July 13, 2015

Recent Reads

78. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way
Book blurb: What is it like to be a child in the world's new education superpowers? In a global quest to find answers for our own children, author and Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley follows three Americans embedded in these countries for one year. Kim, fifteen, raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, eighteen, exchanges a high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, seventeen, leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for Poland.

I listened to the audiobook well narrated by Kate Reading, and this is the second book by the author to receive a 5 star rating from me.

There are some fundamental questions one could and should ask about education:

1. What is the point of education?
2. Do we think education is important? On a personal level? On a national level?
3. What are educational best practices, and do we implement them in our schools?

This thought provoking book reads like a thriller, and I for one found this a fascinating read. Some interesting things to ponder:

1. Can a teacher teach something they do not know? If we believe education is important, then how is it that we don't tap the top 1/3 of graduating seniors and funnel them into education?
2. Does it make sense that athletes and celebrities get paid so much more then teachers? How would it be possible to recruit the best and the brightest talent, when compensation numbers are so skewed?
3. For learning to happen parents must be involved, and there is a huge difference between a parent-coach and a parent-cheerleader. It turns out that the mere act of reading to children has a huge impact on the child's test scores a decade later. Also, interestingly enough, the stats show an inverse relationship between a child's test scores and parental involvement in none academic activities (see # 5).
4. The best countries in the world have rigor built into the system; everyone from students, to teachers, to the media is bought in. Imagine how different it would be if there was as much emphasis and celebration of high achieving students as is currently placed on March Madness and the Superbowl.
5. If the main purpose of school is education, then we seem to be sending mixed messages to kids, what with high visibility sport programs, selling girl-scout cookies, etc. 
6. The practice of tracking is so very harmful to kids, and I know from personal experience that kids rise to or lower themselves to expectations set for them. So imagine a kid tracked into the "dumb" class in 3rd grade; sure it is not called that, but every student knows that is what it is. What message is sent to that kid? If we insist on tracking, do so much later - 16 years.

Sure, the PISA test is not perfect, but it is an interesting benchmark that shows how poorly US students do against the rest of the world. Sure, the USA is huge compared to other countries, but when we still have students who reach the age of 16 and have never heard the word evolution mentioned in school, how is do we expect our kids to compete in this globalized economy?

I grew up in a country and family where there was nothing more important than education. There were no mixed messages; everything else paled in comparison. As a freshman in a US college, it blew my mind that so many students seemed to have little grasp of some of the fundamentals of math and science. Imagine my shock and consternation when I taught for a couple of years in an urban middle school to learn that 7th grade is the first time that my students had ever encountered any "hard" science - it had all been cuddly animals til then. Most of my students had math and reading skills below grade level, and yet got promoted year after year. I've met many wonderful and competent teachers of course, but I've also met plenty of teachers who did not know the material they were teaching. I'll never forget the science teacher who did not know several of the answers on the 8th grade MCAS test. 

This book covers topics that are near and dear to my heart, and while no one country's education system is perfect, does it not make sense that we would learn from the best? We do that in business all the time, so why not in our schools? If you are an educator, parent, or interested in education, I would highly recommend this book. PS. Parents, there is an appendix with questions to ask about your kid's school. If nothing else, I think you'd find that most illuminating. Rating: 5 stars.

79. The Running Man
I save up all my unread Stephen King books for the summer. I get the audiobook, jack in for long walks, and love every minute of it. Summer does not feel like Summer until I have a King story playing in my head.

This book was written under the Richard Bachman pseudonym, and I do think it might be the first Bachman book I've read. Unlike the usual King tomes, this one is a much shorter book, and I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Kevin Kenerly.

First published in 1982, this story is rather scarily prescient of society today - turns out King does not have to find alien bogeymen to scare us, all he needs to do is look into his crystal ball 20 years into the future. As one might expect, humans have continued our downward spiral: the gap between the poor and rich is an unbreachable gulf, the environment is so degraded that the very air we breathe kills us, people are zoned out watching reality TV shows, and there is a terrible sense of apathy. 

Ben Richards has a very ill daughter, and no money for food, let alone medicines for his little girl. He decides to try out for one of the reality shows - if he gets selected, his family gets money. What happens next is part of the fun ride, so I won't spoil it for you. Speaking of spoilers, my version of the book has a introduction by King in which he drops a huge spoiler - so save that for the end. 

I remember watching the movie based on this book ages ago and plan to watch it again soon. If you are looking for a fun, political, social commentary, thriller of a ride, add this to your summer reads. Rating: 4 stars.

80. An Iranian Metamorphosis
Could a cartoon spark riots? One published in the children's section of the paper at that? Well, the modern reader is all too aware of how badly things can go for the artists and their publisher when some people take offense.

This is a wonderfully illustrated graphic memoir with a strong narrative arc, and the black and white art captures well the bleakness of the story. The author is an Iranian cartoonist, and when his cartoons do in fact start a demonstration, his life takes a Kafkaesque turn. One does not need to be turned into an insect for life to become horrifying and unrecognizable after all. This memoir is the story of what happened to the author, and is a stark portrayal of life under a totalitarian regime, especially for those who criticize it. The news often tells stories from a foreigners point of view, and I loved that this one is told from an insider perspective. Rating: 4 stars

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