As noted often before, most problems with testing and curricula have more to do with Idiocy in High Places than with the actual intent of the reformers, but that's a bit irrelevant to the kids who get crushed by the juggernaut.
The daughter of some colleagues was teaching third grade in a school where teachers had been ordered to devote a certain period to text prep. "But that's when we have free-reading," she said, and was told that, if the principal walked past her room and her students were not working on their bubble sheets, "It will be your ass."
That was a decade ago. Since then, the Common Core has said that it's important for kids to read non-fiction, rather than have all their courses couched in story-telling fashion. When I was in fourth grade, for instance, instead of reading factual material about Brazil, we read the story of "Pimwe the Jungle Boy" with the facts interwoven in the story.
It's not a bad idea to give them some of what is called "informational text" in academic parlance, given that there has long been seen a horrific drop in skills when kids hit middle school and are suddenly confronted with nonfiction for the first time in their school careers.
But, of course, it has been interpreted by Idiots in High Places not as "we need to add non-fiction to the mix" but as "the children must never, ever be exposed to any fiction ever again."
Mr. Fitz has been undermining this dictum for the past several strips, in a conversation about inspiration:
Now, from the writer's point of view, one of the most common, and annoying questions that kids ask is "What inspired you to become a writer?" and the most common imaginary answer authors wish they were rude enough to give is "My landlord, the utility company and the price of groceries."
I don't think anyone minds, "How did you get the idea for such-and-such?" but the whole issue of "inspiration" suggests at once a magic thunderbolt from heaven and, at the same time, a purely mechanistic process.
That is, on the one hand, it simply falls into your lap without any effort required, yet, on the other, there's some particular formula that anyone could follow.
And, of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle and the answer is, "I dunno. It just ... I dunno. It's what I do."
How does a dancer leap just so? How does a painter make the sun look like that? How does Reggie Miller hit jump shots so consistently?
Practice. Trying. Genius. Whatever.
Ask me one I can answer.
But this arc at Mr. Fitz is different, because he's talking about "inspiration" on a far less practical, result-driven level, which is key to the jokes.
The incomprehension of his student also reminds me of my attempt years ago to lead a group of eighth graders through "Hamlet," at which point I discovered how very concrete even bright kids are at that age.
To switch Great Works, kids at that age can understand why Jean Valjean stole the bread: His sister's kids were hungry. But they haven't got a clue to why Javert pursues him so relentlessly beyond "it's his job," and you cannot teach them to get it. They just aren't there yet.
Which is a pretty good reason to read to your own kids. One of the best things I've done in my life is to read to my boys every night at bedtime.
I read them kids' books, including the Little House and Narnia series, and contemporary books like "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH" and classics like "The Princess and the Goblin" and the Alice books, but I also read them things they probably wouldn't entirely get, like "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" and "Great Expectations."
I didn't expect them to get those books. I just wanted to make sure they got in the path of those books, for the same reason we took them to ethnic restaurants so they could experience things like sushi and tandoori, and to museums where not all of the exhibits shoot off fireworks when you push a button.
And, again, it's not a case of "I did A and the result was B." That isn't how inspiration works. But my kids are readers and, what matters more to me, their kids are readers.
It's comforting to think that, maybe if someone had read the "Chronicles of Narnia" or "Henry Huggins" to some of those Idiots in High Places, they wouldn't be such idiots. But given what it takes to achieve power, they probably wouldn't be in High Places if, in their youth, someone had distracted them with such fripperies.
The Benjamin Disraelis and Theodore Roosevelts have always been greatly outnumbered, and the eternal aspects of this self-selection is very discouraging.
People in other countries reading this may be puzzled. I hope for the sake of their children that they are.
In fact, I'm in the writing-frenzy phase of a project I'm doing with Dylan Meconis for a newspaper in Canada, which is to say, all the research is completed, the first six of 14 chapters are written, Dylan's created the main characters and the rollercoaster is over that first long hill.
This is absolutely the very best, most fun part of writing.
And the most fun part of the whole project is that, while I've sold stories overseas before, this is the first time I've created one for a foreign client.
We agreed, in our initial discussions, that the voyageurs would be a good topic for this educational piece, but the more I researched it, the more convoluted and interwoven it became. So I went back to her, a good two or three months into things, to try to figure out how we could limit a very long, complex topic in order to make it comprehensible for young readers.
I laid out some potential historical starts-and-finishes and specific areas of emphasis and she responded that, actually, she'd been hoping for a fictional story about a young boy going up the river to become a voyageur.
Oh. Accurate but entertaining historical fiction?
Well, yes, why, yes indeed! I'd love to do that! I'd much rather do that! That's great!
I had forgotten there were still educators in the world who are allowed to do fun things for kids.