Monthly Archives: March 2010

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Ron’s #13: Churchill by Paul Johnson

Winston Churchill has been on my mind lately for no apparent reason. I thought it was time I read something about him.

This slim book was a nice introduction to this great man, even though most of it read more like an encyclopedia than a passionate account of one of the greatest personalities of the 20th century. When the timeline reaches World War II, the narrative begins to sparkle and offers more dimensions to this mythical, larger-than-life statesman.

Here are a few interesting facts that I’ve learned from this book:

  • Churchill hated the movie Citizen Kane. (Strangely enough, I couldn’t stop making comparisons between these two men.)
  • Churchill’s son-in-law was a stand-up comedian.
  • He became a prolific painter later in life, amassing over 500 pieces.
  • He has little tolerance for whistling and those who did it. Coincidentally, Hitler was a notorious whistler.
  • His famous pseudo-angry blurb regarding the prepositions at the end of sentences: “Up with this I will not put!”
  • Churchill is often cited as the source of the V-sign (for victory) and the terms “iron curtain” and “cold war.”

Winston Churchill is a politician to be admired, especially during wartime. He provided his countrymen leadership, determination, pride, and hope in the face of Hitler’s terrorism throughout Europe. In the current milieu of pandering and appeasement with our current American president, a biography of Churchill is a refreshing read.

The world needs fewer Chamberlains and more Churchills.

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Mark’s #11: The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Aurthur Conan Doyle (500 pages)

This is the first time I’ve read any of the Shelock Holmes adventures. The book consists of the 24 original short stories.  Each story offers a creative tale of intrique, suspense, and logical deductions by the world’s most famous detective – Sherlock Holmes.

Since each story is about 20 pages long, this book would have probably been better if I spread it out over time and occasionally read one of the 24 original Sherlock Holmes adventures.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the classic work by Aurthur Conan Doyle.  Not surprisingly, I found the stories to be more captivating than most, if not all of the modern Sherlock Holmes renditions, be they on the movie screen or stage.

If you’re looking for some good short story mysteries, does anyone do it better than Arthur Conan Doyle?  I think not.

No mystery on my rating of this book… “Elementary my dear Watson!”

4 stars.

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Ron’s #12: Chew On This by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson

I read Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation several years ago and loved it. It opened my eyes to specific problems in the fast food industry. Chew On This is the teenage version of that book, and I bought a class set to teach to 8th graders next month. It should be fun, and I think they’ll like it, mainly because of the gross-out stuff.

My favorite part of the book is the history of the key players. Like the computer industry, I love reading about how these world-changing companies were started by some key personalities. Ray Kroc is the Steve Jobs of hamburgers.

Best parts: history of the industry, slaughterhouse descriptions, advertising campaigns

Weakest parts: too much time with the Yupiks in Alaska, the blow-by-blow account of one girl getting a soda machine removed from school, and the Edible Schoolyard narrative. Kids will skip over these dull parts, and I wanted to as well.

My main criticism of this book (and other books and articles that attack the power of big companies over what people buy/eat/consume) is that they ignore the other “forces” out there that attempt to manipulate culture. Where are the outcries about what TV shows teenagers watch, about the popular music with violent or sexual lyrics, about over-protective parents who try to be buddies over mothers and fathers, or about allowing kids to have three televisions, cell phones, and any other electronic device they whine loudly enough for? The Saw series of movies and the Kim Kardashians provide a generational numbness that disturbs and frightens me more than the methylphenylglycidate in strawberry shakes. These produce something far worse than overweight teenagers with pre-adult onset diabetes; they produce a morally anemic, self-serving, and self-obsessed generation unable to look beyond their digital navels.

I’d take the fat kid any day.

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Ron’s #11: Why Don’t Students Like School? By Daniel T. Willingham

I get tired of hearing the phrase, “Brain research shows…” to prove whatever point teachers are trying to show at the time. Whether it is about the importance of play, the use of movies, standing on your head before a test, or studying on the toilet, educators pull these three words and throw them down on the table like the trump card they’ve been saving to illuminate a point. The problem is that most teachers, including me, have no idea about brain research or even where to begin. Because of this, I sought to find a book to offer a basic understanding for dum-dums like me.

The subtitle of this book is, “A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for your classroom.” This is a better explanation for the information, as I still don’t know why students don’t like school (perhaps it has something to do with me!). I suppose I could sum up the book as follows:

  1. People are naturally curious.
  2. Teachers create “problems” far too easy or too difficult.
  3. Students do not have background information necessary to engage a problem, thus making it easy to quit.
  4. Teachers present information in a disconnected way, thus students cannot remember background information to address critical thinking problems.
  5. Students sit and force themselves to hold back both sleep and drool, while dreaming about that cute girl sitting in the front.
  6. Students are no longer curious.

As I read, I made liberal notes throughout, and it will be a book to revisit. If you are a teacher, I think that you’ll find this to be an important work for your professional growth. At face value, here are the three main points that I have thought most about since completing this:

  1. As I already listed, people are naturally curious. I like this idea, and I must remember it as I teach. Am I creating problems that challenge students to think and wrestle with in class, problems that are still within their reach for success? Reducing the amount of other work to focus on more of this kind of work is something that I want to do. This includes offering more opportunities for students to play with language and words. Sometimes, I forget about this as I try to meet content standards.
  2. Memorization is important, as it provides the building blocks for critical thinking. The author is not suggesting long lists of information to remember. However, in order for our brains to conquer a problem, basic materials are needed. This could be definitions, word parts, poetry, multiplication tables, etc. Modern teaching often belittles memorizing as outdated pedagogy, but when students do not know the times tables or what the definition of an allusion is, the critical thinking engagement is crippled.
  3. The effectiveness of “multiple intelligences” is over-emphasized in education. According to Wellingham, educators put too much stock in this, as there does not seem to be different intelligences, rather strengths and talents. We do students a disservice when we tell them that they are smart in some area, even if they are not the same. His suggestion is that we focus on varying the lessons (sometimes visual, using music, acting, etc.) rather than on each student. This is the area that teachers will squirm and protest the most. Multiple intelligences are the sacred cows of education. If you don’t believe me, as a teacher you know about them. Their eyes will light up as they tell you about how they had students act out what a commas does or sing about a Picasso painting.

Why Don’t Students Like School? is the perfect primer for educators to get a peek into the complex and deep world of brain research. I still won’t use “brain research shows…” in my next conversation, but I found this book a good first step in understanding how it relates to education.

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Ron’s #10: Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman

My friend John recommended this book to me and I ordered it immediately. John is one of those guys who is smarter than most people, and he has an outstanding knowledge of literature, pop culture, and sports. I enjoy discussing opinions on 2 out of 3 of those topics, but I still don’t know what a running back does that differs him from a linebacker. After finishing this book, I understand why John enjoyed it—Klosterman is a doppelganger for John, an expert on all three of these areas.

Eating the Dinosaur is a collection of 13 essays about modern life discussed in terms of popular culture. Klosterman is the uber-hipster with a writing style that is sharp, funny, and biting. Here are some of my favorites:

  • “Oh, the Guilt” connects Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain’s and David Koresh’s messiah complexes.
  • “Tomorrow Rarely Knows” is one of the best discussions on time travel that I’ve read.
  • “ABBA 1, World 0” about the phenomenon of ABBA Music
  • “ ‘Ha ha,’ he said. ‘Ha ha.’ ” discusses what the laugh track on sitcoms says about its viewers and our culture.
  • “FAIL” gives insight into the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski that I never before considered.

The power of this book is not reading about topics that I enjoy (advertising, Lost, time travel), but also about those subjects in which I usually steer clear from in choosing my literary selections. He has two essays that are sports related, one about Ralph Sampson and one about football. It was the longest piece dedicated to football plays that I’ve ever read..and I enjoyed it. The next time I talk to John, I’m going to discuss the feasibility of the 4-3 and Wildcat plays, and how the forward pass changed the face of football for good.

In the Ted Kaczynski piece, Klosterman offers this conclusion of the effects of technology that coincide with the Unabomber’s views:

Technology is bad for civilization. We are living in a manner that is unnatural. We are latently enslaved by our own ingenuity, and we have unknowingly constructed a simulated world. The benefits of technology are easy to point out (medicine, transportation, the ability to send and receive text messages during Michael Jackson’s televised funeral), but they do not compensate for the overall loss of humanity that is its inevitable consequence. As a species, we have never been less human than we are right now. And that (evidently) is what I want.

This is a clever collection of essays that will be worth your time to read.

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