About Me

My photo

I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Last Day

Today is the final day of classes.

I had my final evaluation last week. (Not too bad, though there are some areas I will need to improve.)  My principal asked me how I thought the school had done this year. I told her that I usually think of a school year in baseball terms.  There are wins and losses during the season and pluses and minuses during the school term. So I think of whether or not we had a .500 season. Some years, I feel finished on the losing side or below .500. Sometimes it's a wash right at .500. This year I feel we finished at about .600.  We had more gains than loses.

Our gains came from learning new teaching techniques through the "Marzano method" that actually seem to have real potential for reaching our students.  I also think that our students have started to take learning seriously especially since they now have to pass several of the state exams to be able to graduate. We had 8 seniors fail to get the needed requirements, something noted by this year's juniors.

Our losses came from the fact that we still have problems with student behavior, particularly absenteeism. I think that, at least in my class, doing a better job of establishing classroom procedures will help with in-class behavior, but to deal with absences, we have more systemic problems. These absences are often caused by single-parent homes, health care concerns (for students and their siblings), drug abuse, in short, all the problems attendant to poverty in our culture.

We are optimistic about our students' test scores this year. The preliminary data looks promising. If we do show gains, our students will gain confidence that they can succeed if they attend to what goes on in class.

We will have many new teachers next year. We are losing some good instructors. We are also well rid of some "dead wood" who don't want to pay the price to get with the program.

My plan is to prepare for next year right away.  I want to have my procedures, my syllabus, my goals well in hand at the beginning of the year.  So this will be a working summer (along with some vacation leisure time).

It's been an interesting year. Next year will be even more so.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Living on the Margins

I'd like to consider a few ideas that have come to me from watching the film The Pursuit of Happyness.

Chris Gardner
The film is based on the real-life experiences of Chris Gardner who managed, through dogged persistence, gain a position with a Wall Street stock brokerage. The actual story of Gardner's life is a good deal more complicated than the movie depicts, but that's not what I am concerned about in this post.

What has struck me about the film is just how marginalized Gardner's life is all the while he is pursuing his dream. Merriam-Webster defines the verb as "to relegate to an unimportant or powerless position within a society or group." I have always appreciated this metaphoric verb because it demonstrates to me how easy it is for some members of our society to be kept on the edges of life or ever pushed over the edge.

In the course of the film, Gardner has to deal with homelessness, unemployment, or to be more accurate underemployment, unpaid taxes, eviction, and single parenthood.  His ability to overcome these problems and succeed is a testament to his goal driven determination. Some would see him as a classic American success story right out of an Horatio Alger story.

Yet I feel the unanswered question is how many have pursued happiness without ever approaching it? How many other Chris Gardner's are out there who found themselves still marginalized despite their hard work and determination? Who is telling their story?

In the film, Chris interviews with Dean Whitter Reynolds
One key point in the movie illustrates what I mean.  Chris makes a deal with his landlord to let him and his son stay in their appartment despite the fact that the rent is 3 months overdue. (Chris has been an unsuccessful salesman of medical equipment up to this point.)  Chris has an interview for an unpaid internship with Dean Whitter Reynolds in the morning, but he gets a call from the San Francisco police with a warrant for his arrest for unpaid parking tickets, which came about because he has parked in several hospital zones while rushing from one sales opportunity to another.  He has to spend the night in jail, use his phone call to arrange for his estranged girlfriend to pick up their son, and barely has enough time to run to the interview while still in his painting clothes. During the interview he sits across from the men who will decided whether to let him into the internship program. Chris, who is black, manages to convince his potential employers, who are white, to accept him. If the men did not, Chris would have few options to fall back on considering the fact that he is also being hounded for back taxes he has not been able to pay and a job that offers little hope of getting him out of the hole he is in.

Now, all the forces working against Chris are working within the systems we have in place in our world. The landlord has to collect his rents. The police are just doing their job according to the law. The IRS is enforcing the laws of the state.  Dean Whitter has the right to choose whom they wish to invite into their firm and who they won't.  However, for someone like Gardner, the odds are all stacked against him.  True, he overcomes those long odds, but for one Chris Gardner who succeeds, what happens to the many thousands who don't. 

We see the results of those who don't or just can't in our statistics on poverty, drug abuse, crime, imprisonment, school drop-out rates, child abuse, homelessness, divorce, and violence in American society. 

While I celebrate the Gardner's of the world who manage to step away from the margins, I mourn the thousands who still find themselves on the margins fighting not to be pushed over the edge.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Pursuit of a Goal

Another easy day since the seniors were out of the building doing their community service project at Britton Elementary School.  I have two classes and seniors. Their graduation is this Saturday. They are supposed to be back the following week for three days (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, since Monday is Memorial Day). I really don't expect to see too many of them. What on earth is here for them to come back for?

My juniors are viewing the film The Pursuit of Happyness, staring Will Smith as a man who goes out to get a better life for himself and his family by pursuing a dream of becoming a Wall Street broker. I see it as a continuation of the Everyday Heroes story they read yesterday.  My objective is to get them to see that they need to have a goal for themselves and do what they need to do to achieve that goal.

Tomorrow, however, I will be with them on a field trip to Oklahoma Community College for something called "Senior Shift", which I believe tries to prepare them for going into their senior year.

I'll see how well that all works out.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Everyday Heroes

We have been studying the idea of the hero's journey or quest in my junior classes.

Today we read a chapter out of an anthology that I really like entitled Everyday Heroes. These are biographical stories of people who have overcome personal hardships and tragedies to succeed in life. None of the people are famous or celebrities. They are, just as the title says, common people who have made something good out of the kind of problems my students face: drug abuse, homelessness, abusive parents, poverty, and so on.

For the most part my students like reading the stories. They are written on a middle school level and have questions at the end that help them to acquire vocabulary and critical reading skills.

Today, we read about a woman named Catina Washington. Catina's life included being born to a 17 year old mentally handicapped mother who irresponsible living soon had Catina and her family homeless and dependent on charity handouts. Despite this, Catina graduated from high school and college and was voted outstanding woman of the year for Northern California.  At the time the book was printed Catina did volunteer work for a homeless hotline in Oakland, California. She planned to go to law school.

What I emphasized in the book is that Catina, like the archetypal hero, learned from her time living on the margins of society and took those lessons with her as she proceeded through life. In fact, she used those lesson to help people in her community much as the archetypal hero brings a boon back to the world she came from.

What I hope to do to enrich the lesson is to get my students to reflect on what they have gained through this year that can help them in the future. Each of them is on an heroic journey.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Sea of Monsters

The Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #2)The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book somewhat better than "The Lightning Thief" probably because less background exposition was needed. Also, Percy is a bit more 'grownup' in this book. In "The Lightning Thief", he was very whiny, just this side of annoying. Now, Percy has understood some of the reasons for his troubles and is working to deal with them.

The story is a retelling of "Jason and the Golden Fleece" with a little of "Odysseus" thrown in. Both of these are my favorite Greek legends, especially Jason. So I was glad to see how Rick Riordan worked in both myths into the novel.

Percy also finds family he didn't know he had and learns to accept and love them for who they are.

Great values are being taught in this series by making use of mythology and a bit of history too.

View all my reviews

The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had seen the movie before I read the book. The movie was a disappointment, but I'm glad to report that the book was far better. This is definitely a "Young Adult" book, written at the middle school level, but this old man really enjoyed it. I particularly admire the way Rick Riordan wove in Greek mythology with modern technology. Having Ares as a motorcycle punk was particularly inspired in my humble opinion. I have some students who have read and enjoyed this book. I am thinking of starting a book discussion group around this book and the other books in the series.

View all my reviews

Saturday, May 19, 2012

On Teaching in a Fishbowl

Friday was an interesting day, symbolic, to me, of what is going on in our school.

We have several groups and institutions interested in what's going on at Centennial HS, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  There are the usual interests: students, parents, building administrators and so on.  To these we can add representatives from the Oklahoma State Department of Education, consultants from Pearson, the educational corporation that provides much of our curriculum, even my union, the American Federation of Teachers has teaching "coaches" called PARS, which stands for "Peer Assistance and Review, who are there to help new teachers in our building.

Friday, I had visits from several of these interests, altogether, all in one class period.

They showed up during my 1st period English 11 class. First, I had a woman who has been designated (by whom I'm not certain) as my "teaching coach" from Pearson. She came at the beginning of first hour to observe how the students come into the room, what beginning activities I have assigned them, what the objectives of the day's lesson were, and how I managed the class.  Then came Principal Johnson with another Pearson representative. Ms. Johnson was for my formative assessment that the district requires of all teachers.  The Pearson rep was there to provide his insights about my teaching.  A few minutes after those three had  arrived, the PAR teachers came in. I'm really not sure why they were there. I am not in our school's PAR program, so they must have just come in to watch me teach.

The really funny thing about the situation was that the number of observers nearly matched the number of students learning the lesson.  We are experiencing a lot of student absences as we wind down to the end of this term.  This period, which has always been small, only 14 on the roll, had only 6 students that Friday. 

The lesson went well enough.  The lesson was to compare how theme of personal responsibility is taught through film, using the movie Cars, and through a fairy tale about two intelligent brothers. I began by having the kids talk about their responsibilities for their families, their education, and their personal lives and used that to examine how responsibility acted as a theme for Cars. Then we read the story about the two brothers and did a Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting the different genres. The students were engaged, most of the time. in the lesson.

Afterwards, I conferred, first with the woman who is to be my teaching coach and then with Principal Johnson and the Pearson consultant (still waiting to hear from the PARs). They all apologized for "ganging up" on me and explained that each did not know that the others were going to there right then. (I'll save a discussion on communication for a later posting.) They all had helpful suggestions to help me as a teacher: things like having clearer goals for my students, finding ways to deepen the lesson, and doing assessments to insure by students really learn the objective.

These are all good things, but I think this incident is a metaphor for what can happen as we travel down the Road of Good Intentions. Conservatives complain constantly about government regulation. Liberals, like me, point out that those regulations exist because something needed correction.  Our school has many things in need of correction. I need to improve my teaching.  All of the people who came to my class want to help us make those improvements.

But it is easy for these things to get out of hand.  I want the help these good people want to provide me, but I can't help but get the feeling that someone is always looking over my shoulder as I teach, that I'm "teaching in a fishbowl" and it is stressful to do so.

A week ago Friday, I "hit the wall" and needed to step out of the fishbowl for a day.  (Pardon my mixed metaphor.) This week, I felt better and finished strong; however, I know of several teachers who have hit their walls.  We a big problem with teacher absentees.  We are all having to cover classes for teachers out of the building for various problems. In addition, we have many "long term" substitutes covering classes for teacher who have just given up.   Some of our  teachers say they don't plan to be back next year.  There are a number of very good teachers who have had real success in the classroom whom we will miss very much if they go.

Perhaps, in our zeal to improve, we are knocking a lot of good people into the wall.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Easy Teaching Day

Today was about as easy as easy can get.  Timeblock 1 & 4 took (yet another) test. This time it was the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test.  The district, I guess, wants to know if the students have made any progress on their reading levels.

Of course, the students pretty much see this as a waste of time, so many don't take it seriously, or don't take it at all.  One young man refused to take it and just stood around disrupting other students who were taking it. (We had to do it on-line and were in one of the Career Tech teachers' classroom.) He was escorted to the office. Another student finished the 45 question test in under 3 minutes. (He had 20 minutes to work on it.) 

My senior classes, Timeblocks 3 & 6, did Sustained Silent Reading.  They actually did keep silent and some read, other pretended to.  This is an "easy grade" for them as long as they keep their heads up, their books open, and don't talk. Many are looking for a way to boost their grade at the end of the year, so they take advantage of the opportunity.

My 7th hour was mainly absent. We had an athletics award assembly.  I did not get a list of who was supposed to go and who wasn't when they called the athletes down during 6th hour, so by the time 7th hour came, I had maybe 8 students out of a class of 27.

As I said, it was an easy day, but not much education took place.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

This and That on the Way to the Dream

Today was pretty much an average day accept for the student who pulled the false fire alarm.

I did not know who it was until she came into my class and dumped a cup of water over another student.  He chased her out before I knew what was happening.

It's never dull at my school.

There are those times when you feel that it would do less damage in the long run just to quit school early and let us all go home to recharge for next year.  I attended a seminar when the man giving the seminar proposed a true year round school.  Obviously, he has not been in the classroom in a very long time.

One teacher told me that the worst thing about the job is the feeling that no matter what one does it makes no real difference. School is a lot like church. You have to have a lot of faith to make it all work.

My seniors are being sent out into the world. I have faith that all of them will find their own path to success and happiness. What is it the Declaration of Independence says, "...the pursuit of happiness"?  I pray that I have given them some of the tools to make it a successful pursuit.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Racing Cars and Sleeping Cars

We have two weeks and three days left in the 2011-2012 school term.  With all of the tests finished, I can now turn to teaching lessons not on the test.

I am using, presently, two films for my 11th and 12th grade classes.  Part of this comes from a need to keep my students engaged in their lessons.  They live in a world of visual media: television, movies, videos, on-line material, so I want to make use of visual media in their lessons. I also want them to become active viewers just as I wish them to become active readers.  I have chosen two films: the Pixar animated film Cars for the juniors and the film 10,000 Black Men Named George for the seniors.

Mater and Lightning McQueen from Cars
In Cars, I am emphasizing the way the film tells an old story, the Hero's journey.  Just like the ancient bards telling of the "wrath of Achilles", the cartoon tells of a young hero, Lightning McQueen, who gets out of his element when he winds up in Radiator Springs on his way to a big stock car race.  While there, McQueen learns the lessons in himself and in his life that he needs to learn before he is able to return to his familiar world. 

10,000 Black Men Named George is an historical film about Asa Philip Randolph's successful organization of the porters and maids who worked for Pullman railroad car company.  The workers were nearly all African-Americans, as was Randolph, so this was the first largely all black labor union.  I am wanting to show my students how African-American history goes far beyond Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, and Rev. Al Sharpton, as important as those individuals are to the Civil Rights movement.  In fact, it was Randolph who, with Bayard Rustin, organized the "March on Washington" where Dr. King delivered his "I Have A Dream" speech. 

My objective for the senior is to get them thinking how justice in the work place is a major component in the struggle for civil rights and justice in America. They will soon be a part of this struggle as they take up their careers.

Friday, May 11, 2012

I Hit the Wall

At the end of school yesterday, I was emotionally and physically tapped out.  I went home depressed, stressed, and exhausted.  So I took a Sick Leave day and stayed home.

I don't like doing that. It made me feel as if I was not living up to my responsibilities.  But I needed some rest. And I got it.

This has been a long, grinding, difficult school year. We've been in school since August 1st, and I guess I am not used to this pace.  I felt that I had hit the wall and could not be in the classroom today.

I slept about 12 hours straight. Got up to eat a bowl of cereal and then slept two hours more.  After that I simply sat in my reading chair and read for pleasure for about 4 hours.  I went to my Friday afternoon chess club that I run at The Village Library and came home to read some more.

I felt as though I was living selfishly doing just what I wanted to do.

But I am glad I did. 

I'll be back on Monday.  I think I will be able to finish out the year strong.  I love my job, but at times the demands gang up on me.  So I needed some time to recoup and recover.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A Bit Topsy Turvy Today

Kind of a topsy-turvy day.  My 7th hour class, which has lately been my best, got out of hand largely due to a couple of students who chose to get into arguments with fellow classmates and play childish games. My 4th hour class, who often have been my problem children, really got into the lesson today.

Both are 11th grade classes, and we read parts from the play Our Town. The 4th hour students really liked reading their parts, more than they liked watching the play.  The 7th hour kept interrupting each other with teasing and even paper wads.  Had to send one girl to the office and give another boy a detention. 

The seniors really like Frankenstein. One boy asked to take the movie home so he could watch parts that he missed due to absences. (See yesterday's posting on that problem.)

We took our textbooks back to the library. Another sign that school is winding down for this term.

We had our Professional Learning Community (PLC) meeting today made up of teachers from various subjects with common "planning periods".  We noticed that some members who have been with us at the beginning of the semester are no longer in the school.  At the beginning of the year, we had 11 teachers in our PLC.  Four of our group are no longer in the school: one due to a long term illness, two for personal reasons, one for unknown reasons.  Rumors are that several teachers in our school will/may not be back next year. 

It has been a bumpy transition.  And some do not seem to want to stick around for the ride. But I will repeat that I am rather starting to enjoy the change. Things could be better, and I hope they will continue to get better because I want to see where we are headed.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Many absent students

I thought in this posting that I would include a report on attendance to my classes.

One of the problems I have with teaching students in my school is the fact that so many of them miss class. I cannot teach students who are not there. For example, today...

Time Block 1: Junior English, 18 students enrolled in the class, 8 absent. We also had a late bus so 3 students were tardy.

Time Block 2: Planning Period

Time Block 3: Senior English, 25 enrolled, 6 absent, 4 tardy

Time Block 4: Junior English, 21 enrolled, 6 absent, 2 tardy

Time Block 5: Department meeting

Time Block 6: Senior English, 27 enrolled, 6 absent, 3 tardy (seems to be a pattern working here)

Time Block 7: Junior English, 26 enrolled, 9 absent, 3 unexcused tardy, 2 excused tardy (the teacher who kept the students late thoughtfully walked them to my class)

So, out of 117 students enrolled in my classes, 35, or about 1/3 of my students missed today's instruction. 

We finished watching the play Our Town in the junior classes and got near to the end of the movie Frankenstein in the senior classes.  The juniors will be looking a a selection from Spoon River Anthology a collection of poems by Edgar Lee Masters that inspired the final act in Our Town.  In the senior classes, we will be looking at the Mary Shelley's novel and other movie interpretations of Frankenstein.

It seems that many of my students seem to think that school is over once the state tests are completed. Have we created a Frankenstein with our high stakes testing?

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Mayflower Congregational Sunday Service: Abiding in the True Vine

Scripture Lesson: John 15: 1-9 (I am the vine. You are the branches.)

Hymns: "Tell Out, My Soul", "God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale"

Choir Anthem: "Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree"
The tree of life my soul hath seen, Laden with fruit, and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be Compared with Christ the apple tree.

The Prayer of Confession:
Lord of Life, you are the way of love and peace. We confess that we have not loved each other as You have commanded. Instead of being your people of peace and spreading hope, we have all too often been an anxious people, spreading distrust, worry and fear. By failing to love each other, we have failed to see You at work in our lives. Help us extend to others the same grace and compassion that we need ourselves. In the name of Jesus, the teacher from Nazareth, we pray. Amen.

Sermon Notes:

  • We are all in need of pruning
  • Jesus forces us to practice a radical hospitality and live sacrificially.
  • We are to think of ourselves as a vine, absolutely intertwined with each other.
(Personal Note: This reminds me of the John Donne poem "No Man is an Island". What ever enhances you enhances me. Whatever diminishes you diminishes me. My interpretation.)

  • We need a community to lean on.
  • The word "abide" in the scripture lesson is best understood as "endure, continue, remain, persist."
  • Jesus wants us to persist.. We must persist to to model Jesus--not an easy task.
  • Though this text has often been taken as a reason to exclude (I am part of the true vine, but you are not.), it is really a text designed to include.
  • It is a text designed to increase our spirituality rather than our religion.
  • "Religion is for people afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there."

Saturday, May 05, 2012

May 4, 2012

I failed to write about school on Friday.

We had many students out of school yesterday. Several students were out of the building for sports and music. We had the state track meet in Ardmore and the Tri-State Music festival in Enid.  Some seniors seem to feel as if school for them should be over.

So most of my classes were about half full.  I am always torn when things like this happen because I want to carry on school and help my students achieve the best education they can get.  But I know that what I teach that day will be missed by many students, so I may have to repeat much of what we did next week.

I did have one of those moments we teachers live for. The time when a student really "gets it".  We were watching the end of Our Town, which deals with the funeral of one of the main characters, a girl named Emily who dies during childbirth.  She realizes that the living never truly appreciate the gift of life and the pleasure of little things.  When I asked my students what the theme of the play is, one young man, a bright kid who often does not show out his intelligence, told the class, "It's that everyday life is beautiful." 

I went home feeling very good about the profession I have chosen.

Happy Cinco de Mayo

Of course, the first thing someone will tell you when you wish them a "Happy Cinco de Mayo" is, "Well, it's not Mexican Independence Day." or "It's not celebrated much in Mexico." Both statements are equally right and equally irrelevant.

Yes, I know that the source of the holiday is the Battle of Puebla and is celebrated in Mexico mainly in the state of Puebla, but that doesn't diminish the importance it has for the United States where it is a celebration of our Latina citizens.

Look at what the battle represents in terms of the history of European exploitation of America. The battle came about because the French were attempting to establish colonial occupation and control of Mexico. They figured, rightly at first, that the US was too occupied with the Civil War to oppose Napoleon III's attempt to build a French empire in Mexico. The Mexican army at Puebla managed to crush the French force even though the Mexicans were outnumbered two to one and were very poorly equipped for the battle. In other words, the natives whipped the outsiders.

It is, therefore, fitting in this country, where we make such a big deal of defeating those who wanted to continue to colonize us, that we celebrate this day. The Mexican defeat of the French is a fit analogy to our victory over the British. We should take great pride in the ability of a fellow American nation to throw off finally the yoke of an imperial power.

So way to go Mexico. And thanks to every citizen in this country of Hispanic descent in this nation.

E Pluribus Unam!

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Enjoying going to school

Today we continued with Our Town with the juniors and Frankenstein with the seniors. One junior class pronounced the play "boring", which is true to a certain extent. The play is about everyday life in a small town. But when one gets to the final act, which takes place in the town cemetery, I hope that they can see Wilder's point that every day life is something extraordinary. My final class of the day got to the wedding scene in the second act, and they were at bit more engaged in what was happening. The idea of two people falling in love and getting married has universal power. I hope that my students at least take away from this experience the idea that love and committment are beautiful things, something they should aspire to have in their lives. Frankenstein has its own archetypal power. The movie version we are watching is first rate. I participated in data survey today about students in the hall. We stopped students to ask them why they were in the halls rather than in class. It has always been a big problem in our school. What my interviews seemed to suggest was most students were there due to two reasons: they had been in end of instruction testing or they were in one of our many classes presently being covered by substitutes. We are using an extraordinary number of substitutes, or subs as we call them, because of several factors. First, we have to two people in the room for every group we test. One has to be a certified employee, usually a teacher. We can cover some classes with other teachers, but we don't often have enough to cover them all. Second, we have many teachers this year out long term due to illness, maternity or early retirement. We also have some teachers out short term. We've had some illness, but we have also had teachers exhausted by the stress we have been under.
I, however, have seemed to have found my second wind. I'm really enjoying coming to school. I am liking the challenges that I am facing, and I feel as if I finally understand some things I should be doing. Of course, it's about time. We have just 3 weeks to go in the term.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

My day at school

I going to try to go back to keeping a more or less daily journal of what goes on at the school where I teach, OK Centennial. I know it's late in the year, less than 4 weeks to go, but I need to get into the writing habit.
Today my juniors were introduced to Thornton Wilder's classic American play, Our Town. We in the English department don't get much of a chance to teach drama, it not being one of the items on the End of Instruction tests. So now that the tests are essentially over, I decided that my students needed to experience this view of everyday life, and death, in small town America. They reacted with some expected confusion. The play has little action to it and much talk. They have been conditioned by various media and entertainment to expect the opposite. I think, though, they are at least interested in what is going on with the characters, especially George and Emily, the two youngters who fall in love, enough to carry them through till I can guide them to see the play's timeless themes. We'll see.
My seniors are experiencing Frankenstein starting with the excellent movie starring Robert DeNiro as the creature and Kenneth Branagh as Victor Frankenstein. This flim is a much more easy "sell" since it contains a lot of action and not a little gore. The issues that the book on which the movie is based concerning scientific progress and personal responsibility are with us yet.
On a personal front, I'm reading a couple of good books dealing with completely different subjects: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer and The Lightening Thief by Rick Riordan. I'm enjoying both for very different reasons.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Review for "The Worst Hard Time"

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust BowlThe Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is heartbreaking to read, but what a reading experience it gave me. First, a disclaimer, I am a proud Okie, 4th generation, great-grandson of a man who settled near the part of Oklahoma called "the Dust Bowl." My father witnessed the "Black Sunday" dust storm of Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935 so vividly described in Egan's marvelous book.

The book is a history of a time and a people whose lives and deeds still affect me as an Okie and the nation as people of the land. In it, Eagan describes in detail the hows and whys of the Dust Bowl, how the land was emptied of the Indians and the bison, how the native grasses that had kept the Southern Plains in place for thousands of years was stripped away in less than a decade. All the while, the "nesters" as Eagan terms the inhabitants of the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandle, southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, and other places thought that they would quickly make their fortunes farming what had not long before termed "the Great American Desert."

At first, all went as planned as during the 1910s and 20s, high prices, at first spurred by the Great War, and then by the 20s boom times encouraged farmers to plant bigger and bigger fields. Along with the high prices coincidently occured some years of plentiful rain.

Then came the Depression, drought, and despair as fields dried up, crops died, and farmers went bankrupt. Even though there was nothing to hang on to, many chose to do so, joining "Last Man" clubs and pledging themselves to hang on "till Hell freezes over" and then to "skate on the ice." Most had nothing to go to and tried to hang on to their homes rather than join the trek to California and other places. They chose voluntary poverty with a home than without one.

The debate over whether the government should do anything to help the farmers in need mirrors much of the debate that has taken place during our own "Great Recession." (One aspect of this book is to make me realize that our recession pales in comparison to their depression.) Pres. Hoover refused to intervene, choosing instead to let the "invisible hand of the market" to root out life's "winners and losers." Roosevelt instead commission a man by the name of Hugh Bennett to study the problem and take action. The result was thousands of Soil Conservation districts and some national grasslands that exist to this day. In Egan's words, "The only grassroots New Deal project still in existence."

I would encourage all my fellow Oklahomans, West Texans, Eastern Coloradoans to read this book. Ken Burns has made it the basis for a PBS special on the Dust Bowl that I am eager to see. Warning, you can't read this book and not be affected by it. But, for your own sake, read it.

View all my reviews