Personal, political, social, artistic, practical – it’s all in farming. And since farming is at the center of A Bushel’s Worth (2013), those adjectives also describe the book. But it’s also the love story of its author, Kayann Short, with the land of her grandparents’ farms and with her own farm – Stonebridge Farm – and the man with whom she works it. By turns poetic and discursive, the book is one part family history, one part land use policy discussion, two parts community supported farm operating manual, and three parts history of Stonebridge farm. To call it memoir seems shallow and unworthy of what Short has created.
But then, I don’t generally enjoy memoirs. To put all my cards on the table, I probably would not have read the book except that I have know Short for 25 years. And I love Stonebridge Farm as much as much or more than I love any other place.
So, for me, A Bushel’s Worth is familiar and friendly, evoking days of working together; of getting up at six to weed and water for a couple hours before breakfast; of heading back out to stake tomato plants or harvest garlic till lunch; of tackling a project – mending a roof or digging a water tank into the ground or building a new goat pen – in the afternoon; of smack-talking card games after dinner. The writing captures Stonebridge life so powerfully that it brought tears to my eyes for the first 20 or 30 pages, till I was able manage the emotional impact.
Statements like, “Now John and I are the ones who watch the sunsets and seasons pass so that those we love have a farm to come home to” speak directly to me. I count myself lucky to love and be loved by the people at Stonebridge. And when Short writes, “I’ll walk out with you” to gather spinach for dinner or flowers for the table, I see Kayann and John walking side by side as the light gets lower and heat of the day eases off.
Other passages are less emotionally loaded, but still beautiful: “In winter, we think in black and white, shadows and light, the contrasts stark against a graying sky as fresh snow hoods the upper sides of the tree limbs, white flocking on dark branches.” And the sections on Short’s connections to her family history – though less compelling for me – provide, like all historical context, deeper understanding and bigger significance for our present understanding.
One of the important and persistent themes of A Bushel’s Worth is that when one works in community with people and the earth, the earth gives back aplenty. Similarly, this book has given me a new appreciation of history and biography as a gift to those who have contributed to a community – thanks, Kayann.
It took me a long time to read Kraken (China Miéville, 2011), because I never got invested in the main characters and because it’s just too slow. Don’t get me wrong — Miéville’s writing has all it’s usual clever, creative, phantasmagorical force and the idea for a plot, though somewhat farcical, is enough of a mystery to hold me. The evil characters — including a sentient tattoo and a pair of horrifyingly effective assassins — are satisfying. The size of the magical vision (even the ocean has a personae in this book) is impressive. And, still, the book never came together to make me care very much about what happened next.
I enjoyed the first five Miéville novels I read (one of which I wrote about here). I’ll read another, but I hope the next one is easier to finish.
The seventh installment in the Arkady Renko series by Martin Cruz Smith is tighter and more succinct than ever. With a characteristic eye for dark details, the novel winds its way around the titular three train stations in Moscow, Renko trying to solve a murder while his 15-year old, know-it-all charge helps a girl search for her lost baby. Renko is almost as wrecked as the cars he drives. His reputation in the police is suspect, but his nose for a dirty trail of corruption, deceit, and murder is still keen.
Three Stations feels smaller than the sprawling novels Cruz Smith wrote early in the series, but this does not make it lesser. Instead it feels more concentrated; a story about a week in Renko’s life instead of a month or a year. It’s the work of a mature writer at the top of his observational and prosaic powers, able to say as much or more with less.
The premise of Kobe Abé’s 1964 novel is that an ordinary guy wanders into the sand dunes near the ocean and ends up trapped with a woman in a deep hole in the sand. Life at the bottom of the hole consists entirely of digging their house out of the ever-blowing, ever-accumulating sand. Every night, when it’s cool enough to work, they dig. During the day they sleep.
A simpler metaphor for the existential tenet that life is pointlessness outside of the meaning humans give it is hard to find. The man’s outer struggle to escape his material conditions and the parallel inner struggle to understand and find meaning in this life form the rest of the book. The story’s leisurely pace is contrasted with the drama of his inner life.
Reading The Woman in the Dunes was not an escape from my life; instead it asked me to consider the meaning of my life and, perhaps, make a decision about it. Or, put another way, Abé suggests that every action we take — whether to prepare food or watch TV or take a walk or talk to someone or nap — is a decision about the meaning and worth of life.
Last year, I started using Twitter as an extra credit tool in my classes. I give students homework extra credit after every class for one of three options:
- A summary of class
- A question about class
- An answer to someone else’s question
The benefits of this are many:
- Students make community with each other.
- I get to see what students thought class was about and if there are questions that need answered.
- Students practice summarizing.
- When students miss class, they can check the Twitter feed to see what they missed.
Often students summarize concepts very nicely and creatively. It’s great to see students learning from each other and forming community, which usually spills out of the virtual world and into the physical.
As much as I’ve liked it over the last year, my students this semester have already raised the Twitter community to a new level. Below are several examples of tweets from my students — none of which satisfy the criteria for extra credit — which are fun and reveal a relationship with our class that I can only hope to reproduce in future semesters:
As a bonus, here’s an exchange with a student in my statistics class this Labor Day:
The two most common responses when I tell people I meet that I’m a math teacher are:
- People tell me how much they admire and even like math;
- People tell me how bad they are at math, squirm uncomfortably, and kind of sidle away.
In the second, much more common option, I seem to represent all the inadequacies they have felt about math for much of their lives. They try and fail to put on a polite face, instead looking at me as they would a particularly disgusting plate of food. It’s an occupational hazard to have these awkward moments at parties.
Both responses more or less make an assumption that I love numbers and all things numeric. But, as much as I enjoy learning about and teaching math, I don’t love numbers. I love people and ideas. For me teaching is pretty close to a perfect combining of these two: I get to talk to people about ideas. Teaching statistics, in particular, is about helping people sort through all the individual stories they know, looking for a trend or trends; students learn to organize and communicate about data, helping them make decisions in the world.
And as a teacher, the stories my students tell me about struggling with math and with education in general are often heartbreaking. Everyone has a math autobiography, too often filled with a teacher or relative who said something like “math is hard and it’s not for everyone” — a backhanded way of saying telling the student he or she doesn’t cut it. Sometimes it’s more direct (“Math is not your subject” or even “You’re not smart enough to do math.”) and usually these messages are delivered to children at ages 8, 9, or 10.
Another common narrative is of the young person who enjoys math till a certain class or till a certain teacher — frequently around 9th or 10th grade — where the student gets the message that they have “reached their math level” and anything beyond it is impenetrable for their meager talents.
There are, of course, many other stories (and I invite you to share yours in the comments) and this kind of introduction often leads people who are pro-math-and-science to exhort our society to change its attitude toward math, moving to a more math-positive message for children or to calls for increased time and emphasis on math in school. And while that would be nice, I don’t think it’s the job of society to change its attitude toward math and science. I think it’s the job of teachers to change society’s attitude.
Clearly, many people have been trying for generations to do just that, so I’m not suggesting I have all the answers or that I know what everyone should do. But I would like to share some of my experience co-creating a math course using the principles of backward design, just-in-time remediation, attention to the affective domain, and the assumptions that students are capable of high-quality work and that context is important for learning.
Three years ago, a colleague of mine and I set out to create a course that would prepare students to take college-level statistics using these principles. Unlike myself, my colleague was an experienced statistics instructor and as we talked about what to put in the preparatory course and explored the curriculum together, I constantly asked “why do we cover that topic?” and “what’s the purpose of that skill?” To her credit, she never responded that we do it that way because we always have. She never said “trust me.” She always gave me a good reason — or we tossed out that topic. The result is a course in which, unlike every other math course I have ever taken or taught, there are no extra topics; that is, in our course (“Preparation for Statistics”) every topic and every activity and every assignment are directly relevant to preparing students for the next course.
And while statistics is in general easier to contextualize than algebra, if a student does ask why we are studying a particular topic, the answer is always, in addition to any other uses, that it will be used again next semester.
This intentionality about everything we do in the class creates more buy in for students. Combine it with the assumption that students are capable of doing the work and the practice of appropriate support and we have a course that alters students’ perceptions of math (toward being more useful to them) and of themselves (toward being capable of understanding and using math).
For generations math teachers have debated amongst themselves and with others about the best ways to justify and explain the importance of mathematical education, with more and less success. Arguments about the development of problem solving and reasoning skills assume a privileged place for math that is disciplinarily arrogant and willfully ignorant (or even insulting) of the intellectual rigors in every other discipline. Discussions of the utility of skills such as factoring polynomials, solving inequalities, and calculating the volume of a frustum (much as I enjoy these topics) are unconvincing and potentially disingenuous.
It is our job to do better. And from my experience, when we do a better job of connecting what we’re doing in class to something the students want to know, the students respond with curiosity and engagement — the kind of engagement that leads to empowerment, learning, and a new attitude toward math.
And when that happens, people no longer have feel that sinking feeling inside when they see some numbers in an article they’re reading, they no longer have to cringe when they meet a math teacher, and my social life gets a little less awkward.
(*Big ups to the work of the California Acceleration Project and its founders Myra Snell and Katie Hern – my work and the assumptions it’s based on could not have happened without their leadership, intelligence, and support. Snell and Hern are among the finest educators I know.)
Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of novels — the first book made into an amazingly faithful-to-the-book and successful movie — is a nice exploration of post-apocalyptic themes, combined with a young adult perspective. The books start a little slowly, building to Collins’ strength: action scenes, where she maintains tension through an almost continuous onslaught of booby traps and just plain evil people. She is weaker on politics (where she displays a knee-jerk distrust of all people in power) and sometimes strains believability in transitions from one action scene to another. But she is also able to interject some of humanity’s finer aspects (e.g., loyalty, love, strength in the face of adversity).
Relatively quick reads, I enjoyed all three books — especially a surprisingly mature conclusion to the story (no spoilers, here). Read them if you’re into great protagonists, dystopian futures, and consistent world-building.