Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Food, Film, and Musical Diversions

I don't believe in summer reading. That is, I am not convinced that the generally accepted notion behind the "summer slump" that in order to prevent lost ground between school years requires a designated program of required reading. Where there are studies that prove that summer reading is beneficial I have seen just as many that say the difference they make is marginal at best. There are those who argue that without summer reading programs kids wouldn't read on their own, which suggests to me that we have done something gravely wrong in the way we have raised our kids if given the chance to read whatever and whenever they wanted they chose not to. Ironic, perhaps, that the very people most concerned with reading seem to drive kids and teens away from it in such a way that they have to resort to forced regulation.

That said, I'd now like to offer some suggestions for alternate summer reading. I realize that might sound like I have just contradicted myself but what I want to offer is a different approach to the idea of what summer and reading can provide without a sense of the school year running year 'round. If the school year brings students in contact with the subjects and curriculum that society agrees is important I'd like to suggest that the summer be a time where the reader explores a world outside the classroom, a world of choice.

Though there are an endless number of topics one could discuss, I'd like to present three subjects whose books could serve as textbooks for an alternate education in film, cooking, and a catch-all of casual musical diversions that are as much for fun as they are personally gratifying in their accomplishment. A dedicated summer reader could turn any one of these into an education as rewarding and valid as any topic learned during the school year.
How to Justify Sitting Around Watching Movies All Summer

One of the saddest conversations I ever had was with a high school Junior who had decided he was going to go to college and become a filmmaker. For various reasons this is a topic of some interest to me and when I asked him who his favorite directors were he stunned me by claiming he never paid any attention to directors. Despite my shock, my mouth was still able to move so I asked him what he considered to be the best movies of all times. None of the films he listed was more than a decade old with the exception of the one movie he considered a classic, the best movie ever made, hands down: Goonies. It was this conversation, perhaps more than any other, that convinced me that where we fail in education is in giving teens a well-rounded cultural education. If we can teach the literature of the 20th century there's no reason we cannot also teach one of the dominant art forms of American culture.

There are any number of ways to go about studying film and film history but the most boring would be chronological. Also, narrowing the field by subjects or genres runs the risk of appealing to some but alienating others. No, what we need is a guide that covers the spectrum and allows readers (and viewers) a chance to learn according to the whims of their interest. For this I'd go with The Rough Guide to Cult Movies. For film purists (aka snobs) this book fails because its definition of 'cult' is fairly broad, but it's subtitle clearly states that this book includes "the good, the bad, and very weird indeed."  It is this depth and willingness to be inclusive that makes it a great starting point for a personalized course in film history and theory. Arranged alphabetically by subjects (and not the more limiting genres) there are over 75 different chapters groupings like "Turkeys," "Paranoia," and "Kitsch" alongside stalwarts like "Action/Adventure," "Musicals," and "Film Noir." Each subject collects a dozen or so films with short explanations behind the movie's origins, cult status, or general (un)importance in the history of cinema.

But this book does no good unless the reader actually watches the movies mentioned. Yes, I'm advocating a summer full of movie watching, plunked down in front of a TV or computer screen watching dvd's (rented for free from the library) or streamed (via Netflix) or, if the fates allow, in a movie theatre. I'll go even further and suggest at least three movies a week at minimum, because a budding cinaeste is going to need the breadth and vocabulary that a lot of watching will provide. As one movie leads to another soon a curiosity will pique, and an interest in an actor or director or screenwriter's other movies will send them searching out more films and, more importantly, more information. The internet will most likely be the first port of call, but is that so wrong? Teens need a certain level of comfort and proficiency in something beyond searching out YouTube videos and following friends on facebook and there is a lot (positive) to be said about falling down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia doing self-directed research on a movie or film history. The diligent "student" who watches three movies a week and spends a couple hours researching and reading up on what they have been watching will effectively have done as much as first semester film students at the college level.
Add the creation of a blog where the reader posted their impressions and analysis of those movies and they can easily use the results of their summer "reading" lobbying for a film reviewer position on their school newspaper.

Combine Chemistry and Math and Eat the Results

Three words here: Cooking for Geeks. With some teens cooking sounds like drudge work, scullery work, the work someone else does. For others, cooking is an unnecessary step between hunger and eating; why bother to cook things when you can simply drink milk from the carton and soak it up with a handful or cookies or crackers or peanut butter. But if you frame the idea of cooking as a chemistry lab full of possibilities for experimentation with edible results...

While Cooking for Geeks does contain a fair number of recipes it doesn't look or read anything like a Joy of Cooking or Martha Stewart Food book. It approaches the kitchen as a beginning hacker might, looking at the tools of the kitchen and learning the variables involved like time and temperature. Chapters like "Choosing Your Inputs: Flavors and Ingredients" and "Fun With Hardware" clearly don't correspond with traditional approaches to cooking, and perhaps that is what has kept boys from the kitchen. With so much emphasis on presentation and following directions most cookbooks deliver results (to varying degrees) but fail to explain how those results are achieved.  

Even for someone comfortable in the kitchen I found the introductory section on calibrating and kitchen tools opened my eyes to some areas for improvement and improvisation. I'm also seriously considering biting the bullet and converting my recipes from volume to weight wherever possible, including liquid measure. When you can see the variability even in simple measurements it becomes clear why some recipes have different degrees of success when relying on the slipperiness of volume.  

Cooking for Geeks also suggests that the kitchen hacker know their type: are you a baker or a griller or something else? It also is very clear that the approach of this book is about curiosity and fun. Personally, I've never been much of a baker and felt like the entire process of bread making was just too elusive. But I've never seen a breakdown of flours and their glutens so clearly charted out before, or understood the chemical natures of the three leaveners -- biological (yeast), chemical (baking powder and soda), mechanical (eggs, cream) and how they interact.

For those who just want to jump to the recipes I say go for it, but I say it with a wry grin as I know how seductive the books layout can be. Looking up a recipe for bacon-wrapped scallops seems appears fairly straightforward until you notice that it's recommended as a good example of how to work with transglutaminase.  Wait, what? Flip back a page and there's two pages on this wonderful additive that is used in the food industry to bind meats together (an essential part of the chicken nuggets and boneless hams you find in the store) and how restaurants achieve those impossible-to-replicate-at-home recipes. Like bacon-wrapped scallops where the two meats stick together without the use of toothpicks. Even better, transglutaminase is manufactured by using a bacterial enzyme that causes the atoms between two different proteins to line up in a way so they bond. If this is way too much information keep in mind that these sorts of chemical and bacterial actions are taking place all the time.

Also tucked in throughout the book are interviews with various personalities and hackers on topics related to cooking. Adam Savage from Mythbusters talks about scientific testing, Xeni Jardin from BoingBoing discusses local food sourcing, and there are discussions about food safety, knives, and beverage pairings. Oh, yeah. This book is for a general audience that presumes the majority of geeks in the kitchen will be adults, and as a result there are recipes that include alcohol. Mixed drinks for teens are obviously out, but the idea of making vanilla extract would be worth a little supervised used of vodka for a teen with a serious desire to play in the kitchen.

This book could easily fill the better part of a summer with geeky casual reading and plenty of use in the kitchen. And when the desire to move beyond Cooking for Geeks leads to a trip to library for specialty books on baking or grilling or ethnic foods, who would dare say that isn't worthy summer reading?

Become a Harmonica (or ukulele, or ocarina, or cow bell, etc) God

In my last year as a teen I decided I was going to take the entire summer to learn something new, something I had always wanted to learn. I was going to learn how to juggle. After a doing less-than-thorough research I decided on the classic book that begat an entire publishing house, Juggling for the Complete Klutz, throwing beanbags included. I read through the instructions, cleared some space and, in the space of 20 minutes, was able to juggle.  By the end of the week I could do four and then five balls in the air. By the beginning of the next week I gave up juggling because it had become too easy. I had set my sights too low and realized only after the fact that all I wanted to do was learn how, not become so good that I could busk the streets for spare change. 

What I should have done was set my sights on something more challenging, something that not only required skill but rewarded my efforts over time not only with a new talent but also strengthened brain functions. For that I should have learned a new musical instrument. 

The sensitive teen who plays the guitar on the lawn is so old, so Cat Stevens. What today's teen needs is a hip instrument that no one takes seriously until wielded by someone who's taken a summer to master it. Sure, harmonicas can lean toward the noisy, and the ukulele instantly invokes images of hula dancers and luaus, but this is were the industrial teen can use these preconceptions to their advantage. Once learned, these instruments can be utilized like any other, meaning that a skilled teen can rock a mean pirate hornpipe on the ocarina just as they can the melody of any pop hit on the radio. The limitations of the ukulele don't prevent the savvy musician from singing practically any song with only four chords

For many of these instruments, there's a Mel Bay book.  Want to stay simple (and cheap), like a recorder, or go all out and learn the mandolin? Mel Bay. For the harmonica enthusiast (and budding professional) I'd look to the Hal Leonard books. Not only will you find basic learners books but also specific song books and sheet music, in case a summer goal is not only to learn how to play the harmonica but to play Christmas carols or the hits of Junior Walker come September. And that's another thing, that a teen who leaves school in June can spend his idle free time plunking around for ten or twenty minutes a day and return to school in the fall playing an instrument.  "What did you do over the summer?"
"I learned how to play this Journey song on the ukulele! Check it out!

Is this really reading? Leaning how to position your fingers a certain way or blowing clear notes? It's more than just reading, it's learning a second (or third) language. It's keeping those synapses strong and firing and probably doing more to prevent "the summer slump" than setting kids up with an empty reading list.  

So these are just some suggestions. Reading is such a stagnant activity in the classroom setting – sitting around for long periods – and summer is a time when most teens would rather be doing. So let their interests determine their reading and let the reading direct the activity.

There's plenty of time for them in the future to work 50 weeks out of the year, let them have their summers until then.


Ms. Yingling said...

I never care WHAT students read over the summer as long as they do read. I would never have read so much if people gave me particular titles.

feathermar said...

Our town has a program for the middle school kids where they have to read 1000 minutes, which is about 16 hours. They can choose whatever they like - fiction, nonfiction, whatever. We started a book review blog, where they could help their peers ( select books - although I as a librarian mainly review stuff. The reason why I like this program is that the choice is theirs - and that their opinion and choices are valid. I think the way that schools approach summer reading is sucky, though, and that it is looked at as a chore by TEACHERS, too, when figuring out a list. Then, it is looked at as a chore by PARENTS, who come to select something for their kids because the kids don't want to start their project or pick something out. So, I guess I agree with you. We approach reading in a weird way, which makes teens and preteens approach reading in a weird way. stinks.

Sarah Stevenson said...

On the other hand, if you're the type of geek who actually *likes* summer reading lists (surprisingly, that was not me), there are some interesting themed lists over at the Berkeley Summer Reading Lists--this year's theme is Social Media. I always end up adding a few books to my TBR list after looking at these.

david elzey said...

that is an interesting list, sarah, with a few things on it that were already on my radar.

once i get through the forest of dead trees already awaiting my attention.

feathermar: i think clocking minutes of reading is like clockwatching on a dead-end job, which, if the purpose of education is to prepare our young for a life of dead-end labor, might not be out of line. but minute-watching is like page-counting and already too many boys use page counts as a gauge of determining a book's worth (i.e. the shorter the better) and i can just see kids struggling to make that 1000 minute mark and feeling like they never want to read another book afterward, for fun or otherwise.