Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Building Equity: Policies and Practices to Empower all Learners

Dominique Smith, Ian Pumpian, Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher

This is part motivational writing to justify why equity is important in schools, and part 'how-to' for districts to assess current equity. They propose an Equity Taxonomy so you can work on different foundational problem areas, and have accompanying checklists for assessment. The book says it is for all educators, but the emphasis (most examples) are from public school districts and mostly lower schools (K-8). So while systemically this might be good for my private high school as a self assessment tool, it is not particularly useful for the individual teacher. The one exception would be the Instructional Excellence chapter that had a few good reminders on the value of explicitly establishing purpose and how to think about progression toward student centered learning.
2 stars (out of 4)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead

Exactly what you expect from the title, and yet different. Whitehead follows Cora, a 3rd generation slave in Georgia as she runs away and is ferried from state to state along the railroad. The conceit here is that the railroad is an actual railroad, in secret underground tunnels. But while that little surprise adds flavor to the story, setting it clearly in historical fiction, the mastery of this fiction is in its ability to hold to the truth. Yes, I understand that slavery was bad, and intellectually I know that the atrocities were outrageous. But in this telling, Whitehead provides a sampling of what these atrocities were, and how they affected lives and people. And we both see and feel the evil of 'humans as property' from all perspectives (slave, benevolent owner, harsh owner, abolitionist, freeman, slave hunter, etc.). Not a single person or role is exempt from the destruction begat by the system. And not a single person or role is oblivious to the fact that this country, especially in its infancy, was built with the lives and blood of the human capital of native and slave populations. Amidst this reality, we follow Cora through 5 or 6 states along her journey and get a distinct perspective from each, noting the individuality and "state sovereignty" presumed by each. In the end, I suppose I am not sure whether this tale is ultimately a tragedy or hopeful telling of the history of this country.
4 stars (out of 4)

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Lab Girl

Hope Jahren

A memoir telling the 20 year story of what it is like being a woman scientist. Jahren is a botanist who documents her journey through grad school and subsequent setting up of 3 separate labs as she moves from school to school to find her home. Along the way, we are invited into her life story where she details the subtleties of scientific thinking, work relationships, funding, mental illness, family, students and humanity's relationship with the planet. All of this is chronicled in a way that truly provides insight into the mind of a scientist. Jahren uses a storytelling device where each chapter is preceded by a short description of something fascinating from the world of plants that she then parallels in her own story. She clearly loves plants and the earth and the amazing life that these plants are. This is clearly communicated and gives the reader a true appreciation for both the complexity of life and the crazy adaptability of living things to make live over generations possible. This is a fabulous story. At the same time, I found it to be a story that easily walks that middle ground of books. Every time I sat down to read it, I was enthralled and educated and engaged. But is was not a thriller/page turner such that when I set it aside, it did not demand that I come back. As such, I was allowed to read this over a longer span that I normally spend on books, and maybe because of this, the appreciation set in more slowly, and more deeply.

4 stars (out of 4)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Die Trying

A Jack Reacher Novel
Lee Child

This is early Reacher, recently out of the army. He bumps into a woman on a crutch as she comes out of a dry cleaning place, setting in motion his involvement in a cross-country, white supremacist secession/kidnapping plot that involves the FBI and Military at the highest level. Reacher is his typical chivalrist self as he protects the girl and effectively prevents civil war all on his own. And in the end, just disappears into the sunset. I like how he is still struggling with who he is post-army, but never questions his value set, and responsibility to that value set.

And now having read this, I have completed all 22 Reacher novels. Time to look for a new series that can be tossed off when I need a quick read.

3 stars (out of 4)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Book of Joan

Lidia Yuknavitch

I don't know really anything about the story of Joan of Arc. Presumably this is a retelling (or re-envisioning) of that story in an alternate future. The future is post nuclear apocalypse on earth, and the resulting moving of humanity (or some wealthy portion of humanity) to space based living. In this space environment, humans are post gender, and basically post biology. They have no biological features that are unnecessary (hair, skin pigment, sex organs, etc.). In this world, personal expression exists in the form of skin grafts added in layers to various parts of the body. And these layered grafts come with burned scar tissue in text patterns to tell stories. If this short description of the world does not fascinate you, go no further. On earth (where Joan is) it gets a bit cheesey along the lines of the Loric energy infusing earth of the Lorian Legacies series. But overall, an interesting tale.

I must also say that Yuknavitch nailed the dialogue/discussions around justice and violence. For example
I don't care which careful slice of history you choose to cling to, there is not part of being human that does not include the death spectacle: the resort to killing, through war or "justice" or revenge.
strikes me as particularly aware of the role and effectiveness of violence through history. Did I ever tell you I love books that make me think.

3 stars (out of 4)

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Midnight Line

A Jack Reacher Novel
Lee Child

Reacher is on a bus to somewhere. During a pit stop he wanders over to the local pawnshop for a look-around and sees a West Point class ring. Something "must be wrong" so he pursues the origin story of this ring. His pursuit takes him to Wyoming and the local black market opioid pipeline, DEA investigations, and a purple heart earning veteran. He works with a Chicago private detective, his cute-young-thing client, and unknowingly a local persistent police officer to find the girl and shut down the regional crime boss. And then gets back on a bus to somewhere. Maybe for the first time in this series, I feel like Child has phoned it in. Reacher has become a caricature of himself, without any real effort at either exploring the psychological depths or motivations of the man. Granted, it has been sparse throughout, but never before have I noted the vacancy of the characters. Being as this is the latest publication, I can only hope this is an aberation and not the new normal.

2 stars (out of 4)

Thursday, April 5, 2018

An Unkindness of Ghosts

Rivers Solomon

A really fascinating space life novel in the vein of Dust and Across the Universe. We have a colony spaceship that is taking a group of people off to a new frontier (they are 300 years into their journey) and stuff is going wrong with the ship. What Solomon does here on the surface is to set up a social structure that pushes us to think about racism, segregation, and slavery. There are definite power differentials and the black/white division is the prime source of the antagonism between those without and those with power. Our protagonist is a young black girl who is an aspiring doctor (and is quite good at it), is probably quite autistic, and happens to be looking for her missing nuclear physicist mother who left her clues about what is going wrong with the ship. While this is not a book about race and racial relations, like in real life, the fact of race permeates all other aspects of the story, in often subtle ways that cannot be ignored, but don't really have to be paid attention to. This really is, for me, ideal science fiction. We are using the genre to initiate thinking about social issues and spark ideas about what change is necessary and possible.

3 stars (out of 4)