jasonbwatson

January 9, 2014

My Year in Books – 2013

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I managed to keep my streak of reading fifty books per year intact in 2013, though I am not sure I would have done so had my wife not been hospitalized for sixteen days; I read ten books during that time! Given that I took two graduate classes during the summer of 2103 and traveled some 7,500 miles by car during my family’s two summer trips and read very little during that time I was prepared to excuse my falling short of the goal. I am glad I met the goal, though I would have preferred it to have been met in a different manner. But, without further ado, here is an overview of the fifty two books I read in 2013.

I think it’s fun to start my list with the first book I finished during the year. However, due to a computer crash suffered in the spring, the exact order of the first fourteen books I read is not known. Due to the fact that I am out in desperate need of more book shelves in my house and therefore stack most of the books in a pile as I read them these days, I do know what the fourteen books were, but I cannot guarantee the order. That’s because one of the books was loaned from a colleague and one or two others were already on a shelf and I put them back when I completed them. So, I will present my overview more by genre than by chronological order.

Let’s start with non-fiction, history. Ernest Grafe and Paul Horsted’s Exploring with Custer: The 1874 Black Hills Expedition is a fascinating book in that it provides a detailed overview of the 1874 expedition, including many first person and primary source accounts and photographs, but also provides contemporary photographs of the exact same spots and directions to get there. The result is that you could literally retrace Custer’s expedition yourself if you wanted to do so. I also read Nathaniel Philbrick’s The Last Stand. As Philbrick books go I liked it better than Bunker Hill and probably almost as much as Mayflower. It is a readable overview of the events leading up to, and including, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, including first person perspectives from both sides of that battle. If you have an interest in Custer personally or the conflict with Native Americans in general it is a good read. I also read Bunker Hill in 2013, by the way, and despite the fact that the American Revolution is perhaps the part of U.S. history that fascinates me most, and I even enjoy historical minutiae, I did not particularly enjoy this book. Though the specific reasons slip my mind at the moment I remember finding the book hard to get through and less than interesting in many parts. I can say the same thing for Kevin Phillips’ 1775. It was a book that I might not have even finished were it not for my conviction to never let a book beat me!

For those of you caught up in the international smash hit Downton Abbey you may enjoy reading Lady Fiona of Carnarvon’s Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey. I read it when my wife had finished it, and given that Lady Fiona is the current occupant of Highclere Castle (the setting of the show) she has access to a treasure trove of original documents and photographs. It was an interesting read, and she has a second book out now, continuing the exploration of the history of the castle and the families that have lived there. Another book I read that drew extensively from original documents and photographs was also loaned from a friend. E.M. Young: Prairie Pioneer tells the incredible story of one man’s pioneering farming experiences in the early 20th century.

I read David Montgomery’s The Rocks Don’t Lie in 2013, too, but I reviewed that at length in an earlier post, so I will not elaborate on it here.

I also read several biographies and autobiographies. Tony Bennett’s Life is a Gift is a fascinating look at his artistic life. Even if you do not particularly like Bennett (who I just realized, incidentally, I am listening to at the moment) his first-hand accounts of such now-hard-to-fathom incidents like seeing incredible and well known African American artists perform in clubs that they could not enter as patrons provide a unique perspective on that sad part of American history. David Green’s More Than A Hobby tells the story of the development of the Hobby Lobby juggernaut and the philosophies that have driven the Green family in its development. The book was written long before Hobby Lobby’s run in with the federal government over the contraceptive mandate but reading it leaves a good understanding of why the family would have challenged in the way that they did. Gracia Burnham’s books In the Presence of My Enemies and To Fly Again recount the experience of being taken hostage in the Philippines, the incredible ordeal she and her husband endured in their year-plus of captivity, and his death during the rescue (the first one) and the way in which her life has “moved on” since returning to the states and recovering from her injuries (including being short herself). Kisses From Katie by Katie Davis will no doubt leave you overwhelmed at the incredible things this young woman has done already to impact hundreds of lives in Uganda. The way in which the Lord has used her and the things that she has accomplished, and is doing, as a single young white woman in Africa will certainly prompt you to learn more about her Amazima Ministries, if not prompt you to take some action yourself! John Ownes’ Confessions of a Bad Teacher recounts the experiences of this publishing executive who decided to leave his skyscraper office to become a teacher in New York City. The book highlights the challenges faced by teachers everywhere when parents are absent or uninvolved but, even moreso, highlights the challenges teachers face when their administrators do not have the first clue about how what may seem like grand ideas or necessary policies actually play out in the classroom, and the challenges faced by teachers, students and parents alike when administrators are more concerned about rules than about students actually learning. The scenario Owens presents is not common, in my opinion, but he highlights important realities nonetheless. Finally, Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala provides a vivid first-person account of the realities of living in a region controlled by the Taliban and how incredibly repressive many of their rules are. That Malala survived when she was shot in the face is amazing, and she is an articulate advocate for education.

I actually read quite a bit of fiction in 2013. I made a conscious decision to read mostly fiction while my wife was in the hospital because I did not really feel like having to think too much! I also decided, thanks to the local library and the convenient proximity of a Barnes and Noble to the hospital, to read some authors I had never read before. So, by way of new-to-me authors, I read Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller, which I found to be a fascinating story and one that deals intriguingly with the question of forgiveness–what it is, who can give it, and more. There were parts of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief that I did not really care for or find necessary to the story, but in the end Zusak succeeds in presenting a very different kind of hero than is often seen in literature. Elliott Holt’s You Are One of Them was an interesting tale with an interesting perspective on Cold War U.S.-Soviet relations, from the perspectives of children becoming teenagers. Alafair Burke’s If You were Here has some nifty plot twists in it. While I have watched the show based on her books I had never read Tess Gerritsen until I read Rizzoli and Isles: Last to Die. Being familiar with a television version of characters before reading a book can have the same influence on the reader as being familiar with the book before seeing the movie or show can have on the viewer, but it was a good story overall. More than a few parts seemed a bit far-fetched but it is fiction, after all. I loved Mark Pryor’s The Bookseller, and I look forward to reading more of his Hugo Marston novels. Jonathan Cahn’s The Harbinger was given to me by a friend; it is not the kind of book I likely would have read on my own. It presented some interesting things, but it is correctly placed in the fiction section of bookstores. Chevy Steven’s Still Missing presents a graphic look at how we humans in our sin nature can get focused on things that really matter not at all and, as a result of that focus, can cause us to do things that no one in his or her right mind would ever even give a second thought. I also read two Robert Crais books, Taken and The First Rule. These are mostly typical crime drama/suspense books similar to many other authors.

My fiction reading was not limited to new-to-me authors, though. I read several books by those authors I tend to keep up with, too, including the following: Merry Christmas, Alex Cross; Alex Cross, Run; Private Berlin; NYPD Red; and Cross My Heart by James Patterson; The Racketeer, Theodore Boone: The Activist, and Sycamore Row by John Grisham; The Forgotten, The Hit, and King and Maxwell by David Baldacci; Best Kept Secret by Jeffrey Archer; and Threat Vector and Command Authority by Tom Clancy (with Mark Greaney). Clancy’s death late in the year means, I assume, that there will be no more true Clancy books (though there is always the possibility that he left behind some manuscripts) but I suspect it will not mean the end of Jack Ryan or The Campus.

Finally, in the area of spiritual growth, I read Jacqueline Pierre’s Totally Infatuated, a short book aimed mostly at teens (and Pierre is still a teen herself) highlighting the relevance of Scripture to our everyday lives; R.C. Sproul’s A Taste of Heaven and The Work of Christ; R. Albert Mohler’s Desire and Deceit (which I have also referenced in earlier posts); Joe Stowell’s Following Christ; John Piper’s God Is the Gospel, and Matt Chandler’s To Live is Christ, To Die is Gain. All of these books are very good and depending on where you are in walk with the Lord, what you want to focus on or dig deeper into may or may not be what you “need” right now, but Stowell’s book would be relevant and practical for any Christian at any stage of their Christian walk, I think.

So, there you have it, a quick run through of my year in books. Until next January…keep reading!

November 15, 2013

What About Common Core? (part 5)

I hate to do this. Really, I do. Quite frankly, I am irritated that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have taken up so much of my time and attention recently–especially when I am not (1) required to follow them at the school where I serve, and (2) even all that interested in defending the standards themselves! What bugs me is the misinformation and the manipulation of the facts that is so prevalent surrounding the CCSS. I wrote at length on these standards last week and then decided after four posts that I was done. I intended to walk away from the issue and leave it alone. Then I got today’s mail…

In today’s mail I received a letter from Concerned Women for America (CWA) which was accompanied by a pamphlet entitled “Stop Common Core ‘State’ Standards.” The pamphlet included a picture of an elementary school child wearing a safety patrol vest, holding a stop sign. At the top of the cover was this statement: “An Unconstitutional Experiment on Our Children.” The lower part of the cover says, “An experiment destined for failure, loss of local control, loss of parental rights, loss of privacy, high costs and more.” Now, I respect CWA and much of what they do. However, I cannot ignore the inaccuracies and spin of their propaganda piece. The only way to have healthy and meaningful debate is to stick to the facts, and conservative organizations need to hold themselves to that standard–particularly organizations that are also Christian.

The inside front page of the pamphlet provides this explanation in response to the headline, “What is the Common Core?”

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is a set of national K-12 standards in math and English language arts currently being implemented in 45 states and Washington, D.C. The CCSS were developed behind closed doors by a left-leaning Washington, D.C.-based non-profit group. Supporters of the CCSS claim that the development of the standards was a “state-led” effort, but that simply is not true. Neither state boards of education, state legislators nor local education officials, school leaders, nor parents were included in the development, evaluation, and adoption of CCSS.

That paragraph includes reference to an end note after the comment about the “left-leaning” non-profit group, and that end note directs readers to a report by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve, Inc., entitled “Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education.” Interestingly, that report was published in 2008, and the CCSS were not even copyrighted until 2010. The suggestion, though, is that Achieve, Inc. is a “left-leaning” non-profit group responsible for drafting the CCSS. The report in question was outlining the arguments in favor of developing such standards. However, Achieve, Inc. (1) is a bipartisan organization that includes both Republican and Democratic governors on its board of directors, and (2) is not cited at all in the final CCSS.

Furthermore, that CWA paragraph states that there were no state boards of education, elected officials or local education officials involved in the “behind close doors” development of the CCSS. However, the CCSS were developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). The CCSSO is “a nonpartisan, nationwide, nonprofit organization of public officials who head departments of elementary and secondary education in the states, the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense Education Activity, and five U.S. extra-state jurisdictions.” The CCSSO board of directors has as its president Mitchell Chester, the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education. The president-elect is Terry Holliday, the Commissioner of Education for Kentucky. The past president is Thomas Luna, the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Idaho. The board includes education heads from six other states. These individuals serve as the executive officers for their state departments of education and, in many states, also serve as secretary or ex-officio members of the state boards of education. It would therefore be difficult to suggest that neither state boards of education nor school leaders were involved in the development of the CCSS. Furthermore, the suggestion that teachers were not involved in the development of the CCSS is not true. There were teachers involved all along the way, and the National Education Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) are among the groups that were involved. PolitiFact.com rates the assertion that teachers were not involved in the development of the standards as “false” on their truth-o-meter, and even identifies and quotes teachers who were involved in the CCSS development (see the article here).

The CWA pamphlet also states that many states agreed to adopt the CCSS and the accompanying assessments “sight unseen.” That may be true. Even if it is, though, that is a problem with the elected officials in those states, not with the CCSS. No state could adopt the CCSS without the approval of elected officials. It simply is not possible.

The CWA pamphlet also states that the CCSS violate the Constitution, specifically the Tenth Amendment. I addressed in a previous post the fact that the federal government did not impose the CCSS on the states because it cannot do so. It can incentivize the adoption of the standards, and it did do that, but that is not unconstitutional.

The pamphlet goes on to suggest that there are three federal statutes which “prohibit the federal government from guiding the educational curriculum of the states.” The first of those statutes is the General Education Provisions Act. This act reads as follows:

No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer, or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, or to require the assignment or transportation of students or teachers in order to overcome racial imbalance.

The problem with the CWA assertion, though, is that the individual states that are adopting CCSS have made their own decision to do so. When a state voluntarily adopts the CCSS it is the state, not the federal government, that is subjecting itself to the CCSS guidelines.

The second law referenced is the Department of Education Organization Act. This 1979 law creating the Department of Education contains basically the same language as the law quoted above. Section 103(b) reads…

No provision of a program administered by the Secretary or by any other officer of the Department shall be construed to authorize the Secretary or any such officer to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, over any accrediting agency or association, or over the selection or content of library resources, textbooks, or other instructional materials by any educational institution or school system, except to the extent authorized by law.

The reasons why CCSS does not violate this law are already outlined above.

Finally, the CWA pamphlet references the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Now, the full act is some 600 pages. If you want to read it all, help yourself–it is public record and not hard to find. However, this act actually does more to support CCSS than to hinder it. After all, Section 1001 (1) states that the law’s purpose is to “ensure that all children have a fair, equal, and significant opportunity to obtain a high-quality education” by “ensuring that high-quality academic assessments, accountability systems, teacher preparation and training, curriculum, and instructional materials are aligned with challenging State academic standards so that students, teachers, parents, and administrators can measure progress against common expectations for student academic achievement….” And again, any suggestion that the CCSS violate the law is negated by the fact that the individual states have opted in to CCSS; they have not had it forced upon them.

The CWA pamphlet goes on to state that “local control of education is best, whereby parents, teachers and taxpayers have a voice.” I agree wholeheartedly, and I am on record as advocating the abolition of the Department of Education completely. Again, though, this is a separate issue from the CCSS.

CWA also suggests that the CCSS actually lower education standards. I think this is a real stretch. It would take quite a while to go through and address, standard by standard, why I disagree with this assertion, so I am not going to do it. But I will touch briefly on one specific assertion made by the CWA pamphlet regarding literature. The pamphlet states that the CCSS has a “prominence of nonfiction ‘informational texts’ such as technical manuals, government documents, brochures and menus rather than highly regarded classic literature.” This argument is really a nonstarter for me. First of all, a well-rounded education needs to include “informational texts” as well as classic literature. Informational texts are certainly going to be more practical for most students than classic literature. Second, though, the assertion is inaccurate.

The CCSS text exemplars (and again, these are recommendations– they are not mandated) include a healthy variety of both. Grades 9-10, for example, include recommendations for stories, drama, poetry and informational texts. Homer’s The Odyessey, O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi,” Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Poe’s “The Raven,” Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 73,” and Dickinson’s “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” are but some of the recommended reading for high school freshmen and sophomores. (One of the more bizarre rumors surrounding the CCSS, by the way, is that The Grapes of Wrath is recommended for second grade. Not true.)

What are informational texts recommended for grades 9-10? Speeches by Patrick Henry, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ronald Reagan are listed for Language Arts. The History/Social Studies information texts include works on Custer, art, fish, African Americans in the Civil War and great composers. Science, math and technical subject recommendations include Euclid’s Elements as well as works on stars, the circumference of the earth and a government document on recommended levels of insulation. Not only do the fiction recommendations exceed the nonfiction recommendations, there is nothing wrong or detrimental about the nonfiction recommendations!

So, to repeat my mantra yet again, please do not believe everything you hear or read about the CCSS. This topic has become quite the political hot potato and folks on both sides are using half truths and spin to support their arguments. Do the research and find the facts for yourself…and insist on candor and honesty from those who are arguing about these standards.

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