Rigor Crisis: What Makes Education Work Elsewhere, And How To Bring It Home


I like what Amanda Ripley attacks, and I’m glad she came to attack it. Her book detailing the difference between American schools and higher-scoring systems in places like Korea and Finland, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, was released about two weeks ago. It could hardly be called an attack: its hopeful tone underlies its polite third-person examinations and deference to the data and experts. But it has a clear point to make. And it manages a rare feat: going deeply into complicated issues with nuance, and prescribing important key points as a blueprint for solutions.

As a former classroom teacher in what would quickly be categorized as “bad” schools – the kind surrounded by poverty and crime, where low scores and bleak futures appear the norm – I was drawn in to Ripley’s claim that academic success is not inversely related to financial background. I’d heard this from places like Teach For America before, but from them it sounded like a battle cry to holler before the big charge: It doesn’t matter how outnumbered and outgunned you are, fight. Idealistic, yes. Necessary, yes. But realistic? I was more prone to agree with the words of (recent incarnation) Diane Ravitch, that educational problems are a symptom of poverty problems, ones that require major change within our country.

But I love to keep an open mind and see if I can be won over Continue reading

Queens, NY is …

  • a gas station that sells mangoes, baklava, and tandoori chicken20130828-114423.jpg
    Photo taken at 5 Pointz in LIC, Queens.
  • curse words in every world language
  • an elevated 7 train rumbling through the night
  • an old men smoking, talking shit, and playing cards in a park
  • $30 one hour massages
  • one skyscraper standing alone
  • a cab driver sleeping in his car
  • an empanada purchased from a street cart vendor
  • the cashier who shorts you because he’s too lazy to give change, and you can’t speak his language to argue
  • Midwestern expats in Irish pubs
  • a 99 cent store
  • a woman who makes a living selling pirated DVDs in restaurants and collecting recyclables from trash cans
  • a group of feral cats on a waterfront construction yard
  • a VHS tape on loop advertising for an eyebrow threading salon
  • fishing on the East River
  • a row of chop shops just outside the baseball stadium
  • a “sports bar” where hired women dance in bikinis
  • a warehouse that doubles as the world’s greatest street art canvas
  • two million people glad to live apart from the bustle of Manhattan
  • two million people who wished they could afford to live in Manhattan

The Windy City Does Not Blow


So an ex-girlfriend was telling me some time ago about a friend who came to visit her in Chicago for a concert. She lived in the Andersonville neighborhood, which is on the Far North Side, and her friend asked her, “Do you think it’s okay to park my car downtown all night?” And my ex-girlfriend was like, “No, what is wrong with you. Just leave it here, outside my apartment.” He was confused because he thought that outside her apartment, where you’d see nothing but trees and apartments, was downtown Chicago.

He was from the suburbs (aren’t we all), and he knew there is a big, shiny part of Chicago with skyscrapers and parks that have giant beans in them, but he and his friends referred to everything within the city limits as “downtown.”

I grew up in a rural town. If someone in Chicago asks where I’m from originally I have to say it’s in the badlands and corn fields past the Northwest Suburbs. And if someone farther away than that asks, I’m tempted to say Chicago, because it takes more than enough time to just explain that my name isn’t “Joshua,” that I don’t want to deal with it. However, if I do say it, I am a filthy liar.

Our beautiful city of lakefront and hot dogs (if you know what I’m saying)

Continue reading

eBooks are Overrated

In response to Jake’s piece on eBooks, I’m taking the opposite stance.

I bought a Kindle with the intention of loving it and using it every day. I was excited to be able to use one hand to do both the holding of the device and the turning of pages so I could read easily while using the other hand to hold a pole in a subway car, and being able to download new books from anywhere that has a wireless internet connection.

But for the most part, my Kindle sits neglected, ever so slowly losing charge under a pile of magazines in a basket in my bedroom. I still use it occasionally, but not for the vast majority of book reading I do. Why? A lot of reasons, I guess. Continue reading

An Act of Great Justice

“Okay, hold on to this, Kris,” Ben said, handing me the sacred lime-green fanny-pack on the way out of the booth tent. “And girls, don’t forget what I told you.”

I stuffed the fanny-pack under the table and picked up one of the cardboard 109 XRZ (Chicago’s Greatest Rock!) fans. Even in a plain tee-shirt and skirt, at 10 PM, the mugginess was starting to get to me. Nighttime is a time for cold, for crispness, for sheets and blankets and curling up into yourself. I’m from the area, Niles specifically, so the weather is the same but growing up there is more about urban sprawl and driving air-conditioned cars from strip mall Paneras to strip mall Starbucks and the Barnes & Noble. But in the late July of Chicago, summer is not a season so much as a state, a way of being, an indigenous environment for which cultures and customs are erected.

One of them is the street fest, with its choking walls of ash-smelling smoke pounding out from food tents like they were stamped out from a machine whole and oppressive, with its open spaces and sudden crowded corridors where beers are bumped out of blue cups with reckless abandon by passerby like pinballs, with its promoter and vendor booths and Wicker Park Fest is no exception. Continue reading

e-Books Smell Like the Future, That’s What


I have big news that you were all wrong about.

Economic research says printed books and e-books have reached an equilibrium now, with neither one spelling the doom of the other. This makes sense, and I’ve been urging people to shut their traps about the danger of e-books for a while now. Fuddy-duddies obsessed with the “feel” of a book aside (feeling other human beings’ myriad parts is very important, but a book is just pulp and glue), there were real businesses at stake. Barnes & Noble’s “Nook” division is going under, killed by the Kindle and its ilk, but B&N as a whole is doing okay.

This is good because bookstores are nice places to go and I like going to them. However, I worked as an office temp for Barnes & Noble’s “Nook” Digital Content Division when I lived in New York City, and I’ve owned plenty of Nooks, and you’re all wrong about e-books. Continue reading

The Diary of Anne Frank

I never read Anne Frank’s diary in school. I heard tell of other people reading it, and I’m sure we talked about it in some segment about the Holocaust in middle school English or History, but somehow I managed to go through a high school and liberal arts undergraduate education without having actually engaged in the text.

Until recently, I thought that was a good thing.

I don’t know how I got this impression, but I always assumed it would be stuffy and dull, or else more depressing than I could bear. Is it the ingrained male bias against reading books about “women in history?” Maybe. A reluctance to put myself in the head of a Holocaust victim? Probably. Continue reading