It's been ages

And I'm sorry about that.  Fall into Winter 2009 will forever be remembered as the semester that did me in, which, considering my debaucherous past, is saying something!

Today I was passed a link to a NY Times article on geekifying our high schools.  Looking at the link and description, I hesitated to even click through.  Afterall,  I can still taste the disgust that I felt at Wired's short take on the subject of geek culture in high schools.  But click through I did, and I was pleasantly surprised to find an even-handed article on how we've been teaching high school computer science and technology classes all wrong . . . and some promising examples of how to do it the right way.  More theory and critical thinking, less word processing and spreadsheets!  More creativity and a better view of the big picture, less code-writing drills!  Woohoo!

Technology shapes and is shaped by humanity.  We both use it and are used by it.  A clear understanding of how new technologies function and evolve is critical to a future aided, rather than controlled by, technology.  Improving high school tech course: step one.

On an entirely different note - here's a collection of short fiction by New Jersey native Patrick Eamonn.  Funny, poignant, at times disturbing glimpses into the lives of a series of no-one-in-particulars from our own Garden State.


Giving Thanks

Eid Mubarak and Happy Thanksgiving

I have so much to be thankful for . . . loved ones, my work, amazing colleagues, wonderful companion animals, a vibrant city, a peaceful home, and a warm, soft bed.  Let me always remember lovingly those who do not. 


On credibility

In this article on Locus Magazine’s website, Doctorow (the author of Little Brother) discusses why young adult novels should have sex (or drinking, or drug use, or mild anarchy . . . ).  His argument is simple and elegant: because teens already do these things.   Doctorow posits that if YA fiction only portrays rule-bending, authority-defying, sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll-having behavior as having immediate and dire consequences, then it will lose its credibility.  After all, real life certainly does not work that way.  In fact, a little rebellion can be a good thing, as we test our boundaries, form our personal ethics, and develop our identities.  There is a certain amount of trial and error involved in growing up.

We champion literature because, as C.S.Lewis said, “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.”  Experience by proxy allows us to leap the confines of our daily existence.  It allows us to empathize with the stranger, to understand those we may never meet.  It broadens our world-view and opens our mind.  If we’d rather teens learn and “experience” the more unsavory aspects of  adult life through literature than through action, it’s vitally important that that literature honestly reflect reality.  Teens might read what rings false, but they certainly will not connect to it.  Furthermore, a literature devoid of reality, full of schmaltzy cautionary tales may well push our children to dangerous behaviors, as they seek to separate fact from myth through their own experience.  If reading about risky behaviors (which they know exist) will keep kids from engaging in them, or overindulging in them, then by all means - bring on the prose!


Luv Ya Bunches

My first reaction to the news that Scholastic had agreed to sell a “cleaned up” version of Myracle’s Luv Ya Bunches was, “Hmmmm, how cleaned up is it?”  I didn’t honestly think that Myracle would cave to absurd hetero-normative pressures, but I was suddenly unsure.  Thankfully, the gay parents of one character were left in, and the word crap was taken out.  Fair trade?  Myracle thinks so.  The book is still unavailable at elementary schools, however.  And Scholastic has yet to actually admit to any mis-judgement or to apologize for its bigotry.  On a brighter note, Scholastic has “committed to a review process that considers all books equally regardless of their inclusion of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) characters and same-sex parents.”  Well, it’s about time.

The books that children read inform their world-view.  The characters and events they encounter help to shape their idea of how the world is and how it should be.  What a shame to actively eliminate an entire population from children’s literature.  To deny the children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren of same-sex couples the experience of seeing their reality reflected back at them is unforgivable.  Equally atrocious is denying this reality to children who know no homosexual people.  Narrowing our children’s horizons creates narrow adults.

When a powerhouse like Scholastic demands that same-sex partners be removed from books aimed at the upper-elementary/preeteen set, they are upholding the hateful position that there is a right and wrong kind of love - a right and wrong kind of family.  Or that homosexuality is fine, but only for older kids, and somehow harmful to children. Memo to Scholastic: Homosexuality =/= pedophilia.  Let’s move into the twenty-first century together.


For their own good . . .

Ellen Hopkins, the author of Glass, along with Crank an account of meth addiction, was barred from lecturing at a middle school, after some parents objected to her book.  Since its middle-school appropriateness was under review, school officials decided that her visit itself was inappropriate.  Honestly, that seems fine, especially when one reads the book’s reviews.  While they are all very positive, the editorial reviews for the book place it firmly in the high school realm with School Library Journal recommending the book for grades 9 and up, Publishers Weekly for ages 14 and up,  and VOYA for “older teens.” Yet, Hopkins was not allowed to move her talk to the high school, where no parent had objected to her work, and where she’d find a ready, willing, and appropriate audience. 
It always amazes me when parents of teens speak honestly and passionately about protecting their children from the horrors of the world by sealing them in, all too temporary and illusory, rose-colored bubbles.  When we ignore issues such as drug addiction, sexual assault, school and street violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, we do not protect our children from them - we, instead, leave them very vulnerable to them.  All too often, instead of educating and preparing our children to face a world full of hazards, adults end up pretending these issues don’t exist, or exist only for other kids in other places.  It’s naive at best and incredible destructive at worst.  Here we have an eloquent writer and speaker, willing to tackle some of these tough issues and she is turned away because some parents are afraid to admit that their little ones may be getting into drugs, sex, alcohol, you name it.  Instead of facing that fear, they are ducking their heads into the sand.


Give a Damn!

I don't give a damn about my bad reputation!

But I do give a damn about animals!  That's why I'm walking to benefit Farm Sanctuary on Sunday.  You can donate to this awesome organization that rescues, rehabilitates, and gives loving retirement homes to all sorts of farm animals at my donation page.

And remember, Joan Jett gives a damn about animals, too!

Speaking Freely

Before reading Buschman’s article in the online version of Academe, I hadn’t given much thought to the ways freedom of speech, academic freedom, and intellectual freedom interact - or to the ways they manifest themselves in our public libraries and our school library media centers. I certainly never knew that ALA,
officially states that it might help defend librarians if their employment rights are denied in the process of defending intellectual freedom (for example, in opposing local censorship) but not when they exercise intellectual freedom within the workplace . . . This view is further articulated in the ALA’s explanatory “Questions and Answers on Speech in the Workplace”: librarians have ethical obligations to question policies “detrimental to the public interest or to the profession,” but the ALA cautions that it “does not at this time provide mediation, financial aid, or legal aid in response to” workplace disputes, which are subject to local employment policy, nor does the ALA investigate and publicize abuse as does the [American Association of University Professors.]

It strikes me as particularly absurd that librarians, who work so hard to ensure free access to all information and ideas, have so little protection for the expression of their own ideas, if I am understanding this correctly.

Clearly, there needs to be a certain amount of local authority in matters of free speech and staff management. After all, each community is different (and operates under its own codes of conduct) and their libraries vary accordingly. However, it seem to me that a certain baseline standard for freedom of speech in the workplace should be set and enforced by ALA.

The article does not address school librarians specifically, though many of the same issues apply. As teachers, we must be careful not to allow our biases to interfere with our work, or to indoctrinate, rather that educate. But we must also feel secure enough to stand up to bias and injustice where we find it, and to speak for the truth. In New York City, we are quite lucky to be supported by a strong union (one reason I am a staunch union advocate), I fear our colleagues in other school districts do not fare so well. Without a supportive administration (and especially with a hostile one) freedom of speech in the library media center becomes an issue of job security and efficacy. I hope that ALA considers giving its policy more bite, and backing up its members with legal force.


Play it Again, Sam

Ahhhhh the Youth of Today.  A mess, aren't they?  They prefer texting to talking, online to outside, MySpace to the library.  They are distracted, unorganized, lazy, and disrespectful.  They can't form a complete thought, never mind a complete sentence.  They abuse language and ignore the rules of grammar and discourse.  They have no stamina or deep interest in anything.  They are so fixated on social networking and their cell phones that they aren't learning how to cope and communicate in the real world.  They are coddled and spoiled.  Yet they are exposed to more danger than ever before.

Sound familiar?  If not, then you probably never talk to anyone who works with kids - teens in specific.  I hear variations on this lament nearly daily, from colleagues, grad students, friends, my own mouth.  As someone who rides the digital native/digital immigrant line I can see where everyone is coming from.  Afterall, it's the same place they've been coming from for 2800 years:
I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words.

When I was a boy, we were taught to be discrete and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.
--- Hesiod, Eighth Century B.C.
We thought it was the Youth of Today that were the downfall of civilization and culture.  Turns out it was the Youth of Twenty-Eight Hundred Years Ago that started it all.  Today's kids running around on the internet, playing in the street, talking back in text-speak . . . just the latest in a long history of Youth vs Establishment.

At one point everything is new and with new technologies and new ideas come changes - sometimes cosmetic, sometimes fundamental - to the ways we interact, learn, express ourselves, and navigate the world.  Priorities shift, new information changes old ways of thinking, concepts of what is rude, healthy, or safe reflect these changes.  All of which can be very uncomfortable to the old guard.  Especially to those whose ideas of right and wrong are firmly entrenched in the Truths they were taught.

The internet has had a profound impact on our culture.  It has changed the way we participate, socialize, and organize.  It has shifted the seats of power and influence, and our perceptions of public and private.  As Danah Boyd, of UC Berkeley, wrote in her excellent paper, Why Youth Heart Social Network Sites:
In today’s society, there is a push towards privacy.  It is assumed that people are public individuals who deserve the right to privacy rather than the other way around.  With an elevated and idealized view of privacy, we often forget the reasons that enslaved peoples desperately wished for access to public life.  By allowing us to have a collective experience with people who are both like and unlike us, public life validates the reality that we are experiencing.  We are doing our youth a disservice if we believe that we can protect them from the world by limiting their access to public life.  They must enter that arena, make mistakes, and learn from them.  Our role as adults is not to be their policemen, but to be their guide.
The new isn't necessarily bad, but it is different.  What makes a good friend may not change - a person who listens and hears you, who stands up for you and with you, who is trustworthy, kind and with whom you have fun.  But the ways these characteristics manifest themselves may change drastically with new ways of communicating and new social networks.  Sometimes to the point of not being recognizable to people not immersed in the new technologies.

As people who work with teens, it is important that we try to keep up, admit it when we haven't, and learn instead of judge.  New is not bad, old is not good (and neither is the reverse true), and the Youth of Today are destroying the world, just like they always have.


What is a library anyway?

In this short piece on the transformation of Chelmsford High School’s library into a Learing Commons, author D.L. Whelan describes a shift from a visually unappealing place, with frayed carpets, peeling paint, and prison-like bars to an information palace, with flat screen TV, coffee, couches, and new computers.  But the changes described are more than cosmetic.  The transformation into a Learning Commons is also described a a shift in mindset.  Although it seems to me more a lexical shift than anything else.  A Learning Commons is,
“according to David Loertscher, a professor at San Jose State University and coauthor of The New Learning Commons Where Learners Win: Reinventing School Libraries and Computer Labs (Hi Willow, 2008), a collaborative space created by users that turns the library into the ‘center, the network, of social, cultural and learning in the school.”
That sounds like a library to me.  I find it interesting in that the quest to open up libraries, make them relevant to teachers and useful to students, to get them full of bustle and activity, there is often a “need” to rename them.  How has the word “library” become so immutably boring and staid?  And what does our willingness to abandon it mean for the future of libraries, both public and academic?  I say it’s time we made a concerted effort to reclaim and redefine the word “library,” so that it finally encompasses all of the guts and glory, the fun and learning, the resources and people, to be found there.

I don’t want my students to dread the library, or immediately dismiss it.  I don’t want them to imagine a room of old, worn-out books, and shushing matrons.  Perhaps the best way to counter these stereotypes is to stop delivering them?  For many children their school library is their main library and it’s important that we make creating warm, fun, inviting spaces, with up-to-date resources a priority.  Sadly, there are library media specialists and school libraries that are not warm and welcoming, that saw classes as an intrusion, and kids as problems to be dealt with.  As we move into the 21st century, ourselves and our libraries, let’s work to re-image and redefine the “library” and "librarian," for that matter, and insure that they are all centers of learning and development for all.


I Eat Youth-Owned Culture for Breakfast

In this month's issue of Wired, besides an in-depth look at Craigslist, and an article on "good enough" tech, there was an interesting piece on education reform. In, Revenge of the Nerds, Daniel Roth posits that if we really want to reform education, and create schools that work, then we need to "make them geekier." If the school culture is geek, then the kids who excel are the cool kids and every kid wants to be cool (or, you know, not cornered in dark hallways or vaguely threatened during every passing). Viola - excellence!

Now I could really get into how making schools geekier is a fine idea, but that actual education reform needs to encompass a heck of a lot more than that. How a geekier school doesn't exactly address the myriad issues facing many underachieving kids such as poverty, hunger, homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, lack of adequate space and time . . . but I won't because I'm sure that Roth didn't mean his one page fluff piece to be the end all and be all of modern education reform. I'm pretty sure that he realizes that citing the success of two charter schools (which can, and do, cull their student populations from the mainstream, and which have the option of expelling students who aren't working out. Those students end up back at their real public school which is now devoid of all those geeky star-achievers that were drawn to Awesome Charter School . . . see where I'm going with this?) does not a workable plan for reform make. I trust that Roth and the educators he talked with just want us to think about geekifying schools as part of overall education reform that works neighborhood by neighborhood to improve the overall lives and health of the children there.

But I'm not going to talk about that.

What I will comment on is the use of one quote from Tom Vander Ark, a private-equity manager with High Tech Schools, one of the charters mentioned in the article. His solution to geekifying schools (and, thus, saving them) is destroying youth culture. "A big high school has a youth-owned culture. You've got to break that." Roth's reaction? "The result: One hundred percent of High Tech graduates get into college."

Cause and Effect.

Elementary, my dear Watson.

Huh. Really?

Hey kids! You know that big consolidated high school? The one that all the kids who didn't get into (or got kicked out of) the charters go to? The one with serious financial issues? With all the new, inexperienced teachers? The only school in the area to offer state and federally mandated services to English Language Learners and students with special needs? The one with class sizes of 30-40?

Yeah, that one! Did you know it's failing because of you? Once we destroy the youth-owned culture of that school all of you will get into college. Rad, huh?

A youth-owned culture is not a bad thing. Youth are not a monolith, believe it or not. A youth-owned culture will mean very different things at different times and in different places. Teens can be creative, compassionate, loving, involved, intellectual, open-minded, driven, organized, excited, artistic, literary, passionate, informed, and supportive. They can also be cruel, petty, lazy, uninvolved, violent, dismissive, pre-occupied, close-minded, and intolerant.

Instead of working to stamp out youth-owned culture, perhaps we can work to engender a positive one. I want the teens I work with excited and involved in school. I want them helping to run the show. I want them to feel supported in this ownership.

I think that Vander Ark and Roth do, too. I have a sneaking suspicion that the term "youth-owned culture" may refer only to a very specific type of youth culture - one that is imbued with violence and uninterested in education. If so, then they should say so. And maybe stop to consider why that aspect of youth culture is violent and uninterested in education. Until we work to address the underlying issues affecting teens attitudes towards and achievement in school, education reform will go no where. All the geekifying in the world won't put food in a hungry kid's mouth, or give them a quiet room with a desk to work in, or keep them from working two jobs to help pay the bills. It won't increase teacher salaries to attract the best and the brightest to the field, it won't lower class sizes, it won't make a full class-set of textbooks and equipment appear. There are bigger issues here.


On Race and Representation

We discussed in class the other night the intersecting issues of race, racism, representation, and censorship in YA lit and public library collections. I wanted to share some thoughts on these issues from the school library media center perspective. Well, my school library media perspective, at least.

For many children, the school library or media center is their home library. It is one they have regular access to, and one designed specifically for their use. As such, it is central to the question of children’s rights to intellectual freedom and access to information. ALA comes down on the side of children, stating that, “although the educational level and program of the school necessarily shapes the resources and services of a school library media program, the principles of the Library Bill of Rights apply equally to all libraries, including school library media programs." So here, we have the Children's Internet Protection Act regulating internet access, while school systems design their own selection criteria for print and other resources.

It is this selection process with which I am concerned. As we work to build our school library collections how can we ensure that we are building inclusive collections that celebrate our society’s wide variety of cultures, traditions, languages, histories, beliefs, and view points? Is there a difference between selecting for bias-free materials and censorship? How do we take into consideration the greater societal impact of the subtle sexism and racism of many text and children’s books without eliminating problematic materials?

This issue has been of concern to teachers and librarians for years. In 1978, the National Council of Teachers wrote a guideline to recognizing and dealing with censorship in our school systems. They describe some forms censorship may take:

"1. Subtle censorship of "selection." The perspective of the individual or group making selections can be one-sided, sometimes from lack of wide knowledge of literature for children, sometimes from a bias against certain types of books or their content, authors, or illustrators.

2. Deliberate exclusion of certain books. Classroom teachers and librarians sometimes fear that community groups or school officials will object to a book. A list of controversial topics has long kept many books out of some schools or libraries entirely, or on special shelves. School librarians sometimes have a storage room for controversial books."

They recommended creating a written selection policy and a procedure to deal with complaints leveled against materials in collaboration with the PTA and community. They also recommend frequent communication between librarians, teachers, administrators and parents concerning books being used in the curriculum, and available in the library. Inviting the public to book talks and discussions on hot-topic books offer a forum for dissenting viewpoints to be heard, without resorting to formal complaint.

In 1981, the NCTE dug further into the heart of my question with their position paper, The Students’ Right to Read. In it, they discuss the growing pressure from the community at large that English teachers faced in text selection. In it, they discuss issues of racial bias:
Literature about ethnic or racial minorities remains "controversial" or "objectionable" to many adults. As long as groups such as Blacks, Indians, Orientals, Chicanos, and Puerto Ricans "kept their proper place"--awarded them by an Anglo society--censors rarely raised their voices. But attacks have increased in frequency as minority groups have refused to observe their assigned "place." Though nominally, the criticisms of racial or ethnic literature have usually been directed at "bad language," "suggestive situations," "questionable literary merit," or "ungrammatical English" (usually oblique complaints about the different dialect or culture of a group), the underlying motive for some attacks has unquestionably been racial.

However, here we are still discussing “traditional” censorship: censoring the voice of the minority, the powerless, the dissenting viewpoint, the dialect. Here we have teachers and librarians fighting the power structure and working to even the playing field for traditionally disenfranchised peoples. What happens when, in the interest of plurality and respect, librarians seek to remove biased works from their collections?

Once again, we can turn to the ALA’s interpretation of it’s Bill of Rights:

"Censorship may include removing or not selecting materials because they are considered by some as racist or sexist ... Librarians have an obligation to protect library collections from removal of materials and resources based on personal bias or prejudice.

Intellectual freedom, the essence of equitable library services, provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause, or movement may be explored. Toleration is meaningless without tolerance for what some may consider detestable."

According to the ALA, the removal, or omission, of works due to bias, prejudicial language, or distortion is a violation of our patrons’ intellectual freedom. ALA has declared that the provisions in the Library Bill of Rights apply to school libraries and media centers, as well as public libraries. However, I think that this interpretation fails to recognize the societal impact of hundreds of years of one very particular viewpoint. It fails to consider the role played by our dominant power-structure in publishing, education, and entertainment. When every textbook a child reads, every informative text in their classroom, the majority of television, movies, and magazines is written from a specific viewpoint that devalues their language, their culture, and their history, I think that it is the responsibility of the school librarian not only to represent other points of view, but to de-emphasize these harmful and repetitive voices.

Children are profoundly influenced by the books they read. The fiction they read informs their world view and their sense of self. The non-fiction texts they read profess to tell them what is true about the world. How irresponsible it would be of a school librarian to stock her shelves with accepted and acceptable lies in the name of tolerance. The problem with keeping, say, The Indian in the Cupboard, on the shelves on it’s artistic merit is how to deal effectively with the incredibly harmful stereotypes is professes. A child who has never known an American Indian, and may never know one, has no existing schema to map this book onto. Offering equal shelf space to Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian does not guarantee that this child will ever read it. So I am left not wanting to censor a viewpoint, but recognizing that a) that viewpoint is harmful, and b) that viewpoint is a pervasive force in society and certainly does not cease to exist outside of that one book. Perhaps pairing problematic books with their more enlightened brethren? Or offering book discussion questions with them? Or sending kids to the public library (I kid, I kid!)?

The Baltimore County Public Schools’ selection criteria come
close to riding this selection/censorship line successfully. They state that materials should be:
* Accurate in terms of content: Library media materials should present facts in an objective manner. Authority of the author, organization, publisher/producer should be a consideration in selection. Materials concerning human development and family life should contain facts which are presented in a manner appropriate to the level of the students.
* Reflective of the pluralistic nature of a global society: Library media materials should provide a global perspective and promote diversity as a positive attribute of our society. It is important to include materials by authors and illustrators of all cultures.
* Free of bias and stereotype: Materials should reflect the basic humanity of all people and be free of stereotypes, caricatures, distorted dialect, sexual bias, and other offensive characteristics. Library materials concerning religious, social, and political content should inform rather than indoctrinate.

We, as school library media specialists, are the guardians of the wealth of information available in our libraries. We must make sure that the materials within those walls are helpful, informative, true, and unbiased. This may mean including information we are uncomfortable about, perhaps, on the machinery of warfare or conservative religious ethics. In my opinion, it also means making sure that our stacks are a place of true plurality and not simply an extension of the status quo.


On Chain-link and Children

For many reasons (personal. political, spiritual) I'm am a staunch opponent of the death penalty. In fact, I believe in serious, radical prison reform. It is an issue near and dear to my heart. It is an issue made nearer and dearer by Susan Kuklin's No Choirboy.

I'm not about to pontificate on the death penalty here. I could spend pages explaining how it's more expensive than life without parole; how it does nothing to deter criminal behavior; how an admittedly biased judicial system should not hold peoples' lives in its syringes and cyanide crystals; how, since 1973, 135 people have been found innocent on death row; how the death penalty is administered arbitrarily. But I won't get into that here. Here, I want to talk about teens.

No Choirboy details the circumstances and experiences of six teens on, or formerly on, death row. Their crimes, their trials, and their various prison experiences are beautifully told in their own words. These teens' search for redemption within the cold walls of our brutal prison system is a testament to the will of the human spirit, and the strength of children everywhere.

It's also a pretty damning indictment of a society that, until 2005, deemed it completely moral and just to execute children.

Let's talk about what it means to be an adolescent, because, as close as the numbers may be, teens are not adults. End of story. Research on the adolescent brain has shown us that "areas involved in planning and decision-making, including the prefrontal cortex -- the cognitive or reasoning area of the brain important for controlling impulses and emotions -- appear not to have yet reached adult dimension during the early twenties" (italics mine). A study by the National Institute of Mental Health states, "When contemplating risky decisions, they show less activity in regions of the brain that regulate processes involved in decision-making, compared with adults. The areas are among the last to develop and are involved in control of “thinking” functions, including decision-making, and in processing reward-related input and behavior (the orbitofrontal/ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex)" (italics mine).

Not to beat a dead horse, or a dead anything as the case may be, but adolescents are not adults. They don't act like them, think like them, process input like them, feel like them, communicate like them . . . why on earth should they be punished like them? The preferred alternative to the death penalty, now that it is unconstitutional to execute children, is life without parole. But of all the members of society that our prison system should be seeking to rehabilitate and reform, shouldn't it be the youngest and most immature?

When we take into account the fact that the courts are far more likely to try nonwhite youth as adults and more likely to imprison nonwhite youth, it becomes clear that there is something funny about the way society views children of color. There is a tendency to "adultify" children of color. To assign motive and reasoning to their behavior and not to that of white children. This topic is given a wonderful treatment in Ann Ferguson's book Bad Boys: Public Schools and the Making of Black Masculinity. It's also something that I see and hear every day of my working life.

"They're no children"
"They're kids, but they're not kids."
"They're young, but not innocent."
"Children don't act like that."
"No child would say that."
"They're little (fill in the word of your choice: animals, monsters, thugs, pimps, savages, conmen, criminals)."

That last one may not be a statement of "adultification" (depending on which word you chose), but it's in the same line. Kids will be kids, except when they're obviously expressing deep-seated, adult, calculating, criminal intent.

Yes, a kid may have had a rough start in life, may be poor, may live in a tough neighborhood, may not have enough to eat, may have to work, may have been abused, may be very angry about all of that . . . it doesn't make him not a kid.

So we've gone from the death penalty, to adolescent neuroscience, to teen incarceration, to racism in our justice system, to racism and the "adultification" of children of color . . . these issues all intersect and overlap in so many ways, painting a picture of a system (systems, really - educational, judicial, correctional . . .) that is flawed and biased and incredibly powerful. As public servants I think it's important to remember the context in which we work, and to recognize our own biases and prejudices.


Power Dynamics

In the future, when I think about my time at Pratt as a Library Science student, I may very well consider July 27, 2009 - the eighth meeting of Summer II's Young Adult Lit class - the worst day ever. Why, you ask? Because I wasn't there. And Barry Lyga, author of Boy Toy, was. Missing truly awesome stuff could be a major theme of my life. It's something I'm trying to work on. Promise.

I want to write about Boy Toy. There is so much I want to say, but I'll keep this brief. Of all of the things that struck me about this book (as reader, a teacher of seventh graders, an adult who loves adolescents . . . ), what stuck with me, haunting me and forcing me to examine my own practices, was the way Lyga paints such a clear picture of adult-child relationships. In Boy Toy, Josh is sexually abused by his seventh grade Social Studies teacher. They end up having an extended "affair," which culminates in her going to prison, her husband beating Josh senseless, and Josh sexually molesting a friend. There is a lot to explore here, as we listen to now-eighteen-year-old Josh tell his story and figure himself and his relationships out.

But I want to focus on the relationship between Eve, the teacher, and Josh, the twelve-year-old. Specifically, in how Lyga, with compassion and amazing skill crafts Eve's sly manipulation of Josh. He makes so explicit the complex power dynamics at play between adults and children, and especially between authority figures such as teachers, and their charges. Every time Eve asks Josh if this is "what [he] wants," she works to ensure that he sees himself as the guilty party. She preys on this guilt, carefully setting up sexual situations that appear to Josh to be in his control and his fault. Six years later, this situation is still being used by certain adults in Josh's life, to their advantage. When Josh's coach wants to goad him - he brings up Eve. It's so well written, and quite disturbing.

And, because I have a near-pathological need to relate everything back to my life and work . . . as a teacher I think about power dynamics of the classroom and the school bureaucracy in general all of the time. The way we are manipulated by our administrators, and they by their supervisors . . . how we, in turn, manipulate our students and they each other . . . in one long chain of power plays. The need to balance honesty, respect, humor, patience, and authority in order to craft a safe learning environment for all kids. Something as simple as collecting a homework assignment, or handing back a quiz is an opportunity to humiliate or praise, to create a class hierarchy, to validate or invalidate . . . everything we do is fraught with this emotional potential. How we use it is everything.


Body Drama

I want so badly to love Body Drama - the book, not the actual thing itself. It's about high time someone made a book celebrating girls' real bodies and showcasing the range of shapes, sizes, colors, and textures they come in. I love that it's full of photographs and frank talk about all the weird and interesting things normal bodies do. I love that it discusses what isn't normal (BV, STIs) without moralizing or sliding into the ick-gross trap too often, and that it offers great advice for dealing with your period and keeping healthy.

But there are a few things I don't like about the book, and they really stand out to me because on all the other points, it's spot on.

First of all, despite its lip service to celebrating our unique and awesome bodies, the book is chock full of body care and beauty tips designed to help you take your awesome uniqueness and make it look, you know, better . . . more ummmm, normal? What the hell? Don't come out swinging, shouting body love and acceptance from the rooftops, then spend every other page reinforcing the beauty status quo. That ideal image you're self-tanning, plucking, waxing, squishing, pushing up and out, coloring, straightening, and painting to achieve . . . it ain't real! And you should know that, Body Drama!

Then it gets a little fat-phobic on you. Body Drama equates being overweight with being unhealthy again and again, but the two are not interchangeable. There are plenty of thin folks who are terribly unhealthy and plenty of chubsters (like myself) who are not. Poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle are unhealthy, but they don't, necessarily = overweight, as healthy eating habits and exercise do not = thin. I know that it's possible to be overweight and healthy. So do plenty of other people (scientists and doctors, even!) Like the good folks at Healthy at Every Size. I know that overweight people can live longer and have better survival rates for cardiac events, I know that fat can help protect against many diseases, I know that thin=/=healthy and overweight =/=unhealthy, I know that dieting can make you sick (really sick). I know that the BMI scale is crap. If I know all of this, why doesn't Body Drama? Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for everyone getting fit and healthy, by all means . . . and I commend Body Drama for a great section on nutrition . . . but fit does not equal trim, it equals fit, it equals the ability to perform certain physical tasks. And a sense of self confidence and self worth that comes from having, specifically, lost weight and from the compliments of others is bound to crumble. Again, Body Drama is paying lip service to love and acceptance, while reminding us that we could look better . . . compliment-worthy, even.

The third way Body Drama disappoints me (deeply, painfully) is in its coverage of sexy, sexy sex. Or lack thereof. Yes, there's a great section on contraception that even includes tubal ligation (woot!) and good info on STIs, but no information about your body and sex. Nothing to prepare a girl for what might happen and the ways her body will react to getting hot and heavy (hello vaginal secretions!). Nothing on masturbation, either. Seems to me that sex is a major source of body drama (amiright, Ms. Cho (2:10)? Seriously, after the sex bit, she discusses body issues, dieting, and eating disorders with such grace and humor.)

Body Drama just told me I'm cool the way I am but: really, I could look a lot better, I'm fat and therefore unhealthy, and I might be a slut. Sheesh! I'm going to go crawl into my closet for a while. My winter coats don't judge me.


Defaults and Diversity

Nick Burd, author of the amazing, Vast Fields of Ordinary came to talk to us the other day about his book, and about writing YA lit in general. It was a pretty enlightening conversation, and he said a couple of things that gave me a lot to think about and digest.

The first was about race. The main character of Vast Fields of Ordinary is white - most of the characters in the book are white. It's set in Iowa, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau is 90.6% White. That is a whole lot of percent. Nick said that he chose to make the main character White because (I'm paraphrasing here) writing about a Black person in Iowa necessitates writing about a whole mess of stuff that this novel isn't about. I see the truth in that, I absolutely do. Our cultural default is still set to White, Heterosexual, Judeo-Christian Male. To a certain extent any deviation from that requires explanation and exposition. But what if we stopped explaining? Maybe part of shifting or eliminating the default is to stop explaining why something isn't it?

The second was about sexuality. Nick's next YA book is about two straight boys because (paraphrasing!) in writing about gay teens again, he would be afraid of writing the same book twice. It got me to wondering how many authors think, "Man, if I write about straight kids again . . . well, you know." or "Crap, here I am with another novel about heterosexual teens. I need to take it easy on the P and V, you know?"

Which got the class to talking about how well-represented gay boys are these days, and how under or poorly rep'd gay girls are. The requisite "Why is that?" was tossed around and I said nothing because I have some serious class discussion anxiety. Maybe the idea of our cultural default is at work here, too. White, homosexual, J-C, male is only one step away from default. White, homosexual, J-C, female is two steps away. Twice as far . . . takes twice as long? God, that's overly simplistic, but I think it still holds some water.

We need to start leaping away from the default. Over and over again. Until there are so many "outliers" that the idea of "regular" or "normal" or "other" is obliterated in a mess of everyone. Because, hey, just because we live in a messed up White, heterosexist, religiously intolerant patriarchy doesn't make it right or normal.


YA Programming

We discussed teen programming the other day and my first thoughts were something along the lines of, "What the hell do I know about library programs?" and, "Crap, I'm so uninformed." As the librarians in the group began discussing the components of effective teen programming, and programs they had run in their libraries, I was struck by how familiar it all felt. Hands on projects that extended from the book, bridging the gap between literature and reality, creating/fostering critical thinking and analysis skills, discussing alternate understanding of the text . . . Hey, programming is a lot like . . . teaching?! Then I rolled my eyes at my idiocy and jumped into my group's discussion.

There are obvious differences between creating a library program around a book and teaching that book in a classroom. But there are striking similarities, as well. Especially for us teachers of kids with special needs. Students with cognitive or language impairments, kids with learning disabilities, emotionally disturbed kids, English Language Learners, highly kinesthetic learners . . . they all need teachers to engage their whole selves in a book, and they need high-interest, thought-and-conversation-provoking activities to scaffold their understanding of the text. They need to do meaningful, fun work around that text, and they need to talk about it. A lot.

If only our local libraries were running programs on what the local schools were reading . . . or, you know, the teachers and school library media specialists ever talked. But that's a-whole-nother post.


On liking teenagers

I just had lunch with an old friend and her old friend. We were two teachers and a school social worker and the conversation naturally came around to the one thing we had most obviously in common - kids. We compared stories, laughed at ourselves and our students, and lamented the paucity of resources. Typical teacher talk.

Then we began discussing teaching and working with kids in general. As we moved off of ourselves and into the wider world in which we work, our stories all seemed to have a common theme - one that begged the question: why do so many adults who work with teens seem (or profess) to hate them?

I've seen a goodly number of teen-hating teachers and librarians in the last few years and I'm starting to worry that I'm destined to become one. Is it possible to maintain your compassion, composure, patience, and humor in the face of a decade or two of teen antics and angst? Will I gradually lose the ability to remember what 14, 15, 16 felt like? Or to remember the crap I pulled at those ages? How bloody annoying I was? How much life sucked?


On Little Brother

Little Brother rocks my socks in the best of fight-the-power-revolutionary-freedom ways. Reading this book made my heart sing. It made me want to learn how to solder tiny metal bits in meaningful ways.

It may seem an odd pairing, but Little Brother reminds me a great deal of Donnie Darko. Both lovingly and accurately portray the seriousness of teens lives as actually serious. In both the main character is on a quest for the truth about how things work. Whether that thing is space-time, or habeas corpus. While Little Brother is a techno-thriller about a Department of Homeland Security gone mad on its own power (comment peu realiste!) and the gamers who decide to put an end to the madness, and Donnie Darko is a tale of wormholes, and bubbles of space-time, alternate realities, and the ramifications of the everyday choices we make, they both speak to the power of teens. The power to make a difference, to manifest change, to take control. They speak to agency - which is something I think many teens feel a distinct lack of.


Hope . . .

Do teens need hope? More to the point - do they need it in their literature? After discussing some painfully gut-wrenching novels in class, we came around to this essential question. We brainstormed and were able to come up with only a handful of titles (barring Christopher Pike's oeuvre) where in the main character dies. Many of these were still relatively hopeful - begging the question, do teens need hope? Do they need that glimmer of silver in the thunderhead?

I don't think so. I see kids go from tween to teen every year. I watch them mature and learn to read and take stock of the world around them. They exist in a limbo: not kids and not yet adults, governed by rules they have no say in, highly marketed but not self-sufficient, affected and interested by politics but unable to vote . . . Teens live in a adult world that is largely ignorant of their concerns and crises. I think there is something about the hopeless, the utterly bleak, that speaks to this sense of alienation and disenfranchisement.

Many of them don't need rainbows after the storm, but we keep providing it. Perhaps it has something to do with our adult guilt - our need to promise that everything will eventually be kind of okay. The protagonist will survive (and so will you!). The world cares about her (and also about you!). Bad things happen to good people but not really because in the end there is a glimmer of hope to let you know that g-d or whomever is still on their (your!) side.

Do I think teens need hope? Not any more than adults do. I think we're just suffering from Pretty Woman syndrome - on their behalf.


What do young adults need?

The other night we had an interesting discussion about the critical components that teens need in a library. Specifically, if you were building a YA/teen section from scratch, what are the most important things to include. My partner and I settled on: books published for/as YA, graphic novels/manga, non-fiction, computers, and seating. Yeah, maybe seating is superfluous, and our imaginary, budding teen population would benefit more from study guides, or DVDs, but I like a good sit. A good sit, a comfortable space, a bit of real estate to call your own . . . these things seem important to me. I know they were when I was a teen.

My public library was right next to my tiny high school and I spent many many an afternoon there. I don't remember if it even had a YA section because I wasn't there for the books (gasp!). I was there to hang out in the basement where the past years of periodicals were stored. To be loud and obnoxious, to read ancient copies of Cosmo, to flirt and fight, to smoke cigarettes out back, and to form friendships that sustain me to this day. Occasionally I was there to use the microfiche and photocopier, because I didn't have the internet until I was a senior. I never once checked out an item, I never volunteered, I wasn't a page, and eventually I left.

I remember thinking wistfully how wicked awesome it would be if the library was open late. Or if it served coffee. Or hosted poetry nights. Or short fiction contests. And you know what, it may very well have, only we never heard about it. What my library needed was literal space for us (no, the basement storage area does not count) and someone to talk to us, and to listen. As we discuss relating to teens and drawing teens into our libraries I think back to my young adulthood and I'm struck by how little it would have taken to get me involved.


My thoughts on Twilight . . . ages after the fact

Yeah, it's been done to death, but here I go, adding my voice to the fray . . .

Ok ok, I get it. I know why Twilight is so popular. It speaks to your gut, it confuses love and lust (as so many do) and its portrayal of first love is amazingly, viscerally accurate. It validates our basest desires. It speaks directly to the reptile brain. It's hot.

Yes, we all know that feeling - that OMG I can't live without them! mix of fear and bodily yearning. It's real. It totally happens. Twilight is steeped in it. That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. But when we live in a world so dominated by one worldview, where love is lust and romantic love lasts forever, but real attachment never develops and women are weak and helpless and men are cold and stoic . . . then I wish that people writing for the most impressionable audiences would think a little harder about the choices they make and the characters they bring to life, the relationships they portray, and the norms they reinforce. I guess, in the end, it just makes me sad.

If, for every Bella there were an equally popular kick-ass heroine, maybe. . . but there isn't. Well, why the hell not?