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A Poem for Salman Rushdie’s New Novel

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I just finished Salman Rushdie’s latest, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. Here’s a brief summary of the book’s premise, borrowed from The New York Times book review:

The central character of Rushdie’s new novel… is…a man who gets cursed and gets blamed for it. Geronimo Manezes, a Mumbai-born gardener now living in New York, has begun to levitate. This isn’t the wish fulfillment of a flying dream; it threatens his livelihood and brings the increasing hostility of strangers. “Why do you imagine I consider my condition an improvement? He wanted to cry out. Why, when it has ruined my life and I fear it may bring about my early death?”

But Geronimo’s predicament is not an isolated case. It foreshadows an era of “strangenesses,” where the “laws which had long been accepted as the governing principles of reality had collapsed.” The strangenesses — some meteorological, some natural disasters, some simply miraculous — are the prelude to a full-blown invasion of the human world by malevolent spirits from another dimension.

It turns out that all four evil jinn, Zabardast, Zumurrud, Ra’im Blood-Drinker and Shining Ruby, have broken through the wormholes separating the world from Fairyland and are bent on causing havoc in the 21st century. The only power that can stop them is a nice female jinnia called Dunia and her human descendants: Geronimo Manezes, the British composer Hugo Casterbridge, the young Indian-American graphic novelist Jimmy Kapoor and a femme fatale called Teresa Saca. If Dunia can gather them up in time and awaken them to the power of their jinni nature, humanity might have a chance against the forces of darkness. “The seals between the Two Worlds are broken and dark jinn ride,” she tells Geronimo. “Your world is in danger and because my children are everywhere I am protecting it. I’m bringing them together, and together we will fight back.”

It certainly wasn’t my favorite Rushdie novel. The NY Times review is pretty critical, and I agree with its perspective. Reviewer Marcel Theroux notes that Rushdie’s “capcaiousness” and “breadth” as a writer/enchanter is a distinctive feature of his style and something to be celebrated… when “there’s been some compelling principle at work.” As Theroux puts it,

“Complaining that Rushdie’s not a naturalistic writer is like criticizing kimchi for its cabbagey funk.”

And I love Rushdie’s funk. It’s why I gravitate toward everything he writes. As for this novel, though, I’ll quote Theroux again:

“Behind its glittery encrustations, the plot resembles a bare outline for a movie about superheroes. There’s a war between worlds, lightning comes out of people’s fingertips and it all culminates in a blockbuster showdown between the forces of good and evil.”

Still, I am drawn to the “nice” jinnia, Dunia, who is enamored with the human world. I am fascinated with the contrast between capricious beings made of smoke and fire versus plodding, helpless humans. In the book, Dunia produces a line of half-jinn, half-human descendants, and the line they walk between their human natures and their jinn natures is fodder for us all. It inspired me to think about the “smoke and fire” lurking in myself, and my human company. I jot this poem down this morning. When I refer to “smoke and fire,” I think I’m referring to the ways in which our human limitations give way, the ways in which we surprise ourselves, transcending our human natures and tapping into something more powerful.

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Smoke and Fire

Smoke and fire:
You address me, “Beauty,”
You nick-named my stomach years ago
At a wedding, my arms are wrapped around you
“Python arms” you dub the photo
Then you say, “Hey Beauty, come here”
Insults, terms of endearment,
From You,
They both land lightly,
Almost to lift me up.

Smoke and fire:
I chased you out of the building
Clear sky, hot pavement
You were running for your life
Now we meet again in August
Your trusting smile,
signing your letter “yours truly”
“I’m ready to step up my game this year”

Smoke and fire:
Skin so thin that a hang nail
Threatens hospital beds and IVs
Skin so thick all the same
You weather your version of chronic pain
Far more graciously than me
And so I confide in you, and worry with you
Even when you’re the one hurting

Smoke and fire:
How many times have I rubbed
salt in your wounds
And you’ve called me back
Invited me over
Given me something from your closet,
Your fridge
“I’m so happy to see you,” you always say.

Smoke and fire:
You used to bribe me to type your papers
Your eyes were bloodshot as you
teased me about my first boyfriend
I bought you beer when I visited you at school
even though I was the younger one
Now you grip your newborn
like a football, easy
You’re well-versed in car seats
and choking hazards
And sleep schedules

Smoke and fire:
This life is muddy for you
Thick, brown, halting
Leaves traces of dirt on your shoes
Wherever you go
And yet you keep going,
So kind
Along your way

If only I could rub the magic lamp
Get a fat, blue little jinn
To fight your demons for you
Smoke and fire-like

Instead, I hold onto the traces
Of smoke
Of fire
inside these
soft,
beating
human hearts.

 

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Lesson Plan for “Growth Mindset”

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I’m in the middle of Salman Rushdie’s new novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights because I’ll literally read ANYthing written by this man. I picked up a copy at an old haunt in Lincoln Square (Chicago) earlier this summer. So much nostalgia for The Book Cellar

Anyway, I’m about halfway through, and I confess I’ve lost interest. My mind is half in school mode already, and so I hit pause on Rushdie and finally got around to reading Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

The central idea of this book sounds corny at a surface level, and to extent, the book is corny and a little repetitive. But it’s also a tremendously powerful concept: the idea that our personalities and IQs, our abilities, and for that matter all aspects of our lives, are in a state of ongoing development. Viewing ourselves, our lives, OTHERS, and the world in a constant state of growth has profound implications for how we seek and obtain happiness, overcome depression, lead, parent, teach, and so much more.

Instead of presenting you with my usual “book review” format of commentary embedded in summary, I’ve decided to post my during reading notes to pique your curiosity as well as a lesson plan I’ve created about growth mindsets versus fixed mindsets for high school students as a way to build a positive classroom culture in the beginning of the school year.

Thoughts?

Reading Notes

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over

Did you know that Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children?

Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow?

Howard Gardner, in his book Extraordinary Minds, concluded that exceptional individuals have a “special talent for identifying their own strengths and weaknesses.” It’s interesting that those with the growth mindset seem to have that talent.

  • p. 12 — “Grow Your Mindset”
  • Developing yourself versus validating yourself

Benjamin Barber, an eminent sociologist, once said, “I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into the learners and nonlearners”

  • CEO disease
  • Growth mindset — teacher versus student

When do people with the fixed mindset thrive? When things are safely within their grasp. If things get too challenging — when they’re not feeling smart or talented — they lose interest.

  • When do you feel smart?
  • p. 23, Marina Semyonova

Becoming is better than being

When [Nasa was] soliciting applications for astronauts, they rejected people with pure histories of success and instead selected people who had had significant failures and bounced back from them

The scariest thought, which I rarely entertained, was the possibility of being ordinary. This kind of thinking led me to need constant validation.

If you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?

  • p. 72, effort praise versus ability praise

What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart.

Prejudice is a deeply ingrained societal problem, and I do not want to blame the victims of it. I am simply saying that a growth mindset helps people to see prejudice for what it is — someone else’s view of them — and to confront it with their confidence and abilities intact.

  • Girls grow up being praised, boys grow up being scolded, boys learn to dismiss outside criticism and girls learn to internalize it
  • p. 80-81 activities
  • Not knowing how to fail, p. 82
  • Do you know how to fail?
  • What is success? p. 98-99
  • What is failure? p. 99-100
  • What is something in an ideal world you’d love to do but you don’t consider yourself naturally good at?
  • Relationships and fixed mindset

You can believe that your qualities are fixed, your partner’s qualities are fixed, and the relationship’s qualities are fixed — that it’s inherently good or bad, meant-to-be or not meant-to-be. Now all of these things are up for judgment.

It’s been said that Dorothy DeLay was an extraordinary teacher because she was not interested in teaching. She was interested in learning

Lesson Plan for Growth Mindset
High School Juniors and Seniors
(About 90 minutes)

Pass around Mindset book and tell students that you recently read it over the summer. Introduce the book, e.g.: The book focuses on how having a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset,” two terms we’ll eventually define in class today. These ideas can affect your relationships, your business, your education, your symptoms of depression, many facets of your life. We are striving to build a “growth mindset” as we prepare to deal with the challenges of a new school year. (3 min)

The following is a list of questions that came to mind as I was reading the book over the summer. Read all eight questions and then pick the one you want to free-write on for ten minutes. If you finish your thoughts on one question, move to another question. You should be writing for ten minutes. (10 min)

  1. What are the consequences of thinking that your intelligence or personality is something you can develop, as opposed to something that is a fixed, deep-seated trait?
  2. Can anyone learn to be a good artist?
  3. What do you think our society values more? Effort or ability?
  4. What is the best way to praise a child?
  5. What qualities are you looking for in a life partner? In your friends?
  6. Is it scary to be ordinary? Why or why not?
  7. How do you define success in life? In school? How do you define failure in life? In school?
  8. If you’re “somebody” when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?

Stop writing — select students at random with popsicle sticks to share out responses — type into projector any comments directly related to growth or fixed mindset

Explain how each question relates to growth or fixed mindset. Example: #4, related to how we respond to feedback, #5, how to build healthy relationships, #2, how much of who we are is “nature” versus “nurture,” determined by genetics and pre-ordained ability versus environment and attitude (15-20 min)

Make a t-chart, fixed mindset on one side, growth mindset on another (3 min)

Project 10 scenarios and have students put them into each category into their t-charts. They are guessing according to what they think a fixed mindset is and a growth mindset is. Students can abbreviate the wording of scenarios to make the writing process less tedious.  (10 min)

Scenarios

1. An acquaintance says something mean about you on social media so you “throw shade” about that person on your own social media account.
2. An important criteria for your ideal life partner is that he or she challenges you.
3. You ace your math test and your teacher says, “Congrats, [insert name], you’re such a math wiz!”
4. You’re incredibly shy so you sign up for an improv class to come out of your shell.
5. You tend to procrastinate when you’re struggling in a class because if you fail, at least you didn’t try that hard.
6. A job application asks you to write about your biggest failure and how you bounced back.
7. You find it easy to objectively identify your own strengths and weaknesses.
8. A criteria for a good teacher is that they work to make you feel smart.
9. Healthy relationships — romantic and platonic — require work.
10. Some people just don’t have what it takes to be a performer.

Teacher tells students what numbers go in which category, students check their charts to see if they are “right” (5 min)

Discuss why given answers are “right,” students have the opportunity to question or challenge as teacher explains more about fixed versus growth mindset (10 min)

Based on discussion above, students work in pairs to define “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” (5 min)

Teacher selects pairs (popsicle sticks) to share their definitions, offers guidance on how to blend definitions into one class definition for both “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” (10 min)

Teacher gives instructions: Brainstorm a list of 10 common frustrating scenarios you experience as a student/at school and concrete ways you can approach that scenario with a growth mindset this year (t-chart format)

Teacher models 5 examples from their own t-chart (7 min)

Scenario #1: Lack of adequate access to technology (limited computer carts, computer labs)

Growth Mindset Response: Launch a crowdfunding website to raise money for additional chromebooks for the English department, view it as an opportunity to gain fundraising skills and build enthusiasm for next school year

Scenario #2: Eating in class leads to increased requests to leave the room for drink and bathroom breaks, and too many students don’t pick up after themselves

Growth Mindset Response: Put in the time to enforce the “no-food rule” — it’s worth it — and model all food rules yourself

Scenario #3: Too many students are on their cell phones while you’re teaching

Growth Mindset Response: Teach students about the philosophy of mindfulness, show students cell phone policies on college syllabi, teach students about growth mindsets, ask students to reflect on how they’re using their cell phones in class on a written self-assessment, make a poster reminding students how they can use their cell phones for learning, in addition to taking phones away when necessary

Scenario #4: The “amazing” lesson you planned didn’t engage as many students as you hoped.

Growth Mindset Response: View this “failure” as valuable information. Was it how you executed the lesson? Was it how you designed the lesson? Ask your students for direct feedback. Talk to your co-workers. Keep organized digital versions of your lesson plans so you can keep what works, and change what doesn’t.

Scenario #5: Too many students don’t show up with a pencil and then steal yours.

Growth Mindset Response: Over the summer, purchase a glue gun, some fake flowers, and a set of ballpoint pens. Make “flower pens” so your students will think twice about walking out with your pens — and so they’ll have something to write with if they forget their pencil.

Students work on scenarios independently (15 min)
Teacher collects

Homework assignment: Make a list of 5-10 people you admire. Choose one to focus on. Research this person’s experience with failure, either in the form of an interview (if it’s someone you know) or online research, if it’s someone in the public domain. Summarize your findings in a few paragraphs (cite your sources) and identify whether this person has a growth or fixed mindset, in your opinion.

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