit of realistic teen verbiage. But I’m just not comfortable sending home a barrage of f-bombs. So here’s my question: are books which contain a lot of obscenities missing some of the audience they might otherwise reach? I’d really like to connect some of my more reluctant readers with this author, and other similar ones. But I’m not sure if I can.
This situation reminds me of a review I read last week in EW, for the documentary film Bully. The MPAA was accused of being a bully, withholding a PG-13 rating, effectively keeping the film from being seen in schools and other venues where it might reach the very audience the film was made to impact. It is unlikely that a teen bully is going to say to himself, self—I think I’ll Redbox me a documentary film this evening, in the hopes that I might gain some personal edification. On the other hand, Miramax has refused to cut the language, which sort of makes sense if you think about it. If the film is meant to be an accurate portrayal of the way teen bullies and their victims interact, it is (again) unlikely that a teenage bully would avoid all profanity (Cheese and rice, you stupid fool, you’re so unpleasant to look at!)
This analogy is really super problematic when applied to my original question. The film Bully needs to keep some language in to realistically portray the world it’s trying to capture. In the same way, that’s certainly an important goal of a lot of YA fiction. So the language has to stay. On the other hand, if the MPAA doesn’t back down, and neither does the film company, a whole lot of kids are never going to see the film. And I’m sort of bookless for my summer list.
You kind of have to take my word here (if you’re not a teacher or a parent of a non-reading kid) that a huge (okay, depressingly gigantic) percentage of kids do not read, you know, books, unless prodded in some manner. And since I’m often the one holding the pitchfork, this issue is really of interest to me. I do know that for these kids, Hemingway or Joyce or Austen, awesome as they are, are not going to convince them that reading is potentially something they could actually enjoy. Brand-spanking new YA, about life in the post-millennium: texting, tweeting, and the whole nine—well, these books have a shot at least.
So I don’t really have an answer, but I do wish I could recommend this book I’m reading now to students. I feel like this one could have kept the real without the #@%$ parade, sort of a PG-13 happy medium, but in the end it’s a work of art, and the writer made the right choice for the book. But if anybody knows of some amazing new PG-ish titles out there, I’d love some ideas!