book review

A Very Brief Review of The Lazarus Rumba by Ernesto Mestre

I finally finished The Lazarus Rumba by Ernesto Mestre!

I started reading in August. It was a slow read for a long time. I would pick it up, then put it down and pick it up several days later, which sometimes turned into weeks. Finally, a couple of weeks ago I decided that I needed to finish it; there were too many other books waiting to be read. I didn’t dislike the book enough to abandon it but I was having a hard time getting through a chunk at a time; it seemed like I was reading two or three pages a sitting for way too long.

So, during this previously unplanned February break from school, I was determined to finish it. And, as it turned out, once I started reading in earnest, I couldn’t put it down. Once again I proved my own theory, and one that I often share with my students: if you don’t read a chunk of a book at a time you can’t know if you really like it or not, and you will not understand, or remember, enough of what’s going on to want to keep reading.

Although I did not appreciate the thread of political conservatism that winds throughout this book, I loved the magical realism side of it. And, as usually happens with books of this type, I wondered what parts of the story were real, and what parts were magical? Or, maybe the important take away is that the entire book is a statement about life as a magical journey that is over all too soon. In the end, whether or not the events in the book are real is irrelevant since it’s always about the story and what the reader can learn about his/her own life, as a result.

Despite some misgivings about Mestre’s political stance in the book, I am planning on reading his second book, The Second Death of Única Aveyano. From the summary of this book on Amazon, it may not take me as long to read it as it did to read The Lazarus Rumba. Keeping my fingers crossed.

Angela Watson · Awakened · book review · spirituality

Book Review: Awakened by Angela Watson

     Schools tend to be spaces of conflict that arise between adults, between children, and between adults and children.  Although this is not necessarily a bad thing, everyday situations can quickly escalate if we don’t know how to respond to them in a productive manner.  Problems about who has power and what they want to over-power, are some of the most contentious conflicts that come up in schools.  At these times, some people move to the forefront as the popular ones in the pecking order, be they adults or students, and usually for the wrong reasons.  (We might even consider parents in this scenario, as well.)  However, teachers who are aware of the damaging potential of these situations, and who are true professionals, know that these issues get in the way of true teaching and learning.  Yet, happen they do, with or without our consent.  And, more often than not, we participate in these events, consciously or unconsciously.  In Awakened, Angela Watson tries to provide teachers with strategies and techniques for how to handle these situations with aplomb and “smarts”.  How can we take care of ourselves, be the professionals we know we are, and do the best job possible as teachers and learners in our school site?

  By becoming conscious of what we are doing and by being aware of our negative thoughts and feelings about a situation, we can control our reactions to, and the extent of our participation in, the conflicts that will emerge in schools whether or not we agree with the issue at hand.  In other words, we can transform negative thoughts to positive ones by changing our minds, literally and figuratively.  Letting go of negativity and employing mindful breathing techniques, for example, have a calming effect on our minds, allowing us to make better choices for ourselves and others.
  Often, the underlying issue has to do with fairness.  Is it fair that the same students always get picked to go to the office?  Is it fair that the teacher always selects the same table to get ready for work?  Is it fair that a teacher who is clearly (and publicly) insubordinate gets a “promotion”?  Is it fair that some people don’t get recognized for the work they do?
  And, it’s about recognition.  Why do certain people get publicly recognized (and sometimes rewarded) for doing their job?  Why do certain children always get a smile and a nod from their teachers while others rarely or never do?  What is this new mandate from the school board?  It doesn’t make sense.  Don’t I have enough work to do already?
  All of these situations create stress and conflict.  They wear teachers down.  And, in some ways, it happens with our permission. Our responses to what happens in schools, including planned and unplanned events, can be logical or, conversely, position us in a reactive mode.  Over time, these re-actions are what trigger stress and, eventually, burnout.  How can we change this mindset?
  If I’ve read Angela Watson’s book correctly, including some of the other spiritual reading I’ve been doing, then, as a first step, an awareness that this is happening is of utmost importance.  Then, we need to make a conscious effort to acknowledge that the other person or event is not in charge of our minds and how we react to challenging situations.  In fact, we are in charge of our world, to paraphrase a book with a similar title.  And, once we’ve settled on this simple truth, then we need to consciously work on recognizing that our reactions, thoughts, and feelings are of our own doing and can be our un-doing, as well.  This understanding facilitates acting appropriately to ensure that how we view and act in the world is consistent with a sense of compassion (understanding) and self-awareness:  by understanding our minds and taking care of ourselves we can extend this understanding and care to others.  This may sound simple in theory, but it is difficult to put into practice.  However, once we’re aware (or awakened), there is no turning back; while we may occasionally fall short of managing our reactions to thorny situations, we can try again the next time with the awareness that this is a healthier response for everyone involved.  A spiritual leader I know recently said, “what we’re called to do every day is create new beginnings,” or in the popular parlance of the day, “this is the first day of the rest of your life.”
     I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Awakened and try out some of the ideas put forth by Angela.  See for yourself how you can manage your reactions and, thereby, your life and health, today and beyond.

book review

A Slice of Life Story: Wishin’ and Hopin’, A Christmas Story by Wally Lamb

I normally only write about teaching related issues on this blog.  But, I’ve decided to make some changes in the New Year.  One change I am making is to start posting book reviews, or posts prompted by books I’m reading, that are in some way connected to teaching, learning, schooling, or education in general.  I aim to broaden the scope of my blog so that I don’t find myself frantically searching for a topic to post about every week; this has stopped me from posting on a regular basis.  The purpose of making this change isn’t to proliferate my blog with trivial posts, but rather to allow myself a broader scope from which to ruminate about learning in the broadest sense of the word.

Wally Lamb’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, A Christmas Story is a great read and not just at Christmas time.  Lamb was able to take a one-time fictitious event – the 1964 Christmas play production by the students at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Parochial School – and build a story around it that touches on current events of the time with parochial school culture as the backdrop.  Most of the action takes place in and around Felix Funicello’s 5th grade classroom.  (Yes, he’s a distant cousin of Annette’s and she does play a part in the development of the story!)  As the events unfold, we get a taste of how the social mores of the time coupled with petty jealousies, and a strong sense of good vs. bad, inform (not always accurately) Felix’s particular point of view.  Lamb manages to write a story that is both funny and endearing, but like all good stories, Wishin’ and Hopin’ pushed me to reflect about myself in the context of the story:  what was it like to grow up in the mid-60’s in the US?

My family emigrated to New York from Cuba in 1966 so a lot of the cultural and political events in the book resonated with my own memories of the time.  Even the character of the new Russian student, Zhenya, who joins Felix’s class right before the school gears up for its annual Christmas pageant and whose feisty personality gives the class goodie two shoes (Rosalie) a run for her money, brought back memories of my Russian playmate, Lucy, the daughter of the Russian supers in our building.  From Lucy I learned a few Russian words, how to summon spirits on the Ouija board, and how to play some of the NY signature street games of the time.  Lucy was instrumental in my acculturation into life in the US during the five years I lived in that building, though I didn’t know it at the time.  It wasn’t until I started writing this post that these memories, scant as they are, came flooding back.

So, what is this post about really?  Wally Lamb’s book or my memory of starting life in the US?  Does it really matter?

I go back to the introduction to this post and revise it somewhat:  I am expanding my blog topics as a way of understanding myself better through books or events that have impacted me and have pushed me to reflect, revise, and retell my own life story.  Sometimes I will ruminate on how these experiences have impacted me as a teacher.

That is the learning in this piece.