Wednesday, November 28, 2007

We Are the Stories We Tell

A new piece I wrote for WBEZ concerns some of the main topics of our first semester -- Puritans, storytelling, character, and identity. (I even mention our class by name!). The essay is about two pages long:

It turns out the stiff-collared Puritans of Salem may have understood the current college essay process better than any of us could have imagined. I made this discovery earlier this fall when I taught a college essay workshop for nervous seniors one period and taught an American Studies class the next. That’s when it hit me: the college essay process is eerily similar to the Puritan conversion experience.

In order to enter the “community of the saved” Puritans believed in the power of the "Conversion Experience", a story told before a community of elders who are already saved. To join the saved community, young supplicants were asked to tell a story about an epiphany – a time when they were made aware of their prior ignorance or depravity and how they had subsequently come to see the light. Sound familiar?

Most college essays follow the same pattern. “I never really noticed homeless people until I spent a day at a soup kitchen with my scout troop.” Or: “I never defined myself as an athlete until I lost my starting spot on varsity. Now I know see that sportsmanship matters more than playing time.”

I don’t mean to sound cynical about my students’ essays, but they do follow a predictable pattern. It’s a story type Kurt Vonnegut called “Man in Hole.” And, according to Vonnegut, it goes like this: “Somebody gets in trouble, gets out of it again” and winds up better than they were before. This is not an accident, Vonnegut says, since “this is encouraging to readers.” This formula leads hopeful students to scramble for worthy conversion experiences of their own – deep enough holes they’ve climbed out of.

Last summer in a college essay workshop I was leading, Elizabeth lamented that other students had it easy. Jun-Young had worked with AIDS orphans in Ethipoia; Tyler had picked nits out of a homeless man’s hair in downtown Managua. Marnie’s mother died last year. Though Elizabeth’s complaint sounds absurd at first, it also raises profound questions.

Without experiencing such loss and destitution first hand, how can Elizabeth demonstrate her essential goodness, her worthiness to join the collegiate ranks, our community of the saved? Can the conventions of college essay writing allow Marnie to write about her devastating loss honestly without the pretense of being better and stronger for having lost her mother? Or should she choose a less significant topic in order to satisfy the narrative trajectory a college might want to see?

Essays are just one factor in college admission. Yet, while many teenagers spend weeks or even months fretting over their college essays, admissions officers tell me they spend an average of 3 minutes reading them. Some schools, such as the University of Iowa, have eliminated personal essays altogether since the manpower required to read the essays, even briskly, is staggering. The University of Wisconsin, for example, will receive around 25,000 applications this year. So, they quickly scan each piece to “measure writing competence and to glimpse the applicant’s character.” But is a storyline – especially one mediated by an army of writing tutors – a true glimpse of character?

Elizabeth, the girl who couldn’t find a suitably heroic topic ended up writing about a surprise win in a summer camp kick ball game – not a momentous topic, but the upset win satisfies the trajectory of triumph. Marnie, on the other hand, struggled with authenticity. She rejected an early draft in which she “became stronger” as a result of her mother’s death, but she also shied away from admitting she was still a wreck. Her essay now ends with Marnie’s hope that she can “find the strength [her] mother showed.”

Will these essays -- these glimpses into students’ character -- help their bid for admission? The students I’ve coached this year will need to wait a few more months to find out whether they, too, can join the community of the saved.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

U.S. Constitution Assessment

Please watch this video, used with kind permission from Stanford Law Professor, Lawrence Lessig. A link to a transcript of this portion of his talk should appear on the right. Note any vocabulary words you struggled to understand and please bring them to class.

We will be discussing and critiquing this provocative argument, along with an excerpt from Gore's book, The Assault on Reason as one way to better understand the US Constitution.

Do you agree with his thesis? In order to answer that question, you will need to bring your textbook to class, or at least bring an unabridged copy of the US Constitution with you every day this week. What parts of the Constitution seem most relevant to this inquiry?

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Each of the Perilous Presentations thus far has drawn parallels between the events of The Crucible and latter day witch hunts: critics of the government, Communists, Japanese-Americans, gays in the military, etc. (You might be interested to learn, by the way, that the phrase "witch hunt" was first used with political connotations by George Orwell -- author of 1984 and Animal Farm -- in the 1930's).

Today's New York Times features a horrifying front page article on actual witch hunts going on in Africa right now. Think about who is targeted/accused and how they are dealt with.


As you enjoy your days off due to Parent-Teacher Conferences and the Institute Day, pay special attention to these news stories that were the subject of previous postings by our entire AiS community, including parents.

Moment of Silence: "A federal court judge Wednesday found that a new state law ordering a moment of silence for prayer or reflection at the start of the school day was 'likely unconstitutional.'"

Morton West Expulsions: "Finally, reason has prevailed at Morton West High School. The students who protested against the Iraq war and military recruiters at their school will not face expulsion.

This week, they will finish serving suspensions ranging from five to 10 days for locking arms in their school cafeteria and singing "Give Peace a Chance" and "Kumbaya." They learned that civil disobedience sometimes requires sacrifice."

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Textbook Tug-of-War

This week's On the Media features a report on an ambitious textbook analysis at Stanford University that asks some of the same questions we've asked in AIS. Project directors wonder why, for example, American textbooks offer extensive coverage of Pearl Harbor; whereas, Korean and Japanese textbooks offer a single sentence of coverage. Similarly, the Japanese textbooks ignore or grossly downplay atrocities they perpetrated on the Chinese.

The project hopes to offer "a comparative examination of high school history textbooks in China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States, focusing on the period from 1931-1951. This will be followed by a second comparative study of popular cinema dealing with historical subjects from roughly the same period."

Can a multi-national examination of history from multiple perspectives arrive at the truth? Can projects like this bring about reconciliation between nations? How long should nations wait before undertaking such projects? How long is too long?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Perilous Times/Can It Happen Here?

A recent anti-war protest at Morton West H.S. in Berwyn (a school I taught at for two years) has met with severe repercussions including suspensions and expulsions. I am pasting a report of the incident I found on-line beneath my words here. (A follow-up report appears in today's Tribune)

Ask yourself if you think the students' civil liberties were violated, and more locally, how you feel about the punishment. Here are some other questions I've been asking myself: What would happen at New Trier if a similar protest were held? To what extent is the war being discussed and debated here, and is this level of discussion and debate sufficient?

According to this morning's New Trier News, only six of some 1000 graduates from the NT class of 2007 joined the military after high school. At Morton the numbers are much greater. Some of the students I taught felt college was well beyond their means financially and many told me they felt they were "not college material" since no one in their family had ever gone to college. To what extent does social class determine not only who joins the military but also who discusses the war?

Now the article:

Morton West High School Expulsion
Over 30 anti-war protesters at Morton West High School in Berwyn face expulsion for a demonstration at the school on Thursday.
Scores of Students Face Expulsion Due to Sit-in Berwyn, IL

November 06, 2007

Over 70 students participated in a sit-in against the Iraq War on All Saint's Day, Thursday, November 1st. It began third hour when dozens of students gathered quietly in the lunchroom at Morton West High School and refused to leave. The administrators and police became involved immediately and locked down the school for a half hour after class ended. Students report that they were promised that there would be no charges besides cutting classes if they took their protest outside so as not to disturb the school day. The students complied, and were led to a corner outside the cafeteria where they sang songs and held signs while classes resumed.

Despite a police line set up between the protestors and the student body, many other students joined the demonstration. Organizers say they chose November first because it is the Christian holy day called the feast of All Saints and a national day of peace. They wrote a letter and delivered it to Superintendent, Dr. Ben Nowakowski who was present at the time, stating the reason for their protest.

Deans, counselors and even the Superintendent tried to change the minds of a few, mainly those students with higher GPA scores to abandon the protest. The school called the homes of many of the protestors. Those whose parents arrived before the end of school and took their students home, or left before the protest ended at the final bell, received 3-5 days suspension. All others, an estimated 37 received 10 days suspension and expulsion papers. Parents report that Nowakowski stated those who are seventeen will also face police charges.

Parents who are frantically trying to spare their child's expulsion flooded the school yesterday to file appeals on the matter. So far, Superintendent Nowakowski has held firm on the punishments. They are expected to find out the results of the appeals on Tuesday. Parents and students report and the school's videotape shown to some of the parents confirms that the students were non-violent in their action.

The protest came on the heels of a recent incident on October 15th, when a student reported hearing that another student had a gun on campus. The story of the eyewitness was deemed unreliable and the school was not locked down. Later that week (October 19), the Berwyn police, acting on a tip arrested one of the youths originally questioned for gun possession and he allegedly confessed to carrying an unloaded semi-automatic handgun that day. All these issues, plus the expected announcement of whether uniforms will be established in the school should make the next Board of Education meeting on Wednesday at 7:00pm at the Morton East campus very well-attended.

Click HERE for the Superintendent's statement on the matter.

Monday, November 05, 2007

AiS - "The Searchers"

Wednesday is a special day for American Studies. We are visiting the city of Chicago to see a stage version of The Crucible. (photo on left)

But first we will return to a theme discussed at the beginning of the semester: the Native American presence in American history. Through various works of public art (see slideshow on right), we will search for the "hidden" images of American Indians among the most travelled and viewed places in the city of Chicago. Use the map below to prepare for your search. Click "View Larger Map" in order to navigate this map more easily.

As you view these works of public art, think back to our analysis of the National Archives photos during the first week of school. Do you remember what types of questions you asked of these photos? Based on what you've learned about perspective and viewpoint, will you ask the same types of questions?

View Larger Map

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Why Does a Salad Cost More than a Big Mac?

Here's a related issue to Doc OC's Omnivore's Dilemma post. It has to do with the so-called "Farm Bill" making its way through Congress. This issue was recently explored by a public interest group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

What types of foods does the US government subsidize?
Meaning, what kinds of farmers or agricultural corporations receive financial aid from the government? The answer actually lies in a question: "Why Does a Salad Cost More than a Big Mac?"
Relatively recently, my family and I have been trying very hard to eat healthier. For years, it was just cheaper to eat fatty, calorie-laden foods, and it showed in its effects on our health and weight. I was 50 pounds overweight, and when I decided to change my poor eating habits, I could hardly believe how much money we had to spend at the grocery store in order to eat well (fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean meats). And I'm not talking about shopping at Whole Paycheck, um...Foods, either!

Want proof? The next time you go to the grocery store, check the price of 99% extra lean ground turkey, and compare it to an equivalent amount of regular (fatty) ground beef. What other odd pricing structures have you noticed?