If you're my age , the first thing you think about when you hear Tony Danza's name is the show Who's The Boss? Honestly, I remember nearly nothingIf you're my age , the first thing you think about when you hear Tony Danza's name is the show Who's The Boss? Honestly, I remember nearly nothing about that show except that it was set in Connecticut (which I only remember because that's where I was living when it was on) and that Danza played some kind of live-in... servant? Housekeeper? For a divorced career woman?
Hold on, let me check Wikipedia to see if I even got that much right.
I did? Oh, good.
Anyway, Danza kind of slipped out of my cultural viewfinder for a long while, so I was surprised to hear that he had not only written a book, but had done a stint as a teacher in a Philadelphia high school. Being a teacher myself, I was interested to see what his impressions were. He was, after all, coming to it from a very different background than most teachers, and with a different set of perspectives. On top of that, he had been convinced to do it as part of an A&E reality show - something I certainly don't approve of. Not just because the business of running a reality show would interfere with the class, or because they take work away from actors like my brother , but because I think reality shows are a scourge upon modern television.
After going through training and orientation, Danza was put in charge of a double-period English class in Northeast High School in Philadelphia. It's a huge public school - about 3,600 students - and is made up of kids from radically diverse backgrounds. Some kids were motivated and hard-working, others saw school as an imposition on their lives. Some kids had stable, supportive families, some kids were being bounced from foster home to foster home. To say that Danza had his work cut out for him would be an understatement. He not only had to find ways to engage the students (a buzz-phrase that he - and every other teacher - would come to resent at some level) and make sure they were all committed to their education, but also handle the byzantine bureaucracy that comes with running a school, the politics of the teachers' office, union issues, getting parents involved, and negotiating the complex moods and interrelationships of hundreds of teenagers. He very quickly learned that being a teacher not only involves a significant investment of time and energy, but also of emotion.
Reading through the book, there were a lot of moments where I nodded in complete understanding. Like Danza, I teach literature in a couple of my classes. He was working on making Of Mice and Men and To Kill a Mockingbird relatable to his students through constant activities and lecture sessions. I do the same with the books I teach. I might have the kids work on a timeline, or produce a short skit based on the story. They might make a poster or even a movie, if we have the time and the ideas for it.
He often runs afoul of the basic principles of being a teacher in such a large community. For example, there's a section where he takes the students on a field trip to Washington D.C. It's a wonderful excursion and the kids have a great time, but when he returns he gets a wrist-slapping because he hadn't notified any of the kids' other teachers that they would be gone. As far as the rest of the school was concerned, the kids had skipped class. Danza's response was, "Well, I just assumed..." And that's where I felt very close kinship with him. One of the things I learned very, very fast when I started this job was to assume nothing. And that's hard to do, because the school assumes everything.
In another section, the school is practicing for the big achievement tests that will basically determine the school's status as a failing or a successful school. During one of the tests he's proctoring, Danza goes out to get more calculators, and is immediately ripped into by the teacher who's running the test. This teacher says that if it had been the real test, Danza's carelessness could have invalidated the whole thing, costing the school time and money, and running the risk of making it a "Renaissance School" (a nice euphemism for a school that's failing so hard it has to be gutted and re-staffed from top to bottom.) My first thought when I read that was that the teacher in charge clearly didn't communicate the testing protocols clearly enough - he just assumed every teacher would know what to do.
I think a large reason for this is because of the incredible investment in mental and emotional energy that every teacher must make if they're going to do their jobs properly. As human beings with puny human meat brains, there are only so many things we can keep track of at any given time, and for most teachers their students occupy the largest chunk of that attention. When you're thinking about a hundred kids or more, invested in the success or failure of each and every one of them, remembering who does and who doesn't know about some administrative detail is pretty far down on your list of things to care about. Near the end of the book, when Danza was asked if he would be interested in coming back the next year, he said, "At my age, I'm not sure I want to care this much about anything." And the teacher he's talking to just smiles and says, "That's what it takes."
And it's true, that is what it takes. No one else would do it otherwise. Throughout the book, Danza looks at the reality of his colleagues' lives and compares it to the public perception of teachers in the media of the day. The fact is that teachers are in incredible positions of responsibility, yet they don't gain nearly as much respect and admiration (and money) as they deserve. When the students succeed, people praise their parents and their homes. When they fail, they blame the teachers, or call them "glorified babysitters." Programs like No Child Left Behind added to the already unbearable burdens of teachers by creating the constant threat of unemployment should the schools not pass a set of standardized tests that may or may not have anything to do with what the kids are already learning.
I could go on, but I won't, since I have another blog where I bitch and moan about things that make me angry. What I will leave with is this - Danza did this as part of a reality show, one that was just as massaged, ordered, and manipulated as any other, though perhaps a little less than most. He was luckier than most at Northeast - only two classes a day instead of five, and he got the room with air conditioning, thanks to the influence of his network. His kids were chosen for the class, and he did the job without the threat of his career being brought to an ignominious end by some bureaucratic federal process. His experience was in no way representative of the other teachers at Northeast High or in fact many other teachers around the world.
All that said, however, it is clear on every page of this book that he cared deeply about the kids in his class and their progress. He cared about how the school worked, about how the other teachers viewed him, and about how the parents were - or were not - involved in their children's lives. He almost immediately identifies and begins to struggle with one of the hardest problems in teaching - how to make the kids understand that they must be invested in their education. As easy as it is to tell a teacher that he or she must "engage the students," it is just as important that the students engage themselves. Throughout the book, Danza looks for ways to do this, and it's a constant theme.
I finished the book with no doubt in my mind that Danza did the project in good faith and with full devotion to duty, just as any other first-year teacher would have done. He struggled and triumphed just as any teacher would do, and his sincerity comes across on every page. The title, too, resonated with me immediately, since that's exactly what I thought when I started teaching. On top of all that, he cries almost constantly, something I've never done in my career, so he's one up on me.
It's a fast read, and very familiar to anyone who's become a teacher or knows a teacher, no matter where you are. Plus, there are a ton of ideas to steal, which is a tradition amongst teachers around the world, so I'm grateful for that.
------ "Teachers and students need help, not accusations and pay cuts. They need to be a national priority, not an experiment stuck into a late time slot and then canceled for underperforming." - Tony Danza, I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had
When I was a kid, my father had the entire Time/Life science series. For you young whippersnappers, Time/Life books were educational series that coverWhen I was a kid, my father had the entire Time/Life science series. For you young whippersnappers, Time/Life books were educational series that covered all kinds of topics - history, science, literature, you name it. The idea was that you sign up and they send you books, once a month, until the series was finished or you decided you no longer wanted to receive it.
The Science series focused on, of course, science, with books devoted to every facet of physics, medicine, chemistry, biology.... It was a fantastic compendium of human knowledge in those pre-internet days, and I just loved it. I learned about how traveling at lightspeed squashes things by reading a story about spies chasing each other on the Lightspeed Express. I learned about how different drugs affect the mind and body. I learned about how important the wheel was, what water could do, and how the food we eat determines almost everything about our lives.
My favorite volume of all of them was titled Matter, and it was about all the stuff there is. At the center of it was a pictorial representation of all the elements known to science in 1968. Everything from Hydrogen to Uranium and beyond. I could pore over those pages for hours, amazed by the idea that these things were all there was, made up everything around me. Learning that just six of them (Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Calcium and Phosphorus) made up most of, well, me was just mind-bending.
I don't know where that book is now - probably in a box at my mother's house - but the effect that it had on me has lasted ever since my childhood. In fact, as I was researching this review, I found the place that sells coins stamped from elemental metals and got completely distracted by the struggle to not buy any of them. So that's how Time/Life made me into a science nerd. Nevertheless, I was thrilled when I saw this book, and had to snap it up as soon as I could. It cost a whole lot less than a 1/10 troy ounce Rhodium coin
Theodore Gray is an element hunter - something I didn't even know existed when I was a kid. He has made a hobby of trying to collect samples of every element that is is possible to (legally) own, and he's even built a special table to hold them all. A periodic table, as it were, which won him the IgNobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002. He and Nick Mann went through the collection to make outstanding, high-quality photographs and compile them into a fantastic book about "everything you can drop on your foot."
It starts, of course, with a basic rundown of what an element is - a substance made of only one type of atom - and what the Periodic Table is - an organization of the elements by their common properties. There's also a page explaining the physics behind the shape of the table, what an "electron filling order" is, and why the atomic emission spectrum is so important. Fortunately for us non-professionals, he does this is a way that is amusing and understandable. Gray knows that his audience isn't professional chemists or grad students - it's people like me. People who are fans of science, but who, for one reason or another, never got into the real nitty-gritty of it. All of this means that it's a book you can enjoy even if you remember nothing from high school chemistry other than "BIFF=WANG." [1:]
The book starts, of course, at hydrogen, the element that makes the sun burn ("Even at night," alleges the author, but I'll believe that when I see it) and ends with Ununoctium, which will no doubt get a proper name once those crazy kids in the high-energy physics lab get around to assembling it. It includes the spectre of the modern age, Uranium, and its evil twin Plutonium. There's Carbon, without which none of us would be here, and Arsenic, which does a fine job of seeing to it that we cease to be. There's Iron, which we use in abundance, and Dysprosium, which has almost no uses that you've ever heard of. Cesium tells us what time it is, and Krypton, which used to tell us how long things were (before we figured out the speed of light.) Strontium and Calcium, Sodium and Americium, Gold, Silver, Copper and Lead - every element is in here, waiting for you.
They're accompanied by wonderful photographs that illustrate the applications of each element, as well as diagrams showing its emission spectrum, crystal structure, and other information that you may or may not be interested in. Regardless of how much you know about chemistry, you should find this to be a fascinating and enjoyable book. Moreover, if you have kids and you want them to be exposed to science in a way that engages their fascination and imagination, then this is the book for you. Just be ready to raise a science nerd, and if they ask for an elemental coin for their birthday, remember - Lead isn't just for toys anymore!
There are times when people recommend books to me, saying "You need to read this," or, "I think you'll enjoy this book," and I take their recommendatiThere are times when people recommend books to me, saying "You need to read this," or, "I think you'll enjoy this book," and I take their recommendation seriously. I'll put it on my Amazon wish list and then go on with my life. If I see it on the bookshelves, and my mood is right, I might pick it up. I take recommendations seriously, of course, but I know that they're usually not imperative, in the same way that, say, a doctor recommends quitting smoking because your lungs resemble overcooked corned beef hash.
In this case, however, the recommendation was done by my stepfather, who gave a copy of this book to everyone for Christmas. Seriously, we were opening presents on Christmas morning, and by the time I picked up his present, the whole room chimed in with, "Three Cups of Tea!" Which, indeed, it was. To me, this counts as high praise and an imperative recommendation. I don't usually buy books for people unless I'm damn sure they'll like it, and I have never bought multiple copies of the same book to give to everyone I know. Even though this was a book I probably never would have bought for myself, I bumped it up in my reading queue and proceeded to devour it in a few days.
Now I understand.
This is the story of Greg Mortenson, an American man with a passion for climbing, and his story begins with a failure. He wanted to climb K2, the second-highest peak in the world and arguably one of the toughest, as a tribute to his sister who had died some time before. He attempted the climb in 1993 but did not succeed. Indeed, on his way down the mountain, he got lost, and getting lost in that part of the world was close to a death sentence. In the cold and rarefied air, where he couldn't be certain of living through the night, Mortenson's life was saved by a tiny village called Korphe in northern Pakistan.
The residents of Korphe took in this starving, half-frozen American man and helped him get well enough to return home. They showed a stranger great compassion, sacrificing resources that they would need for themselves in order to help a stranger. That in itself would make for a great story. But what happened while in Korphe is the trigger for everything that came next.
While the elder of the village, Haji Ali, showed his village to their guest, Mortenson was stunned by their poverty. Women and children died young, from diseases and problems that are unknown to us in the west. They had no electricity and no running water, and lived lives that were unforgivably hard. But what struck him hardest was the children trying to learn. They had no school - the government of Pakistan was extraordinarily cheap when it came to funding education in its more far-flung villages - but the children were still trying to learn. They would sit outside in the cold and the wind, scratching their numbers in the dirt, trying to learn the lessons that their part-time teacher left for them.
Upon seeing that, Mortenson made a promise to Haji Ali and the village of Korphe: he would build them a school.
I imagine that, looking back on that moment, Mortenson himself is probably amazed by how radically those few words - "I will build a school." - would change not only his life, but the lives of thousands more people around the world.
The book is an account of how Mortenson went about building the school for Korphe, and what resulted from that effort. Just getting that school built was a challenge, financially, personally and spiritually. In addition to the basic fund raising problems that would accompany any such effort, he also had to deal with haggling in a foreign land, keeping other villages from stealing his resources to build schools for themselves, religious fatwas against him, and the discovery that before he could build a school, he would have to study up on bridge-building. Indeed, even once he got all the material into the village, there were cultural divides that put the whole process in jeopardy.
In order to fulfill his promise to Haji Ali and the people who had helped make the school possible, Mortenson had to learn how to work with the people of northern Pakistan, and that's where the story gets interesting. He did not come to them as a savior. He came to them as a partner. He paid special attention to observing their customs and respecting their ways. Though not a Muslim, Mortenson learned how to pray as a Muslim and how to use the tenets of Islam to ensure that he didn't sabotage his own efforts. He made it very clear that the school he built - and all the schools that came afterward - were not his schools. They were built by and belonged to the people of those villages, the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan. By helping them help themselves, Mortenson became a figure of hope for many remote and uneducated parts of Central Asia.
His charitable works aside, there is another level to this story, one that the writers take great pains to illustrate.
When 9/11 hit, many people's first reactions - including mine - were rage. And we thought of our response the way nations throughout history have: a violent one. Planes and guns and bombs, that's what would show them who's boss! But as time passed, and the initial rage wore down, it became pretty clear that violent retaliation probably wouldn't work on the kind of people who were willing to kill themselves in the name of ideology. There was no way that military attacks would eradicate terrorism. They might allow us to reduce their resources and their personnel, and it looks really good on CNN, but the root causes of terrorism would remain: ignorance and hatred.
I remember telling someone that if we want to stop terrorism, we have to eliminate the reasons for terrorism. We have to educate people and raise their hopes for the future. We have to show them an alternative to the mullahs and the radicals and show them that it is better to raise themselves up than to tear other people down.
Naturally, in a post-9/11 world, I was mocked for my bleeding-heart, peacenick ideas and told that I didn't know anything about anything.
I am gratified to know that I was not the only one thinking that, and even more grateful to know that people like Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute were working with the same goal in mind. By building schools where there were none, by educating women and girls and teaching them to honor their own goals and potential, and by engaging with the vast majority of non-terrorist residents of Central Asia, Mortenson has probably done far more to promote peace in that corner of the world than any military force could. He has not only helped people help themselves, he has shown the compassionate, generous side of America that the proponents of radical Islam ignore. Thousands of students have passed through those schools, which means that there are thousands fewer people who might be willing to die in the name of a warped terrorist ideology.
It's a great book, which opens a vivid window into a part of the world that most Westerners greatly misunderstand. It illustrates the wide variety of cultures and peoples that live in Central Asia, and the cultural history that has given rise to such a potential for conflict. The writing is very engaging, and there were a few points where I thought that the landscape descriptions were worthy of Tolkien - high praise indeed, I should think.
However, if I do have one problem with the book, it does fall with the writing. Aside from its melodramatic turns from time to time (when Mortenson gives a speech to a nearly empty room, you can practically hear the violins in the background), there's a bias problem that bothered me. From the very beginning, Mortenson's co-author, David Relin, admits that he supports Mortenson's agenda in Central Asia. That would be fine if he weren't presenting himself as a journalist, but since he is, I spent most of the book wondering how much of the drama was polished up to make for a more compelling story (which would, in turn, lead to more public support for Mortenson).
Indeed, Relin tells in his introduction how Mortenson gave him a list of enemies, saying, "Talk to them, too." But the only actual criticism of Mortenson came from some CAI colleagues who said, in essence, "He just works too darn hard!" Any other enemies of Mortenson's were either non-existent or caricatured, like the mullahs who brought their gangs of toughs to try and stop the building of schools. The opposition to his work was used as a set up to remind us how awesome he was. For example: several times, local religious leaders pronounced fatwas against Mortenson and his organization. Mortenson's supporters in Pakistan then turned to the highest Islamic court in Qom, Iran, for their judgment in the matter. In what was admittedly a very dramatic scene, the court's decision was revealed: Mortenson's work was the kind of work that Allah would have any Muslim do, and there was to be no opposition by any Shia against him.
And that was that. As far as we, the readers, know, those angry mullahs just said, "Oh. Okay then, where shall we lay the foundation?"
Other than the somewhat messianic tone of the book towards Mortenson, I found it very compelling and enjoyable. It's good to know that there are people like him out there, who are so single-minded in the pursuit of doing the right thing that they will overcome any obstacle in their path to see that it is done. It is also a refreshing view of an all-too-often misunderstood part of the world, a place which we really do need to understand if we ever want to bring the age of terror to a close.
So, I recommend this book. I may even put it up on Bookmooch to see that it gets around. But if you're feeling bleak about the future of the United States' relationship with the rest of the world, this will make you feel a little better. Go read....more
If you've known me for more than a little while, you know that one of my great loves in this world is science. Even though I tend to get stymied by thIf you've known me for more than a little while, you know that one of my great loves in this world is science. Even though I tend to get stymied by the math, and I probably couldn't call up all the right data from my head at the right time, it is the idea of science and the stories of science that truly interest me. Just the fact that we live in a universe where it is possible to know how things work, where we can devise a way to look at the whole of creation, from things so large that they defy imagination to things so small that they can barely be said to exist at all. Science is imagination put into practice against the universe, and as much fun as stories and myths are, as hope and prayers may be, science is the best, most reliable way for us to come to grips with the Cosmos.
It is to Carl Sagan that I owe this love of what humans have done with ourselves.
When I was a kid, my father had a copy of Cosmos, and, since I was but a child, I never really read it. I tended more to flip through it for the interesting pictures - the speculative Jovian life forms on pages 42 and 43, the Viking photos of Mars in chapter 5, the gorgeous paintings of the views from other worlds around other stars, the photos of nebulae and galaxies, all of these things fascinated me, and if I had been a bit more patient I would have found out about them. But I was a kid, so that can be excused. What the book did for me was to open my mind to a universe of possibilities that were all within our reach, or at least would be someday.
As I got older, I saw the TV miniseries of the same name on PBS. Now the pictures that I had lingered over in the book were right before me, accompanied by Sagan's soothing baritone. His ship of the imagination somehow managed to take us unfathomable distances from our home and bring us back again. He talked to his viewers like we were intelligent adults, fully capable of understanding and appreciating the vast scope of scientific discovery rather than a bunch of attention-deficit teenagers who couldn't be trusted to keep watching without a jump-cut every ten seconds. Carl Sagan believed, despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, that human beings were capable of overcoming our barbaric pasts and forging a bright new future together in the stars.
The purpose of Cosmos, both the book and the TV show, was to educate. It was, as Sagan put it, "to engage the heart as well as the mind," perhaps to help shed the image of science as a cold and passionless pursuit. He wanted to show how science became what is is, from the ancient scientist/philosophers in Ionia and Alexandria all the way up to the engineers and astronauts working at NASA. It's all part of a long chain of knowledge that ties human history together and which engages one of our deepest desires: to know how the universe works.
Each chapter focuses on a different theme of knowledge - from the way the planets form and what they're like to the nature of the furthest reaches of space. He starts with how Eratosthenes measured the world with just a shadow and some math, and how the ancient thinkers of Alexandria were asking the same questions about the nature of the Earth that we ask today. He follows the tortured path of Johannes Kepler in his quest to understand how the planets move, the arrogant brilliance of Newton as he completely redefined the clockwork of the cosmos, and the casual miracle that Einstein pulled off when he told us that not only are we not the center of the universe but that there is no center. Each great mind led to another.
Unfortunately, each setback cost us what may be valuable time. For all his wonderment, he understood how petty and ignorant human beings could be. From the beginning, and at various points in the book, he reminds us of the millennium we lost with the destruction and corruption of the ancient thinkers of the Mediterranean. As far as we can tell, the men and women who made their home in Alexandria were investigating questions and scientific problems that would have changed the way we understand the world. If the library hadn't been burned down, if religious terror hadn't murdered scientific insight, who knows where we would be today? It's impossible to know, but it's tempting to think that we might have been well on our way to the stars by now.
The latter chapters underscore that theme pretty heavily, reminding us over and over again that we have one world, and only one world. Not only does Sagan fear that we could obliterate ourselves with the nuclear weapons we love and fear so much, but he also fears that self-annihilation may be a natural outcome to any intelligent civilization. Our search for intelligent life on other worlds may be fruitless, because they might be just as self-destructive as we are.
But we don't know. We can't know, at least not yet. Our understanding of the universe is still not clear enough, our technology is still not good enough, and perhaps it never will be. But for all our stumbles and failures, Sagan wants us to remember and understand just how much humanity is capable of, and how good we could be if we really put our minds to it. And in that sense, there is a lot of value to reading it now, thirty years after it was published.
While we have not eliminated nuclear weapons, we have made great strides towards controlling them and reducing their numbers. The hopes that Sagan had for future space exploration - Mars rovers, a probe to Titan, contact with comets - have all been made real, and with outstanding results. We know that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor impact - something that Sagan is clearly unsure of at the time of writing. We have mapped the human genome and developed personal computers that have revolutionized the way we explore space. With the internet, any person on earth can catalog galaxies or explore the moon, there have been advances in nanotechnology and materials and bioengineering and evolution that would have made even Sagan's eyes pop.
Despite all our flaws, we continue to advance. We continue to build knowledge upon knowledge and to further our understanding of how the universe works. Maybe we will one day leave this planet ourselves, perhaps just for a visit or perhaps to start a new world. Maybe if we persist in our quest to comprehend the world we live in, to shut out the howling and screaming of the voices of unreason, we can make the world a better place for generations to come.
In the great argument that is raging these days between the rationalists and the believers, the faithful and the atheists, it has become fashionable to try and shout the other side down. To adopt a position that excludes compromise and promises only defeat for one side or another. Sagan never would have wanted that, and I think he hit upon a solution that needs to be revisited.
Rather than try to turn people to science through cold logic or heated words, through derision and coercion and fear, do as Sagan did: win them over with wonder. The cosmos is too big, and there is too much to know to waste our time with petty arguments and pointless feuds. If you want people to appreciate science, turn to people like Sagan, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, or Phil Plait, or Michio Kaku, or Bill Nye, or Adam Savage, people whose enthusiasm and love of science will instill people with wonder, one person at a time. And it is in that way that we will go furthest towards ensuring humanity's place among the stars.
---------------------------------------------------- "Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another." - Carl Sagan, Cosmos
 In the interest of fairness, I tried to come up with female scientists who were at the forefront of popularizing science with the public. I drew a blank. If you know some, please let me know so I can put them on the list.......more