Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Online College Degrees Do NOT Necessarily Save Money

One of the arguments in favor of online education is its ability to use technology to reach more people and thus reduce costs.  However, that is not what is happening.  Instead, many colleges are trying to use these programs as cash cows to bring money into the coffers of their brick-and-mortar schools--or, in the case of completely online colleges, into the pockets of their investors.  For example, one of the most well-known online colleges, The University of Phoenix, charges $66,000 for its online bachelor's degree in Business and Management. In contrast, the University of Wyoming offers a similar online degree, but charges only $16,000 for the program.

Below are some excerpts from a study by GetEducated.com about the true costs of online learning.  But the bottom line is that most colleges are charging their online students about 5-10% more than their campus-based students, and for-profit colleges (like University of Phoenix) are charging as much as they can get away with.  So if your students are considering online degrees, make sure to check into the alternatives closely, because there are big differences per credit hour on what similar programs are offering.

excerpts from Online Learning Myth #2:  The Cheap Online College by Vicky Phillips

Online learning pundits predict that the marriage of educational technology with college learning will result in the birth of a new litter of low-cost or cheap online colleges. I wish this notion were true. I wish online education was destined to lower the cost of attending college while also solving the student debt crisis that plagues America.  Instead, surveys show just the opposite – online college costs might actually be higher than residential college costs.  The cost of masters degrees, online MBAs especially, are often higher than the equivalent on-campus versions.

 Don’t get me wrong. Tying technology to education can indeed lower the cost of delivering college courses. Online learning could, in theory, provide what one Forbes business writer has envisioned as a national system of “cheaper education for the masses.” It could, but it isn’t.

For the last decade GetEducated.com has tracked the real cost – the tuition AND online learning fees – for online degree programs across the country. We then publish this data as lists of the most affordable online learning degrees. .... Our data shows that the #1 determinant of online college costs is not whether that degree is offered online or on campus – it’s the business structure of the degree-granting institution. For-profit colleges charge what the market will bear. Public universities charge what tax payers and the legislature will allow. ... According to a 2011 cost survey of more than 700 online bachelors degrees undertaken by GetEducated.com, degrees from for-profit schools are on average 50% more expensive than degrees from non-profit, public institutions (the average non-profit public university’s bachelors costs $33,997 while the average for-profit version costs a whopping $51,280). 

... Online degrees suffer from a stigma of “cheapness,” but current practice among both for-profit colleges and non-profit colleges indicate that cost control is not destined to be a real part of any grand national pledge by the online learning sector to help make college more affordable to students themselves. I caution those who believe that educational technology and online learning will universally lower college costs and indebtedness, for the students who use it. Instead, what is unfolding, if one examines the cost data, is a pattern akin to what happened in the 1980s when health care was converted to a profit-driven structure. Higher education will continue to balloon in cost. Institutions – both for-profit and cash-strapped non-profits — will increasingly enlist technology to cut costs. Alas, consumers themselves may increasingly be denied the benefits of these cost cutting measures. .....

Read Online Learning Myth #2:  The Cheap Online College for more specifics on average costs for online programs and what is happening to the money they save the sponsoring institutions.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Raising a Writer

For many families, including ours, summer is a more laid-back time where students have fewer classes and ongoing assignments, and thus more time to devote to activities that might be squeezed out during the traditional academic year.  For many families, this is a good time to explore creative writing, since creative writing, particularly for young and emerging writers, often blossoms better in an environment with fewer deadlines and distractions.

But raising a writer is not an obvious thing.  What can we do as parents to help encourage our children to write?

This blog post has some fantastic suggestions by M. Molly Backes, who works in a writers center in Chicago and has just published her first YA novel, The Princesses of Iowa.  It is all about giving our children space, freedom, permission, and love--which, really, is probably the way to raise children period.  But it is a lovely and beautifully written post, so I won't ruin it by summarizing it for you--you'll just have to go check it out yourself.

One thing I can add to Ms. Backes' advice, however.  She advocates giving children journals and a really nice pen, and letting them go to it.  And while that will undoubtedly work for many children, it (like any educational technique) will not work for all.

I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that journal writing is something that is more attractive to girls than to boys.  Certainly, the idea did not go over well with my son when I suggested it several years ago.  However, we found something that worked better for him--blogging.  Writing a blog was more attractive to him because:
  • it was physically easier for him to type than to hand write
  • it has the "computer cool" factor
  • it has the ability to incorporate graphics and videos and other media files
  • it allows other people to read your content and post comments about it (which my son LOVES)
So, obviously, blog writing is very different than journal writing.  It is usually not going to encourage the heart-felt dream-making, the honest self analysis, the often painful search for one's identity and one's own truths that is often the task of journaling.  But again, not that I want to be sexist, but in observing my own son and his peers and talking to other moms, I don't find a lot of boys who are doing that kind of writing, although it seems a number of my friends have daughters who do.

Ideally, students would do both, especially if they really have a dream to be a writer.  But if the quest for more writing is coming from you at this point rather than them, give them a choice.  If you've been trying to get them to journal and they refuse try, see if writing a blog is better received--and vice versa.

It has certainly worked for us.  When my son started middle school, I asked him to start blogging.  And, as I've stated before, since I don't believe in giving my son assignments that I wouldn't or haven't done myself, I started this blog at the same time.  We have both really enjoyed it and grown and developed tremendously.  It has been almost two years now and my son has written hundreds of posts--varied in length and quality, of course, but written consistently and usually fairly well.  It has improved his writing, his spelling, and his grammar.  And it has turned out to be a way for him to connect with his grandfathers and aunts and uncles who live far away and don't get to see him on a regular basis.

Of course, there are those who don't approve of encouraging middle school blogging.  I thought this blog post and resulting comments on Why Should Middle School Student Blog? was an interesting exchange about the pros and cons of blogging.  But for us, the experience has DEFINITELY been a great area of growth and learning.

Finally, I would say that my son was not a reluctant writer.  But if your children are not self-starters when it comes to writing, you may need to give them writing prompts, regardless if they are journaling or blogging.  There are many, many sources for writing prompts, but I'm liking the ideas being posted daily (during the week) on Pinterest by Atlanta-based writer Anjali Enjeti.  I find them varied and interesting, and the whole Pinterest thing is novel for digitally-aware students like my son.  Plus, by being on Pinterest, they are more visual, which I think make them more attractive to visual learners like my son.

If anyone has any other great resources for getting young adolescents and teens to grow as writers, please post them in the comments below.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Doing the Right Thing at University of Virginia

I have been following the recent tumult over the secretive ouster of University of Virginia's first female president,  Teresa Sullivan.  We don't know exactly why the Board acted as it did--since they won't tell us.  But based on what we do know so far, it seems like a bad move, and as an educator, I'm delighted to see the UVA community rising up in protest.

I'm sure that the main plotters behind this academic coup d'etat, Board leaders Rector Helen E. Dargas and Vice Rector Mark Kington, sincerely believed that they doing the best thing for Virginia's prestigious public university, which was founded in the early 19th century by Thomas Jefferson.  However, from what I've seen from the limited information available, I think they were mistaken.

Here are my concerns in regards to their actions:

1.  Lack of knowledge of and respect for the academic procedure and community
Dargas and Kington are politically-appointed business people, with limited experience in education (as far as I have seen).  The way they went about this decision is completely out of line with the general academic commitment to dialogue and deliberation.  Quietly turning individual board members against the popular president through secret, one-on-one meetings that subvert the open meeting laws that govern public institutions like UVA is, at the very least, skirting the spirit of the legislation.  But it is a direct affront to the academic values of openness and discussion and developing consensus that are still strong in higher education.  Frankly, for them to think they would get away with this without raising a major stink among the UVA community just shows how little they understand about the core values of what, in the end, is what makes UVA a school that was ranked as the #2 public university by the 2012 US News & World Report -- namely, the people, particularly the faculty and academic leadership.

2.  Lack of understanding of the double-edged sword that is online learning
The rumor is that Dargas and Kington wanted to replace Sullivan because she was not willing to make deeper cuts into the existing academics and to leap more rapidly into the world of online learning.  Certainly, the emails that the UVA student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, received in response to their Freedom of Information Act request that does still legally cover public universities, show Dargas and Kington emailing each other pieces hyping the move towards online learning in higher education.  They cited the examples of Stanford and Harvard as the direction in which they felt Sullivan should be embracing more eagerly.

However, there is no indication that there is any deep understanding among these people about how or what or even why UVA would be doing in the online education field.  There seems to be an assumption that online learning would reduce costs while maintaining the university's reputation.  But, uh, how?  The classes profiled in the articles they eagerly shared with each other are available to anyone for free.  They are not bringing in any new revenue for their respective institutions.  They are also not eliminating any of the costs of the on-campus classes.  These online offerings are not related to the finances of Stanford or Harvard.  Rather, they are simply methods of sharing information and expertise to a larger audience.  While helpful, do they come anywhere close to replicating the experience of a Stanford or Harvard education?  I think not.  (For more information, see the excellent article by Stanford professor Larry Cuban, "Three Ways of Integrating Technology in Schools," which talks about how we tend to confuse mere access to information with education itself.)

It is not easy to do online education well, nor is it always a money maker.  It takes discussion and consideration about how it can be used appropriately and effectively, which is not always obvious for a large and selective university like UVA.   Again, the Board is showing its ignorance if it wants to jump into this field willy-nilly without a well-thought-out plan.  (For more information on this issue, see George Washington University professor David Karpf's article "UVA Board's Lazy Business Sense" on the Huffington Post.)

3.  Lack of commitment to low-income and minority students
So this has not been discussed in the papers, and I may be making it up.  However, another item that these two board members emailed each other about was about another university cutting back on expensive financial aid packages.  This concerns me because in 2004, UVA became the first public university to guarantee full financial aid to low-income applicants.  It has a strong commitment to enabling low- and moderate-income students the opportunity to attend without acquiring massive amounts of debt.  It has also had the highest black graduation rate among the so-called Public Ivies.

Perhaps scaling back on these aid packages is not part of the Dargas and Kington agenda; but, then again, since they have only given vague reasons for the differences in opinion that required Sullivan's resignation, perhaps they are.  It would be a shame for UVA to give up the great strides it has made in this area.  Also, statistics generally show that low-income and minority students tend not to do as well in online education as do wealthier students--one of those pesky details about online education that needs to be examined if it is to be done right.

So we will see how things shake out.  But let me end with something I wish Dargas and Kington had seen before they headed down this contentious path.  It is another commencement speech by Salman Khan, this time at his own alma mater, MIT.  While continuing the positivity prescription of his Rice graduation speech, at MIT Khan talks about MIT's free online classes, and how proud it made him as a graduate that his university was sharing its knowledge for free because it was the right thing to do, and how it influenced his own decision when it came to Khan Academy. 

Because, after all, isn't that really what we want our universities to do?  To encourage its graduates to do the right thing, not just the cheapest or most expedient or most profitable thing?  And how will a school teach its students those things if it doesn't do it itself?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Graduates Should Increase Positivity in the World

I apologize for the lack of activity on my blog lately.  Between getting to the end of our school year, and going out of town for a family graduation, I've just been too busy to post.  But I hope to be getting back into the swing of things now.

But speaking of graduation, here is something that I've been meaning to post for a while now.  It is the video of Salman Khan of Khan Academy speaking at the 2012 Commencement Ceremony at Rice University.  Regular readers of my blog know that I have my doubts (see this post and this post) about Khan Academy being the shiny new vision for all of education, although I believe it is a fabulous resource, and do use it on occasion myself.  However, I have nothing but respect and admiration for Salman Khan himself, who seems like a fabulous person.  And this talk at Rice University has only increased my opinion of his fabulousity!

I've not done it myself, but I imagine it must be terribly difficult to come up with a graduation speech that is not trite or overblown or that doesn't leave out some portion of audience listening.  But Khan's talk is personal, uplifting, and believable.  I like it not because he shares his own story (which is inspirational), but not in a way that assumes everyone will be following in such transformational footsteps as his.  Instead, he encourages everyone to do the small but achievable feat of increasing the net happiness in the world.  And yet, if everyone would do that, our world would be transformed.

Anyway, watch it for yourself below:

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Book Review: Railsea by China Mieville

Railsea by China Mieville

I picked this up upon the advice of one of my favorite local children's librarians, and boy, was she right!  This is another fabulous book!  I can't believe I've had two home run books in a row (the other being The Lions of Little Rock).

So while I had to write this review, I need to start off with a warning that this is not the easiest book to read.  It is classified as a YA novel, but I don't think adults picking it up would think it was "youth" literature rather than adult literature.  Apparently it is more accessible than some of the other books that he is written, but I've never read any of his works before, so I can't comment on that.

It is very hard to describe Railsea, but if I had to sum it up, to me it was kind of a steampunk fairy tale, with some religious and political overtones.  Mieville himself likes to call his work "weird fiction," and is part of a group of contemporary writers known as the New Weird who explain their literature as "a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy."

So, basically, his stuff is fantasy, but much more Blade Runner than Lord of the Rings (in fact, Mieville has said that his goal is to move fantasy away from the influence of Tolkien).  And yet....this book was largely inspired by the great 19th century novel of American Romanticism, Moby Dick, with secondary influences contributed by adventure tales such as Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe.

In short, this is not your typical YA teenage angst/dystopian future/love triangle/vampire-werewolf-alien-monster fest.

In this book, Mieville has transported the obsessive quest for a beastly foe from the seas to the rails.  Instead of large ships sailing across vast oceans in which unknown dangers lurk, in Mieville's world the denuded plains are traversed with dozens or hundreds of looping, intersecting, and extensive tracks of unknown origin upon which the inhabitants make a living on a variety of different trains--electric, diesel, clockwork, or even wind-powered.  No one steps foot outside the trains, however, because the land is filled with massive subterranean killers--burrowing monsters such as the carniverous antlion, the vicious blood rabbit, or the largest predator of them all, the moldywarpe.  The landscape is cluttered with the wrecks and detritus of those who came to ruin on the ever-aging rails.

Thus, in Railsea, Mieville has created an incredibly interesting and unique world (complete with drawing that he did himself of the various underground hunters of the people above).  Then he borrows plot devices from some of the greatest novels of the past, weaving a tale filled with action and unexpected twists and turns.  However, as in Melville's original, the action is interspersed with literary reflections, both on the characters and stories themselves, but also on the moral or political questions that the story is raising.

It is this, in particular, that makes this a story for older teens.  Mieville uses various literary devices, such as asides and reflections by an unknown narrator, invented words and uses of language, and extensive usage of the ampersand, which is also a symbol for the rails themselves, which makes the book not a straight-forward read.  It takes a bit to get into his style, his words, his world.  It is well worth it, but I think the reader needs to be at a minimum of a high school reading level not to get frustrated or lost among Mieville's literary inclusions.

So it may be that your child or students are not ready for this book.  But it is a book I can highly recommend for you!  I could see this book being a great book to read in class after the traditional Moby Dick version; the two taken together would probably enhance understanding of each work.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How to Teach Young People to Change the World

Is the American Educational System Obsolete?  Yes, answers Tony Wagner, the Education Fellow at Harvard University's Technology and Innovation Center.  Prior to that, Wagner had spent over 10 years at  Harvard's School of Education analyzing the changes that need to happen in education in order to prepare students for the 21st century global economy.

In his new book, Creating Innovators:  The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World,  Wagner studies American innovators and discovers some common patterns in their childhood and education--patterns that, alas, are discouraged by most traditional schools.  Wagner puts forth a case for a radical transformation of the fundamental principles of education, with the emphasis on the following five principles:

1.  Focus on Collaboration and Teamwork, rather than Individual Competition and Achievement
All the most important ideas and issues are just too big for only one person to handle

2.  Take a Cross Disciplinary and Multiple Perspectives Approach
This is kind of the curricular corellary to the point above.  Wagner points out that the Carnegie-unit-based high school structure is now 125 years old and is outdated for today's realities.

3.  Take Risks
Innovation, by its nature, requires experimentation, which means that most time, you are going to fail and/or be wrong.  That is anathama to way traditional school curricula approach most things.

4.  Learning Should be Active, Not Passive
Wagner argues that our current educational systems make students into learning consumers, not learning creators.  How are they suddenly going to turn into creating exciting new ideas and projects if they've been trained to sit back and be spoon fed everything during their education?

5.  Learning Should be Based on Instrinsic Rewards and Passions
Traditional schools are built around motivating students through extrinsic rewards--grades, gold stars, praise from happy teachers and parents, etc.  But innovators are driven by their internal passions, ideas, and motivations.

You can learn more by viewing this TED-style talk by Wagner:

or, of course, by ordering his book.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Turning Coral Conservation into Child's Play

I haven't posted in quite a while.  I wish I could say it was due to Screen Free Week and my virtuous decision to eschew all things electronic, but it wasn't.  It is because I've been so busy with the Cards, Coral & Kids campaign for my son's environmental awareness group, Healing Oceans Together (H2O).

The idea behind this project, which is to create a Pokemon-like card game that would teach people about coral reef life and ecosystems and actions they can take to help the corals survive, is explained here and here, so I won't go into that again in my blog.  What I wanted to talk about here is some of the thinking behind the project.

You know, young teens are interesting creatures.  They are old enough to realize some of the problems with the world, and most are hopeful and confident about being part of the solution.  They tend to be really into Earth Day and recycling, Save the Planet, Stop Global Warming, Protect the Rain Forests, and the like.

And yet, on a daily basis, we are still telling them "Shut the Refridgerator Door!"  "Turn Off the Lights when You Leave the Room!"  "Don't Leave the Computer Running All Night!" or the frustrated but perhaps dangerous question of "Why Does it Take You 30 Minutes of Running Water to Take a Shower?"

Maybe it's different at your house.  But for many of us, our children's grand rhetoric for saving the planet doesn't match up with their everyday life habits.  Of course, that's really true for most of us adults as well...

In H2O, the students have been studying ocean science and math since September.  We decided to hone in on coral conservation because coral reefs are really the marine equivalent of rain forests.  Although coral reefs only make up about 0.1% of the oceans, they are home to approximately 25% of all marine life!  Also, corals take a long time to grow, so our damage to reefs that may be hundreds or thousands of years old can not be replaced within many of our human generations.

But what to do that would make a difference?  There are already tons of books and videos and ads and educational resources on this issue, but people continue doing what they've always done.  As parents, we've trying nagging, threatening, bribing, begging, and everything short of bloodshed, and yet...we, too, are largely ineffectual.  So we needed to come up with something else, something new.

And then we had a brainstorm.  Instead of using guilt and threats and dire warnings of environmental catastrophes, what if we made saving the coral reefs fun?  What if we made it....into a game?

In approaching it this way, we were influenced by the work of Jane McGonigal, whose work is summarized in a video I included in an earlier post.  Her video on that page, a TED talk on how "Gaming Can Make a Better World," is a synopsis of her wonderful book, Reality Is Broken:  Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.  In short, she argues that time people spend on video games actually helps them develop positive characteristics (such as working hard, cooperation, and optomism), and explores how to structure games so that we can channel all the time people spend playing games into social activism games that will help solve Earth's real-world problems.  It is a fascinating and inspiring book, and I recommend it highly.

So, in short, that is what we are trying to do with this game.  First, the game will teach students (and adults as well) the real science behind food chains and interlocking ecosystems in the coral reefs.  We think this is important because we think if people knew more about all these fascinating creatures, they would love them, and we take care of the things we love (for more of our philosophy on that, read the Family Educators Commons article that Maria Droujkova and I co-wrote on the Shareable website).  But secondly, we will build into the games a way for them to earn (or lose) points based on their actions in real life.  You insist that I drive you to the library?  You lose 5 points.  You walk or ride your bike there yourself?  You gain 5 points.  You stand there with the refridgerator open as you drink your water/milk/juice?  You lose 3 points.  You close the door and drink it at the table?  Well, I don't know that we'll give you points for that, since that should be normal behavior, but at least you won't lose points.  You keep your showers under 10 minutes?  You get 2 points.  You keep your showers under 5 minutes?  You get 5 points.

You get the idea.

Anyway, we think this game has the potential to give kids incentives for to change those behaviors that we parents have been nagging them about for years, but to no avail.  If we all make those small changes, maybe they won't completely solve the problem, but they will make things better.  And making things better is something that can make us all feel good.

If you would like to be a part of helping to make this game happen, then please visit our Cards, Coral & Kids campaign.  For a small donation, you could get a deck of the cards before they are released to the public, participate in our pilot trials and research project, or even give input into the cards themselves!  Also, please spread the word about this idea to all your social media networks, email loops, and friends and family.  Getting the funding we need to develop the game requires reaching lots of people, so anything you can do to help is greatly appreciated!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Curriculum Resource: Art Appreciation through Smarthistory

I wanted to share a website I discovered recently and now love.  It is an art appreciation/art history website called Smarthistory.

The backbone of Smarthistory is (at this point) over 400 videos on different pieces of art, artists, or art period or concepts.  The home page basically organized these by timeline, so they fit in well as an art history resource, or as a way to quickly add art content to a history lesson.  However, inside the website you can search for videos not only by time, but by style, artist, or theme--which makes it a very flexible resources for incorporating art content in other kinds of lessons as well.

One way this website really stands out, however, is that there is an entire section on how users can make their own similar videos.  It covers the technological tools to work with images and video, advice on approaching presenting art, tips on interviewing art experts, and even philosophical discussions on the difficulties of combining text and educational resources with the experience of appreciating a piece of art. This helps both students and teachers be not only a consumer of Smarthistory's videos, but a potential creator of their own reflections and mediations on art.

Smarthistory also has some suggested curricula:  a 15 week Art History Survey (Western Culture) and a 15 week Art Appreciation Survey (again, Western Culture).  These were developed for the college level, but I think they could be very helpful, perhaps not for middle schoolers, but definitely for high school, especially those preparing for AP exams in related history or art areas.  For teachers, Smarthistory has been developed under a Creative Commons license, and they encourage teachers to embed their videos in their courses and online syllabi (with proper attribution, of course--but they give you the proper citation on their website.)

Smarthistory was developed by some experienced teachers of art history/art appreciation, and it shows.  However, they have recently merged with Khan Academy, which I think is a win/win for both groups.  Khan Academy gives Smarthistory more technological and institutional support, plus access to a much larger user base, while Smarthistory expands Khan's more math/science/technology focus into a strong curriculum in the humanities, and gives a softer, artistic edge to their rather geeky presence on the web.

All in all, I think it is a very well done project that adds a lot to our online resources on Western art.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Craft Coral Reef

I haven't been blogging as much recently because I've been so involved with the Healing Oceans Together (H2O) environmental education and awareness group that my son is helping to organize.  (Regular readers of this blog may remember the Great Sea Slug Beauty Contest that H2O ran earlier this year.) 

Now the group has moved on from raising awareness about sea slugs to encouraging people to help save the rapidly-disappearing coral reefs.  The first step in the process is that H2O is creating a community-based Craft Coral Reef to exhibit at ChambersArts, an art gallery in downtown Cary.  This artistic version of a coral reef, which will incorporate crochet and knitting, origami, beading, and other crafts, is supposed to remind people of the precious beauty of the coral reefs, educate them about the important role they play in our ocean ecology, and inspire them to take actions to help protect and preserve them.

We've been holding a series of FREE public workshops to get other people crocheting and crafting along with our group and contributing to the growing reef.  So far we've held three public workshops, and the results have been great.

Before launching the project, H2O crocheted some sample creations to show people:

But a few weeks later, after the second public workshop, the Craft Coral Reef had grown to this:

Beautiful--and exciting to see the progress!

For more information on this project, including some photos from the workshops we've held, check out the complete write-up on the Healing Oceans Together blog.  

You can follow that blog if you are really interested.  I'll also post some more photo updates to show you how our community Coral Reef grows.

Finally, next week we are launching another exciting initiative related to our "Save the Corals" campaign.  So stay tuned for that announcement!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

I've been promising this for a long time, but I finally found a few minutes to write a review of the book Divergent by Veronica Roth.   This is the first in a trilogy of books that some people are calling the new Hunger Games series.  My quick take?  I enjoyed the book fairly well, but to me, it's no Hunger Games. (You can read my review of the Hunger Game series here.)

There are parallels between the two series, of course.  Like the Hunger Games, Divergent describes a dystopic society of the future, but this time it is set in a specific place--Chicago, no longer the "toddling town" that Frank Sinatra was so enthusiastic about in his songs. "  The main protagonist is a strong, courageous young woman who is capable of battling, and even killing, for her beliefs and for those she loves.  And there is the possiblility of a romance with a mysterious boy who may or may not be her ally.  There is a lot of action, but there are political undertones throughout the whole thing.

What I liked best about Divergent was the concept around which this version of our dystopic future society was organized.  I believe (it has been months since I read it) that there was a nuclear war, and this society were the survivors trying to build a better system to avoid such distruction in the future.  However, in the debate about how best to prevent future wars, the population broke down into five different viewpoints.  Each felt the cultivation of a particular human quality was the best solution to avoiding war, but each group focused on a different quality.  Thus, the society broke itself up into five self-contained units, each of which dedicated itself to the pursuit of its preferred characteristic and approach to life.  Each  faction operated on its own, but they shared the ruined remains of the city and worked together in a somewhat uneasy coalition.

The issue facing Beatrice Prior, the 16 year old protagonist of the book, is the fact that the time is approaching where she must choose which of the factions she will pledge herself to for the rest of her life.   Not only will this choice determine her future, it may severe her relationship with her family; if she chooses a different faction than the one in which her parents live and raised her, she won't ever be allowed to return to visit them.

Wow!  It kind of puts our worries about what schools to send our children to, or even which college they should attend, into perspective, doesn't it?

So I thought that was a really interesting idea to explore.  However, the book doesn't really explain much about how this structure came about, or why children are forced to cut off any contact with their parents if they choose a different faction.  Perhaps there will be more about that in the subsequent books.

Therefore, the book was less political philosophy that I had hoped, and more action oriented.  Of course, it is a Young Adult novel, so that's probably more appropriate for the intended audience.  However, even for young adults, I prefer my violent dystopic novels to use their violence and dystopia to teach some underlying moral or political truths, and Divergent doesn't do nearly as good a job with that as does the Hunger Games.  BUT, to be fair, I'm only comparing the first book of the series with the entire Hunger Games triology, which also got more political as the books went on.  So I may get more of that in the next two books.

The other way in which Divergent falls short, however, is in character development.  Even in just the first book, Katness (and the other characters) were pretty fully-fledged, complex, and interesting characters.  You cared about the "good" characters, and at least wondered about the "bad"ones.  That's not so much the case in Divergent.  Perhaps it is a downside of a book that is all about people trying to maximize a single characteristic...perhaps that tends to make characters one dimensional.  Whatever, I found the characters to be less interesting, which then makes the story less gripping.  The romantic aspects were also less intriguing, while the family parts were more noble.  All in all, it is just a less nuanced, less skillfully written book than the Hunger Games, in my opinion.  However, I believe the author was only 22 when she wrote the first book.  So for the first published novel by a writer that young, characters who are a bit on the "black and white" side is pretty forgivable.  Actually, for having been written by someone who is just out of college, the book is pretty phenomenal.

All in all, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it.  However, as with the Hunger Games, it is violent enough and political enough that I would save it for the teen years, rather than at least the younger end of the middle school years.   I am looking forward to reading the next in the series, Insurgent, which is supposed to be coming out in May.  I'm number 74 on the waiting list at the library for the book, so it shouldn't be too long before I get to read it.  I'll try to get my review up in a more timely manner with that book.

Here is the book trailer for Divergent.  It doesn't add much information, but gives you a feel for the "vibe" of the book:

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Happy Earth Day!

Tomorrow is Earth Day 2012, which is supposed to be the largest civil observances in the world, as approximately one billion people across the planet celebrate it.

There are so many things I could say about honoring the Earth, but this is the nature video that currently is most inspiring me:

The video is by Norwegian photographer Ole C. Salomonsen, with music by Norwegian composer Kai-Anders Ryan.  It captures on film the aurora borealis--a topic that has always fascinated me and that is one of those things I want to be able to experience for myself someday.   Salomonsen used stop motion video to film the Northern Lights in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland from fall 2011 - spring 2012.  He would film with two or three cameras at a time, and shot about 150,000 frames, although only 6,000 frames made it into this video.

It is such a stunning testimony to the beauty of the natural world, albeit a very different world from the green and temperate climates of North Carolina.   I hope you will enjoy it and also be moved to take some small step yourself to help keep our planet clean and healthy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Art Exhibit and Poetry Reading: ForWord

The art studio where my son takes art classes, Egg in Nest Studio, always celebrates National Poetry Month with an art exhibition and live poetry reading/performance event that celebrates the intersection between words and arts.  The students write poems, create art pieces based on those poems, exhibit their art in the Halle Cultural Arts Center in downtown Apex, then read their poems to an audience, appearing onstage with professionals in various art forms who also discuss and display their talents.  It is always a creative and inspiring event, and brings greater depth and understanding to the students' art studies.

This year, my son had two pieces in the show.

I really liked both of the them, especially because they were a departure from his typical techniques and demonstrated some of the ways that his wonderful teacher, Miss Jenny, is encouraging him to grow and stretch as an artist.  On the other hand, they also contain elements of his inimitable style.

This was his first piece, which was based on the poem he wrote that was entitled, "The Saga of the Sproing-Boing," where he was experimenting with the sounds of invented vocabulary:

The second one had a two word poem written into the picture.  The poem is "Extinction Distinction"... or maybe "Distinction Extinction"--he never would tell me.

Of course, my photos don't do the artwork justice.  If you are in the vecinity of downtown Apex before the exhibit closes on May 5, go check them out in person at the Halle Cultural Arts Center (at the intersection of 10-10/Center Street and Salem Street).

Here is the artist showing the pictures to his father:

This past Sunday was the live event called ForWord.  There, each participating got to read his or her poem with comments and encouragement from Miss Jenny:

But the student readings were interspersed with live performances and commentary on the connection between words and other art forms by a local music group, Jack the Radio:

a local grafitti artist, Blake Burnette:

poet and NC State writing professor, Chris Tonell:

and dancer Marie Garlock:

All in all, it's quite a big event, which Miss Jenny and her hard-working assistant, Miss Amanda, put on AT NO CHARGE for the benefit of the students--just one of the perks of taking class at  Egg in Nest Studio:

Of course, the greatest perk of taking classes there is that each week the kids get to work with Miss Jenny, who is not only a wonderful and creative artist in her own right, but an intuitive and inspiring teacher who loves all her students--just like they love her (although some demonstrate it more than others):

What more could you want from the person teaching your children?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Should The Hunger Game Be Banned--And If So, Why?

Right now my son is taking a class that is discussing arguments for and against banning books.  So it was with more than my usual interest that I read the list released this week by the American Library Association of the 10 books that have received the most requests during 2011 to ban them from schools or public libraries.  Because it is the young teen obsession of the moment, most of the headlines will highlight the inclusion of The Hunger Games series, which came in as #3 among the 326 reported challenges last year.  However, what is more interesting to me is the way The Hunger Games differ from the other books on the list, and what that tells us about our attitudes to young people and literature.

Here is the list of the top 10 books and my abbreviations for the reasons they were challenged.  I will admit up front that I haven't read any of them except The Hunger Games series and the two "oldies but goodies" that have been complained about for years:

1) ttyl; ttfn; l8r, g8r (series), by Lauren Myracle  
Language; Religion; Sex 

2) The Color of Earth (series), by Kim Dong Hwa 

3) The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins 
(see below for reasons) 

4) My Mom's Having A Baby! A Kid's Month-by-Month Guide to Pregnancy, by Dori Hillestad Butler Sex  

5) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie 
Language; Racism; Religion; Sex 

6) Alice (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor 
Sex; Language; Religion

7) Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley 
Insensitivity; Sex; Racism; Religion 

8) What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones 
Sex; Language 

9) Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily Von Ziegesar 
Drugs; Language; Sex 

10) To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee 
Language; Racism

That is, to summarize:
#1 reason for challenge:  Sex (8/10 books)
#2 reason for challenge:  Language--presumably profanity and/or racial/sexual slurs (7/10 books)
#3 reason for challenge:  Religion (4/10 books)
...and then there are a few additional reasons that apply to only one or two books.  This is not to say that they are not important issues (Drugs, Racism, etc.), but they apply to the minority in terms of why the books are sought to be banned.

Now let's look at the reasons why The Hunger Games was banned.  The first reason on the list, which is presumably the most frequently-given cause for concern, was:
Anti-ethnic?  I don't remember ethnicity being an issue at all in the books.  The ALA seems to attribute this to the filming of the movie, since apparently the complaints tended to complain about African Americans being cast in "lighter skinned" roles or vice versa.

The next reason given is Anti-family.  Again, I don't get that at all.  Certainly Katniss' main motivation, at least in the first book, and really throughout the series, is her love for and desire to protect her family.  There are some less idyllic family relationships, but it seems to me that most of the families that we do see are pretty close and good role models.  Perhaps they just don't like that the government is taking these young people from their families?  I don't know what the concern is here.

Reason number three is Insensitivity.  They don't explain exactly what that means.  But I guess a bunch of teenagers killing each other could be classified as Insensitive.  Certainly, sensitivity is not a virtue that is lauded in the books--but, then, it rarely is when one is fighting for one's survival.

Reason number four is Language.  I don't remember much use of profanity or slurs in the books.  I think what offensive language there is would certainly, in my mind, be overshadowed by other concerns.

Reason number five is Occult/Satanic.  Once again, I don't recall anything that would fall into that category.  In fact, the book is almost relentless practical and material; I don't believe there is any discussion of spiritual elements at all (for example, there don't seem to be any priests/minister/religious authorities or churches/temples, etc. in the land of Panem).

Only number six can I really fathom, which is a complaint about Violence.  As I have written here and here, I am concerned about particularly young adolescents being wrapped up in all the violence and missing the political and morale message of the series, which is what I think makes this an excellent triology of books.  I wouldn't ban it, but the excessive violence and mature political themes is why I tend to encourage parents of middle schoolers to delay having their children read the books until they are in high school and are a bit more mature.  

So it amazes me that is the last reason given, and that The Hunger Games is the only one of the top 10 would-be banned books of the year that raises the issue of violence.  Rather, it is the issue of Sex, and then Offensive Language, that seems to be causing the more ire among those who want to censor the books in schools and libraries.

Of course, our values in these areas differ from family to family.  For example, I don't use profanity, and my son doesn't use it, and that would be way down on my list of reasons to restrict him from reading a particular book.  I am also personally of the opinion that it is good for students to read about some of these controversial issues, like sex and drugs, as they are coming to grips with making those kinds of decisions in their own lives.  Certainly, I would rather have my son learn by reading about them then experimenting with them in real life!  But that is my philosophy.

However, I will say that for this Banned Book class, each child had to choose a book to read from the comprehensive list of banned books (in agreement with his or her family, of course).  My son wanted to read the most frequently banned book, which was Catcher in the Rye.  That book, of course, was one of the first and still one of the most frequently banned because of...Sex and Language.  But he read it, and his reaction was much the same as my was when I read, long, long ago in high school--it's OK, but I don't know what the big deal is.