Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Waiting for Superman"

A year or so ago, our book group read Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada's Quest to Change Harlem and America by Paul Tough and since then has paid special attention to innovations in American education.

A new documentary, Waiting for "Superman", will open later this month and it's creating a lot of buzz. It's by the filmmaker who did An Inconvenient Truth . There's a terrific article in this week's New York Magazine by John Heilemann about the film, about Geoffrey Canada, and others who see the need for vast improvements and innovations in American education.

Here's an excerpt:
“Superman” affectingly, movingly traces the stories of five children—all but one of them poor and black or Hispanic—and their parents as they seek to secure a decent education by gaining admission via lottery to high-performing charter schools. At the same time, the film is a withering indictment of the adults—in particular, those at the teachers unions—who have let the public-school system rot, and a paean to reformers such as Canada and Michelle Rhee, chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools, who has waged an epic campaign to overhaul the notoriously dysfunctional system over which she presides.

Among leaders of the burgeoning education-reform movement, the degree of anticipation surrounding “Superman” is difficult to overstate. “The movie is going to create a sense of outrage, and a sense of urgency,” says Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s secretary of Education. New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein concurs. “It’s gonna grab people much deeper than An Inconvenient Truth, because watching ice caps melt doesn’t have the human quality of watching these kids being denied something you know will change their lives,” Klein says. “It grabs at you. It should grab at you. Those kids are dying.”

The education-reform crowd is not alone in waiting for Waiting for “Superman”—though for those on the other side of the ideological fence, it would be more accurate to say that they are bracing for “Superman.” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a character in the film, complains that it is “unfair,” “misleading,” and potentially “dangerous.” Indeed, not long ago, United Teachers Los Angeles posted on its website a flyer describing “Superman” as “scathing” and “attacking U.S. teachers” and calling for volunteers to appear in a TV ad to give “the other side of the story.”

The excitement and agitation around “Superman” might seem hyperbolic, overblown. Yet both are symptomatic of a signal moment in the annals of American education, when a confluence of factors—a grassroots outcry for better schools, a cadre of determined reformers, a newly demanding and parlous global economy, and a president willing to challenge his party’s hoariest shibboleths and most potent allies—has created what Duncan calls a “perfect storm.” It’s a moment when debates are raging over an array of combustible issues, from the expansion of charters and the role of standardized-test scores to the shuttering of failing schools and the firing of crappy teachers. It’s a moment ripe with ferment and possibility, but also rife with conflict, in which the kind of change that fills many hearts with hope fills others with mortal dread—and which gives a movie like “Superman” a rare chance to move the needle.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

From Papyrus to WiFi

Never, I thought, never would I give up an actual hardcover or paperback book for a digital reader. I like holding a book in my hands, turning paper pages, writing notes in the margins and flipping back to past chapters.

But excitement can be contagious. It began in Saratoga last month. My daughter Trish and my grandchildren were visiting my niece Kathie and her family when we got into a discussion of reading and the pros and cons of a digital reader. The conversation turned to the convenience of a Kindle or a Nook and the accessibility of downloading current books and the classics. As Trish and Kathie discussed the options, I began to wonder if it was just habit that kept me from taking the next step in this digital age.

Then I remembered what someone said recently: it certainly doesn’t have to be an “either or” decision. You don’t have to give up the traditional book just because you have a Nook or a Kindle. I could still use my neighborhood library or purchase a book in paper form from or a bookstore.

That afternoon, Kathie, Trish and I went to the Barnes and Noble in Saratoga where Kathie bought the Nook. When the salesperson said there would be an information session that evening, the three of us decided we’d attend.

A group gathered in the Barnes and Noble cafĂ© and as the Nook’s features were being explained I turned around to see who else was there. I saw three men and five women and all of them were over the age of sixty, each with a Nook in hand. When the session was over and I asked for their opinions, they said they once felt the same way I do about "actual" books. But they're happy converts now to the e-reader.

My daughter bought her Nook that evening and she likes it too. I haven’t succumbed yet, but I’m not averse to it. In fact, I’ll be taking a trip next month that involves almost a 10-hour flight. Instead of cramming books into my bag, I might opt for the convenience of a Nook. Stay tuned.