Monday, November 30, 2009

Family Guy again making brilliant social commentary....

While the point of the latest Family Guy episode was to comment on society valuing the life of a human more than the life of an animal (and paired with the fact that it was seen from another dog's point of view, though more a human than a dog, it was brilliantly executed), the aspect I was really amazed at was the commentary of trends in current literature.

They paired this valuing with the hiring of a Hispanic housekeeper who barely speaks English and is treated as a second-class human (to parallel with the animal vs. human argument). Then they went so far as to have Brian, the dog in question, become the star and studied author of a "special literature group." While he believes the group is a gathering of intellectuals discussing his book, in actuality the group is a bunch of mentally disabled citizens who enjoy books of ease, straightforwardness, and simplicity--the antithesis to what Brian believed he had actually written.

Now without delving too deeply into the political incorrectness that Family Guy so often wallows in, the fact that Brian is an unappreciated author whose work is misinterpreted and misread speaks a great deal about our current society.

The biggest-selling books of this year belong to the Twilight saga and books written by Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. Hardly books that I would call challenging or deep reading--but provocative. A human falling in love with both a vampire and a werewolf is certainly literature that distracts from the recession and the two ongoing wars. And books that challenge the status quo and offer hard-nosed attacks on liberalism (being interpreted as socialism) are popular because they offer a back-to-basics, simplistic point of view which appeals to many who think the world is becoming too convoluted and intricate, with too much technology and too many taxes and bills.

Their material isn't thought-provoking, isn't filled with examples of literary terminology or dynamic characters, nor does it has a lasting effect once the book closes. Instead they rely on shock, sexual tension and gossip to propel up the charts and captivate an audience that is majority interested in such things. Very few readers these days really want to challenge themselves with a book when they set up to choose one--is this a result of painstaking analysis in English class, or by overexposure to standardized testing which zaps the fun out of reading? Is it the result of a society that focuses on gossip and bluntness? Or is it that reading as a form of entertainment has sagged so far that twittering (160 characters or fewer) is more popular than reading-for-fun?

Whatever the reason(s), our society is obsessed with entertainment and when they turn to books, they choose those that are simple, blunt, and shocking. We choose fewer and fewer deep, challenging or inventive novels. While Harry Potter was a mini-breath of fresh air, and Dan Brown's half-truthful reporting which overloads his books with fact and simplistic action is a middle-of-the-road I'll settle for, I refuse to allow my students to obsess over books like Twilight and to become enamored with a world that shuns books and difficult material because reading is interpreted as 'work.'

Family Guy does a fantastic job of echoing this sentiment because only the mentally handicapped would enjoy a difficult read, while book clubs like the one Brian actually believed he was coming to speak to are fewer and fewer. Where they do exist, they are only a very small minority that struggles to hold their niche in a world obsessed with literature that is anything but intelligent.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I read an interesting article on the other day about "the recovery." Of course everyone knows I speak of the flow stemming from the current recession-ebb, one which we as a world as in definite need of. But the point of the article wasn't echoing the current sentiments prevailing on the news and internet, it was speculating that "the recovery" is essentially something mental, rather than something monetary or something physical.

The authors, rather respected and decorated economists and great thinkers (including Nobel Prize in Economics winners) postulated that a recession recovery really begins once the majority of the population mentally decides that the recession needs to begin winding down and a recovery needs to begin. This unspoken emotion begins to manifest as an increasing consumer sentiment reading, then an increase in spending, and eventually the society as a whole begins to consume more (after all, we need to identify ourselves as a consumer national after we made the pivotal and decisive shift to a consumer society from a manufacturing society back in the 1950s) and once production and attitude begins to increase and improve, then jobs begin to come back.

The posed hypothesis is that we control the 'business cycles' through our attitudes and sentiments. It argues the 1920s were a period of radical optimism and merriment, stemming from the end of WWI, but by the end of the 1920s, and coupled by it not ushered in by the sudden crash of the stock market, there was a 'looming, terrible permeating pessimism,' one which was ready to annihilate the past decade of growth. It says that if a mental shift occurs, which is beginning to take place now, then a recovery is imminent.

It does make plenty of sense, though it is not recognized as an official term or identified as an actual phenomena. One can begin to sense a subtle shift occurring, however, so perhaps it is true. Driving through the surrounding towns and cities here in MA, I can see several new businesses opening. I see the local train stations more packed with cars belonging to workers heading into Boston to work. I am also seeing more non-essential businesses thriving: flower shoppes, karate centers, copy centers, small breakfast restaurants, and even a few local manufacturing businesses. Through CT and RI, when I have traveled back to visit my parents, I am also seeing this occur, though at a smaller scale and much slower.

Is this occurring because we as a population have decided we've had enough of it and we cannot be restrained by the term any longer? Have we preempted the official 'end' to the recession by determining through our sentiments and attitudes that it should end? Are our minds capable of such monumental accomplishments?

Alice in Wonderland

After auditions concluded for Alice in Wonderland, feelings of trepidation and excitement came over me. I felt a little bit like I had just tumbled down the rabbit hole. On one hand rests the promise and anticipation surrounding the production of a play, but on the other rests the enormous responsibility and amount of work which lies ahead, especially for a production like this. While I am positive these fantastic and talented students can rise to the challenge and impress all, it will require hard work, determination and lots of support from the entire NHS community.

Alice is a unique play in the sense that the production can be interpreted in different ways and steered in several directions. It can be psychedelic, childish and cute, serious, frightening, or absurd, to name a few. Next week, during our first few official meetings since parts were decided, we as a drama club need to decide how we envision Alice. While the particular script we plan to use includes one Queen and King and doesn’t include the magical pills, the shrinking and growing, and Alice floating away through an ocean of tears, it leaves plenty of space to expand characters and scenes. The script is at once hilarious and intelligent, and is aimed at an adolescent to adult audience. Each character will be significant to the success of the play, and every student in the club, from the Hatter and Hare to the Tech Crew, is vital.

Ultimately, there is no main character in Alice in Wonderland. The challenge, rather, is to shape every character into a central and important character. The audience should be as excited to meet the Caterpillar as they are to meet Tweedledee and Tweedledum or Alice. Our goal is for each character to become a favorite for at least one audience member.

In the coming weeks a partnership will begin between the English department and the Fine and Applied Arts department to begin designing and decorating sets and props. Once the play begins to take shape both literally and figuratively I will post updates and (hopefully) pictures from rehearsals as teasers to get the NHS community excited.

Tentative dates for the play are March 19th, 20th and 21st, 2010. I expect this play to be one of the best and most exciting productions ever to occur at NHS.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ridiculous similes that speak alarmingly true to life

In the most recent episode of Family Guy, Brian (yes, the dog) told a ditzy text-messaging girl that he wrote a book. She stared blankly into her phone then looked up briefly to ask what a book is. He said it was like a long magazine. Seeing she was still confused, he told her "it's like the internet made out of a tree."

As funny and ridiculous as this is, it speaks alarmingly true to the current state of literacy in our country. Most of my students, if they do enjoy to read, have only read Twilight or the SparkNotes versions of books they have been assigned over the past few years in school.

Never have they ventured to the library and ransacked the thousands- to- millions of books waiting for their imaginations. Most of them would be content to read nothing at all and write nothing at all. Most don't see the point to it, especially since they are convinced (and this is a quote the majority of two of my classes agreed with) that "newspapers don't matter nowadays. We can just watch TV. We don't have to read anymore."

Have we really become so technologically independent and dependent that we're foregoing reading and newspapers have become obsolete? If so, have reporting, researching, investigation and discovery also become outdated and obsolete? Many would argue so, especially in my grades.

Hopefully this can be reversed somehow. Perhaps our technology is already growing beyond our bounds. We know that many stores are foregoing any other type of advertising and focusing solely on the internet as the media outlet to grab the most potential customers, but newspapers are updating news online, but most do not charge a subscription fee to view their news.

Are they just gypping themselves? Are they on a downward spiral into bankruptcy and eventually antiquity?

The implications for this particularly pertain to me, though. As an English teacher, had I been teaching in the 1980s I might have made the argument for any student who wanted to be a newspaper reporter, that they need to pay particular attention to class and much excel at writing, editing and researching. Nowadays, my students wonder aloud when they will ever need to know researching skills, and why newspapers are still around, and why we don't allow them to use their computers and/or phones in the classroom?

Should we allow computers and phones in the classroom as tools to enhance the classroom? What about augment the traditional classroom in favor of one solely based on the internet and in technology? Should magazines, the internet, and other resources be focused upon instead of novels and textbooks?

If our students refuse to pick up a book because it 1) takes too long to read 2) is boring 3) doesn't make sense, have we failed as teachers or have we moved the base point somewhere to the sides? Do teachers need to change the way we teach because the culture has changed, or should we fight it and try to save reading and literacy in a culture which seems to care less about intelligence and expression and more about entertainment and indifference?

If I read a book and no one is around to see me read it, was it ever read?