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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

You can’t get ahead when you are trying to get even.

I go to school every weekday. I wake up early, I arrive on time, I pay attention, and I ask questions. After a full day of school I go to basketball practice for 2 hours. But then I get home and it is back to school work for the rest of the night. I enjoy learning and I like going to school, but as a hard working student, I am confused and intimidated by the notion that “America is in danger of falling behind.” Although I have heard of America’s seemingly lacking education, this article from the New York Times finally provides some facts. According to the PISA Standardized test, students in Shanghai scored the highest out of the 65 countries tested in math, science, and English. Disappointingly, the United States did not even make the top 10, or the top 20. According to this exam American students ranked 23rd.

Initially, I took these results too seriously, thinking that if the rigor with which I am studying is only earning my country 23rd place globally, I must be doing something wrong, right? Everyone must be doing something wrong. But then I thought why does my mentality have to be “us” against “them?” In English class we have been discussing the “other.” The “other” refers to those who are not considered the “norm” in their society. My class created a list of the accepted norms in the America society:

· White

· Christian

· Middle class

· Heterosexual

· English speaking

· A businessman

We had an honest discussion about what it is like to be on the outside of this preconceived “norm.” And we discovered that even lacking one of these qualities automatically puts you at risk of becoming an “other.” Labeling a group as the “other” has become a problem in the past years. For example, after 9/11 most people thought all Muslims were terrorists. Because there is not a lot of media around the Islamic culture, people start to believe this notion. Similarly, most people assume Asians are naturally smart. While it does seem that the Asian population takes education more seriously than other cultures, they are not smart merely because they are Asian. They are smart because they have worked hard to become so. I fear that we have already turned Asians into an “other” in terms of education. Instead of striving for perfection in our own school systems, we seem to keep creating excuses as to why places like China and Japan are better equipped for educational success. The same article as above provides some reasons as to why China scored so high on recent exams, “Chinese students spend less time than American students on athletics, music and other activities not geared toward success on exams in core subjects. Also, in recent years, teaching has rapidly climbed up the ladder of preferred occupations in China, and salaries have risen. In Shanghai, the authorities have undertaken important curricular reforms, and educators have been given more freedom to experiment.

My proposal is to try and combat thinking of things as “us” vs. “them.” Instead of fretting about the successes of the Chinese for their stellar test results, why not congratulate them? If the world truly is becoming extremely globalized, why not celebrate each other’s successes and learn from one and other. The article said that the Chinese are raising the teachers’ salaries and reforming teaching styles, why not try that here? We don’t have to make the same types of reforms as the Chinese, but we should make changes that will benefit us. I think we would like to believe that even though we are not as “smart” as the Chinese, we are better athletes or more well-rounded than our Asian counterparts, but that again creates the “us” vs. “them” mentality. If we dig a little deeper and try to learn more about the students who are scoring higher on their exams, we would probably learn that they are not that different than us. They probably have a favorite class, a favorite teacher, a teacher they don’t like, a crush that sits next to them in class. They probably get nervous before a big test and they probably are just as sleep deprived as us. In order to combat this “us” vs. “Them” thought, we need to start identifying what makes us similar. China is far away from the US, it is easy to create falsities about the country and its people, but what is the point in that?

Please leave your comments, questions, and insights. I am very interested in this topic and would love to hear your opinions as well!

Until next time…


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What’s Your Literary Diet?

Just as I am what I eat, I am what I read. Books fuel my mind and soul. When I finish reading a book, I usually feel satisfied, but in some cases I'm still hungry, and occasionally a book just doesn't sit well in my stomach. Although I don't follow any set literary diet, I have reaped the greatest benefits by reading extensively from a wide variety of materials. Every book I read is essential in its own way, and without the balance provided by each of their nutritional values, I think I would be malnourished. Of course, I can always eat better, but given the number of hours in my day, I strive to maintain a healthy intake and my soul seems to crave that which it needs. So, just as the food pyramid encourages robust physical health, perhaps there is a similar model for books — one that fosters optimal intellectual health.

Grains sit at the base of the pyramid. Most grains are filling and are a necessary staple to any diet. Books at the base of the reading pyramid are no different. I have read many staple books. The works of Dan Brown and Philippa Gregory come to mind; The Da Vinci Code and The Other Boleyn Girl are riveting and masterfully crafted. I admire "grain" books for their intricate story lines, well developed characters, and ability to connect me to the characters and feel everything that they experience. My Sister's Keeper is a perfect example of this. Picoult tied my heart to that book, making it a much more powerful read. Grain books are amazing pieces of literature, but they leave social, political, and racial injustices largely unexplored. So, just like the bread you get at a restaurant before the main course is meant to spark your appetite, reading grain books has encouraged me to find more detailed texts for deeper reading on subjects. For example, Philippa Gregory's stories about rags-to-riches monarchies were so fascinating that they ignited my interest in medieval history and royal lineage, and I have borrowed countless histories from the library trying to set the complex stories straight in my own mind.

Fruits and vegetables are just above grains in the food pyramid. I love fruits. The colors, textures, and tastes make each fruit unique. Each time I read a "fruit" book, I feel as if I have learned something from one of its qualities, be it the book's colorful language or characters, the sweetness or sourness of its message, or the intricate layers the author has crafted to create texture. I always finish a fruit book satisfied. My favorite such book is The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver; I loved the author's use of multiple narrators to tell the story from varying perspectives. I also marveled at the extended metaphors that were developed throughout the text. Another favorite fruit book is The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant, a wonderfully crafted narrative of a group of women and the bond they share. The allusions and imagery Diamant uses add another level to this epic novel from a unique point of view.

"Vegetable" books are the ones you don't always want to read, but you have to anyway. For me, vegetable books are the books about something that does not interest me. For example, Sophie's World, by Jostein Gaarder, was a thick text about philosophers. It took time to get used the style of writing, long chapters, and dull story line, but after I finished it, I could feel the vegetable-like benefits. I felt healthier for having read a book so far outside my usual diet. The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, was initially a vegetable book for me, as well. I didn't like the beginning of the book, had a very hard time believing the middle of the book, and was mad when the final plot twist happened and everything I had been told to believe was reversed. I didn't realize how powerful and engaging the writing had been until the book made this unexpected turn. I felt sympathy for the main character and finished the book with a much more open mind. The thing about vegetables – and vegetable books – is that they are rarely as bad as you initially make them out to be. Once you get used to their taste and experience their nutritional value, eating them doesn't seem like such a pain.

"Protein" books are deeply motivating stories, autobiographies about success and perseverance, or the books that make you think. They are meaty, dense with meaningful content that sticks with you. The first protein book I remember reading was Lance Armstrong's autobiography, It's Not About the Bike. Lance's vulnerable and honest voice inspired me to reevaluate the way I lived my life and the things I deemed important. The Post-American World, by Fareed Zakaria, was full of ideas about American culture and "the rise of the rest." It was an enlightening book about the changing of power globally. Protein books give you the power to question the world around you and insight into things that might need to be changed.

Dairy products come next as we move up the pyramid. Not all readers can tolerate "dairy" books. These stories tell the sad or unsettling tales of loss, loneliness, injustice, or desperation. Ceremony was hard to digest, but this beautifully crafted story by Leslie Marmon Silko opened my eyes to how cruel the United States has been to its minority veterans. It also shed light on the reasons behind Native American alcohol abuse and poverty. Toni Morrison's Beloved was similar, in that it highlighted a minority — African Americans — and provided new insight into the struggles they experienced. Although not everyone can tolerate these books, reading them helps us grow, overcome barriers, and stop perpetuating injustices.

At the tip of the pyramid are the fats. These delicious indulgences can be hard to avoid. My favorite "fat" novels are the books in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series; the quick, shallow text provides a necessary break after a stressful day. I don't advocate reading mass quantities of these books, but I think they are necessary in balancing one's reading diet.

My English class is reading, Reading Lolita in Tehran. When the government starts to ban certain books, in this novel, I couldn't help but think about how my "literary" diet would be affected if the United States censored what I read. Most of the books I mentioned above could be banned for a number of reasons: abuse of alcohol, polygamy, adultery, cheating, and premarital sex. My argument to those in favor of censoring literature is that they should keep in mind their literary diet. Just because the words on the list above are "immoral," does not make the reader immoral. In fact, I have gained much insight and perspective from "immoral" characters than from the model citizens. In order to be a healthy person, you need to nourish yourself with all the food groups. In order to nourish your mind, you need to read from all the different groups.

Until Next time,