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One morning in a OneGoal class at a Chicago high school I watched as the school’s college counselor ran through a list of increasingly obscure scholarships.

"Is anyone here Greek?" she asked. Twenty-five black and Latino faces looked back at her skeptically. "Do we have any multiracial students?" she asked hopefully.

"Yeah," replied one impeccably dressed African American boy, deadpan. "South Side black and West Side black."

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— from Paul Tough’s new book, How Children Succeed.

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"[What are the mistakes you make?] First of all, nonsense characterization. The dullest, wet-noodle characteristics and behaviors and thoughts and interests are ascribed to the characters. These 80-year-old, left-in-the-sun newspaper-brittle conflicts—where the conflicts are so ridiculously subatomic that you have to summon all the key members of CERN to detect where the conflict in this piece is. It just goes on, man. You know, I force it, and by forcing it, I lose everything that’s interesting about my work."

— Junot Díaz, interviewed in the New York Times Magazine issue on inspiration.

(Source: The New York Times)

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Exploring ways to write about classroom instruction

I wrote a story on small changes to New York State’s mathematics teaching and learning standards, and it quickly became one of our most viewed stories ever.

This was a big surprise. The story is not especially sexy or political, but it is one of just a few journalistic looks at a national education policy that impacts teachers in almost every state: the adoption of the Common Core Standards. The lede and nut graphs are below:

This year, Jackie Xuereb is teaching her sixth grade math students how to add and subtract fractions with unlike denominators. But next year, new standards will call for students to know that information before they enter her class.

Xuereb, a sixth grade math teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School, is among the city math teachers preparing to swap the state’s learning standards for the Common Core this fall. And like many, she is struggling to keep the two sets of standards straight as the new standards move some topics an entire grade-level earlier than in the past.

"A lot of what used to be sixth grade standards are now taught in fifth grade," Xuereb said. "I feel that I’m going to have to be really mindful and cognizant of this in my planning for next year. The kids are going to have these huge gaps."

New York City piloted the Common Core standards in 100 schools last year and asked all teachers to practice working with them this year. Next year, every teacher in every elementary and middle school will be expected to teach to the new standards, and state tests will be based on them.

Department of Education officials have argued that a full-steam-ahead approach is required because moving slowly would deprive students of the Common Core’s long-overdue rigor. But some say that this approach will pose a special challenge for math teachers, particularly in the middle school years, as students begin learning advanced concepts that build on each other sequentially.

(Read the rest here)

Since becoming an education reporters, I’ve found one of the toughest parts of the job is writing about classroom instruction. I’m not trained to observe teachers or judge their methods and I’ve never taught, so I’m trying to find creative ways to tell readers, many of whom are teachers, what others are doing in the classroom.

Here’s another recent attempt—a “live-blog” of an eighth grade math class, with corresponding commentary from the teacher, who recapped the lesson with me after class.

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Life in two cities

The writer Thomas Beller knows how I feel. He splits his time between New York City, the place he calls home, and New Orleans, the place where he has a house.

I split my time between Chicago—my first love, the place of dozens of friendships, loves, memories, streets and storefronts that would embrace me if they could—and New York City, ostensibly my home because it’s where I have an apartment, a job, a hopeful future.

When I am here, I am straining to meet professional expectations and embody the lifestyle traits of other college-educated 20-something women. It’s the fabled Big City life you can see mocked and aggrandized everywhere on TV right now.

When I am there, everyone wants to know how long I’ve been there, when I’m leaving, whether I have time for coffee or lunch or something else. I never have enough time but there’s always another visit lurking two to eight weeks around the corner. One friend says he sees me more now that I’ve moved out. (Maybe that’s just because I really like his company).

Beller gets it (From the NYTimes magazine):

The question, “Are you still here?” made me feel like I was being rushed at a nice restaurant. If you divide your time between two distant points on a map, “here” is a loaded word. …

The first notable, strange thing about living in two places is that whenever you are “here,” you carry within you a “there.”…

The new Yorkers miss us at first when we leave, and greet us warmly when we return. In between, they have lives of which we are not part. Did they think of us any less than they would have if we were 20 blocks away? Maybe not, because we are still in touch by phone and email, and actually seeing someone is a rare occurrence. But maybe yes. Without really noticing the change, my wife and I had come to look at our New York friendships as hothouse flowers, lovely indulgences in need of sun and water.

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Last week I went to a literary celebration hosted by the Rumpus and Housing Works Books. I act very awkward around great authors, but I was still able to get a few books signed. You Must Go and Win was the first book I bought and read in New York City this summer, and its story of Alina Simone’s move to the city to pursue an indie music career oddly comforted me at the time.

Last week I went to a literary celebration hosted by the Rumpus and Housing Works Books. I act very awkward around great authors, but I was still able to get a few books signed. You Must Go and Win was the first book I bought and read in New York City this summer, and its story of Alina Simone’s move to the city to pursue an indie music career oddly comforted me at the time.

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Ben visited this weekend. I convinced him to take a (4 mile!) run with me through Central Park yesterday afternoon. It’s the farthest he’s ever run, and he reminded me of this every half mile or so.
When we finished, we walked to the farmers market at 79th and Columbus and had brunch at Josie’s, all the while shivering in our jogging shorts. I think this is the start of a beautiful Sunday hobby.

Ben visited this weekend. I convinced him to take a (4 mile!) run with me through Central Park yesterday afternoon. It’s the farthest he’s ever run, and he reminded me of this every half mile or so.

When we finished, we walked to the farmers market at 79th and Columbus and had brunch at Josie’s, all the while shivering in our jogging shorts. I think this is the start of a beautiful Sunday hobby.

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The street was lined with spectators and I could hear the wave of surprise as I passed; they were talking excitedly and exclaiming with amazement …

And I thought: Not today. If you’re looking for people who are out of their country, out of place, out of step, out of shape, awkward, clumsy; if that’s what you’re looking for, look back there. Look for the ones who started too fast, or the men who have smoked too many Magnificent Sound cigarettes, or the people who are wearing too many clothes and are choking with heat and sweat. Don’t look at me—I’ve been doing this for many years in many places, and always it has been exactly the same. There are no referees, no language barriers, no complicated rules of etiquette. All you do is run.

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— Peter Hessler, on running a race in China, in his memoir River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

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Great Google Street View joke in the last one.

Great Google Street View joke in the last one.

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"I think I was the first to learn about the work in progress that was to make [Edward] Albee’s Broadway reputation two years later. He told me that he was calling it Exorcism and that it dealt with “two couples in the course of a degrading, drunken two a.m. party. The older couple have created a fantasy child of nineteen, whom they drag out to advance their divergent viewpoints. The father eventually decides the child must be exorcised.” With a wan smile, he added, “I have a subtitle for it. It is, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”"

— Arthur Gelb, in City Room, his 600-page memoir of his lifetime working for the New York Times,(from copy boy, to theater critic, to managing editor) a.k.a. my new favorite book obsession.

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Read a book a week

A book a week. For pleasure. Was an idea the University of Chicago had all but beaten out of me by the time I graduated—using Wealth of Nations and the Peloponnesian Wars, thousand-page tomes which, I can say with the certainty of someone who lives clumsily and dangerously, hurt on impact.

But I did it! For the first time in years. I have my new A-train subway commute to thank.

In Chicago we have this little thing called network coverage on all of our subway trains, even underground. This means I could conduct a phone interview for work while riding the Red Line north to Lake View, or catch up with my parents. Maybe New York City has yet to hear about this exciting invention, or is too cheap to pay for it, or its citizens really love that feeling of being trapped underground, pushing against 60-some of your closest neighbors, minutes after fleeing equally cramped apartments, with no one to call or text in distress.

But now I’m wondering if we Chicagoans just haven’t caught up with the New Yorkers, who cleverly realize that the sensory-deprivation tank of a subway car (noise-canceling headphones? Check. Breathing through mouth instead of nose? Done.) might be an ideal place to get some reading done.

Relax, the squeaking car rails say. I’m taking you where you need to go (with maybe 1 or 5 delays), so it’s okay to lean back and give yourself a neck cramp with that 500-page novel. Or straddle a pole in the middle of the car, juggling backpacks and lunch-bags and trying not to bump the crotches and buttocks besides you.

Last week I was reading a collection of essays by folk-rock musician Alina Simone, called You Must Go and Win. I bought it after reading her clever essay on a historic NYC boat tour. This week will be Peter Hessler's River Town: Two Years on the Yangtzeone of only four books I brought with me to NYC, in anticipation of having no time outside of classes at Columbia to read. I’m wondering what else would make appropriate subway reading (criteria include: paperback, lightweight, with a cover that could potential be soiled and still look the same).