What I Read: ‘You Are What You Speak’ by Robert Lane Greene


One of the reviews of this book faults Greene for writing about linguistics without being a linguist. I don’t find the same fault in the pages here. Certainly, this has the density one would expect from an Economist writer, but don’t let that fool you.
As an English major and English teacher who has been thinking about these things for some time, the initial introduction to prescriptivism and descriptivism did much to act as a refresher for the topics and lay the foundation of the different global perspectives of the book.
From a historical understanding of the resurrection of Hebrew to the formation of modern Turkish (an subsequent distance from pre-1930 Turkish texts), I’m walking away from this book with much richer and deeper understanding of language and it’s formation around the world.
Perhaps most helpful for me was Greene’s clear love of language. If there were any impediment created by his lack of training as a linguist, his love of language makes up for it handily.
Reading about language from the perspective of one who is so clearly curious and in love with language shapes the book as a tool for infectious love of language.
If you’re curious about language, read this. If you’re passionate about language, read this. If you are hungry for a appropriately-dense text acting as a primer to understanding linguistics, read this. It’s not a book for everyone, but it’s definitely a book for those who love and are fascinated by language.

cross-posted at http://goodreads.com/mrchase

Things I Know: 173 of 365: What books I would make me read

Laura asked last night at dinner, “What’s is a book that has impacted you?” She was looking for a book that shaped who we are. She was looking for a book that we needed to read for us to have continued on the course to who we are.

I loved the question.

I loved it even more when Christian re-imagined it.

“If you met you, what book would you make sure you read?”

The discussion deck was stacked as three of those around the table were English teachers.

The list, as much of it as I was able to copy down, is below. It’s given me much to add to the Kindle for the summer. And I will be adding as many of these books as I can.

I’m not adding them because the plots sounded interesting (though they did). I’m certainly not at a loss for additions to my reading list. I’m adding these books to the to-read list because they were the answer to a question of what thoughts and ideas people I find interesting and thoughtful consider to be formative and critical to their foundations of self.

I like understanding (or at least working toward understanding) how people come to their ideas and beliefs.

Packing to move, I’ve been sorting through the books on my shelves, the books others bought for me because they thought they were the right fit. Many of them have been a good fit. Many of them have brought me good stories. Still, I am mindful as I read these books that I want to like them because I want those who know me to be right.

The question of what you would make sure you read works better for me. Another person’s assumption of what I’ll like is not nearly as interesting to me as learning what they’ve liked. I read those books with a different eye. I read those books to get to know the person and to get to know the book.

So, here’s the list. Maybe some of these titles will make their way onto your summer reading list. If you’ve got the time, share the book that you would make sure you read.

(I’ve been expanding the list as I collect titles from those I run into at ISTE. I should probably stop before the list becomes too unwieldy. Then again, I’m still curious.)

The Gangster We’re All Looking For by Thi Diem Thuy Le (from John Spencer)

The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler (from Chris Alfano)

Losing My Virginity: How I’ve Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way by Richard Branson (from Chris Alfano

Final Rounds: A Father, A Son, The Golf Journey of a Lifetime by James Dodson (from Dean Shareski)

A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss (from Bud Hunt)

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (read all four books) (from Bud Hunt)

A New Culture of Learning – by Douglas Thomas (from Vinnie Vrotny)

Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century – by G. Pascal Zachary (from Vinnie Vrotny)

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman (from Christian Long)

Griffith and Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence by Nick Bantock (from Christian Long)

Trinity by Leon Uris (from Laura Deisley)

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (from Laura Deisley)

The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia by Samuel Johnson (from me)

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie (from me)

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins (from me)

I’ll say it again. What book would you make sure you read?

Things I Know 14 of 365: I need to give students choice

“It is our choices that show who we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

– J.K. Rowling

Not every job moves you to embrace hitting your head against the wall. Teaching is a concusive experience.

My students have been exploring science fiction for the last few weeks. From 24 available titles, they researched and selected 6 they wouldn’t mind reading. From there, I worked my teacherly magic to fit them into groups of 4-5.

They set reading schedules, engaged in book talks and wrote discussion reflections to focus their thinking and investigation of a much-maligned though historically significant genre.

After 5 weeks, I was in a familiar spot of moving from group to group trying to convince them they liked their books. Strong was the temptation to label their reading as lazy and surface. It beat the alternative of acknowledging they might just dislike the books.

“If the Reader’s Bill of Rights tells us we can stop reading any time we want, Mr. Chase. Why do we still have to read this book?”
Stupid student choice combined with empowerment.

“Because sometimes people will make you read things you don’t like, and I’ve decided to help you grow a lifelong love of reading by highlighting some of the most regrettable parts of the act,” seemed a poor reply.

Last week, we studied James Gunn’s “A Worldview of Science Fiction.” The kids played cat’s cradle with the ideas so intently that our discussion carried over to this week.

They were starting to see science fiction could include ideas other than those at work in their respective texts.

I was starting to see, again, students’ thinking about what they read grows anemic when they’re forced to read something they don’t like.

In Thursday’s class, I opened by having the students learn all they could about Battlestar Galactica. We collected notes, I fielded questions, and I queued up episode 1 of season 1 “33.”

At the opening credits, I paused and answered questions about details of the cold opening.

When the show hit the tail end of the unusually slow download and the class let out a collective, “No!” I knew I had them.

Today, we welcomed the former head of PR for the SyFy Channel who now works at SLA’s partner organization The Franklin Institute. A lifelong reader of science fiction and English major in college, she talked about what it took to sell science fiction on contemporary television, the creative process behind shows like Battlestar and Farscape and how she made choices as a reader.

The students talked about what they liked about the previous day’s partial episode and what they wanted when they picked up science fiction.

When Andre, who has been railing against his book for two weeks, raised his hand and asked, “How do you come back after reading a bad sci-fi book?” I knew we were making progress.

The progress came when I remembered what I believe to be true:

  1. Give kids choices.
  2. Show real-world models.
  3. Connect them with passionate adults who know what they’re talking about.

Forcing them to read books they didn’t care about that hadn’t been organically recommended and that they didn’t much care for was really more a test of our rapport than their abilities.

Next time I decided to run repeatedly into walls, I’l try to see the dents I’ve left this time and take them as reminders.

New Old Reading (and it’s working)

The Gist:

  • I’ve been frustrated for years with trying to force books on kids.
  • This Fall I got an indirect nod to try something new.
  • My kids are reading whatever they like.
  • It has changed reading in my classroom.

The Whole Story:

I taught Cam when he was in 9th grade.

Cam is a story you’ve heard before. He’s crazy bright, enlivens class discussions and does a lot of nothing on the assignments front. This made Cam incredibly frustrating as a student.

Cam is back in my class as a G11 student this year. I watched him trudge piece meal through

The Things They Carried and The Taming of the Shrew. In the end, I’m not sure how much he actually read of those texts.

Six weeks since we’ve been back in school, Cam is reading his second book of the year, Our Boys Speak after burning through A Long Way Gone.

Coming back from Winter Break, I changed the way we do things in my classroom. I’ve always moved from activity to activity to mix things up and keep things interesting.

Now, though, at least three times a week, my students are reading whatever they like for 20

minutes. I intend no hyperbole when I say it’s amazing to watch.

I’ve wanted to try this since I started teaching. The seed got planted earlier this Fall when this New York Times article reminded me of the reading workshop popularized by Nancie Atwell.

At the time, I found the reaction to the article quite humorous. It’s not a new idea.

I’m not running things according to Atwell’s program. Well, not on purpose.

In trying to describe what’s going on to people, the most frequent question is “How do you hold them accountable for what they’re reading?”

At once, this question seems logical and sad.

The answer is two-fold.

Students are required to write a review of any book they read and post it two places. If the book they’ve read is available in our school library catalog, they are to post their review online via Koha. Without exception, they must also post their reviews somewhere public like bn.com, amazon.com, borders.com, etc. and then send me the link to their published review.

This has led to some great discussions of writing for a specific audience. To gear up for the task, we spent time reading reviews from the NYTimes and read this post from UK freelance journalist Johnathan Deamer on the secrets to writing good reviews.

The general consensus was that the NYTimes writers use too many words.

The second bit of accountability is just coming online now. Through a partnership with UPenn’s Reading, Writing and Literacy Master’s program, I’m fortunate enough to have Hannah interning in G11 classes this semester.

Using information she gathered through a Google Form we pushed out to the kids, Hannah is breaking the class into genre groups and sitting down with them to discuss what they’re finding in their books, what they like and dislike and what they’ll be looking for in their next text.

Though Hannah won’t be with me forever, I’m planning on picking up where she leaves off when her time with us is done.

Some things I’ve noticed:

  • They’re going to the library.
  • They’re seeing our library in a new light.
  • We’ve had to review Daniel Pennac’s “Reader’s Bill of Rights” – specifically #2.
  • When I next ask them to read a common text, I’m going to have to totally rethink my approach.

Cam’s mom helped out with EduCon this year. We struck up one of those informal parent-teacher conferences as she was helping to clean up after Saturday’s dinner.

“Is Cam supposed to be reading every night for class?” she asked.

“Not as a requirement,” I said.

“Well, he is. Whatever you’re doing, it’s working.”

I hope so.

Educational Taylorism

One of the favored arguments for the the increase in testing, standards and the like is the need to prepare our students to be workers. While I’m quick to make the citizens-over-workers argument, I’ll play your little worker game.

I’ve been reading The Future Arrived Yesterday by Michael Malone as of late. I pushed through the overly ironic title to find some good suff.

Malone’s overall thesis is that today’s corporations are on their way to becoming what he terms “Protean Corporations” or dying. (Hello, GM?) While that’s all well and good and likely to lead to its own post, I want to point to Malone’s outlining of the evolutionary stages modern corporations have gone through to get to the precipice on which they now teater.

Notably stuck in my craw is Taylorism.

Malone writes:

At its most obsessive, Taylor’s time-motion studies broke tasks down to less than a second per step, to the point twhere he and his adherents could determine how a worker should best place his feet, how far his arm should move on a task and how much he should turn to pick up the next component. And it worked: at progressive companies like Ford, workers achieve unprecedented levels of efficiency and productiviy.

Awesome, right? Familiar too?

In most Philadelphia schools, teachers follow a core curriculum dictating when, say, a 9th grade English teacher teaches a certain standard/material. As of this year, those same Philadelphia high schools have been giving their students weekly, 10-question multiple-choice tests in math and English to check up on students’ progress.

Again, awesome, right?

Malone also points out:

…[I]n almost every lace – from Bethlehem Steel to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers – where Taylor personally implemented his theory, the result was usually internal dissension followed by Taylor being fired. And while other companies did successfully implement the Taylor Plan, often to great competitive advantage [KIPP?], these new systems not only didn’t quell labor strife, they actually seemed to exacerbate it.

I know, I was shocked at that last point too. Seems our Educational Taylorism might not be the best direction in which to head.

Not to fear, Malone explains:

Taylor had made the most common error of scientists and technologist: he had treated human beings as just one more component in the production process.

It seems, we’re not only attempting to prepare our students for an approach to work that is in its last throes, but we’re using a management approach that has led to strikes, congressional hearings and general unrest.

If only the corporate world could do more than show the folly of our ways and supply us with a better way of doing things at the same time. Oh, wait:

During those long war years, [HP co-founder Dave] Packard, running the company almost alone, had discovered the incrediblepower of letting the cmployees themselves make decisions, to assume control over their own careers, and to take it upon themselves to keep the company healthy and successful…Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard seemed to understand, almost intuitively, and years before anyone else, that in a world of constant change, the old rules had been turned inside out.

More than anything else, I want our schools to start looking to the HPs of education for direction. SLA understands these tenets. My last school, Phoenix Academy in Sarasota, FL, understood them as well. I was amazed each time I went to then-principal Steve Cantees with some unorthodox idea on how to get the school’s recruited population of our district’s lowest achieving students to improve their writing. Each time, Cantees would listen, ask questions and then sign off on the idea.

At some point, I commented on how surprised I was each time he agreed. “Zac, these kids have had school the usual way, and we know it didn’t work. It’s time to try something new.”

Chris Lehmann is the same way. My fear is we have fewer and fewer examples of the kind of progressive pedagogical practice to which we can point and say, “See that, that’s what the world needs.”

The ‘why nots’ are easy: It’s messy. It requires a comfort with failure.

There is no silver bullet. We have to be comfortable with failure, and trust, like Hewlitt and Packard, that teachers will “take it upon themselves to keep the ‘company’ healthy and successful.”

image credit: http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3149/2588347668_a1006846fa.jpg?v=0