Work Hard, Be Nice, and Then Work Harder

Work Hard. Be Nice. After reading Jay Mathews’s book “Work Hard, Be Nice” I feel truly inspired.  And also amazed.  Mr. Mathews takes a stunning look at the founding of KIPP and its charismatic leaders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg.  It really makes me appreciate all the hard work and dedication it takes to not only be a good teacher, but also to reform the education system.

On the other hand, it also makes me a bit…wistful and sad.  If those are the right words.  Especially when it comes to salaries.  Don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe monetary compensation is everything.  In fact, far from it.  But the salaries being offered to teachers are abominable.  These are the people who spend 7-8 hours a day (more in the case of KIPP teachers) with your kids.  They provide your kids with the tools they need to succeed in the future, to be productive members of society and to make a difference in the world, and, on a more personal level, to provide a better life for their kids.  And what do we pay them? Barely enough money to survive.  It’s no surprise that many of the best and the brightest don’t go into teaching, despite the challenging work environment and ability to truly make a difference – two characteristics that I think many people value in a job.  Why should they work long hours and be paid pennies, when they can work long hours and get paid like an investment banker?

But I stray from the point.  I highly recommend this book.  I feel like you really get a chance to see what it takes to reform education – the hard work and the passion.  These two men did everything – from negotiating classroom space, to learning from experienced teachers, to knocking on doors to recruit for their school.  And their commitment didn’t stop there.  They extended the school day and even provided their students with a direct line to their teachers, fielding calls from students late into the night when they needed homework help.  That’s dedication.  I think one of my favorite anecdotes, was a class trip to Washington D.C.  Filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a ridiculously large number of kids per room, they were able to provide their students with a truly memorable and life changing experience – to teach them not from a classroom but from real life.

Although the book focuses on the KIPP schools, I think that it also exemplifies the risks, setbacks and journey anyone needs to take to truly succeed in life.   With any project, there will be times when you just don’t want to go on, when it just doesn’t seem worth it anymore.  It’s how you deal with these setbacks that truly defines who you are.

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A Look at Race with Beverly Daniel Tatum

” ‘Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?’ “ was originally on one of my friend’s GoodReads lists, and I decided to add it to mine, given my recent interest in education and all things related to education.

This book really opened my eyes to racism and prejudice.  One would assume that being an Asian female, I would be more attune to racism and prejudice being a minority on two levels,  but to be honest, I’ve never really thought about it.  Even though I’ve spent much of my time growing up in predominately white communities, I’ve never felt like I was ostracized or called out for being Asian.

But this book made me realize that racism can be much more subtle than the KKK and that I have experienced racism, just not racism by its traditional definition.

The first thing to establish is Ms. Tatum’s definition of racism.  She uses David Wellman’s definition, which is a “system of advantage based on race.”  This is an important distinction from prejudice which is defined as “a preconceived judgement or opinion, usually based on limited information.”  So, for example, you don’t have to be a member of the KKK to be considered racist.  That’s considered overt racism.  Racism is living in a society where one group systematically gets benefits over another group.  One example she uses is when it comes to jobs.  If a White hiring manager sees two resumes that include race, if they are both roughly the same the “White” resume usually wins out over the “Black” resume.  The assumption isn’t that the Black job seeker is bad – the assumption is the White job seeker is better.

Ms. Tatum also focuses a lot on building positive and healthy racial identities.  To do this, she believes, you have to have a circle of friends who are the same race as you are, who can understand and relate to the experiences you experience.  You can only build a strong racial identity if you have this strong base, and through really understanding yourself, you will be able to better interact with other ethnic groups.  Although I can see where she’s coming from, I am a bit worried about what this means.  If everyone feels closest to those who are like them, how will we ever truly get rid of racism – how will we ever truly be color blind?

Overall I think this book was incredibly insightful and definitely worth a read if you’re interested in racism, and tangentially how that manifests itself in education.  I think the one issue that this book doesn’t address that I wish it did is poverty.  I think that poverty and racism are closely related, and I would definitely like to read her views on how the two are connected.  m are very closely intertwined, and I would have liked to read her opinion

Life as a Circus Veterinarian

When this book first came out, I resisted.  The premise just didn’t seem that interesting to me.  But then the book stuck around.  It continued to be prominently displayed on bookstore shelves and the next then I knew, it was a movie starring Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon.  And so I caved.   Although an entertaining read, I didn’t find Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen to be that engaging.  The characters were good, but not great and the story drew me in but didn’t keep my attention.  It was a quick read, however, great for a lazy memorial day weekend.

The story focuses on the life of Jacob Jankowski, a Cornell veterinary student who, a short period before his final exams, finds himself without a family and without a home.  In a state of shock, he hops on a train, and begins his life as a member of the circus.  His veterinary credentials, even though he never completed school, give him a foot in the door as an animal character.  The book gives us a glimpse into the circus life – the slang, the battle between performers and the working men, and the way the circus business works.

In that sense it was interesting – seeing life in the circus, behind the curtains.  It’s the same reason I liked the play “Noises Off”.  But beyond that, I didn’t find the romance to be that believable.  Sure, I feel bad for Marlena and her short-tempered, vicious husband, but beyond that, the main characters didn’t pull me in.  Walter, however.  Walter I liked.  Walter is a circus performer, a midget, whose best friend is his faithful companion Queenie, a dog.  In a lot of ways, Walter is one of the most complex characters in the book  – Ms. Gruen peels away his harsh exterior to show a softie underneath.  All in all, I give this book 3 out of 5 stars, if using a star system.

Re-examining the Bible with Philip Pullman

As part of The Myth series, Philip Pullman retells the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with a twist in his novel “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.” His big twist? Instead of there being one baby boy born in the manger that fateful day, Mr. Pullman proposes that there are 2 – one strong, healthy boy named Jesus and another weaker one named Christ.  This twist completely changes the story, obviously, turning this biblical story on its head.

In my opinion, this is a particularly interesting re-telling.  Mr. Pullman paints Jesus as a man who preaches his beliefs not to create a religion but simply to spread the word.  In fact, he expressly does not want to create a religion because of all the negative things religion can bring, for example, war.  This is also why he prefers not to perform miracles and provide proof that he is the son of God.

Christ, however, approaches things differently.  He believes that miracles are a great way to “market” Jesus’ word, and based on the encouragement of an “angel” starts to keep track of Jesus’ accomplishments and preachings, retelling history as his view of history – truth with a a bit of embellishment.

As an atheist, Mr. Pullman pokes holes in many of the common beliefs surrounding the Christian faith – for example the resurrection and the “miracle” of one loaf feeding an entire city. He also writes the entire story in a similar voice and style as the Bible, lending his novel some of the solemness of the Bible itself.

Would I recommend it? I’m not sure.  I think the story is interesting, but obviously the writing style, although I understand why he chose it, makes the novel a bit of a dry read.  The book is, however, short.   If you have some spare time, and are interested in religion (in more of a theoretical literary sense versus in a faith-based sense) I find his retelling to be fairly interesting.