Sunday, May 30, 2010

At first I was an ostrich, now I'm angry, sad, and devastated

That's the oil spilling out into the Gulf of Mexico folks. TEACHERNINJA posted this widget on his blog and when I saw it I just had to post it here. Dear Lord please let this be a wake up call to the world that we can't rely on oil to get us around ANYMORE.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution and How It Can Renew America by Thomas Friedman

I read this book a year ago, but given the devastation that this BP oil well disaster is causing in the Gulf of Mexico, I can only pray that this moment is the impetus for the world to attempt to eradicate its dependence on fossil fuels. Complacency and maintaining the status quo are no longer acceptable. It's time to stop letting oil executives hoard money while they destroy our children's futures.

I've gotta give Friedman credit. While a lot of this book was very slow-going and I will admit that I skimmed through quite a few places that I felt were a bit over my head, I have to say that Friedman sure knows how to lay out a thesis. From what I remember about The World is Flat and now this book, he knows how to write a "Chapter 1" that draws everyone into his argument. Even though I skimmed through quite a few pages, as a whole, I feel like this is a book that all Americans should read - especially those in any sort of political office. Our American way of life just cannot continue at the pace it's going right now and Friedman gives not only explanations as to how this mess all started, but he actually gives some possible solutions. The solutions he gives are extremely large scale and not something easily solved, but if enough people in the political world can get behind his message, maybe it is possible.

What he said about oil and petrodictators really hit home for me. Especially when on p. 80 he quotes Peter Schwartz, the chairman of Global Business Network as saying American energy policy today is, "Maximize demand, minimize supply, and make up the difference by buying as much as we can from the people who hate us the most." Yeah, as Friedman says, "I can't think of anything more stupid."

I also thought it was very interesting the connection he made to urban Islam (Cairo-Istanbul-Damascus-Casablanca) vs. desert Islam (mainly Saudi) and how that has affected the climate of freedom in the Middle East. I was extremely appalled to find out that those urban Islam centers have been almost completely flushed out by Saudi investors who now control the media in those areas and dictate what the once progressive areas can watch and even what kinds of films they can make.

There were quite a few passages from this book that really hit home for me:

On pp. 8-9
In some ways, the subprime mortgage mess and housing crisis are metaphors for what has come over America in recent years. A certain connection between hard work, achievement, and accountability has been broken. We've become a subprime nation that thinks it can just borrow its way to prosperity - putting nothing down and making no payments for two with our homes, so with our country: we have been mortgaging our future rather than investing in it.

On p. 93
I started mulling the First Law of Petropolitics after 9/11, reading its daily headlines and listening to the news. When I heard Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez, telling British prime minister Tony Blair to "go to hell" and telling his supporters that the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas coalition "can go to hell" too, I couldn't help saying to myself: "I wonder if the president of Venezuela would be saying these things if the price of oil today were $20 a barrel rather than $60 or $70 a barrel and his country had to make a living by empowering its own entrepreneurs, not just drilling holes in the ground!"

On p. 177 on asking French president Nicolas Sarkozy a question at a journalists' breakfast:
"What would be the impact if America became the world leader on combating climate change rather than the world's laggard?" Sarkozy began by talking about his love for American culture: "I grew up listening to Elvis Presley... I grew up watching American films... America is a story of unprecedented economic success, unprecedented democratic success...I will always love America. So when I see the U.S. hated by everyone, it really pains me." And when America is not taking the lead on such an important global issue as climate change, added the French president, "I am asking, 'Where is the American dream? What happened? Where has it gone?...You are bounded by two oceans. You will be the first to be affected by rising sea levels. You should be setting the example. You should be spearheading the battle for the environment.'"

On pp. 241-242 on talking to a group of Chinese auto executives:
Every year I come to China and young Chinese tell me, "Mr Freidman, you Americans got to grow dirty for 150 years - you got to have your Industrial Revolution based on coal and oil - now it is our turn." Well on behalf of all Americans, I am here today to tell you that you're right. It's your turn. Please, take your time, grow as dirty as you like for as long as you like. Take your time! Please! Because I think my country needs only five years to invent all the clean power and energy efficiency tools that you, China, will need to avoid choking on pollution, and then we are going to come over and sell them all to you. We will get at least a five year jump on you in the next great global industry: clean power and energy efficiency. We will totally dominate you in those industries. So please, don't rush, grow as dirty as you like for as long as you want. If you want to do it for five more years, that's great. If you want to give us a ten-year lead on the next great global industry, that would be even better. Please, take your time.

On p. 245:
In what free market would you find the U.S. government slap a 54-cent a gallon tariff on sugarcane ethanol imported from Brazil, a democratic ally of the United States, while imposing only a 1.25 cent a gallon tariff on crude oil imported from Saudi Arabia, the home of most of the 9/11 hijackers? Only in a market where the American corn lobby has enough clout in Congress to prevent Brazilian sugar ethanol from competing with American corn ethanol.

On p. 259:
Socialism collapsed because it did not allow the market to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow the market to tell the ecological truth.

On p. 265 when talking about conservative politicians complaining about gasoline taxes and what pro-green revolution politicians should say:
The American people certainly have been taxed quite enough I totally agree. Right now they are being taxed by Saudi Arabia, taxed by Venezuela, taxed by Russia, taxed by Iran, and, if we stay on this track, they'll soon be taxed by Mother Nature. And when Mother Nature starts taxing us there will be no politician you can call on the phone to get relief. So let's get one thing straight: My opponent and I are both for a tax. I just have this quaint, old-fashioned view that my taxes should go to the U.S. Treasury, not the Saudi Treasury, and not the Russian Treasury.

And finally, on p. 397:
It is much more important to change your leaders than your lightbulbs.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Smile by Raina Telgemeier

Taken from Goodreads:

Raina just wants to be a normal sixth grader. But one night after Girl Scouts she trips and falls, severely injuring her two front teeth, and what follows is a long and frustrating journey with on-again, off-again braces, surgery, embarrassing headgear, and even a retainer with fake teeth attached. And on top of all that, there's still more to deal with: a major earthquake, boy confusion, and friends who turn out to be not so friendly.

What a pleasant surprise this book was. It was based on Telgemeier's own dental trauma in junior high and high school. The story and adorable drawings make you laugh, smile, and wince all at the same time. I think what I especially loved was all of the pop culture references since the author was in junior high and high school around the same time I was. It brought back a flood of memories from my own awkward phase of pre-adolescence and teenagerhood. It's sure to delight kids, teenagers, and adults alike. 

Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Published: February 1, 2010
Publisher: Scholastic 
Pages: 224
Genre: Graphic Memoir
Audience: Middle Grade

Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year by Esme Raji Codell

The diary of Esme's first year as a teacher is everything it should be: endearing, discouraging, enlightening, uplifting, and tiring! It just goes to show you what one good teacher with heart can do for children - even at the hand of poverty, violence, and an incompetent administrator. What makes this such an entertaining read is Esme's strong voice as a writer and teacher. She doesn't hold back. But even when she's angry, you can tell that her words are said with love and passion.

I especially loved the following statement Esme said to a young, naive teacher who said she just wanted the students to like her: "It's not our job to be liked; it's our job to help them be smart." (87) I think of this statement every time I remember my junior high English teacher. I hated her when she was my teacher, but now that I think back to my entire schooling, she really impacted my life as a writer. So that attitude is the same for me. I don't care if they like me now. I hope that ten years from now they can look back and realize how instrumental I was in their education.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It by Michael J. Trinklein

What a fun romp through America through the lens of states that never came to be. Some of the propositions in this book are completely far-fetched (The state of Albania?) but others give a fascinating look at just how arbitrary the borders of the lower 48 are. This is a great read for people who think that history is dull and dry and doesn't lend itself to writing with any sort of voice. Trinklein's humor pervades his writing and makes the material in this book even more fascinating. It's people like Trinklein who should be writing textbooks, not the robots who currently seem to grace the textbook publishing world. I teach 6th grade social studies and I have a hard time staying awake when I read our textbook. How am I expected to tell 6th graders what's important if no one can stay awake long enough to read it? I understand the need to be objective and politically correct when writing about history, but the problem is, when you take the humanness out of writing, no one wants to read it. Fun books like this are the antidote to mind-numbing textbooks.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Creating a classroom of writers, readers, and thinkers is more important to me than "covering" material

All year the students in my 6th grade English class have been required to use a writer's notebook that is partitioned into three sections: journal/notes/vocabulary. The vocabulary they do is relevant to their own independent reading books. I do not give them weekly vocabulary lists on Monday and quiz them on the words on Friday. They have to hunt for their own vocabulary words and use the following format for three words per week:

word - (part of speech) definition
sentence from the book where they found the word (author, book, page #)

Then, throughout the year, we do different writing exercises or fun assignments that require them to use the vocabulary so they can start to imprint the words in their permanent vocabulary.

The way I tell them to find words is when they come across a word they don't recognize or is not a part of their permanent vocabulary, to flag the word with a post-it, and go back to the word later when they're doing their vocabulary to write the definition. They have been doing this all year, but today while one of my social studies classes had some unexpected down time, I had a student come up to me and say, "Mrs. S, can I please have a post-it flag? I came across this really cool word in my book and I want to make sure I put it in my writer's notebook." He then proceeded to show me the word and the look of genuine delight on his face made me beam with pride.

I honestly don't even remember what the word was. I just remember the warm feeling that pervaded me as I handed him a post-it flag. It was that moment I realized, it doesn't matter how much material you "cover" as a teacher; what matters more is creating good learning habits that will carry kids through the rest of their lives. That's my ultimate goal.

Jamie's Food Revolution by Jamie Oliver

From Goodreads:

Cooking good food from scratch is a skill that can save you money, keep you healthy, and make you and your family and friends happy. What I've tried to do in this book is pick a whole load of meals that we all love to eat and break them down to make them as simple as possible. There are plenty of clear instructions and step-by-step pictures, so whether you're an accomplished cook or a complete beginner, you'll be able to enjoy cooking and achieve great results in the kitchen.

I heart Jamie Oliver. He is now my new favorite celebrity chef. The work he's doing with his Food Revolution is important and necessary work in this country of super-sized meals and unhealthy relationships with processed foods. I'd love to just give him a big old hug - and then I'd ask him to give something a wazz in the food processor and say oregano for me (or-e-gah-no).

The food in this book looks delicious and is easily accessible for new cooks. I especially loved his basic stew recipe and then the four variations you can add to it to make it completely different (e.g., beef and ale, chicken and white wine, pork and cider, etc.) With this method, you can be inspired to create your own variations.

If you want your kids to have access to healthy, fresh food at school, sign Jamie's Food Revolution petition.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman

A young girl plants some beans in an abandoned lot in inner-city Cleavland, and from that small gesture, a community garden grows amongst the poverty and violence.

If you're looking to read a book to inspire you, look no further. The literal and metaphorical growing of a community garden in this story was full of hope and life-lessons. It makes you want to go out and take up gardening.

The multiple narrators and shortness of the story (70 pages) makes this a great read-aloud for students in middle school. Some of the more mature situations in the book however, (narrators talking about drugs and teen-pregnancy, though in a very subtle, minimally controversial way) does not make this a good read-aloud for kids in primary and intermediate grades.

Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman
Published: December 14, 2004
Publisher: HarperTeen
Pages: 112
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Audience: Young Adult
Disclosure: Purchased Copy

If you buy this book or any book through Amazon, it is my hope that you also regularly patronize independent bookstores, which are important centerpieces of thriving communities. While I am an Amazon Affiliate, that by no means implies that I only buy my books through their website. Please make sure you are still helping small, independent bookstores thrive in your community. To locate an independent bookstore near you, visit IndieBound

Friday, May 7, 2010

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

Rick Steves is one of the foremost Americans who is lucky enough to travel for a living.He has built his business on the idea of traveling “through the back door.” Despite the snorts of snickers this phrase might impart on immature high school boys, his meaning is to take “the road less traveled” – though the very definition of someone carrying around a travel guidebook is generally not someone who is willing to take the road less traveled. Still, Steves tries to balance his guidebook recommendations, giving information on heavy-touristed must-sees (The Louvre, Buckingham Palace, Neuschwanstein Castle, etc.) and pleasantly surprising back door finds (A little souvenir shop in Berlin that will stamp your passport with a former East Berlin checkpoint stamp).

So if anyone has the right to preach the gospel of “how to travel”, it’s Rick Steves. And that’s just what he does in Travel as a Political Act – preach that is. It’s not excessively preachy, but you do get the sense that he does get a little self-righteous at times. But then again, he has every right to be. In his many years of travel, he has managed to gain a world perspective that is not easy to acquire by “vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime” (Twain) as so many Americans do.

There was so much good, quotable material in this book, that my post-it flags were working overtime:

During his talk of his time in Germany, I always sat up a little straighter, having myself spent two years of my life in Germany. I was moved by Steves’ description of their parliament building, the
Reichstag, one of my favorite buildings in Europe:

“Germany’s old-meets-new parliament building comes with powerful architectural symbolism. It’s free to enter, open long hours, and designed for German citizens to climb its long spiral ramp to the very top and literally look down (through a glass ceiling) over the shoulders of their legislators to see what’s on their desks. The Germans, who feel they’ve been manipulated by too many self-serving politicians over the last century, are determined to keep a closer eye on their leaders from now on.

Spiraling slowly up the ramp to the top of the dome during that festive opening week, I was surrounded by teary-eyed Germans. Now, anytime you’re surrounded by teary-eyed Germans… something exceptional is going on. Most of those teary-eyes were old enough to remember the difficult times after World War II, when their city lay in rubble. Forthese people, the opening of this grand building was the symbolic closing of a difficult chapter in the history of a great nation” (11-12).

Steves does assert many of his political leanings in this book and I’m sure that could turn people off on the other side of the political spectrum, but the message of this book goes beyond politics. It speaks to our very humanity and the need to understand how, despite our differences, people around the world are really the same. When you let the sensationalism and fear-mongering of the media dictate your judgments, that's how wars get started and that's how they continue to get perpetuated.

I was touched and impressed by Steves reporting on his trip to Iran. His thoughts were very balanced: giving the positives and negatives of the society, but all the while, remaining true to his political ideology: you should be forced to get to know people before you bomb them. During his time in Iran, he was met with nothing but friendly, amiable people, and while he was disturbed by many things, he also had many misconceptions of the Iranian people and culture obliterated.

If you have been hesitant to travel and see the world, I highly suggest you read this book. It just might change your mind.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Fat Cat by Robin Brande

Cat smart, sassy, and funny—but thin, she’s not. Until her class science project. That’s when she winds up doing an experiment—on herself. Before she knows it, Cat is living—and eating—like the hominids, our earliest human ancestors. True, no chips or TV is a bummer and no car is a pain, but healthful eating and walking everywhere do have their benefits.

As the pounds drop off, the guys pile on. All this newfound male attention is enough to drive a girl crazy! If only she weren’t too busy hating Matt McKinney to notice....

This funny and thoughtful novel explores how girls feel about their bodies, and the ways they can best take care of their most precious resource: themselves.

-Synopsis taken from Goodreads

My reactions:

This book had lovable characters with whom you could easily empathize, and the story was definitely a page-turner - but it was a predictable page-turner. I knew, not only how the story was going to end, but also some of the other plot details that Cat was waiting to reveal until later in the novel - which is fine because a predictable ending doesn't always equate bad writing, it just means that you'd better have some really great characters to make it worth the ride.

I also got the feeling that the book was written less to entertain and more to educate/preach the gospel of vegetarianism. Again, this is not a bad thing, I just wish it had been a little more seamless in its delivery. Readers can be turned off if they feel like they're being manipulated.

Having said that, I think Brande's message is a great one for those teens have have been flirting with the idea of vegetarianism.
It might, however, turn off the readers who feel like Brande was trying to convert everyone to that way of life.

Even with my criticisms, this was still a solid, entertaining novel that I thoroughly enjoyed.