Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Book Review: Work Hard. Be Nice.

For years, people have been trying to find the panacea for the achievement gap in American schools. One of the most recent attempts is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), started by Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, two Teach for America alumni. The KIPP schools, which are now found in several states and serve students from elementary to high school, offer a mixture of strict discipline, energetic chanting and singing, and more time spent in school (the school day is nine and a half hours long and students go to school on alternate Saturdays and in the summer). Jay Mathews’s book Work Hard. Be Nice provides an interesting and approachable if somewhat uneven look at the start of KIPP.

The book's s
ubtitle, “How Two Inspired Teachers Created America’s Best Schools,” leaves little to the imagination when determining Mathews’s opinion on KIPP. However, to Mathews’s credit, his account attempts to present different sides of the KIPP debate. Rather than making the program’s implementation seem easy, Mathews shows the many difficulties, ranging from colleague jealousy to administrative bureaucracy, that come with starting something different. Mathews also does not ignore Feinberg’s and Levin’s many missteps during their early years in teaching for TFA and creating KIPP. Although he portrays some of the anecdotes, such as Feinberg’s decision to have his students call school board members and inquire about the progress made in finding KIPP a new place, as drastic but necessary tactics or eccentric stunts designed to get needed attention, Mathews does not gloss over some of the more obvious errors that Feinberg and Levin commit.

er, the account still poses some problems. Mathews’s view of Feinberg, Levin, and KIPP is tremendously positive. While he does recognize some of the concerns critics of the KIPP schools have, he fails to provide compelling or substantive evidence that supports his rejection of these concerns. For instance, when faced with the contention that the KIPP students’ achievements may be attributed to them having a supportive home life because their parents value education, Mathews argues that the KIPP students do not have a family advantage because the system “puts less, not more, responsibility on parents than regular public schools do” (282) and points to the extended school day and Saturday and summer classes as opportunities for free child care. This line of reasoning neglects the parents’ efforts in getting their children into KIPP schools and assumes that the parents do not rely on their children to bring in an income from after-school work or to help at home by taking care of younger siblings. This failure to look under the surface to get a better understanding of the situation at hand weakens Mathews’s overall argument.

ther limitation with the book is its structure. While it revolves around Feinberg and Levin, Mathews also discusses their relationship with other teachers, such as Ball, and students. These relationships do humanize the two men. However, by interspersing ongoing stories about students with the basically linear narrative of Feinberg and Levin, Mathews sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to fully follow the different threads. While this problem is easily solved by flipping through the book and finding the previous thread to a given account, this solution makes for an occasionally unsatisfying experience.

rall, Work Hard. Be Nice will probably not sway critics of the KIPP schools. Before starting this review, I had some serious misgivings about the program, and these uncertainties remain even after reading and enjoying this book. Although the KIPP model may not present all of the answers or even be “America’s best schools” as the book’s subtitle claims, Mathews’s account is absorbing and provides an understandable, if somewhat biased, introduction for people who are not familiar with education or KIPP but want to learn more about both topics.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Ron Howard, Andy Griffith, and Henry Winkler Want You to Vote for Obama

Much to my mother's chagrin, I'm an Obama supporter. While I try to keep my political views to myself (at least on my blog), I stumbled across this video as I was working on a paper for class. Ron Howard, Andy Griffith, and Henry Winkler did a fantastic (and really funny) video urging people to vote for Barack Obama. It is completely charming in a retro, Nick at Nite sort of way, but I will let you judge for yourself: click here to go to see the video.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Wretched Adaptations of Good Books: The Classics

I've recently been thinking about the disaster that often happens when good books get made into film. For every success story, there are probably ten utter disasters. Take, for instance, the Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter. Perhaps a successful commercial film version of the book was doomed from the start. Hawthorne's use of narrative to show the minute details does not always transfer well to film. However, the nail in the movie's coffin was the attempt to update the plot ti fit appeal to modern American society. Consequently, the intricate story of forgiveness, renewal, and hypocrisy became a romance-adventure with some gratuitous violence, masturbation, and nudity thrown in for good measure. It even has a conventional happy ending, with Hester and Dimmesdale riding off into the sunset with little Pearl. Demi Moore's defense of the changes pretty much consisted of the idea that many people had not read the book. Not only is this not true (the book is on many reading lists for high school English, so people have at least a clue as to the story), it is also a weak defense. Even people who had not read the book could see that the movie was terrible.

Another great misstep in terms of movies and the classics is The Great Gatsby, which as been made into a film four times. Since the story comes from Nick's point of view, translating that into film is a daunting task, and the various film versions of Gatsby suggest that it is impossible. One of the most famous versions stars Robert Redford and Mia Farrow as the star-crossed Gatsby and Daisy. Although Farrow is convincingly ditsy, Redform seems much too self-assured and suave to be Gatsby. The most recent version aimed on A&E and starred Mira Sorvino as an unusually self-aware version of Daisy and Paul Rudd as an unusually snarky version of Nick. Despite the star power of the films, none of them satisfyingly capture Fitzgerald's tone, wit, or scathing indictment of the American Dream.

Of course, there are countless movie versions of Shakespeare's plays. One particularly awkward attempt that stands out is Kenneth Branaugh's Love's Labours Lost, which he made into a 1940s style musical featuring Alicia Silverston (of Clueless fame) and Matthew Lillard (of Scooby Doo the movie). As the characters flitter about on the sound-stage sets that are supposed to evoke memories of Astaire and Rogers films and perform numbers by Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin, it becomes obvious that most of the cast are out of their element. Alicia Silverstone gives it the old college try but clearly has no clue as to what she is saying, and the singing and dancing are, for the most part, amateurish to the point of being embarrassing. While watching non-singers (aka supposedly regular folk) sing can be charming (see Alan Alda's supremely understated and lovely take on "Looking at You" from Woody Allen's Everyone Says "I Love You" for a successful example), watching people attempt to sing, dance, and interpret Shakespeare while being shaky on all counts is more painful than entertaining.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Where Do We Go From Here - A Reader's Poll

I have had this blog for about 8 months now, and I continue to be pleasantly surprised whenever I check my statcounter to see who has been visiting my site and where these hits are coming from. While my statcounter can tell me what pages are the most popular, I am interested in hearing from you (my readers) on what you would like to see me do on this site. Please take a minute to complete the poll and let me know what you would be interested in reading. I promise to take your input into consideration (even if I continue to do my own thing on occasion).

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Project Runway

I admit that I probably haven't made it through an entire episode of Project Runway this season. While it used to be one of my guilty pleasures, I couldn't warm to the designers this time around. However, I watched enough of it to know that, while I wasn't rooting for a particular person to win (which is just as well, since the person I want to win typically does not), I was vehemently opposed to the idea of Kenley winning. Although she is talented, she also came off as rude (even to Tim Gunn!), defensive, bitchy, and uncreative. While reality television tends to reward bad behavior (just look at Tila Tequila or any reality show on VH1 for proof), even the tv gods couldn't justify Kenely (and her bad attitude) walking away with the prize.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Theatre Review: A Chorus Line

Although the new promos for A Chorus Line like to call it "The best musical ever," I was very skeptical before going to see the touring production at the Boston Opera House last week. Like any good musical theatre junkie, I was familiar with the show and its place in musical theatre history, but a number of traumatic experiences with the show made me leery of paying money (even at the student rush rate of $25.00) to see it live. Besides a horrendous introduction to the play via the awful movie version (which should be a crime against humanity on some level) and a terrible student-produced version that I forced myself to attend while an undergraduate, my experience stage managing A Chorus Line was what convinced me that making a career in the theatre would probably be a bad thing.

However, after watching the show last week, I can honestly say that I have a greater appreciation and understanding of the show. Despite the decidedly mixed reviews the revival got when it opened on Broadway, the show was probably one of the best touring productions I've ever seen. Here are a few of my observations from the performance I saw:
  • While A Chorus Line is a staple of many a college and community theatre production, it is sometimes hard to find enough people who can sing, dance, and act well enough to truly pull off this show without making some points embarrassing or difficult to watch. The company of this production were uniformly good and are true triple threats. While some characters were a little over the top and therefore unlikable (I'm looking at you, Val), I can say that nothing was boring.
  • The absolute best part of the show (in my mind) is the Montage sequence, which includes "Gimme the Ball," "Nothing," and "Hello Twelve." It has always been my favorite part of the show, and I almost wanted the show to end with it.
  • The other highlight of the show was the character of Shelia. Not only does she have the fantastic song "At the Ballet," she is a surprisingly sympathetic character. The actress playing Shelia (Emily Fletcher) was able to balance the character's hard edges with moments of very believable vulnerability.
  • "The Music and the Mirror" section needs to be cut in half. I'm sure that Donna McKechnie was amazing when she did it originally, but it just feels very long when watching it.
  • I loathe the song "What I Did for Love." While I have always found the song maudlin, hearing Ed Kleban's (the show's lyricist) interview on NPR in which he talked about his hatred for this song solidified my dislike. FYI: Kleban hated the song because he felt that it didn't further the plot. Instead, it was written to be a standalone song that could be a hit and could be performed to promote the show. His dislike of the song was such that he refused to let anyone perform it at his memorial service.
  • As I watched the final casting choices that Zach (the director) makes, I actually hoped that the rejected dancers mugged him in the alley when he left. After putting them through the most emotionally draining and manipulative audition EVER, he deserves a good ass-kicking.
  • The show's finale, "One," is perhaps the most depressing ending I've ever seen. Despite the fact that many people get caught up in the splashy costumes and showy choreography, Michael Bennett actually wanted the ending to be disturbing. While the audience has spent two hours getting to know the individual members of the show, suddenly they are all dressed alike and are the dance equivalent to interchangeable cogs in a machine.
In short, while parts of the show are a little dated ("Dance, Ten. Looks, Three" just doesn't have the same shock value it once did), I heartily recommend this seeing production. Not only does it do the original show justice (which is much more than I can say about the film version), it also features a very talented cast and some great songs. Consequently, while I may not go so far as to call it "the best musical ever," it is an important and mesmerizing part of musical theatre history (and should make the creators of the musical versions of Young Frankenstein, The Little Mermaid, and Legally Blonde very, very ashamed).

The Odd World of SkyMall

From the airport security lines to the lack of amenities to the crowded cabins, flying is usually a far from pleasant experience. However, one of the great things about flying is the always amusing and usually absurd items found in the SkyMall catalogs thoughtfully provided in the pockets of airline seats. From the semi-practical (a travel medicine case) to the odd but compelling (an antique popcorn maker/cart) to the completely frivolous (the Spa-N-a-Box Portable Spa), you can find almost anything and everything within the catalog's slick pages.

Although a SkyMall catalog probably isn't enough to keep you occupied while on a trans-Atlantic flight, it does offer some great diversions on shorter trips. Now that they have done away with in-flight movies, here are some of the odder games my siblings and I sometimes indulge in when there isn't anything else to do on the plane:
  • Find the most useless item possible in the catalog (this can take some time) and try to one-up each other in terms of uselessness and cost. The last time my sister and I did this, we went head-to-head with the expensive inflatable, portable hot tub and the ultimate pogo stick extreme.
  • For some reason, there are an unusual number of pet-related items featured in SkyMall. Everything from personal drinking fountains to memorial plaques are available. Find the stupidest pet items (you will have a lot to pick from) and try to decide which of your friends might actually buy them for their beloved pets. An even more fun variation is taking the catalog with you to your pet-fanatic friend and showing him all of the wonderful things that he can buy for Fido or Fluffy.
  • If all else fails, use the catalog like an adult version of the Sears Wish Book and find all of the things that you would buy if you had an unlimited amount of money and space. While you may never have room for that genuine reproduction of a 1920s helicopter propeller in your living room, you can always dream...
Finally, if you are away from an airplane, take this great quiz from Mental Floss: Actual SkyMall Product or Rejected Invention Patent?

Saturday, October 4, 2008


I've always been rather skeptical of places that specialize in products made specifically to inspire others. While this might sound like a terribly cynical standpoint, please hear me out. Things like the Chicken Soup series, the thankfully defunct television show Touched by an Angel, and "inspirational" email forwards have always left me cold. Even when I allow myself to be manipulated by a maudlin story or film, I always feel a little dirty afterward.*

Luckily, there is a fantastic antidote to all of this mass-marketed sweetness and light. Despair.com has some of the funniest, most caustic anti-inspirational products ever created. Modeled after the motivational posters ubiquitous in school hallways and locker rooms, Despair Inc.'s Demotivators take the idea of the stock image (a rainbow at sunset) and juxtaposes it with the one word inspirational feeling (dreams) and the pithy explanation ("Dreams are like rainbows. Only idiots chase them."). While there are many fantastic products and sayings to pick from, my current favorite is this one.

*ETA: Right after I posted this, I found the link to "The Starfish Story" on the Despair.com site, and I had to put it on here. I had a teacher in grad school who loved this story, and it is the perfect example of the sentimental/ inspirational story I mention earlier.

Banned Books Week: Other Favorites

Art Spiegelman's graphic novel about the Holocaust and his father's experiences in it is one of the great books of modern times. Not only did it help legitimize graphic novels as a form of literature, it also tells a damn good story. In it, Spiegleman uses different animals to symbolize the different ethnicities/races (Jews are mice, Nazis are cats, Americans are dogs, and so on). In addition to telling the story of his parents' ordeal during the Holocaust and World War II, Spiegelman also addreses his complicated relationship with his father (a tempermental miser), his rivalry with a brother who died during the Holocaust, and his guilt with his mother's suicide. However, Maus has come under fire and was challenged in 2005 for being anti-ethnic and unsuitable for younger readers.

As many have discovered, satire can be a hard sell. George S. Kaufman, playwright and satirist, once famously said that "Satire is what closes on Saturday night." While America (The Book) was very popular, two libraries in Mississippi initially refused to put the book on their shelves because it contained (fake) nude pictures of the justices of the Supreme Court. Wal-Mart also decided not to stock the book because of these pictures. When you consider what Wal-Mart does sell, this is an interesting argument. While fake pictures might destroy America, Wal-Mart is dedicated to providing us with firearms and tobacco products

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Banned Books Week: Literature Edition

While a freakish number of children's books have been banned or challenged, there have been plenty of adult books that have seen the wrath of angry people who spend entirely too much time counting words in the text without actually having read (or understood) the books in questions.

Toni Morrison, who is the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, is not an author without controversy. Three of her books, Song of Soloman, The Bluest Eye, and Beloved, have all been challenged or banned because of violence, language, and sexuality. Beloved is one of my all-time favorite books, and while I admit it can be a harrowing read, it is also a very powerful one. While parts of the book still perplex me, it also provides incredible insight into slavery in the United States, and it also addresses issues of identity, memory, and guilt. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for it in 1988.

Although The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered one of the great books in American literature, it is also one of the most contested books in the canon. In 1885, the Concord Public Library banned the book, saying that the novel was "trash suitable only for the slums." The book's depiction of Huck's behavior and Twain's use of vernacular caused much controversy at the time. Later, in the 20th century, the book came under fire because of its language and racial references. While I can understand how some of the language can make people uncomfortable, most people who challenge the book miss its point. This is not unlike...

Harper Lee's depiction of Depression Era Alabama is a great coming-of-age novel, but this sentiment is obviously not shared by many others, including the student who wanted the book banned because of language or the high school principal who didn't allow a performance of the stage adaptation because of the inclusion of racial slurs and the discussion of rape. However, the challenge that I get the biggest kick out of occurred in Tennessee when I was teaching there. A parent in Williamson County circulated an anonymous (aka cowardly) petition to get the book removed from the public schools there because of language like "snot nosed slut." The petition has so many wonderfully absurd moments that there isn't room or time to go over all of them. The highlights include a list of curses from the book (including "You're damn tootin," a phrase so hilarious that it makes the entire petition look even more ridiculous than it already is) and several quotes from the Bible that supposedly back up this person's protest. I guess that the protester conveniently forgot that, while the Bible is many things, one thing that it is decidedly not is PG-rated. (Incidentally, the Bible has also been banned/ challenged a lot).