Teacher/author suspended for fictional violence

A Maryland middle school teacher was placed on leave — and taken by police for an “emergency”  psychiatric evaluation — because he wrote two novels set 900 years in the future about school massacres.

A police search for guns and bombs found nothing. (Not even a slice of pizza chewed into the shape of a gun?!) But police will guard the middle school until the nonexistent danger is past.

Patrick McLaw self-published The Insurrectionist and its sequel, Lillith’s Heir, under a pen name.

The 23-year-old eighth-grade English teacher was nominated for teacher of the year honors after his first year at Mace’s Lane Middle School. He made national news for helping a 14-year-old student self-publish his own e-book.

Assuming McLaw wrote his own Amazon copy, his novels sound dreadful:

 “On 18 March 2902, a massacre transpired on the campus of Ocean Park High School, claiming the lives of nine hundred forty-seven individuals–the largest school massacre in the nation’s history. And the entire country now begins to ask two daunting questions: How? and Why? After the federal government becomes involved, and after examining the bouquet of black roses that lies in front of the school’s sign, it becomes evident that the hysteria is far from over.”

Neither is the hysteria transpiring in 2014.

Thinking deeply about … um … what?

Students will read more short informational texts under the new Common Core Standards and have less time for complete books — fiction or nonfiction — writes Will Fitzhugh, editor of the Concord Review.

Among the suggested texts are The Gettysburg Address, Letter from Birmingham Jail, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and perhaps one of the Federalist Papers, but no history books, writes Fitzhugh.

In the spirit of turnabout, English teachers could stop assigning complete novels, plays and poems, Fitzhugh writes.  Instead of reading Pride and Prejudice, perhaps Chapter Three would do.  “They could get the ‘gist’ of great works of literature, enough to be, as it were, ‘grist’ for their deeper analytic cognitive thinking skill mills.”

Teachers will have to “to wean themselves from the old notions of knowledge and understanding” to offer “the new deeper cognitive analytic thinking skills required by the Common Core Standards,” Fitzhugh writes, perhaps with a touch of sarcasm.

In 1990, Caleb Nelson wrote in The Atlantic about an older Common Core at Harvard:

The philosophy behind the [Harvard College] Core is that educated people are not those who have read many books and have learned many facts but rather those who could analyze facts if they should ever happen to encounter any, and who could ‘approach’ books if it were ever necessary to do so….

That’s the idea, writes Fitzhugh.

The New Common Core Standards are meant to prepare our students to think deeply on subjects they know practically nothing about, because instead of reading a lot about anything, they will have been exercising their critical cognitive analytical faculties on little excerpts amputated from their context. So they can think “deeply,” for example, about Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, while knowing nothing about the nation’s Founding, or Slavery, or the new Republican Party, or, of course, the American Civil War.

Students will learn that “ignorance is no barrier to useful thinking,” Fitzhugh predicts. “The current mad flight from knowledge and understanding . . . will mean that our high school students [those that do not drop out] will need even more massive amounts of remediation when they go on to college and the workplace than are presently on offer.”

Via Jim Stergios of Rock the Schoolhouse, a Common Core skeptic.

Among Common Core exemplar texts are Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star about The Battle of Little Big Horn and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, RiShawn Biddle points out.

Shakespeare or Stein?

Instead of reading Shakespeare, students of the future will analyze the writing of Joel Stein, writes Joel Stein in Time. It makes him nervous. Common Core State Standards will shift reading lists to non-fiction, Stein writes. By reading analytical essays, they’ll learn to write analytical essays — instead of journal entries about their feelings.

Stein reads Faulkner or Joyce to improve his writing. CCSS urges students to dip into FedViews by the Federal Reserve of San Francisco.” Which is not quite the same.

Fiction also teaches you how to tell a story, which is how we express and remember nearly everything. If you can’t tell a story, you will never, ever get people to wire you the funds you need to pay the fees to get your Nigerian inheritance out of the bank.

Education isn’t just training for work, Stein writes. “It’s training to communicate throughout our lives.”

If we didn’t all experience Hamlet’s soliloquy, we’d have to explain soul-tortured indecisiveness by saying things like “Dude, you are like Ben Bernanke in early 2012 weighing inflation vs. growth in Quantitative Easing 3.”

Teaching language through nonfiction is like teaching history by playing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or teaching science by giving someone an unmarked test tube full of sludge and having him figure out if the white powder he distilled is salt or sugar by making Steven Baumgarten taste it, which is how I learned science and how Steven Baumgarten learned to be more careful about picking people to work with.

That’s “something he could have learned by reading Othello,” Stein concludes.

‘Depressing idiocy’

Leonie Haimson slams the “depressing idiocy” of Common Core’s English Language Arts standards, which favor “informational text” over fiction.

Fiction stimulates children’s brains and lets them “enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings,” writes Annie Murphy Paul.


More nonfiction?

Should students read more nonfiction in school? Teachers discuss the issue in an Ed Week forum.

Youth fiction without the whining

Mopey whining youth fiction got you down? Searching for books that don’t require young readers to stock up on anti-depressants, Jay Greene found Peak by Roland Smith and Among the Hidden, by Margaret Peterson Haddix.

There’s enough mopey whining to appeal to those feelings among adolescents, but there’s also action, politics, self-sacrifice, and triumph. That is, they’re good stories.

In Peak the protagonist is a 14 year-old child of famous mountain-climbers who gets into trouble for climbing sky-scrappers. He’s rescued from juvenile detention by being sent-abroad with his absentee dad who plans to get the 14 year-old to be the youngest person to summit Everest. But the plan is complicated by an intrusive reporter, Tibetan politics, and oppressive Chinese army officials — not to mention the harsh conditions of climbing the world’s highest peak. Along with the adventurous story of mountain-climbing, the book contains a fair dose of Tibetan-Chinese politics, and a strained father-son relationship.

Among the Hidden is the first of a 7 book series about a future dystopia in which the government has forbidden anyone from having more than two children to prevent famine and other overuse of resources. The protagonist is a third-child who was secretly born and raised on a remote farm.

In England, authors won’t be able to give school talks unless they register on a data base intended to screen out pedophiles. They’ll have to pay a fee of about $100. Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass (excellent!),  is leading the protest.

Reading is on the rise

After a long decline in “literary reading,” U.S. adults are hitting the fiction books, reports the National Endowment for the Arts.

According to “Reading on the Rise,” the proportion of adults who said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous year has risen, the first rise since the survey began in 1982.

Fiction reading increased “among virtually all age groups, ethnic and demographic categories,” with young readers, Hispanics and blacks showing the greatest gains.  Oprah, take a bow.