Thursday, September 9, 2010

This will be an intersting year

My 10-year old fifth-grader niece (and her brother) have been back in school since last Wednesday, and there are already ominous signs for her year.

  • Alarm bell #1: The first day, she came home with her schedule of classes. There, on Tuesday afternoon, every week of the year, was a half hour block named "Sustainability". I asked her about it, and it's only a little bit not as bad as it sounds. It's not a half-hour lecture on the environmental religion. Last year and this year, the kids have to do one half-hour presentation in class. Last year the kids had to teach something to the other students. Some did music, acting, singing, sports, something like that--my niece taught the scientific method: observe, make a guess (hypothesis), test the guess, analyze the results. She used a pendulum to show how you could predict the speed of the swing.

    This year's class is a half-hour environmental presentation. I think I'll think of it as the first-communion/confirmation into the worship of Gaia.

  • Alarm bell #2: The first in-class "book club" book list came home. The genre for the first book is "realistic fiction". These are the 4 books that are on the list (with their Amazon synopsis):

    • Breadwinner: Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, 11-year-old Parvana has rarely been outdoors. Barred from attending school, shopping at the market, or even playing in the streets of Kabul, the heroine of Deborah Ellis's engrossing children's novel The Breadwinner is trapped inside her family's one-room home. That is, until the Taliban hauls away her father and Parvana realizes that it's up to her to become the "breadwinner" and disguise herself as a boy to support her mother, two sisters, and baby brother. Set in the early years of the Taliban regime, this topical novel for middle readers explores the harsh realities of life for girls and women in modern-day Afghanistan. A political activist whose first book for children, Looking for X, dealt with poverty in Toronto, Ellis based The Breadwinner on the true-life stories of women in Afghan refugee camps.

      In the wily Parvana, Ellis creates a character to whom North American children will have no difficulty relating. The daughter of university-educated parents, Parvana is thoroughly westernized in her outlook and responses. A pint-sized version of Offred from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Parvana conceals her critique of the repressive Muslim state behind the veil of her chador. Although the dialogue is occasionally stilted and the ending disappointingly sketchy, The Breadwinner is essential reading for any child curious about ordinary Afghans. Like so many books and movies on the subject, it is also eerily prophetic. "Maybe someone should drop a big bomb on the country and start again," says a friend of Parvana's. "'They've tried that,' Parvana said, 'It only made things worse.'"

    • Esperanza Rising: Grade 6-9-Ryan uses the experiences of her own Mexican grandmother as the basis for this compelling story of immigration and assimilation, not only to a new country but also into a different social class. Esperanza's expectation that her 13th birthday will be celebrated with all the material pleasures and folk elements of her previous years is shattered when her father is murdered by bandits. His powerful stepbrothers then hold her mother as a social and economic hostage, wanting to force her remarriage to one of them, and go so far as to burn down the family home. Esperanza's mother then decides to join the cook and gardener and their son as they move to the United States and work in California's agricultural industry. They embark on a new way of life, away from the uncles, and Esperanza unwillingly enters a world where she is no longer a princess but a worker. Set against the multiethnic, labor-organizing era of the Depression, the story of Esperanza remaking herself is satisfyingly complete, including dire illness and a difficult romance. Except for the evil uncles, all of the characters are rounded, their motives genuine, with class issues honestly portrayed. Easy to booktalk, useful in classroom discussions, and accessible as pleasure reading, this well-written novel belongs in all collections.

    • Kira-Kira: In Cynthia Kadohata's lively, lovely, funny and sad novel -- winner of the 2005 Newbery Medal -- the Japanese-American Takeshima family moves from Iowa to Georgia in the 1950s when Katie, the narrator, is just in kindergarten. Though her parents endure grueling conditions and impossible hours in the non-unionized poultry plant and hatchery where they work, they somehow manage to create a loving, stable home for their three children: Lynn, Katie, and Sammy. Katie's trust in, and admiration for, her older sister Lynn never falters, even when her sisterly advice doesn't seem to make sense. Lynn teaches her about everything from how the sky, the ocean, and people's eyes are special to the injustice of racial prejudice. The two girls dream of buying a house for the family someday and even save $100 in candy money: "Our other favorite book was Silas Marner. We were quite capitalistic and liked the idea of Silas keeping all that gold underneath the floorboards." When Lynn develops lymphoma, it's heartbreaking, but through the course of her worsening illness, Katie does her best to remember Lynn's "kira-kira" (glittery, shining) outlook on life. Small moments shine the brightest in this poignant story; told beautifully and lyrically in Katie's fresh, honest voice. (Ages 11 to 14)

    • Under the Same Sky: Gr. 5-9. At 14, Joe Pedersen is a spoiled rich kid who has never given a thought to the Mexican migrant laborers on his family's farm in upstate New York. But when he wants a fancy motorbike, his dad makes Joe earn the money by picking strawberries and hoeing cabbages with people he has never really seen before. Message drives the plot, and the lesson is heavily spelled out. But Joe's immediate first-person narrative humanizes the workers, including the "illegal aliens," and brings the reader close to their bitter struggle: the backbreaking, boring, sometimes dangerous work; and, for some, the constant dread of the police. Joe meets Luisa, who, at his age, has had to leave school, cross the border illegally, and labor to support her family far away. In the tense climax, he helps her escape the police--and he earns his father's respect for breaking the law.

    Good grief! Each of these is pushing a political agenda--especially the last "message drives the plot" (guess which one my niece picked!) With the possible exception of the first one, set in Afghanistan, they are all pushing the same political agenda.

  • Alarm bell #3: Looking through her binder, I come across a chart that she had made:

    There, in the middle, is the phrase "Story of Stuff". I took the chart to her and asked her about it, and she said it was notes from a video they watched in their "Sustainability" class.

    At that point my blood began to boil.

    The Story of Stuff” is a video being shown all over the place to students. It is every bit as bad, or worse, as “Inconvenient Truth.” It decries consumerism, exaggerates every bad thing that human beings do, scares kids about “toxins”, and is a massive club to beat kids into environmental, anti-consumerism, anti-corporate hysteria.

    You know something must be really bad, when the first thing about it on Wikipedia is “The Story of Stuff is a polemical animated documentary.” Yes “polemical” is the first thing that should be said about it.

    Will there be any countervailing video shown describing the real “Green Revolution”, which fed millions of people who would otherwise have starved through better agricultural techniques? Will there be pro-capitalist videos shown which describe how pre-capitalist and non-capitalist systems create societies filled with poverty, illness, corruption, tyranny, and death? Will there be any videos shown which herald the advances the first world has made in solving many of the world's problems—how every time the world is faced with a problem, human ingenuity is able to fix it?

    I’m not exactly betting the farm on that one.

    I told her she has to fight back. Her answer to that was to get upset and say: "I can't, I'll get a bad grade!!!!"

    Yes, our 10-year-old is already cowed.

  • Alarm Bell 4: Before school even started, we got the after-school class list. One of the items was "An Interactive Art Exploration of The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago". What is the Dinner Party? It is a feminist art installation, in which a dinner table is set with pieces reminiscent of important women. However, the dinner plates are decorated with "vulvar and butterfly" designs. Yes, a class for 3rd through 8th grade about a piece of vaginal art. You can not Google Judy Chicago without pulling up art you really do not want an 8 year old to see (a 3rd grader)--if you were at work, the websites would probably be blocked. One of her pieces is called "Menstruation Bathroom." How can they design an after school class for 8-14 year olds about an artist that it is not safe for the kids to google?! What were they thinking???!!!

    So, that's just the first week of school. It's going to be an interesting year.
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