Port City Notebook

News, views and random observations around Alexandria

Five Favorite Books of 2014

These five weren’t all published in 2014, but they are ones that I most enjoyed reading during the past year. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

allthelightAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (fiction)
Named to the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2014, this novel weaves together the stories of Werner, a young German orphan whose knack for putting radios together attracts Nazi recruiters, and Marie-Laure, a blind French girl who escapes from Paris with her father, a museum locksmith, and who helps the Resistance in Saint-Malo. Eventually, their paths collide in a story that’s beautifully told and rich with detail.

inventionofwingsThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (fiction)
Though set in a very different place and time—Charleston, S.C. in the early 1800s—it’s similar to All the Light in that the stories of two characters are told in alternating chapters. And though it’s a novel, it’s based on two real-life young girls—Sarah, the 11-year-old daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, and “Handful,” the 10-year-old slave girl that Sarah receives as a birthday “gift” from her parents. The book traces their lives and struggles through the decades until the late 1830s when Sarah Grimke had become an influential abolitionist and had been barred from her own hometown.

OrangeOrange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman (nonfiction)
I’ve not seen the Neflix series by the same name, but I was glad to have learned about this book from my daughters Amanda and Laura, who read it while they were at summer camp. Fresh out of Smith College, Kerman gets caught up as a minor player in a major drug-smuggling and money-laundering scheme, which a decade later lands her in federal prison. It’s a cautionary tale about choosing your friends wisely as well as a commentary on the impact of federal drug sentencing guidelines on nonviolent drug offenders, especially women.

thingsThe Things they Carried by Tim O’Brien (fiction)
In this book, first published in 1990, the author doesn’t expound the geopolitical ramifications or the military strategy of the Vietnam War, but rather he delves into the individual stories of the soldiers who fought it, and the hopes, dreams, fears, and secrets that accompanied each on the battlefield. As a child of the ‘60s whose familiarity with the war is mainly through history textbooks, I am glad to have read this collection of personal stories. And I’m glad that it’s on the reading list for the juniors at T.C. Williams who are taking AP English.

specialYou are Not Special and other Encouragements by David McCullough, Jr. (nonfiction)
After McCullough, the son of the famous historian, delivered a commencement address in 2012 at the Wellesley, Mass. high school where he teaches English, and after that speech went viral on YouTube, he expanded it and turned it into a book that gives not just students, but also parents, teachers and school administrators a lot to think about. With a relaxed conversational writing style, humor and wit, he includes chapters on such topics as helicopter parents, learning for the joy of learning, the college application process, club sports, race and diversity, privilege and exceptionalism.

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Update on 11th– and 12th-grade Honors Courses for English and Social Studies
At its meeting on December 18, the School Board debated the addition of these courses for almost two hours. Many questions were asked of administrators, particularly about whether honors courses could be added for the coming school year. Superintendent Alvin Crawley, however, maintained that it would be advantageous from a curriculum, budget, staffing and building use perspective to take more time to implement the honors versions of these classes. An amendment to the Program of Studies to add honors classes for Fall 2015 was defeated by the School Board on a 4-5 vote. The Board voted to adopt the Program of Studies as proposed, which means that at this time no honors courses will be offered in 2015-2016 for 11th-grade U.S. History, 12th-grade Government and 12th-grade English.

A subsequent ACPS press release about the Program of Studies stated that “… the School Board approved adding honors courses for the 2016-2017 school year. The number and subject areas of the courses will be recommended by ACPS staff. ” While there was much support among board members for offering honors classes in theory, there was, in fact, no formal vote by the School Board to include honors courses for the 2016-2017 school year. Given that eight months is not sufficient time to develop and implement these new courses, then interested parents will be eagerly awaiting a progress report in 2015 for the proposed 2016-2017 course additions, well before the newly-elected Board takes up the Program of Studies in December.

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Proud Showing for T.C. Williams
Last week three T.C. journalism students (Rona Ikram Putri, Evan Williams, and Shayla Brown) along with Mark Eaton, T.C. English Department chair and Journalism instructor, gave an impressive interview on the “PBS NewsHour” in a segment that looked at what news stories were most important to high-school students during 2014 and how this generation gets its news. They were invited on the show to be interviewed by host Judy Woodruff because they participated in a NewsHour contest in which students created multimedia projects showing the news events that had the biggest impact on the world in 2014. T.C. sophomore Evan Williams’ entry received first-place honors, and you can view his submission here.

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