Drama High

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Drama High (Photo: Penguin Group US)Full disclosure. I didn’t buy Drama High for myself. I picked it up for Matt, who is directing a spring play, a couple of weeks ago as a Valentine’s Day present. It’s a fascinating portrait of one of America’s best drama teachers, Lou Volpe, who has been asked to pilot high school versions of big-ticket Broadway shows (Rent, Les Miserables and Spring Awakening, to name some of the more controversial ones) from his unassuming school auditorium in Levittown, Pennsylvania during his 40 years on staff.

But of course, I got curious (I’m a huge musical theatre junkie) and started reading. I read all but 70 pages, and then it was Valentine’s Day, so I stopped reading, wrapped it up, gave it to Matt and then promptly asked for it right back so I could finish it (I also got him some Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, so that did soften the blow of me stealing his present just a little bit).

I think maybe it’s partly because I feel like I’m in a much calmer headspace about my career shift than I was last semester when I was still figuring the ins and outs of returning to university as an adult, but I find myself gravitating to a lot of ‘teacher’ books right now (case in point: Tony Danza’s I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had. I’m still talking about it to anyone who will listen). It’s not conscious, but it’s something I’m noticing about myself right now. I guess maybe I’m looking for a little bit of inspiration.

Luckily, Lou Volpe has inspiration in spades. Michael Sokolove is a former student of Volpe’s from his earliest years of teaching, and he’s managed to paint a sensitive, respectful and compelling portrait of a beloved educator. Drama High follows Volpe’s class at Harry S Truman High School during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years with sharp observations. “Confidence is a funny thing in high school. Almost everyone has it in the wrong measure – either too little or too much,” Sokolove writes. Unassuming Volpe has the gift of bringing out the best in his students, which is one of the things that makes him a great teacher.

The New York Times did a really nice review of Drama High when the book first came out. It points out that Sokolove’s personal connection to the story is another reason why it’s such an excellent read. He’s not only a former pupil of Volpe’s, but his kids are also high school-age, which means he has a vested interest in arts education and the impact of heroic teachers.

“What Volpe’s students gain from him is a passion and sense of self unrelated to anything having to do with money, power or status, Sokolove continues. “Nothing matters except what they do together.” Isn’t that what every person, regardless of their profession, should want to achieve in their work? I hope so.

I Am Malala

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I Am Malala (Photo Credit: Hachette Media Group)I Am Malala has been in the headlines a lot this week after promotional events to launch the book at Peshawar University were scrapped in late January. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know about any of this until today, when I finished the book and did a bit of Googling to find out more abut this fascinating and well-spoken young woman.

I didn’t read I Am Malala because of the news headlines this week. Back in the fall, my educational psychology instructor played the Jon Stewart interview with Malala Yousafzai for my class as an end-of-year wrap-up and I added it to my reading list for the holidays. Then, Matt picked up a copy of I Am Malala over the Christmas break and left it with me. I’ve actually been reading it on and off for the better part of the last month. It’s not a difficult read in terms of language, but the subject matter is heavy – after all, she did get shot by the Taliban. I tried to read it before bed a couple of times, but it left me feeling restless and unable to sleep. I guess that’s kind of the point.

What can I say about this incredible, incredible book? At 16, Malala has experienced more than most people will go through in their whole lives, and she has handled incomprehensible adversity with grace, intelligence, confidence and plenty of brains. At 16, I could have written my entire life on a the front and back of a piece of lined looseleaf and there wouldn’t have been very much to say. Malala has enough for an entire book and then some.

At many points, I was moved to tears. “We human beings don’t realize how great God is,” Malala writes. “He has given us an extraordinary brain and a sensitive loving heart. He has blessed us with two lips to talk and express our feelings, two eyes with which to see a world of colours and beauty, two feet which walk on the road of life, two hands to work for us, a nose  which smells the beauty of fragrance, and two ears to hear the words of love.” What an incredible young lady. You can read more about her girls’ education charity, the Malala Fund, here.

In my opinion, there are also two ‘other heroes’ of this story. One is Ziaddin, her dad, who is a passionate advocate for education for girls in a culture where this is definitely not the norm. Malala tells the story of her family – and the history of Pakistan (which I’ll freely admit to being mostly in the dark about before I read this book) – with a graceful matter-of-fact approach and a little bit of sharp, observant humour.

The second ‘other hero’ here is Dr. Fiona Reynolds, who happened to be in Pakistan at the time Malala was shot and risked her own personal safety to travel to Peshawar because she wanted to help an advocate for women’s education. Later, Dr. Reynolds acted as Malala’s legal guardian when she was airlifted to Birmingham for further medical treatment. Around the time I Am Malala first arrived in bookstores, the Huffington Post ran this article on Dr. Reynolds, which I think is a testament to her bravery, quick thinking and huge heart.

The writing in I Am Malala is very raw. You can feel the fear that the Taliban instilled in Malala and her family – and the loneliness of her new life in Britain. That was the thing that struck me the most about this book. Even though Malala is the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, and addressed the United Nations on her 16th birthday (I was too chicken to try for my driver’s license on my 16th birthday, although I did have dinner on a restaurant patio with my friends sans parents, which seemed very grown-up. And very insignificant when compared with all this), really, she’s just a lonely 16-year-old kid who wants to go home and can’t. My heart would break for her, but Malala knows exactly what she is destined to do – inspire people all over the world to take up the cause of education.

“So let us wage our global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism,” she told the United Nations in July last year. “Let us pick up – let us pick up our books and our pens. They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.” Malala’s message is too important to be kept quiet. I encourage everyone to read this beautiful book.

I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had

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Tony Danza (Photo Credit:  Crown Publishing)I don’t know what kind of rock I’ve been living under for the past few years (oh yeah, a big, Australia-shaped rock), but I completely missed that in the fall of 2010, A&E aired a short reality/documentary series called Teach: Tony Danza, which followed Tony Danza as he taught grade 10 English in inner-city Philadelphia for a school year. It’s the kind of thing that’s just random enough, and just awesome enough, that I would have absolutely loved to watch it when it was on.

So when I discovered at work a few months ago that Danza had written a book on his experiences in the classroom, I added it to my mental list of things to read when I got a spare second. And then I promptly forgot about it until Sunday.

I was perusing through the audiobooks when I found a copy of I’d Like To Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had at a markdown price. With my employee discount, it rang in at under $12 – the perfect gamble to take on six hours of entertainment to see me through my road trip to and from Edmonton to visit Matt, who is doing some work there this week.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not always sold on audiobooks. Usually, I can read a lot faster than I can listen – and in the case of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, which was my road trip pick back in November, I sometimes feel my attention begin to wander. But Tony Danza is different. I actually think this story works better as an audiobook than a real book because you can feel his passion and emotion come through more clearly. I’d wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is a teacher, is (like me) studying to become a teacher or who has ever wondered what teachers get up to all day. There’s a great review from the New York Daily News and you can also read an excerpt here if pages, rather than audiobooks, are your preference.

The basic premise is this: In 2009, with a cancelled talk show, a marriage on the rocks and pushing 60, Tony Danza (who has a degree in history, which I didn’t know) decides to become a qualified teacher. Through Teach For America (which I don’t entirely understand but appears to be some sort of summer camp-style program where skilled and qualified professionals do their teacher training), Danza gets the credentials you need to teach in Philadelphia, and then makes his way to Northeast High – one of the city’s largest and most diverse inner-city schools.

I have to give Danza a lot of credit. He is very clear from the outset that even though a reality show is being made about his experience, he is taking his year of teaching very seriously. He’s up at the crack of dawn, coaching football, organizing talent shows, taking his kids on field trips, planning Shakespeare lessons and grading papers. He starts a lunchtime mentorship group, the Half-Sandwich Club, and helps kids with everything from homework to planning birthday parties. And when the reality show is deemed to be ‘not interesting’ enough, Danza refuses to compromise by scripting scenes or manufacturing drama. While the show is cancelled and the camera crew is gone before Christmas, he remains with his class all year, showing staff and students that he’s committed to the experience – and to them.

I spent six hours in the car with this audiobook over the past couple of days and I think it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes, the prospect of becoming a first-year teacher (which, next year, will be reality for me) is really exciting, and other times, it’s scary – especially when, as Danza describes it, it’s a ‘second-act’ career. I’m going into a ‘second-act’ career too and even though I’m pretty young, it’s daunting to start fresh from the beginning again.

I found him really reassuring for a number of reasons, not least of which because he cries a LOT in his year of teaching. I anticipate some tears of my own as I spend more time in classrooms. It’s nice to know that’s sort of normal and that even Tony Danza cries sometimes. It’s also nice to see him use experiences from his first-act careers (as a boxer and an actor) as lessons for his students. I know I’m not pushing 60, but I’m not fresh out of university either and it’s really good to know that the years I spent working really hard, travelling the world, and figuring out which careers worked and didn’t work for me might contain lessons that benefit someone else as much as they have benefitted me. I know that this inspiring and moving book will now start slowly making the rounds – first to Matt and my mom, who are both teachers, and then to my Bachelor of Education friends.

This book also really made me want to go track down the seven episodes of Teach: Tony Danza. Check out the preview below. Doesn’t this look awesome?!

Night

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Night

Matt lent me Night back in November when he was teaching it to his grade 12 class. But with a stack of final papers to write in my last couple of weeks of the term, onto the shelf it went until I had more time to read. This one isn’t exactly a light undertaking.

Then, the high school student I tutor mentioned that she might like to write about Night for her final exam in English and wondered if we could go over it together. Presto! Motivation to read, and read quickly. So last night, I came home and read it all in one sitting.

Night isn’t a long book (it’s just over 100 pages), but it’s a very, very powerful first-person account of life in concentration camps – including Auschwitz – in 1944-45 when Elie Wiesel was just 15 years old. I’m glad they teach it in high schools, because it works really well around Remembrance Day time. Like all Holocaust books, it’s by no means an easy read. It’s really tough going, actually, because the prose is so distilled and the events are so horrific that you have to keep reading right until the end. It was probably a mistake to start it at 10:30 PM the night before the first day of a new semester, because I just had to stay up to finish it. And then, of course, I couldn’t sleep.

But while it’s not a bedtime read, I think books like Night (which won the Nobel Peace Prize) are really important, especially for young people. It is a story of terror and hopelessness, and also of bravery and perseverance. This story is not comfortable, or happy or safe. But it is true, and I have always believed in the value of truth-telling.  There are important lessons to be learned from the past. And it offers up a much-needed reminder of the way all of us should treat each other in the present – with love, respect, tolerance and kindness.

The Witness Wore Red

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The Witness Wore Red (Photo: Hachette Book Group)I’ve been eyeing The Witness Wore Red for a few months now, and last night/this morning I thought I would finally bite the bullet, sit down and read it. It was a huge mistake – not because it’s not great, because it really is – but because it’s so compelling that all the stuff I was going to do today before work (like go to the pool, do all my laundry and organize the rest of my Christmas presents), just got thrown right out the window.

A weird thing that you should probably know about me is that I find the whole issue of the FLDS – the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints – completely fascinating. I’m not entirely sure why, though I know that it started right around the time that I read my dad’s copy of Under The Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer in 2003, right before university. If you haven’t read this, you really should. I’ve read it about four times and it’s a brilliantly-researched, smart and intriguing look into the spin-off sects and subcultures that are rooted in early Mormonism (but have absolutely nothing to do with modern Mormon faith – this is a really, really important distinction).

From there, I read Carolyn Jessop’s Escape and Elissa Wall’s A Stolen Life – both stories of courageous young FLDS women who fled their plural marriages at great personal risk. Both were inspiring for different reasons – Jessop’s because she blazed a trail for other young women to follow (and because she managed to escape the FLDS with all of her children) and Wall’s because I was shocked to discover that Elissa Wall is actually one year younger than me. It’s actually mind-blowingly awful to believe that in modern North America, when I was getting As in English, worrying about my lack of basketball skills and getting ready to go to grade nine dances for lots of sweaty hand-holding, a grade eight girl just a day’s drive from me was being promised in marriage to her own cousin. Why don’t more people know this is going on? Why wasn’t anybody doing anything? I wondered. My heart broke for Elissa.

I also read Jessop’s moving follow-up book Triumph: Life After The Cult while I lived in Sydney – and of course, I’m a huge, huge fan of the HBO show Big Love (Roman and Alby Grant are loosely based on Rulon and Warren Jeffs, and there’s even a scene where Roman Grant watches news footage of Warren Jeffs’ arrest). And I was completely riveted by the 2008 news coverage of the raids on the Yearning for Zion ranch, as well as Warren Jeffs’ 2011 trial. I’m fully aware that this is a really odd thing to be very well read about (in part, I blame my journalism degree). It’s just so interesting and terrible and…well…it just doesn’t seem possible that it continues to happen in post-2000 USA.

If you think all of these other books are great reads – or if you’ve never read anything about the FLDS before – The Witness Wore Red is one of the best first-hand accounts of this culture I’ve come across. Rebecca Musser (who is the sister of Elissa Wall, who I had been wondering about since I read Stolen Innocence) is articulate, resilient and independent – and her keen eye for detail makes for a comprehensive portrait of life in the sect for young women, particularly when she becomes the 19th wife of ‘prophet’ Rulon Jeffs at age 19 (he was in his mid-80s).

For seven years, she faced unspeakable emotional, sexual and physical abuse until her husband died – at which time, the expectation was that she would then marry his son, Warren Jeffs. With nowhere to go and nobody to turn to, she made what might possibly have been the bravest and scariest decision ever – she hopped the fence and escaped, knowing she had no money, resources, education or skills and that she was turning her back on her entire family and the only life she had ever known.

She writes about her experiences immediately after she leaves the FLDS. Rebecca can’t even make a single decision about who she should be, what food she should order on a menu or even what her hair should look like on her own.

But she finds her voice. And what a voice! Rebecca ended up being a key witness when Warren Jeffs and other FLDS leaders finally went to trial over the crimes they had committed against women and children while in positions of power.  She also consulted heavily with the Texas Rangers during the Yearning for Zion raids. It cost her a lot of money, several years of court cases and in the end, even her marriage, but her courageous fight for trapped young women who don’t know that they have voices of their own is a truly inspiring story. Now, she’s an international motivational speaker, and an advocate for human trafficking victims. You should spend some time checking out her website.

The Witness Wore Red is truthful, courageous and hopeful – and a great read. Check out the trailer here: