I Will Now Be Boycotting American Apparel

I don’t know how many of you have been following the contest for larger-sized models that American Apparel has been conducting. I was very vaguely aware of it and of the controversy surrounding it. Apparently, the company decided to disregard the popular vote that gave the win in the contest to a woman called Nancy Upton because she had made statements criticizing the company. Of course, it’s their contest, so they can do whatever they want with it.

What really shocked me, however, was a letter the company’s creative director sent to the winning contestant. I’m not going to expose you to this badly written rant in its entirety (you can check it out here if you wish) but here is a small excerpt from it:

Oh – and regarding winning the contest, while you were clearly the popular choice, we have decided to award the prizes to other contestants that we feel truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out, and whom we will be proud to have representing our company.

I don’t know about you, but I, for one, will not buy anything ever again from a company that employs such condescending, rude and unintelligent individuals who express themselves in the style of characters from the movie Mean Girls. I used to be a customer, but after this, I won’t be any longer.

Which Banned Book Should I Read From?

We will be conducting a Banned Books Week at my university. During the celebrations, members of the university community will go to our bookstore and read from our favorite banned or challenged book for up to 2 minutes as the bookstore workers videotape the reading. Here is the website of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) which is a founding sponsor of Banned Books Week.

I’m extremely excited about the event (and I’m not alone in my excitement), but I can’t decide which book I should read from.

Here are some possibilities but feel free to add your own suggestions:

1. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath would make a lot of sense because it has been banned very close to where I am right now: Burned by the East St. Louis, IL Public Library (1939) and barred from the Buffalo, NY Public Library (1939) on the grounds that “vulgar words” were used. Banned in Kansas City,  MO (1939).

2. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. This is simply a brilliant book that is a joy to read publicly in any context. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you about the history of the attempts to ban it.

3. John Knowles’s A Separate Peace again makes sense on geographic grounds. Look at the totally cute reasons our local prudes tried to ban it: “Challenged in Vernon-Verona-Sherill, NY School District (1980) as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” Challenged at the Fannett-Metal High School in Shippensburg, PA (1985) because of its allegedly offensive language. Challenged as appropriate for high school reading lists in the Shelby County, TN school system (1989) because the novel contains “offensive language.”  Challenged, but retained in the Champaign, IL high school English classes (1991) despite claims that “unsuitable language” makes it inappropriate.  Challenged by the parent of a high school student in Troy, IL (1991) citing profanity and negative attitudes.”

Negative attitudes, how cute is that?

4. Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, my absolutely favorite American novel ever. “Banned in Boston, MA (1927) and burned by the Nazis in Germany (1933) because it “deals with low love affairs.”

Any other suggestions? I don’t want to read from either D.H. Lawrence or William Burroughs because their writing bores me (I don’t think they should be banned on those grounds, though.)


Harvard’s Kindness Pledge

I just found out about Harvard’s silly attempt to make its freshmen sign a “kindness pledge” and I haven’t been able to stop laughing ever since. The text of the pledge was going to be posted at the entrance to each dorm. It was supposed to contain the names of the students living in that particular section of the dorm and offer a space for each student’s signature. This, of course, means that the people who didn’t feel like participating in this exercise in inanity would be easily identifiable.

Here is the text of the pledge for your reading pleasure:

“At Commencement, the Dean of Harvard College announces to the President, Fellows, and Overseers that ‘each degree candidate stands ready to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society.’ That message serves as a kind of moral compass for the education Harvard College imparts. In the classroom, in extracurricular endeavors, and in the Yard and Houses, students are expected to act with integrity, respect, and industry, and to sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility.

“As we begin at Harvard, we commit to upholding the values of the College and to making the entryway and Yard a place where all can thrive and where the exercise of kindness holds a place on par with intellectual attainment.”

The problem with this attempt to bully students into exercising kindness (aside from the incredibly constipated language) is that will make them even less likely to engage in any kind of more or less vigorous debate than they are already. As it is, they had to grow up in a culture where tolerance for any kind of opinion, even one that is completely baseless, ridiculous and offensive, is mandated:

Meanwhile, to their peers, Harvard students may, if anything, be a little too nice. Some veteran faculty members tell me that the students’ drive to succeed manifests itself in a surprising way. A social norm has emerged, they report, in which students avoid saying anything that might make others look bad in class, even if that restraint means stifling discussion.

“I note in the current generation of undergraduates a tendency to hold back on disagreement or criticism of other students in class,” says Jeffry Frieden, a political scientist. “They’re much more respectful of each other — much more than when I was an undergraduate. If someone states an opinion, even if absurd, they take it in stride.”

Vigorous debate, disagreement and forcefully expressed opinions scare university administrators so much that soon we will be left with intellectually castrated universities where intellectual activity will be substituted with kindness pledges and celebrations of difference for the sake of difference.

Do You Like San Francisco?

If you do, chances are you are a fan of writer John Lescroart who has created a series consisting of really great courtroom dramas set in this great city. One of the many cool things about Lescroart’s novels is that somebody is always cooking something delicious in them. Now the writer has his own blog and is publishing some of the recipes that have appeared in his novels.

Today, I decided to use Lescroart’s recipe called Mickey’s Rice-A-Roni, and here is how the end result looks:

Here is the recipe from Lescroart’s site:

1/4 stick butter
2 TBS EV Olive Oil
1 shallot
2 or more cloves garlic (to taste)
1 tbs dried thyme
1 tbs dried rosemary
2 tbs allspice
1 cup Arborio rice (but any rice will do)
1/2 cup orzo (or linguini broken up into small pieces)
3 cups chicken stock

Combine first seven ingredients over medium heat until shallot and garlic soften. Pour in rice and orzo and stir until thoroughly mixed with the oil and spice mixture. Turn heat to high and add chicken stock. Bring to the boil, then turn down to low and cover. Cook twenty minutes, or until rice is cooked and all the liquid has been absorbed. Makes four cups cooked, serving four to eight.

I changed it a little bit, of course. I skipped the shallots (I don’t eat them), used Arborio rice with sun-dried tomatoes because I really like some acidity in my rise and cooked it as a regular risotto. I also added some white wine (what’s a risotto without wine?) and some turmeric because I love it.

If you like both courtroom dramas and San Francisco, you need to check out this writer. All of his novels are great but The Second Chair and Guilt are my favorites.

Why Hate the Uninsured and the Unemployed?

All of those people who scream “Yeah, let the uninsured die” or who lash in anger against the unemployed are simply terrified of finding themselves in the same situation. They dump on the uninsured and the unemployed in a sad attempt to pretend that distancing themselves verbally from such people will somehow help them escape from the danger of finding themselves in the same place.

“I’m not like them!” they are trying to tell the world. “I’m not one of those lazy, irresponsible layabouts. Please, please, don’t let these bad things happen to me.”

This is why it makes no sense to talk about the current American fascination with Libertarianism in political or economic terms. This phenomenon is purely psychological in nature.

Don’t Speak English to Me!

What I find especially cute is how students who Major in our program really resent it when you try to speak English to them outside of the classroom.

When you say hi to them, they give you this churlish look that seems to say, “What are you doing, you weird weird adult person? Don’t you know that I can speak Spanish?”

Then, they start speaking Spanish to you in a very pointed way.

It is very rewarding to see how they come to us with absolutely no knowledge of the language and then end up developing this Spanish-speaking persona that becomes an integral part of their identities.

I just love my job.

How to Deal With an ADHD Student?, Part II

So here are the methods I put into practice with Javier, my ADHD student:

1) Since Javier was used to being ridiculed by both teachers and students, I needed to make sure his energy was channeled in a way that would make the kids respect him and would lead him out of the role of a class clown that he was used to assuming in order to have a place in the class hierarchy. A kid at this age needs a well-defined role s/he plays with his or her peers. If no positive role is available or accessible, the kid will choose a negative one. This is why it is often easier for kids to play the part of a class clown than to have no well-defined role at all.

I told Javier that I would teach him the Russian alphabet and he would be able to write all the other kids’ names in Russian by the end of the course. So whenever I assigned group work in class and Javier would whiz through the assignment and start getting restless, I’d teach him Russian letters. He was a very smart kid and an extra challenge was helpful to him in channeling his energy productively.

2) When you talk to an ADHD kid, it’s a good idea to start talking at the same pitch and with the same speed as he or she does and then gradually start lowering your voice and speaking slowly. This will help the student to lower his or her voice and start speaking more slowly a lot better than barking at them to slow down.

3) School-age kids cannot be expected to sit still for hours and keep their attention focused. Some students can do that but, more often than not, the practice of putting them behind desks and telling them to sit there in silence as you pontificate for hours is a very bad idea. In my course, I made a point of including as many opportunities to walk, run around, move all over the classroom as possible. For the ADHD student, this was an opportunity to expend some of his energy in a way that didn’t make him stand out from the crowd.

4) There are teachers who try to gain cheap popularity with students by singling out one kid and badgering him or her. This strategy always makes students despise this kind of teacher because this desperate struggle for acceptance looks pathetic and weak. And kids can smell weakness from ten miles away.

My strategy in dealing with attempts to recruit me into the “let’s-dump-on-ADHD-kid” camp always backfired for the students who tried this on me.

“So, what did you think about Javier?” a student asked before our second meeting.

“Great student!” I responded. “Truly brilliant.”

The kids were puzzled.

“All of the teachers hate him,” one of them tried to explain. “Because of his ADHD, you know.”

I looked at this student as if he were being very weird.

“You must be confused,” I said. “This just makes no sense.” Believe me, I can say this sentence in a way that prevents people from wanting to continue with their line of reasoning.

Whenever Javier would act out in class, students would look at me, eager to see how I would react. I always behaved like everything Javier did was completely normal. If anybody giggled, I stared at them like they were the ones behaving in a hopelessly eccentric way.

Nothing works instantly in pedagogy. Education is always a process. The attitudes of students towards Javier and Javier’s own behavior in class changed very slowly, in tiny little steps. But they did. I think he felt a lot more accepted and integrated by the end of the course.

How to Deal With an ADHD Student?, Part I

I haven’t had a chance to teach in a US high school but I have taught high school students. There was a program at my penultimate university where college educators would offer extracurricular courses to high-school children from at-risk families for free. My year-long course in Spanish literature was aimed at kids from immigrant Hispanic families. I had 24 students ranging in age from 13 to 17.

Several of the students had a history of arrests and gang affiliations. I’m fascinated with the pedagogy of juvenile delinquency, so this was a great opportunity for me to put all the theoretical knowledge I had accumulated on the subject into practice. I blogged about that in the past, so I won’t repeat myself.

Today, I want to discuss how I approached the teaching of a student with ADHD I had in that class whom I will call Javier for the purposes of this post.

Even before I met Javier for the first time, students let me know certain things about him. When I first arrived in class, those kids who were already there, started giggling and saying, “Javier isn’t here yet but I heard he was taking this class. Oh, you will be so sorry you agreed to have him here.”

“He is hyperactive,” one student announced. “All of the teachers hate him.”

“Oh he’s such a loser,” another kid contributed. “Just totally out of control.”

“And a maricon,” somebody else said.

This is how I knew that a) Javier had ADHD; b) he was being bullied by both teachers and students; and c) he was gay, which in a poor Hispanic community is not an easy thing to be. (Javier came out in his graduating year and was viciously persecuted by a classmate as a result. But all that came 2 years after our course.)

Few things enrage me as much as bullying does, so I knew from the start that my goal would be to defend Javier from bullying in a way that wouldn’t make things even harder for him. This means, of course, that giving the students speeches of the “Children, Javier has a disorder. You should be kind and tolerant towards him” variety was out of the question.

(To be continued. . . )

The Self-Esteem Movement

One of my favorite bloggers writes:

The whole self-esteem movement in schools has pretty much removed failure as an option for kids and competition has ceased to have any real meaning.

I have seen such statements on other blogs in the past but, since I’m not very familiar with the high school system in the US, I’m not sure what the “self-esteem movement in schools” is about. Can anybody explain? Has anybody seen it in practice?

Because this sounds like something I might want to denounce. 🙂