Call the Early Start of School as Sumfall

One of the most asked questions I get as a teacher is why does school start so early in August instead of September.

Even though the change took place several years ago, as both a parent and a teacher I still am not used to summer ending with so much of the season remaining.

When Glendale children return to school on August 10 (August 8 next year), only 54 percent of summer days will have transpired leaving 46 percent to come as part of the fall semester.

We should rename summer vacation sprummer or at least rebrand the first semester as the Sumfall term.

Educators who work summer school only get two and a half weeks off before the new year restarts.   That is not enough time to recharge one’s batteries in a field as demanding as education. The same goes for students who attend summer school; they get three weeks off.   So their summer vacation is basically the length of winter break.

The main reason why districts began the August shift is for secondary school students to finish their semester before winter break, the notion that kids having two weeks off diminishes their retention level when upon their return final exams commence shortly thereafter.

Such thinking gets canceled out, however, since for the past few years Glendale students have had the whole week of Thanksgiving off, meaning they still end up returning for only a couple of weeks of class before finals.

Meanwhile, the elementary school students don’t need to start so early since they don’t take final exams making semester breaks meaningless.

Often overlooked is how hot it is in August, and that despite most classrooms having air conditioning, children need to play and exercise outside, something that frequently gets curtailed with heat advisories.

Some states such as Florida have passed laws to push back the start of school to late August. The New York and Chicago districts, number one and three in terms of size in the country, continue opening school the second week in September.

Over the years I have found few people in favor of an early August start date so why aren’t school districts listening?

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Update on Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

As I commented last time, publishing the early version of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a mistake. Now that I have read the book, I can confirm that it was a monumental mistake.

There are parts of “Watchman” that exhibit a talented writer; however, the story is plotless and I found myself struggling through long-winded passages where essentially nothing happens. And then there’s the less than idyllic portrayal of Atticus—not the righteous father figure he epitomizes in “Mockingbird.”

What bothers me most is that by seeing how Lee originally intended to tell her story about racial issues in the South compared to the altered version two and a half years later in “Mockingbird,” it is clear that Lee’s editor in 1957 Tay Hohoff deserves much credit in reshaping the novel.

It goes to show how even in a field like writing which is viewed as the result of an individual’s work one can’t assume that the author did it alone. What “Watchman” proves is that Lee needed significant assistance.

Sales for “Watchman” have substantially slowed down since its initial release two weeks ago perhaps due to negative reviews and word of mouth.

Let’s hope this doesn’t ignite a trend of publishing early drafts of other great novels. I wouldn’t care to read a version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” where Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up still a miser, and ends with the death of Tiny Tim.

Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson makes To Kill a Mockingbird Relevant Again

One of the charges of the high school English teacher is to help teenagers see the relevancy of literature to their lives. I’m always on the lookout on how to win over the students to read, in their minds, very old books from long, long ago.

For example, with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird that focuses on racism against African Americans in 1930s Alabama, it can be a challenging task to involve Glendale adolescents who reside in a community with only 1.3% black citizens as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.   How do you get them to understand that there are people living today who dealt with segregation, blacks and whites with separate drinking fountains, bathrooms, and schools?

That’s why in a strange way, the killing of Michael Brown on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, with a 67.4% African American population, can have a salutary effect on making the issue of racism relevant today in the here and now, not just vague stories from a history book.

When I was in grade school, World War Two ended only 20 years earlier, yet it might as well have taken place in the 1920’s for all I fathomed.   Only until I grew older did I realize how close my lifespan was to that major event.

So when I’m teaching Mockingbird and providing the background to the 1960 novel, namely the Civil Rights movement, I’m aware that for the average 15-year-old I might as well be talking about the Civil War.

In the past I’ve exposed students to the 1955 killing of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old from Chicago who while visiting his great-uncle in Money, Mississippi was killed in the middle of the night for reportedly whistling at a white woman, thinking that at least the fact that they have already outlived Till would raise an eyebrow.  

We make connections from real life to the novel.   It took less than an hour for the all-white jury to declare the defendants accused of Till’s murder not guilty, similar to Mockingbird’s all-white jury who took a few hours to reach the guilty verdict of rape against innocent Tom Robinson. In both cases, justice was not served.

We’ve listened to Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” inspired by the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo who was shot 19 times by NYPD officers for reaching for his wallet (the police shot 41 bullets but over 20 missed). Likewise in Mockingbird, Robinson is shot 17 times when he tries to escape from jail.

The 2012 death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida made the book relevant again.   Even though the vast majority of my students are not African-American, here was a kid about their age with a bag of Skittles.

When I asked students to research what was happening in Ferguson, suggesting various newspaper and television websites, several came back excitedly reporting eyewitness videos they viewed on YouTube. One, in particular, showed a protester being carted off like a pig on a spit eerily reminiscent of black and white footage from the 1960s, another connection.

As we study Mockingbird this year, it may not be possible to know for sure how many students will connect with the 54-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner as a result of Ms. Lee’s brilliant prose or Michael Brown’s tragic death.  

All that is known is that what happened in Ferguson should never have happened in 2014, and hope that it leaves a lasting impression on today’s young people who will inherit this society from us very soon.