Wednesday, October 18, 2017

If the Creek Don’t Rise

If The Creek Don't RiseIf The Creek Don't Rise by Leah Weiss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I could describe this book as a metaphor, it would be a quilt that, at a close look, appears to be somewhat random pieces of fabric slapped together. With some distance, the observer realizes that the pieces are interconnected and anchored by a couple of colors and themes. With a little more distance, the observer sees how each piece contributes to the tapestry to make it a whole piece. Move very, very close (and put on your reading glasses) and the observer sees that each piece of fabric has its own texture, pattern, or design that can not be easily discerned from a distance.

The anchoring character is Sadie Blue, just married, pregnant, and getting beat again by her new husband. It is 1970 in a remote town in Appalachia (another anchoring color, whatever that might be) and the characters are introduced seamlessly. Each of the main characters gets at least one chapter to tell in first person. It is less talking and more thinking, reminiscing, and doing. Sadie paints a picture of her own perspective in this sad little town yet she has the undercurrent of goodness and hope.

We then meet Sadie’s grandmother who was Sadie many years ago. Hard life and a mean husband in an inhospitable climate has jaded her and taken much of her sunshine. She’s gray and hardened. And kind of mean. Especially to her best friend, Marris. But Gladys enlightens the reader regarding her marriage to Walter and the relationship they did not enjoy. Of course, Gladys has a secret.

Marris is optimistic regardless of the circumstances and she’s seen her share of hardship. She is the yellow sunshine colors threaded throughout the quilt with a little bit of the colors of the creek. Marris let’s Gladys know that a new teacher has been hired for the children. Her name is Kate and she’s very big and old. She’s 51.

So the story continues as the people are introduced with a perspective of another character. Then that character continues the timeline and adds depth to his or her own character. Every character is carefully fleshed out and has a story, a history, a depth that contributes to their development and relationships. I found myself gaining insight and sympathy toward all of them. That is not to say that all of them had redeeming qualities. There is a lot of shades of black and gray in this quilt. But then there are surprising bursts of yellow, red, purple, orange, and blue.

The last chapter returns to Sadie Blue. The changes are subtle yet (oxymoronic) stark. In retrospect, I felt like the story wasn’t as much about the events but more about relationships that changed a perspective that may or may not alter the future.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Little Soldiers

Little Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to AchieveLittle Soldiers: An American Boy, a Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve by Lenora Chu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am struggling with writing this review because I have so many thoughts about the ideas presented in this book.

First of all, I found the first hand account of the author's experience to be fascinating and well written. The author is first generation American of Chinese descent, educated in Texas public schools, carrying the burden of high academic standards while balancing her own American dream. She subsequently graduates from college, marries a midwesterner, and moves to China for his career opportunities with a small child in tow and faced with the choice of participating in the Chinese education system or entering a kinder pedagogical international approach. They choose the Chinese way and suffer cultural shock which leads her to further delve into educational theories, comparing and contrasting between them.

There is much to be said about the educational system in Shanghai which is why this book was written. It is fascinating and multi-faceted with different results. I read the study performed in 2012 PISA results and came to a conclusion that differed from the author's. That said, I found merit in the conversation she had with the Father of the test.

One sentence in the book undid all the fascination and good I got out of the book which is terribly unfair to the book. I believe it was a manner of opinion but I vehemently disagree with one part of a statement while agreeing wholeheartedly with another part; "The quality and status of American teachers have declined alongside levels of content mastery..."


As a public school guidance Counselor in her 28th year, I believe my experience merits a voice. In fact, I vehemently disagree that the quality of educators that surround me has declined. Only a few weeks ago, I was asked if I noticed any marked differences between students from the beginning of my career to now. The answer to that question was difficult to quantify because the biggest difference between the students occurred with changes of demographics. The elitist, more monied group are more entitled and parents are more invested in their students' grades and ACT or SAT scores. Some parents doing their children's homework and hiring expensive tutors for taking the exams. On the other end of the spectrum, I had immigrants whose parents spoke no English and had 2and 3 jobs, encouraging their children to work hard. That was the population I preferred, frankly. Through grit and hard work, they were improving their lives.

The answer I gave the person who posed this question was completely different, however. I've seen an increase of quality of educators over the years. The status of educators has declined but the quality is exceptional in most cases.

Today's American educators are expected to educate every child that is assigned to them, regardless of disability and laws of inclusion. While the Chinese laggards eventually drop out, we are expected to retain every student. Every student is expected to be successful and the teacher is expected to teach every student at their level. In the same class. The elementary school teacher is expected to be master of all academic content, maintain classroom management, deal with behaviour problems without being punitive, appease hovering parents, and keep up with legislators who are so far removed from the classroom yet feel entitled to tell teachers versed in pedagogical theory how to teach, how they will measure them yet recently allowing truancy court to be abandoned because a certain legislator needed his son to be free of such constrictions to pursue his basketball career.

In secondary schools, the issues are the same except teachers must be highly qualified in their area which may mean they are still teaching physics, astronomy, chemistry and 7th grade science. They are also expected to regularly attend collaboration, professional development, be trained in spotting child abuse and know how to handle it, implement a suicide prevention program, remediate students who have been attending a charter school which has little to no oversight and did not progress in the content while they attended said charter school, and placate parents who are upset because the homework is too hard for their little nuggets.

And these teachers do all these things.

Tangent over. Back to the book.

Neither educational system is perfect and much can be gleaned and emulated from one another. The Chinese are attempting to make changes in a culture that resists change and in a space that can not tolerate much individualism. The American system is at the mercy of legislators who don't have a clue while incredible teachers continue to teach the curriculum without public respect and against the backdrop of more constrictive laws, different student needs with IEP's and 504's and behaviour problems when really, they just want teach because they love teaching. And there are no kickbacks like expensive Coach purses. Although sometimes I get a potted plant at the end of the year or maybe a mug.

I still highly recommend this book. It's an excellent read with good comparisons drawn. The problem arose when I finished the book when I was tired and my obsessiveness can. Not. Sleep. Until I've said my peace.

My apologies to the author for getting hung up on that sentence.

This book was provided to me by publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Ginny MoonGinny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Solid novel in the mind of an autistic child. Frustrating as they may seem to someone on the outside, there is a method and order in their minds. Ginny is no different. This novel is told from Ginny's POV. There are some surprises that I found interesting and disturbing.

The Rules of Magic

The Rules of MagicThe Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prequel to later book, the story stands on its own. Each character develops over the course of the story and often in response to their own experiences, perspectives, and personalities. Two sisters and a brother begin their journey as they understand their own powers and gifts. The pivotal beginning is the invitation to the aunt's house for the summer where the children are taught rather loosely their own history and the rules of magic. It is their coming of age summer even though they are 18, 17, and 14. Their beginnings as who they will become happen then.

The story is told over a generation of time. The girls of this story become the aged aunts of a more familiar Alice Hoffman novel. Lovely book that simply couldn't have evolved any other way. Really enjoyed it.