Monday, December 13, 2010

A Loose Thread

The opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities seem to invoked to characterize every epoch, example and event from the current economic crisis to the disappearance of three young brothers in rural Michigan, from the annual holiday season to a looming journalism publication date.

We've so liberally applied an ever-thinning layer of literary consequence to the most mundane of activities that the effect has worn similarly thin. An overuse of pop literary references is but one of the innumerable reasons to darkly prophesy about the demise of American Culture, but it's not really worth it.

What's kind of worth thinking about is how literature has continued, to whatever faint degree, to pull together an increasingly diverse and, one might argue, disparate group of people - because in high school, they all had to sit in relatively uncomfortable chairs and stare at the words metaphor and symbol on the blackboard and write out quotes that might be useful in supporting their theses and more likely than not, read The Great Gatsby.

Our required reading, although seldom relevant and frequently irksome, means any given student and I share a literary history. If our conversational skills are abysmal enough, we can at least rely on finding common ground about The Awakening's dreadful pacing and how much English teachers tend to enjoy letting their classes in on the "secret" that Shakespeare actually had a relatively foul mouth and a dirty mind (see Romeo and Juliet).

It's not 'elite' to recall literature. We all read it. And odds are, it went something like this.

"Our freshmen schemes, best-laid but undone
Were for the east, and Harvard was the sun.
Then Lords of the Flies at last were we,
Brave New World of living skills and Chem AC.
Puritan dilemmas and APUSH all night
Fed American dreams of Gatsby’s green light.
Then the sun rose on our Neverland of seniority
East of our Edens, footloose, fancy free
This last time will required literature hold us akin.
But soft! – the light beckons! – Let the golden age begin."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Twitter: All in all, a good egg

Conventional wisdom: Twitter is a time-waster for gossip-mongers, vapid celebrities, and other people who a) think people care enough to read how long they cooked their poached egg before sliding it onto their whole wheat toast or b) have so little self-esteem that they enjoy reading how long other people boil their ovoids before devouring.

Now, some of this is true. Twitter, if you check it as often as you do Facebook and email (which you will), takes up time.

It does take comparatively less time, as you're reading life in 140-character morsels and not in seven-paragraph wall posts or (even worse) 14-page Google Doc attachments, but Twitter is a distractor, no doubt about it.

And yes, most of what is on Twitter doesn't matter. (Some tweets don't even make sense.)

But there's something kind of cool about knowing that you can say something and A-N-Y-O-N-E can read it. Creepy, but cool.

Plus, if I were to post (hypothetically....of course) "OMG @msleamichele ur teen choice awards dress was SOOO gorgeous!!", there would be the possibility that she would respond...preferably in the manner of "aww thanks!! u can have it if u want!"

But in all practicality, Twitter is now all but essential in conducting any successful mass-marketing or media campaign - political, personal, or professional.

I happen to know at least one teacher who uses it to post homework for his students, which I happen to think is awesome (and soooo useful!).

There are certainly those (and always will be those) who still think Twitter's a useless time-waster, and they're certainly entitles to their opinion (and may even be a little bit right).

But if you don't mind, I will continue to be the first to know about Bergdorf's new leopard-print booties AND who will be the next guest start on Glee AND why there were sirens outside my window at 3am last night.

Signing off - follow me at @samaratrilling!

...or not. :)

Friday, August 20, 2010

An Endless Realm of Possibility

You know that summer feeling? The one you get when you wake up on the first day of vacation and realize that you have two months ahead of you? The one where you can feel the time stretching out before you and yes, there's an end, but it doesn't matter because there's ALL THIS TIME in front of it?

That feeling can be incredibly wonderful. It can also be one of the single most frightening sensations possible.

The New York Times recently published an in-depth feature characterizing a new stage of life: 20-somethingness, or "emerging adulthood", distinct from adolescence. The story, which will also grace the cover of the upcoming Sunday magazine, paints a "psychological profile" of emerging adulthood, distinguished by "identity exploration, instability, self-focus, feeling in-between and a rather poetic characteristic...'a sense of possibilities.'"

These same qualities apply to an unplanned summer. The joy comes from the possibility that something amazingly wonderful will happen. The anxiety comes from the possibility that nothing will.

Obviously, planning a full summer reduces the impact of these feelings. I spent six weeks studying Arabic at the University of Chicago, and am now able to express my academic goals and meteorological preferences (see below), and I do not feel, as I have in the past, that my summer was wasted.

However, I realized on a profound level that for me, the way to limit the regrets I have about how I spend my summertime - the feeling that I've missed out on so many of the possibilities that were open to me at the beginning - is to do what I want and learn not to criticize my judgment later.

Did I start working on college essays in June and finish all my AP English assignments a week early and read the collected works of Charles Dickens and sign myself up for ballet classes and secure an internship for the year? No.

But I did wake up every morning. I got to class every day at 8:30am. I chilled with some 30-year old grad students and walked to the beach in Chicago and played soccer at midnight and went swimming in a fountain at 2am.

Objectively, I didn't do as much as I could have. I didn't fulfill the majority of possibilities that were open to me.

But I think it was a pretty damn good summer. And that's what matters.

This is my Arabic presentation.
July 19, 2010

.انا أحب مدينتي. الطقس في بالو التو جاميل دايما و ممطر اخيانا فقط. انا يحب الطقس الثلج لكن التقس ثلج ابدا. بالنسبة مها و انا احسن فصل هو
الخريف. نحب هو لان التقس لا حار جدا و لا برد جدا.
انا طالب في مدراسة ثانوية و حذ الصيف انا ادرس بجامعة شيكاغو. سادرس العلوم السياسية و اللغة العربية في جاميعة. الان اندي الصف خمسة ايام في الاسبوع - كل يوم لكن لا السبت و لا الاحد. ايام الصف طويلون و صعبون لكن احب هم. ـ

I like my city. The weather in Palo Alto is always pretty and it is only sometimes rainy. I like snowy weather but the weather is never snowy. According to Maha (the character in our textbook who is the most awesome person ever) and me, autumn is the best season. We like it because the weather is not very hot and not very cold.

I am a student at a high school and this summer I am studying at the University of Chicago. I will study political science and the Arabic language in college. Now, I have class five days a week; every day except for Saturday and Sunday. Class days are long and difficult but I like them.

Monday, June 21, 2010

UChicago for Dummies

This summer, my horizon-broadening method of choice is studying intensive Arabic at the University of Chicago for six weeks. Classes start today and end on June 30 (for me). I’m staying in a dorm with 244 other high school students from around the country (and the world) who are also taking various college courses.

First day of classes! Beginning at 8:30 A.M! The weather is muggy and cloudy.

I was nervous so I only ate a spoonful of yogurt and a couple bites of apple for breakfast. Neither bookstore had the textbook I need, so that sucked.

The professor is cool, though – he’s from Iraq and he told us that if we don’t participate the class will be really boring (and we’ll fail the class because participation and attendance is 25% of our grade).

I was actually really surprised at how much we covered on the first day. We went through the first seven letters of the Alif-Baa and learned how to say “hello” two different ways, “My name is Samara,” “What’s your name?” “Welcome” “I’m sorry” and “thank you.”

Actually, we only learned “I’m sorry” because of me. We were introducing ourselves to the person next to us and I was concentrating so much on saying the right thing that I didn’t look up from my paper at all. I started to turn to the next person and ask them their name and the professor was like, “Samara, you didn’t even look at him.”

So I asked him how to say “I’m sorry” and now we’re all good. I think.

In any case, we don’t need our textbook until Thursday. I ordered it on Amazon.

I’m sitting in the lounge on the first floor with kids from New York City; Memphis, TN and Istanbul, Turkey. Two kids are doing their CompSci homework and dishing about this guy in their class who is hella annoying and really stupid to boot. And he’s an actual University of Chicago undergrad student.

The others are discussing how Stephen Hawking communicates and speculating about his sex life. But in all fairness, three of them are trying to get the fourth guy to stop talking about it.

Direct quote: “Do you ever get sad thinking about how many things you will never be able to understand?”

“No, I get sad because other people are stupid.”

The two kids who are going to be here for 10 weeks are also buying a minifridge from some random guy named Young Choi or something. Our RA said she’d go pick it up from him and bring it back to the dorm.

She’s cool.

Anyhow, signing off now. Tonight we can go to the top of Sears Tower or go see some hipster band in Millenium Park. Our RA group is planning to go to Europe instead. Ciao!

Monday, May 31, 2010

A Gift for the Next Generation

Dear APUSH Class of 2010-11,

Congratulations on signing up for what may be the most challenging - and also the most incredible awesome - class available at Paly. Throughout the course of next year, you will discover the joys of the American Pageant (including Thomas "Long Tom" Jefferson's large hands and feet), bond with your classmates over DBQs at 3 in the morning, and learn more than you thought was possible about an era in which literally nothing happened (thank you, Gilded Age).

The following is my gift to you, for your edification and amusement: an essay I wrote for one extremely stressful test in less than an hour. I believe the essay prompt required students to determine whether foreign policy during the late 1800s and early 1900s was a departure from or continuation of previous policies. Good stuff.

[See below for clarifications.]
1880-1900 Foreign Policy DBQ pg. 1 1880-1900 Foreign Policy DBQ pg. 2 1880-1900 Foreign Policy DBQ pg. 3 1880-1900 Foreign Policy DBQ pg. 4

pg. 1
A. I was quite proud of my grade on this paper, although I only got the extra point because the DBQ question required that you include information from the previous unit (which is unusual).
B. The reason "Doc G" is circled with a question mark is that I mistakenly thought that the document was referring to the Monroe Doctrine (it was actually the Open Door policy). Oops...

pg. 2
A. My teacher's handwriting is spectacularly unintelligible [upon occasion]. Here are the comments he wrote:
1. "Roosevelt Corollary?"
2. "Well, not sure about 'characteristic' - Mahan's ideas will be realized, especially by TR"
3. "OK - good. Reason you need a strong navy."
4. "Parallel to previous critics?"
5. "More nuanced - how did WW [Woodrow Wilson] act in Western hemisphere?"

pg. 3
Again, a translation of comments:
1. "Not exactly; good to see a common commercial motivation"
2. "Again, a qualification. Explain."
3. "How successful?"
4. [He took issue with my assertion that Wilson was forced to intervene in Latin America; hence the question mark.]
5. "Not clear to me; why is WWI involvement seen as an expansion-related issue?"
6. "Okay - but this is a straw man." [I'll note parenthetically that this is a widely-accepted device in many wonderful political speeches. Apparently not so much in APUSH papers.]

pg. 4
"Good essay; document use mixed, some done well; I appreciate you see nuances, but you must be clearer - hinting at nuance, (i.e. generalizing without support) - weakens your argument."

So there you have it. Even with as many less-than-complimentary comments as are on this page, it's still absolutely possible to get an A. And you'll probably learn some stuff from them too.

Best of luck, new APUSHers! Get out there and have some fun before junior year - but not too much fun. You've got three novels, two textbook chapters and two Spirit chapters to read and notes on the chapters and two one-page responses to write before August 24.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

iTunes Senior High?

Deep breath - sigh.

I cannot wait for college. Days of two or three classes in moderately fascinating subjects, all starting well after 10am, with enough free time to sit down and read a book or even just breathe, will be a reality for me and my classmates in just about a year.

That vision (well, that and Glee) is one of the only things that's kept me going the past few months of junior year and through the long slog to next week's AP tests (wish me luck!).

In making the traditional pilgrimage to four-year educational institutions over Spring Break, I got to sit in a few college classes, which were at least edifying if not electrifying. Particularly in lecture classes, I noticed that there were not that many people there. And among those who were, the frenetic notetaking (or alternatively, silent stupor) that frequently pervades many of my classes was just not present. People listened; or they jotted down some thoughts; or they checked their Facebook on their computer; or they just weren't there.

These students have the benefit of something we in high school do not (besides frat parties and fifteen a cappella groups): iTunes U.

iTunes U is a free service from Apple that lets universities upload videos of classes. Obviously, it may have the effect of slightly decreasing student attendance, particularly at some of the dryer lectures, but it's also a fantastic resource and an easy way to make up work if you're sick.

And I, for one, think high schools should do the same thing.

Okay, so I'm not advocating that no one go to class and instead stay in bed and watch the forlorn teacher write a lot of stuff on the board and ask sadly, "Are there any questions?"

This would primarily be a resource for missed sick days. But in my book, there's nothing wrong with making high school a bit more like college, and this would certainly cut down on student stress.

If, you know, it's a nice day, and I know that all we're going to be doing in physics is taking notes (and yeah, maybe I stayed up a little late last night watching The Daily Show and making brownies) but I also wasn't feeling my best, I would like to have the option of staying home and later watching what my class did that day so I don't have to email my teacher, schedule a time to talk with him or her the next day about what I missed, and ask one of my friends if I can borrow her notebook to get the notes before she needs it to study for her AP Bio test.

This way I can hear exactly what my teacher said, take my own notes, and come back with a much better idea of the work I missed. Videotaping classes is also the only way students can catch up with class discussions and would make labs a lot easier to make up.

It's simple - once we outfit the classrooms with videocameras and the teacher with a small mike. (Hey, what's Measure A for, right?)

I wouldn't object if the administration kept the current rules for excusing absences and even the new Saturday School policy to keep students from abusing the privilege of full class periods on demand on their iPods.

We're all going to be in college pretty soon. Shouldn't we be getting used to taking more responsibility for our own education? Learning how to manage our own time? If the point of high school is truly to prepare us for college, there is a realistic value to letting students learn how to deal with freedom earlier than later.

So yes, this is my pet project for education reform. (Doesn't everyone have one?)

Is it likely to happen? No.

But hey! We are getting two new high-tech classrooms built. We are changing to a four-day block schedule.

Next year's a new year. Anything could happen.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Shedding Light on Night

Discussing hate and prejudice in school is never easy. Talking about these sensitive issues in a group with school board members, your classmates, and your mom can be even more uncomfortable.
However, the Palo Alto community has risen to the challenge in an effort to bring these issues out into the open.
School board member Barbara Klausner said she hopes to address issues of cultural understanding with an upcoming forum called "Growing Up Asian in Palo Alto" from 7 to 9 p.m. on Wednesday, March 31, at the Mitchell Park Community Center.
Panelists and community members of all ethnicities will discuss cultural issues of increasing prominence, including perspectives on the importance of getting into college and other related topics.
Klausner's event will follow a successful community dialogue centered on anti-Semitism hosted by sophomores from David Cohen's Facing History and Ourselves classes.
The 10th grade classes led a community discussion on Wednesday night in the library in concurrence with their study of the controversial Holocaust book Night by Elie Wiesel.
"We are here to face the racism and prejudice that, no matter how much we try to ignore it, thrives here, even at Paly," sophomore Al Brooks said. He cited insensitive remarks by a past city official, the swastikas graffitied on the Tower Building in 2007, and even the tendency of Paly students to eat lunch in groups segregated by race.
Klausner, who was also a participant in the discussion, said she takes these issues very seriously.
"Al's comment, especially about how everyone knows where the Asian kids and the black kids and the Latino kids eat lunch, really worried me," Klausner said.
Cohen said he first got the idea for an evening of discussion and dialogue from a teacher in Georgia, who tried to plan a similar event but gave up.
"It's one of the missing pieces in my teaching — bringing it out of the classroom," Cohen said. "In a way, this was kind of my new years' resolution. It was also a good way to get to know my students."
In the months leading up to the event, students have posted blog entries, chronicling their planning process and ruminations on the book's graphic content.
Six group sessions followed the opening remarks, with different groups of students leading discussions and presentations of different aspects of the book. One of the smaller group sessions focused on confronting hate in the 21st century, especially in online interactions.
"A lot of people do it [post hateful messages] as a joke," sophomore Gerrit Gerritsen said. "After a while it starts to become acceptable."
The student leaders and the session participants both recognized some benefits of anonymity on the Internet, including how it can allow individuals to make information public in whistle-blower situations.
"The truth can sometimes sneak out," participant Nancy Greene said, referring to the photos of prison abuse in Abu Ghraib that came to people's attention through wide dissemination on the Internet, "but sometimes it needs to be anonymous."
However, the group also talked about the widespread abuse of technology and its role in perpetrating hate, especially in cultural contexts.
"The first person can say something without repercussions and because of the anonymity, people feel free to add on," Klausner said. "You can get this mob mentality that allows these things to happen.
"Eventually, you get to where is that point at which we can no longer keep going with that sense of human-ness. What's amazing about Wiesel is that he managed to maintain that humanity throughout the book."
Cohen said he is open to planning another event next year to continue community involvement, possibly with a different book.
"I've been thrilled with the outpouring of support," Cohen said. "I definitely want to continue in this direction."
This article was previously published in the Paly Voice.