BOOK REVIEW: Better With Books

July 12, 2019

Thanks to Laken Brooks, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Melissa Hart’s Better With Books is a crash-course in diverse young adult literature. The book suggests preteen and teen reading lists in the following categories: adoption and foster care, body image, immigration, learning challenges, LGBTQ+ youth, mental health, environmentalism, physical disability, poverty and homelessness, race and ethnicity, and spirituality. Hart debuts Better With Books in a time of increasing sociopolitical tension and growing diversity; however, she effectively references contemporary issues like immigration policies to argue that reading - now more than ever - is a vital tool to grow a new generation of empathetic and civic-minded people.

Hart relies on breadth rather than depth to introduce her audience to as many books about as many marginalized identities and experiences as possible. This scope succeeds because Hart writes to a friendly audience of fellow educators and caregivers. From the foreword written by Sharon M. Draper, a National Teacher of the Year recipient, to her own introductory comments on social issues in the classroom, Hart establishes this book as a necessary reference for any teacher. Therefore, she spends little time making the case that books do actually promote empathy in young readers. After all, her intended audience of educators supposedly agree that diverse representation in literature is a foundation for civic values. Hart does argue, though, that diverse literature has transformational, measurable change on individual students.

While Hart’s book operates as a guide of suggested reading lists and book summaries, the most fulfilling sections are the chapter introductions. She frames every chapter with stories about how one book has changed a child’s life. Hart deftly expands the lens in each chapter from an individual -- an immigrant, the mother of a transgender daughter, and Hart’s own child -- to a larger population. For example, in Chapter 1, Hart describes Lyda, a preteen who lived in foster care. After reading Steve Pemberton’s memoir A Chance in the World, something shifts in Lyda’s life. Now a college honors student, Lyda says, “literature can help … It pushes you to feel for characters and makes you want to do something about the issues they’re facing” (3). Hart then zooms from Lyda to the following: “At any given time, 438,000 US kids live in foster care” (3). Upon closer investigation, a reader may recognize rhetorical flaws in these large jumps from individual students to entire populations. While no one student’s experience can represent a marginalized group, Hart does effectively hook readers by demonstrating how books have changed one person’s life. The not-too-subtle suggestion, then, is that a book can also change numerous more lives. As per the back cover, “Through the power of reading, kids can find comfort and perspective,” but adults should curate these books to “find a way into meaningful conversations with their tweens and teens.”

Hart does not necessarily imply that all students will engage with books in the same way, but she does use literacy as the thread through which she invites readers to imagine a better future. After citing the 438,000 children in foster care, Hart ends her introduction by returning to Lyda being adopted. She describes a photo in which Lyda poses with her parents at a baseball game: “In the photo, they look joyful … intimate. They look like a family” (9). On the next page, the reader sees a stock list of book summaries and suggestions. While the transition to the reading list may seem abrupt, this tension highlights Hart’s intention. She pushes the reader to make the connection back to their own classroom, encouraging educators to fill in the gap between Lyda’s story and their students. While teachers cannot possibly ensure that every child is adopted or has a happy ending, Hart emphasizes the readers’ responsibility to help other children feel acknowledged and validated by reading books about people like themselves.

While Hart thoughtfully and soulfully connects individual people to life-changing texts, her text could benefit from precision. For example, Hart lists preteen and teenage options without describing how she is labeling the texts as such: reading level, maturity of content, states curriculum guides, or other metrics? Additionally, Hart could preface her introduction with a note on how she avoided books that tokenize diverse groups. For example, in the section on physical disability, Hart could have clearly noted which books were actually designed for readers with disabilities: books with multimodal components and Braille translations. Furthermore, a brief conclusion would provide more cohesion to the text and a final call to action for the reader.

Better With Books is much needed as a down-to-earth reading guide that connects educators and parents with books about diversity. Hart writes with an easy-to-navigate format, an accessible tone, and a clear conscious.

Hart, Melissa. Better With Books. Sasquatch Books, 2019, Print.

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Dear Reader

June 28, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Letters often hold interest for me as a researcher and reader. They demonstrate humanity in ways that other writing cannot. People allow themselves a level of intimacy on paper that is not allowed in other areas of life. I love to write letters and I do lament that they are not as popular now as they once were. This is one of the reasons that I became interested in a collection of letters titled Velocity of Being, Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick. In it, the editors have compiled letters from many famous and successful individuals, scientists, artists, musicians, and authors. One interesting aspect of this book is that the letters are all written to an unknown reader, but yet some of the letters are still startling intimate. These letters, written by successful and interesting individuals, explain how or why books have helped them in life. They all encourage us to read, but the reasons for doing so vary from person to person, and experience to experience. There are so many letters worth reading, but I have space share only a handful on today’s blog. I invite you to peek into the book yourself to better understand what your favorite public figure thinks of reading.

From Ann Patchett (page 242)

“[N]othing that matters in life should be taken for granted, so if you love to read, here’s how you can ensure that the generation after you and the generation after them will keep at it: all you have to do is read books. Sometimes you should read them in public places. At least some of the time read books that are printed on paper and hold them up so people can see what you’re doing. When they say, ‘Is that book any good?’ stop reading for a minute and answer them. The wonder of books is that they are worlds we enter into alone, and yet at the same time they can connect us to other people.”

From James Gleick (page 248)

“[S]omehow you do learn to read. Then, when you open a book, you scarcely see the letters or even the words. They vanish, an invisible blur across the printed page, while the information they encode pours into your mind as if through a fire hose. Look. Listen. Moonlight shining in the window; a mysterious smile glimpsed in a mirror; a muffled cry from a distant room; the squelch of wet shoes on the tile. Sights and sounds rise from the page and mingle with your experience and stir your memories. You fill in the empty spaces. There is no reading without imagination.”

From Anne Lamont (page 254)

“Books are paper ships, to all worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and – the most precious stunning journey of all – into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.”

From Elizabeth Alexander (page 256)

“In the 1920s she [Alexander’s grandmother] wrote to a university in Denmark: I am what is known as an American Negro, and I imagine you have never known one. Will you invite me to come and study at your school? This was one of my favorite of her stories. Why Denmark, I would ask her, entranced by her tales of smorgasbord, the puzzle ring she brought back from a suitor that one day became mine, and the sari she began to wear after being mistaken for Indian. Because when I was a teenager I read about the statue of the little mermaid being built, in Copenhagen harbor, and I wanted to see it for myself.”

Helen Fagin (page 58)

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death./ There I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential – what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility…./ A knock at the door shattered our dream-world. As the class silently exited, a pale green-eyed girl turned to me with a tearful smile: ‘Thank you so very much for this journey into another world.’… / Of the twenty-two pupils in my secret school, only four survived the Holocaust./ The pale green-eyed girl was one of them. … / There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Alan Lightman (page 66)

“Keep in mind that information is not the same thing as knowledge. You still need to think about what you are learning and what it means. To do that, you will need to turn off your neurochip from time to time. It is valuable to connect to the world, and it is also valuable to disconnect and listen to your own mind think.”

There are many other inspirational letters in this interesting volume. If you get the chance, take a peek in this book (as well as many others).

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An Ancient Southwestern Town

June 14, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Ancient history can be a difficult subject for students because it is inherently foreign to them. Not only is there a language difference, but it is genuinely difficult to envision life removed from today’s technologies. When speaking of ancient cities, most people think of ancient Greece or Rome, but today I want to focus on an ancient city of the southwestern United States.

Chaco Canyon, located in northwestern New Mexico, is a great example of an early city. Archaeologists continue to find information which explains this rare and incredible site to us. Getting there today is not so easy, but in the past, Chaco was the center of a large pueblo system that covered up to 60,000 miles. According to the Chaco Culture Complete Guide by Gian Mercurio and Maxymillian L. Peschel (Chaco Complete Guide),

“There are 400 miles of documented roads that connected Great Houses in the canyon with perhaps 150 large pueblos in all four directions. Eight roads lead out of the canyon…. The Great North Road is mainly aligned to true (celestial) north. Many road segments are aligned to the rising of stars or constellations. In some places there are two parallel pairs of roads, each thirty feet wide and the pairs separated by 50 feet, for no apparent reason…. Outliers, or great houses outside Chaco, are defined by a cluster of small unit pueblos around large public buildings and great kivas. Many are associated with roadways….Through these outliers there is line-of-sight communication between Chaco and Mesa Verde.”

A great kiva on the floor of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

A great kiva on the floor of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Archeologists have identified various construction styles by which they have labeled the phases of Chaco. Archaeologists use dendrochronology (using tree rings to date the construction) as well as noting the level of sophistication in building techniques in order to date the various structures. According to the Chaco Complete Guide, Chaco began as a sparsely populated area. In the beginning (ca. BC 9300) it was used as a hunting ground for mammoth and giant bison. Archaeologists use the term Paleo-Indians for this time up until about 5500 BC in which the pueblo peoples enter the Archaic period. As the hunting grounds changed, so did the peoples who used Chaco. They began to leave small camps filled with stone tools. The Chaco Complete Guide adds that, “Around 3000 BC, the size of camps increased, postholes are found, and the atlatl (spear thrower) came into use, as did cooking in large subsurface ovens. But the people still moved with the seasons.” As the community grew, they began to use caves, they developed basketry and grew maize. Between 800 and 400 BC, they cultivated squash.

From 400-700 AD, many changes began to take place. The bow and arrow was introduced as well as pottery. Beans became a staple diet and most importantly, pit houses allowed for full time residences. During this time, the community began to perfect the pit house model by digging down into the earth one or two feet to allow for better temperature regulation. They also added a center hole at the top of the structure for ventilation. Pit houses then became kivas, as the community built surface houses. These structures contain many levels, often with the lowest and darkest levels reserved for storage which might contain pottery, turquoise, food, baskets, etc.

The remnants of Kin Kletso, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

The remnants of Kin Kletso, Chaco Canyon. Photo credit: Alissa Simon

Chaco stands apart from other plateau pueblos in that during the massive constructions, it became a town. With large plazas, many kivas, and long apartment-style buildings, Chaco was able to support a large population. Those who lived here spoke many languages, but shared customs, traits and religious views. They also traveled between the various pueblos of Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. They traded with tribes from Latin and South America. They exchanged ideas which is demonstrated in the various types of construction styles, pottery styles and clothing. Unfortunately, weather finally forced the peoples to relocate. According to the Chaco Complete Guide, “A fifty year drought began in the mid-1100s. If people continued to live in the canyon there is little evidence of it.”

While they may have had to move to new fields and build new homes, however, many people continued to visit and rely upon the spiritual practices found at Chaco Canyon, which are still practiced today. The Hopi, which would have been one of the peoples present in Chaco’s heyday, incorporated a sipapu, or hole in the center of their floor to represent the “emerging hole.” In this tradition, it is said that “Grandmother Spider and two grandsons, the Hero Twins, led the animals and the people out of the dark land. They climbed a pine tree, moving up to a dimly lit world. Grandmother Spider led them on. As they climbed, it got lighter. At last they emerged from a hole in the floor of a canyon. They stepped out into brightness on the surface of the earth.”* At Chaco, too, they felt that “every tribe came into this world from their own ‘emerging place.’ They were each to migrate from place to place, learning what they needed, until it was time to return to their own center place. Chaco Canyon, for all of its magnificence, was just another stop in their migrations.” (Chaco Complete Guide)

Weather ranges greatly at Chaco. While mostly dry, it can quickly become a flood zone. Winds and breezes blow most days, and when they don’t, the air turns hot. At an elevation of over 6,000 feet, the Chacoans found a climate ideally suited to their needs and built one of the southwest’s first true towns. I wonder what they would be able to tell us about trade and immigration, about community and harvests. How long did they wait out the drought before moving on? How did they identify future communities? Was it difficult to leave the grand, bustling city for a quieter, less-trafficked and distant pueblo?

With over 4,000 archaeological sites, Chaco Canyon makes for an excellent research project, vacation destination, or picnic area. Also, each fall, the National Parks celebrate International Archaeology Day. Check back on their website in the upcoming months to find a celebration near you!

And finally, for teachers who need an archaeology-based lesson plan (for mid to high school), the park service has some resources. Here is one potential lesson plan.

* From The Hopis: A First Americans Book by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, 1995.

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Max Weber on Intellectualism

May 31, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, intellectualism is defined as a “devotion to the exercise of intellect or to intellectual pursuits.” Max Weber coined the term in the early 1900s, in which he stresses the importance of “technical means and calculation.” What exactly is implied in his definition? In “Essays on Sociology” Weber describes an evolution towards rationalism which stems from intellectualism. Using historical data, he explains how the Protestant ethic feeds into rational views and even intellectualism. But rationalism is not the sole basis of intellectual pursuits. Hidden beneath this seemingly simple concept are a few other layers that require analysis.

It is ironic that a puritan ethic fostered this idea of rationalism, because one of the foundational features of intellectualism is that it is devoid of what Weber calls magic. By this he means that the world no longer needs gods in general. He says:

“It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it [the conditions of life] at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalulable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means” (114A).*

Weber uses Plato’s cave analogy (from The Republic) in order to elaborate. According to Weber, when man sees light and finally emerges from the cave, he is seeing the light of science. He writes, “He is the philosopher; the sun, however, is the truth of science, which alone seizes not upon illusions and shadows but upon the true being” (114B). Weber calls this utilization of concepts as the first real tool in scientific history. The second great tool in history, according to Weber, was developed during the Renaissance by Leonardo da Vinci and others who relied upon rational experiments. The combination of concept and rational experiment eventually leads to a world in which intellectualization is possible.

While Weber admits that intellectualism was reinforced, in part, by a religious influence in which church scholars look for salvation, he also continues to question the irrationality of religion. He writes:

“It has only been these genuinely priestly interests that have made for ever-renewed connections between religion and intellectualism. It has also been the inward compulsion of the rational character of religious ethics and the specifically intellectualist quest for salvation. In effect, every religion in its psychological and intellectual sub-structure and in its practical conclusions has taken a different stand towards intellectualism, without however allowing the ultimate inward tension to disappear. For the tension rests on the unavoidable disparity among ultimate forms of images of the world.

“There is absolutely no ‘unbroken’ religion working as a vital force which is not compelled at some point to demand the credo non quod, sed quia absurdem – ‘the sacrifice of the intellect’” (227B-228A).

I take this to mean that religion involves a system of belief, and belief without empirical evidence is irrational, according to Weber. I wonder what Weber’s motivations are for positing intellectualist views as opposed to belief systems. Does he find fault with ethical systems which are founded upon belief systems because they are not inclusive enough? Though he focuses on America in describing political and cultural value systems founded upon religious morals, I wonder if his historical moment (early 1900s Germany) plays a large part in his analysis.

As a final note on Weber’s intellectualist movement (though much more could be said), a couple of Weber’s definitions also prove useful and insightful:

1] “By ‘intellectuals’ we understand a group of men who by virtue of their peculiarity have special access to certain achievements considered to be ‘cultural values,’ and who therefore usurp the leadership of a ‘culture community’” (133A).

2] “One might well define the concept of nation in the following way: a nation is a community of sentiment which would adequately manifest itself in a state of its own” (133A).

These broad definitions give some insight into his practice. I believe that he left definitions so vague as to sound almost ridiculous, yet, perhaps they are broad by design, so that they can be universally applied to a diverse and ever-changing idea of nation. This would, of course, be useful in sociological studies which can utilize his definition in a study of specifics. I find that Weber’s lectures are loaded with ideas that seem basic on the surface, but are actually extremely challenging when fleshed out. This kind of reading makes for a great discussion since nation can mean any number of different things, as can intellectual, citizen, etc.

I will leave you with a few questions to get you started with Weber. In what way(s) does Weber challenge our understandings of either nation or religion? In what ways does Weber lead the way for sociological studies? Why does Weber focus on intellectualization?

* All quotations are from The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 58.

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