29 September 2013

Books on the Doorstep

I think most people like getting packages in the mail, and I'm no exception. I was out most of yesterday and missed the delivery of my latest order from my favorite bookseller, Ziesing Books. This morning I opened the box and took a first look at the goods. All were sale items, I should add, the four books coming in with shipping at about thirty bucks. The most expensive one (ten dollars!) was a trade paperback advance reading copy of William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive. Despite being from 1988, it's in excellent shape. I've read all of Mr. Gibson's fiction, including his famous Cyberspace or "Sprawl" trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, and the aforementioned MLO), but don't have all of it on the shelves. My notes tell me I read MLO in 1992--it will be nice to revisit that after more than twenty years. I wonder how well it holds up? The next item was a novel from 1996 by one of my all-time favorite writers, John le Carré. It was made into a movie of the same name starring Pierce Brosnan. Guessed yet? It's The Tailor of Panama. I don't own everything by Mr. le Carré, nor have I read everything, but I'm slowly filling in the collection. I see he has a new novel--A Delicate Truth. I'll have to get right on that as soon as I'm done with this one. TTOP is also a trade paperback and an advance reader's copy, and also in excellent shape. Not bad for seven dollars.

The other two are short story collections. One (a new hardback, only five dollars) is by another great British writer, Brian Aldiss, and is called Common Clay. It was a short story--"The Madonna of Futurity"--that originally turned me on to Mr. Aldiss' work, and I discovered later that story was part of a novel called Somewhere East of Life, which is part of a quartet called the "Squire" novels. I bought another in the series, Life in the West, from, of course, Ziesing Books. I still have to get my hands on the other two! The final item was a new $14.95 paperback (on sale for half price!) of mystery stories by the Russian dramatist Anton Chekov. I had no idea that he wrote such things, but he apparently enjoyed the genre and penned many such tales throughout his short but exceptional literary career. It's called A Night in the Cemetery and Other Stories of Crime and Suspense and was put out in 2008 by Pegasus. I love Chekhov's plays, and I'm quite curious about these other works.

So that's it. Four new books for thirty bucks. Do yourself a favor and check out Ziesing Books. It is a true mom-and-pop outfit and is located here in Northern California, in a little burg called Shingletown in Shasta County, just west of Lassen Peak. There's no storefront, just a website and a P.O. Box, but they still produce a print catalog. If you buy from them they keep you on the mailing list and send you their 40-page self-produced tome a couple of times a year. Mark--the pop--writes a letter about his life and the business that makes you feel like part of the family. When you call or email, Cindy--the mom--answers. You get personal service in the old-fashioned sense of the word, and you also get first-rate, professionally-packaged and timely-delivered high-quality eclectic goods for reasonable prices. How can you beat that?

p.s. What's on YOUR bookshelf these days?

21 September 2013

XXX: First Mark

Twenty-four of my final 180 teaching days have elapsed. This Friday our first "marking period" ended, and "progress reports" are due Tuesday morning. There are many things I will not miss when my teaching career ends. Grades are certainly one of them. The idea that I can be the arbiter of someone's knowledge-gain has always seemed ludicrous to me. Schools--at least schools as we know them--cannot exist without marks. Kids have to have grades and grade-point averages. Parents want them. Colleges want them. These days even the services want them. When I worked in the alternative education site in our district, the recruiters were often confounded by our pass/not pass system. They couldn't translate it into a GPA to put on the enlistment forms. Eventually we had to go to the familiar A-B-C-D-F scheme. Scholarship applications have to have GPAs as well, and we didn't want to shortchange our students' chances, so we capitulated and went back to letter grades. It's not that one way was any better than another, just that we liked the simplicity and non-judgmental aspect of what we were doing. Your work met the curriculum standard, you got the credit, and you moved on to the next standard. If it didn't, you re-worked it until it did.

I was an "A" student in high school. I never experienced poor grades until college. I remember getting a "D" in Math 51C, Differential Equations (post-calculus sophomore math), and an "F" in Computer Science 41, Machine Structures (assembly-language programming). That put the kibosh on my engineering career. It's OK, I think I would have been a lousy engineer. I'm a people person, and teaching, my accidental career, suits my strengths. When I look back at those marks, I know I got them because I didn't apply myself, not because I lacked the ability to understand the material. I was, at that time, unwilling to put in the effort required. I'm still interested in both topics. I read an analysis of the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers some time ago (no, it was not a conspiracy and there were no demolition charges set off) that I understood completely except for the fact that I couldn't make sense of the math--they were differential equations. I remember using similar ones in physics class, but it had been too long and the squiggles on the page no longer held meaning for me. I felt a tinge of regret that I hadn't learned them better. Of course, I can no longer do much of the math I learned. I graduated from Berkeley in 1981, and you don't do much more than simple algebra (and a little basic trigonometry) in most high school science classes. I wasn't much of a computer programmer, either. But I actually learned a lot, mostly because the classes demystified computers for me. I lack the technophobia of many people in my age group because of that. I understand the basic notions behind programming, and how these systems work, even if I lack the skills and mastery-level knowledge.

About every four or five weeks I'll have to turn in another set of grades for my young charges. The school year has eight marking periods--two per quarter, two quarters per semester, two semesters in a year. Two to the third power is eight, you know. That means I've got seven more to go. I've tried every sort of grading system I could think of in the last 29 years, and the funny thing is that they all come out about the same. Rarely do you get the normal or Gaussian distribution you see in statistics classes. The so-called "bell curve" requires large populations and carefully formulated testing structures--like SATs and whatnot. In my experience grades in high school make bi-modal graphs--lots of high-end grades (A's and B's) and equally as many low-ends (D's and F's) with hardly anything in the middle (C's). The kids who seek good grades do the work they need to do. The ones who don't do the work get the marks that reflect that. It is very difficult to design a fair assessment that reveals who has actually learned and understood the material. We've all experienced the phenomenon of cramming for an exam, doing well on it, and promptly forgetting it all when it was over. What, in the end, does my grade actually measure? Certainly not talent or smarts. Plenty of bright, capable students get low grades. Everyone is different, and experiences the new and the unfamiliar in different ways. Everyone is in a different place even when they sit in the same classroom. I'm not saying there's a better way, just that I'm not married to the way it has always been. Grades judge how well you did at a certain time in a certain place on a certain thing. They don't say much about character, or even ability. Compliance, and a willingness to endure some drudgery are actually better indicators of how you'll do in school!

Next week I'll get a bit of a breather. I'll turn in my first marks and relax for a while. Then I'll crank up the exams and other assessments and generate a new set of numbers to go in the computer. Kids will fret, parents will call, counselors will counsel and the whole apparatus will continue to function in the time-honored way. I've always been a good soldier at work--I've never let my subversive and anarchic tendencies in the classroom interfere with the final product. I always "cover" the material and turn in acceptable-looking reports. I owe it to the kids (and their families) to give them a fair shake. I fulfill my professional obligations even when I increasingly doubt their worth. It will be nice to be free of all that when the time comes.

156 days to go!