Monday, December 17, 2007

Day 4

Day 4 is the hardest. I need to get across to students that Claim + Reason isn't necessarily a good or bad argument in and of itself. I need for them to dig deeper and understand that underlying every argument is a premise that they may or may not accept.

For example:

Jennifer Lopez is a good singer because she sells a lot of CDs.

Claim = JLo is a good singer.
Reason = she sells a lot of CDs
Premise linking claim and reason = Selling a lot of CDs makes you a good singer. Or, good singers sell a lot of records. Or, popularity equals quality.

This leads to a vigorous discussion as students reveal times when popularity did not equal quality. They acknowledge the power of marketing and the gullibility of consumers. Then I point out to them that they're communists if they don't believe in the central concept of capitalism: that in the free market, quality will rise to the top and inferior products will disappear from the market. They don't like that part. ;)

They like this reason better:
JLo is a good singer because she's won awards for her singing.

They are more likely to agree that someone who has won awards, who has earned the support and respect of her peers, may be a good singer.

It's also easier for them to see the premise when I make the reason something crazy. For example, I give them this example:

JLo is a good singer because she wore that great green dress to the Oscars one year.

They quickly understand that the premise linking the claim and the evidence is ridiculous and unsupportable. They understand that they could never persuade someone that JLo is a good singer with such a bad argument.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Day 3

For day 3, I brought students to the computer lab. What I'm trying to do this term is get students more information-literate, get them using the Internet in new and more effective ways than just checking Facebook or using Google. One of the obstacles I'm coming across is that there is no real up-to-date database of op-ed essays. If I want to find someone's opinion on illegal immigration (the topic I've chosen for the first assignment) and I use Lexis-Nexis, 80% of the articles listed will be news articles reporting on the debate over illegal immigration or the latest pronouncements by presidential candidates. If I use Academic Search Premier, I run across many longer articles from academic journals. If I use Opposing Viewpoints, I end up with outdated essays. This was a bit of a challenge.

I also introduced the students to Delicious. Another challenge: the computer lab's computers do not allow student users to install the Delicious buttons. Perhaps I can contact the academic lab coordinators and have them install these buttons for now.

It took some time to get all students signed up for Delicious, then to teach them how to add the buttons to the Favorites drop-down menu. (A problem we came across in Day 5 was that the computers automatically wipe away all Favorites nightly. I understand why, but it creates the need to reinstall these buttons weekly.)

Once Delicious buttons were installed, I asked students to locate an opinion essay on illegal immigration then use Delicious to bookmark it using a special unique tag I had decided on. I also showed them how to use tagging (i.e., multiple tags for each link). Their first assignment was to summarize and analyze the essay they chose, identifying the claims, the evidence, the purpose and the audience of the essay. I just finished grading these assignments, and only 2 students analyzed the purpose and the audience! This required more research on their part, which they did not do. They did not, for example, know that Tom Tancredo is a Republican presidential candidate (the essay a few of them found was from prior to his announcement of his candidacy). They did not think about the implications of an essay on illegal immigration posted on It was kind of disheartening.

Delicious is a great tool for students because it can allow them to share their research. The second assignment asks them to find an essay that takes the opposite point of view on the issue. They can use the Delicious links to poke around and find other essays. They've helped each other do research.

I criticize schools for once :)

I've been reading the post-mortems after Thursday's snowfall and accompanying traffic nightmares in the local papers in Southern New England. The Globe had this cool graphic:

Graphic of how the snow affected the traffic.

Meanwhile, in Providence, school kids on buses didn't get home for hours. I'm an easygoing kind of person who understands problems, but seriously? I would want that school superintendent fired. His comments reek of ass-covering.

Back some 20 years ago, when I was a grad student home for the summer, I worked as the administrative assistant for the director of a preschool summer program for kids with developmental disabilities. We bussed a lot of kids. One of my jobs was to wait at the school till the buses finished dropping off the kids. Hudson, the bus company, would call me when they were all delivered home safely. If there was a problem/delay, parents would call me and I'd call the bus company and say "Hey, where is X bus? and why hasn't it dropped off Y kid yet?" I also had to call the social services department if no one was there to pick up a child.

We had a few problems here and there, but mainly it was a low-key part of my job. But I took it seriously. These were 3- and 4-year-old kids, some high-functioning Downs kids and many with communication issues, and the thought of them being left on the bus freaked me out. We didn't even have cell phones back then; the bus drivers and the companies kept in contact via radio.

I want to know whose job it was in the Providence transportation department to make sure that those buses got the kids home. Apparently, in Warwick, RI, they had similar issues, but district directors stayed in the transportation office till the kids got home.

Someone in Providence fucked up royally. The buses not getting home because of the snow/traffic is understandable. The lack of communication is not. The superintendent sitting in his car for 2 hours getting home instead of being at the transportation office is not.

My story: I left work in Providence at 11:30ish. It started snowing just as I was exiting the offramp on the highway near my house. I picked up my son at kindergarten, then we hung out at home for an hour or so till my daughter's school closed. We live across the street from the school, so we just walked. My husband was still at work and I began a series of calls to him begging him to come home so as to avoid 1. dangerous driving conditions and 2. serious traffic. He ignored me so that he could take photos of the snow. *sigh* Such is the life of a photographer's spouse.

At around 3:30 I told him to get his ass back home and he finally agreed, but he said he could see traffic was already backing up on the side streets. I prepared myself not to see him for hours even though we live only 6 miles away from his workplace, but he took the back streets he usually bikes on, and he said he had a smooth ride, no delays. He just avoided the highway. I am still amazed. He also had the Subaru (with all-wheel drive) just in case he got stuck or something, but there was no need.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

8:30 am. Student, who has missed 2 out of 4 classes already, shows up an hour and a half late for a 7 am class. Tries to persuade me not to drop him from the class by telling me he had to take his cat to the vet. Reeks of alcohol.

It's kind of sad, really.

More posts to come.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Day 2

In Day 2 of class this term I started working on argument analysis. We read an essay titled "Class Struggle: Is Homework Really So Terrible?" by Jay Mathews. A bit of snooping found that Jay Mathews writes a column for the Washington Post called "Class Struggle," and the title of one of the columns was "Is Homework Really So Terrible?" Hm, a bit misleading there, Bedford Guide to College Writers. One of the things I'm trying to teach students is to use the title as a tool to help them understand the essay, so I'd like the text to use the title as originally written by the author.

Anyway, Mathews' essay follows a familiar structure of a newspaper column:
Tell a personal story.
Raise a question.
Research the question.
Discuss conclusions.
Relate the conclusions to the personal story told at the beginning.

I asked the students to freewrite for a few minutes on the following questions/prompts:
1. Summarize the essay
2. Did they agree with the essay's main point?
3. Did they think it was a good argument?
4. Did the essay tell them anything they hadn't know before?
5. Was there anything in the essay they didn't believe?

I was surprised how many of the students agreed with the essay's main point (that homework isn't a bad thing). But I was surprised how few students noticed Mathews' neat little rhetorical trick. He investigates two books on the subject of homework. The first (opposed to homework) he heartily mocks for relating the practice of homework to social and economic justice issues. The second (supports homework) he describes as "intriguing." Then he states "having established that homework is necessary...." Ha. My students didn't notice that.

I also told the class that I was surprised by his contempt for the first book, so I looked up reviews and found that it received very positive reviews on Amazon. Furthermore, Harvard featured a debate between the very two authors mentioned in this essay. It was a great way to show students how easily readers can be manipulated by writers when readers are underinformed.

This will end up being a recurring issue. It's difficult to get students to question sources/evidence. And it's difficult to get across the point that even if the source is questionable, they still have a right to agree with it. They just need to understand that there are weak arguments and strong arguments, persuasive arguments and not-so-persuasive arguments.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Day One

On the first day of class, I have a few goals:
1. Learn students' names. I usually have about 80% success the first day and about 90-98% success by the second day.
2. Go over the syllabus to make sure they understand a few very important things:
a. Don't plagiarize
b. Don't text in class
c. Pay attention to what I have to teach you about writing.
3. Buy the book or somehow get the readings another way.

Our classes are two hours long, and we are expected to hold class the entire two hours on the first day, so I also add in some sort of group activity on the first day. For the advanced comp class, I do a "review" of the intro comp course. I make 5 copies of an essay and cut each copy into paragraphs. I put each cut-up essay into an envelope. In class, I break the students up into 5 groups, give each an envelope, and ask them to put the paragraphs in order.

I have a few goals with this activity. Once the students have assembled the essay, I ask them why they chose the paragraph they put first. They explain to me that it's an attention grabber (usually they choose a paragraph starting with a quotation), or that it tells what the author is going to do in the essay, or it contains the thesis statement. I point out that they are telling me what they expect from an introduction. I was trained in "reader expectation theory," only a few elements of which I still use in my teaching, and this is one time I do.

My other goal is to talk about purpose. I ask the various groups what they think the purpose of the essay is. It becomes obvious that their interpretation of the purpose of the essay governs the way they organize it.

Finally, I let them know that the essay was written as a med school application essay. Once they know that, it's usually easy for them to reconstruct the essay as I originally found it. But it's also a good time to remind them that there is no one right way to organize the essay; there is no "right" answer, only the answer that matches the original. Writers reorganize and revise their writings all the time, and it's quite possible this writer revised hers at a later date for a different purpose. If she had time during med school. ;)

After this exercise, I gave students a quiz on the syllabus. Yes, on the syllabus. I let them consult the syllabus and work with their groups. There were 15 questions, the last of which asked them to guess a song that's on my iPod. I was pretty embarrassed when they guessed (incorrectly!) Jimmy Buffett, Kelly Clarkson, and Elton John's "Tiny Dancer"! That was a little bit of an icebreaker moment, for them to try to figure me out. On Day 2, I plan to give students a shorter version of the quiz to see if they retained anything.

Finally, I was thrilled today to have the opportunity to share with a student information about open source software. She told me she didn't have enough money to buy Microsoft Office and put it on her laptop. I showed her the web site for Open Office and explained how to use it. I also showed her Google Documents and how easy that is to use. I don't know if she'll follow up, but if she does, it's nice to win a convert!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Argument Analysis

As I mentioned on 11D's comments section, I'm going to blog about my course on Persuasive Writing. My university has two required English courses, an intro course and an advanced course, whose focus is persuasion. I've learned a lot about persuasion from teaching this course. I slid through college and graduate school mostly on my, well, not good looks so much as my mad skillz in literary analysis, but I find myself less interested in the *teaching* of literature so much as I am in teaching the skills of writing. I am essentially quite pragmatic.

Our advanced course has several required assignments: a review, an argument analysis, a "commentary," a problem-solution paper, and a portfolio. I ... adapt these requirements to my own needs. In the past, I started with the review assignment (although Bloom puts evaluation higher on his taxonomy), asking students to review two items in any category, i.e., movies, CDs, computers, hotels, etc. This was a fun assignment that students enjoyed doing, and I had a lot of models for them to work with. The second assignment I would work on was argument analysis, and I had several essays for them to read and analyze, figuring out the author's claim, evidence, and what Toulmin calls the "warrant." We also discussed rhetorical appeals, such as pathos, ethos and logos. The so-called "commentary" is an invention of the textbooks we are required to use. Some might call this "taking a stand" on an issue. I used to have them write essays similar to op-ed pieces, but then I started doing debates (the debates would work as panels, but each student would write an individual essay). The culminating project would be a problem-solution assignment done in a group. In many ways, this worked out very well. Most groups gelled well and would vigorously research the problem and work out possible solutions. I also introduced the concept of "stakeholders" to discuss feasibility of solutions and remind them that persuasive writing always has a specific audience in mind. Finally, we would close with the portfolio, which gave them a chance to reflect on their writing all term and to write one last persuasive piece, a cover letter that, I'd tell them, should in essence persuade me to give them a good grade. They always aced that assignment. :)

Sounds like a great plan, huh. After 4 years of teaching the course, I have it down to a science. And now I'm going to blow it all up and start over. This is why I love teaching. :)

This year, a few things:
1. We will meet in the computer lab once a week.
2. We will begin with critical reading and argument analysis. How do you recognize a claim? What is evidence? How do you know if the evidence is true? Why is it that sometimes you can't disagree with the evidence but you still think you're reading a bad argument?
3. They will work on one topic through most of the term so they can really get in depth. Since our terms are only 10 weeks long that won't be so bad. They will approach the topic from different angles.
4. Their portfolio assignment will ask them to reflect on what they have learned about persuasion.

The thing is this: I like "real-life" types of assignments. And I used to combine this course with a service-learning component and work with a community partner to find real-life problems in need of analysis. But I want to work more on in-depth analysis of persuasion. Maybe I am doing more with critical thinking than with writing skills, but I want to try it this way for a while and see how it goes.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Education Reform

I was fascinated by this Boston Globe article on the way Clark University has partnered with a school in one of the poorest sections of Worcester to increase student achievement. Part of the solution is having higher expectations, but also part of it is creating a "culture of achievement."

Clark is doing a great thing here:
1. They are encouraging people from the professional/professorial class to move to the neighborhood, thus decreasing economic segregation.
2. They are allowing students at the high school to take classes at Clark and to be on the college campus. This reminds me of a community service project a friend of mine does with her oral communications class. She has her students prepare speeches for middle schools on post-high school expectations (one of the things they do, for example, is explain to these kids how very few people actually go on to sports superstardom).
3. They offer lots of support to the schools in terms of tutoring and students working as teacher aides.

It's actually inspiring and it goes to show how institutions need to make investments in the poorest communities--investments of time, attention, and money. There is no reason this has to be limited to Clark or any college. Our local governments could also demonstrate this kind of commitment. The schools themselves have to help to maintain discipline. The problem is not that teachers aren't teaching the right things; it's all the surrounding context--the low expectations, the personal issues, the discipline issues in the classroom.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Buy Nothing Day?

Tomorrow is Black Friday, and it's also promoted as Buy Nothing Day by anti-consumerism activists. Now, I am anti-consumerism. However, I don't want to not shop tomorrow. Why?

1. I am usually never free to shop on the Friday after Thanksgiving because I'm usually travelling. But this year we celebrated Thanksgiving last weekend for a variety of reasons. I am so excited about being able to go out tomorrow morning.

2. I love the idea of getting up at 4 am to shop. I AM WEIRD LIKE THAT. I am secretly hoping it won't be crowded, which is my favorite way to shop.

3. SALES! I love bargains. Why should I pay *more* to protest consumerism? I am not buying things I wouldn't normally buy because I have control over my spending. I am targeting the deals I want and taking advantage of the loss leaders that are pulling in the other customers. My husband and I will sit together tonight and make out a plan, then I will get up early and go and I will come back with BARGAINS, which are my favorite thing in the world.

I think that anti-consumerism advocates need to come up with a different strategy for combating consumerism. Christmas can be a symbol of consumerism out of control, but it doesn't have to be. For example, I also plan to loot the sales to buy toys and other items to donate to charity.

The problem isn't buying things. It's buying too many things.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Learning Center

All this talk about elementary education, particularly AmyP's comments about the education she has sought out for her daughter, have led me to reminisce about my own elementary education.

I was reading at age 3 (as background) and was doing well at a medium school district on Long Island (not Jericho, Syosset, Great Neck, etc.), but in second grade my teacher felt I needed to be moved up. I was on the older side of the class (December cutoff, February birthday), and in December I was moved into a 3rd grade class. This was initiated by my second grade teacher. The reasoning behind my being skipped is that there was a program beginning in 4th grade called "The Learning Center," and the idea was to move me into that program more quickly.

In the nine months between my skipping second grade and entering 4th grade, my mom got pregnant, we moved to a bigger house in the same school district (different elementary), and I got a new sister. :) Then at the beginning of 4th grade, the teachers struck! We don't cross picket lines in my family, so I was delayed a week or two, much to my mom's dismay (I think she was excited about getting me and my kindergarten-age sister out of the house when she had a newborn!). Anyway, in the end, I ended up in the Learning Center sometime a few weeks after Labor Day of 1974.

There were no desks in the room, just some chairs and couches. There were only 3 walls to the room, too--one side opened up to a multi-use room that had 2 walls, and at the end was another 3-walled room with another class, I think a 6th grade class. Across the hall were two other connected rooms, one with large tables that seated about 5 or 6 students each (I remember keeping Gone With the Wind in a cubby below my usual seat when I was in 6th grade). We were the only 4th grade class. There were 3 5th grade classes and 1 6th grade class, I think.

As this was 33 years ago, I am finding it hard to remember exactly what we did. I do remember that we were self-paced, with guidance. On a regular basis, each individual student would meet with the teacher and go over a plan of what to work on until the next conference. We would also set up a next conference date. Then we would do the work on our own, sitting where we liked. We could get a library pass and go to the library to get books. I think we also worked with other classes sometimes. Every day, the teacher would also read to us. I remember she read Charlotte's Web, a book I still haven't read myself.

The thing about the Learning Center was this: students weren't placed in the Learning Center based on high IQs/grades. It wasn't a gifted program. Yet high-IQ students were in the LC. The LC was specifically for students who would benefit from an unstructured learning environment. We had kids of all abilities in the classes. Some did not succeed and moved back to "regular" classes. But some did thrive alongside those of us with high IQs.

When I look back at the Top 11 students in my graduating class of HS, 6 of us were former Learning Center students (there were at least 3 other classes in the 6th grade): me, Amy, Deb, Eric, Ross, and Eddie.

Every year the Learning Center would do a musical. I don't remember the one in 4th grade, but in 5th grade, 1976, we did 1776. I was the understudy for Ben Franklin; my friend Amy was the understudy for John Adams. Both roles went to 6th graders--and girls, at that. Tony played Jefferson, and I think his voice was changing, as I remember him cracking on "Mr. Adams, leave me alooooone!" I got on stage once; my best friend was Judge Wilson, but she couldn't make it to one performance. I had the whole play memorized and filled in for her.

One of the highlights was International Day. The 6th grade class worked on reports on different countries, then on International Day had booths/areas where they would show off their reports and, if possible, bring in food from the particular country.

Another thing I remember is that one of my classmates' parents came in on a regular basis (in 6th grade) to work with the "special math group." Looking at the group, it was the highest performing kids--I think all of us were the students I mentioned above. Amy and I remember it vividly--the project was to create architectural plans for a house of our own design. Now, these weren't *real* plans, but we had to apply math to a real-life situation. The highlight was going on a trip to watch a house in the process of being built. I have loved house plans ever since.

I e-mailed my friends Amy and Deb to ask about their memories. Amy remembered how when we finished our work, we were allowed to go to the library and read, and we voraciously read biographies of famous people. Amy said, "To this day I remember absolute minutiae about Abigail Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc. from those kids' biographies." What I remember is that I much preferred to read about women! I still remember things about Jessie Fremont, Dorothea Dix, Jane Addams, Harriet Tubman, Phillis Wheatley, Dolley Madison, etc. that I would never have know but for those books. I also remember the ones on the figures of the American Revolution--I read lots of those. It was the time of the Bicentennial, so I was interested in the topic.

But the Learning Center ultimately failed and became less effective. Do you know why?


Parents loved the program and were so excited about it that they demanded that the younger children of former LC students be allowed in. Administration caved. The problem is this: Just because the LC was good for me doesn't mean it would have been good for my sisters. But parents didn't realize that the LC worked because it was specifically focussed to kids who would benefit in an unstructured environment--and not all kids do.

So there is no more Learning Center. It was basically meaningless by the time my youngest sister (10 years younger) reached 4th grade. It's not there now.

Yes, I am skeptical about parents. I think parents' #1 job is to let the teachers do their jobs and not micromanage them. My question is this: is the basic concept of the Learning Center today considered a good one? Is it considered old, useless pedagogy? Is it considered too touchy-feely (elementary school kids!? Without desks!!?? I bet they wore bell-bottoms too and sang kumbaya instead of the Star Spangled Banner!).

Or is this a kind of strategy that might work again? And I wonder, would it be right for my daughter? She thrives in a structured environment, but she also isn't challenged much. Would a self-paced environment provide more challenges?

I don't know. I do know I'm thinking a lot more about elementary ed--and I'm wondering about thinking ahead for the middle school years, because that is really where education seems to fall apart.

Friday, November 09, 2007

My Daughter's Education

Work has, once again, been kicking my ass, and an uptick in traffic due to some new construction has both lengthened my commute and shortened my temper by the time I get home.

But I had a nice e-mail from my daughter's elementary school teacher the other day. Now, I live in a CorruptSmallSuburb of a MinorCity. Our school system is considered good, though not as highly regarded as the MoneyMagazineTopTen town next door. Last year's teacher was a nice woman, but I was underwhelmed by her teaching approach. My husband actively disliked her and started hinting about sending the kids to private schools (that would never happen).

But this year's teacher has been great. And to add to our pleasure, her e-mail this week was to ask about whether or not we thought our daughter needed more challenging work. Now, personally, I feel our daughter has been more challenged this year than any other. However, she is still whizzing through her homework, and she reports that she often daydreams. I've also noticed that she writes quickly and sloppily, as if she can't be bothered. But I am thrilled (and gratified, because sad it may be, but I do take incredibly personal pleasure in my daughter's academic success) that her teacher both appreciates her intelligence *and* wants her to develop further.

The upshot is that I said, yes, of course, I'd love for my daughter to be more challenged. How that is going to happen, I am not sure. I immediately contacted my elementary-ed-certified sister for advice; she feels that increasing the level of difficulty in reading and math and using more social/experiential/active learning techniques, i.e., small group interaction to solve problems and talk about them. She suggested a lunchtime reading group, or some sort of math group talking about math in a real-life context, like opening a lemonade stand.

I told my mom, who said "Too bad there's no more Learning Center." Ha, that was exactly my thought. When I was in 4th grade, I was put into a program called the Learning Center. It was approximately 5 classrooms in one wing of the school, wall-less rooms, if that makes sense. Each teacher had a class, but the students mainly worked independently, or sometimes with one of the other classes. Every week or so we'd set up a conference with the teacher to determine a plan of action for the next week. Those who could move faster through the curriculum did so; others took it slower. We did some stuff together as a class--some social studies and science, for example. Students often paired together to work on projects. I remember my friend Amy and I did a project together on Wisconsin. Then we also paired to do a project on Indonesia for International Food Day. And I remember our "special math group" that met weekly, run by the mother of one of the other students. She had us use math in the context of architecture and house plans, and the highlight was actually going to the site of a home being built. I've had a jones for house plans ever since.

It's funny to watch my daughter go through school, as she's a lot like me.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Dropout Factories

I find it a bit hard to juggle everything sometimes. Even now I don't quite feel like I have a grip on everything. But I've been voraciously reading all the commentary on the vouchers debate.

The Johns Hopkins "dropout factory" study has intrigued me. After much searching, I finally found a way to access lists of the schools here in an interactive map. You can read the report here.

And this is an excellent document with suggestions for how schools can reduce the dropout rate.

Would love to discuss. Anyone?

I'll try to edit in some key excerpts, but right now, family and work duties need my attention.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I'm willing to give Megan McCardle a chance on an issue until she gets unreasonable, and on the subject of vouchers she has become not only unreasonable but insulting and, as I said on an 11D thread, kind of creepy. I've basically written off reading anything she has to say on the vouchers issue, but a series of links to her screeds encouraged me to click just one more time on a follow-up post. And I found this:

How many educated people who:

a) Oppose vouchers
b) Have children who do not attend inner city public schools

would still oppose vouchers if they were the only way to get their child out of an inner city public school? How many of them would accept that their child had to be left in that school because the systemic effects of allowing their child to exit that repulsive school would be dreadful?

Respectfully, I believe the answer is "null set".

Respectfully? Ha. MM hasn't typed a single word on this issue with respect for anyone.

OK, let's start with this: the whole POINT is that the "educated" class will *never* be in a situation where vouchers would be the only way to get kids out of failing inner city public schools. (Note: FAILING. Not all inner city, non-magnet schools are failing, for what it's worth.)

This reminds me of the (badly retold by me) joke about the physicist, the chemist and the economist cast away on a deserted island with nothing else. Starving, they are thrilled when a single can of beans washes up on the shore. They have to figure out a way to open the can, so the physicist says, "If we climb to the top of the tree and throw down the can onto a rock, the force of the fall combined with the opposing force of the solid rock will open the can." The chemist says, "We can use the salinity of the sea water mixed with the sand to create a chemical reaction that will bore a hole through the metal of the can." And the economist says, "OK, let's say we had a can opener...."

Second, I could tell her that yes, under this wildly improbable scenario, I would still oppose vouchers, but she wouldn't believe me. Really. I don't think she would. And we would have no way to test the situation because IT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN.

Third, were my kids, in this wildly improbably situation, in a failing inner city school, you can bet damned sure that I would do everything in my power to MAKE SURE THE SCHOOL IMPROVED.

For the record, John Edwards, whom I consider to be the foremost advocate of the poor right now among the presidential candidates, opposes vouchers because they would increase the inequities in K12 education.

And all of his kids - rich as Edwards was - went to public schools. In fact, I was Googling to remind myself about Raleigh public schools (I lived there for 3 years), and his two older kids went to Broughton, which is not even as well respected as Enloe.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Education Discussion

Over on 11D, a bunch of us have been talking about education. My stand:
1. I don't want public funding of religious schools. Period.
2. I hate it when teachers are trashed.

You can go over here to check out the history of the discussion.

I just wanted to take some of the heat off Laura and post two potentially discussable links:

Parent angry about reading assignment in public high school. The parent is upset by the profanity and bestiality in the essay. The principal allowed the student to opt out of the class. However, there are two issues: first, there is no other reading class available to the opted-out student, and second, the parent wants the essay to be removed from the curriculum. So far, the school district is holding firm and keeping the essay in the curriculum.

I say good for them. We have a hard enough time getting students to read. The book this essay is in seems to be an attempt to get students reading about issues that interest them (i.e., people their age). Somewhere down the line, these kids will mature a bit and be interested in something beyond the solipsism of teenagers. Until then, if we keep them in the *habit* of reading, that is a Good Thing.

Dropout factories make up 1 of 10 high schools.

Of course I'm interested in how these dropout factories mostly comprise black and minority populations.

My question is: how do vouchers help someone like this?

A GED classmate of Singletary's is 23-year-old Dontike Miller, who attended and left two D.C. high schools on the dropout factory list. Miller was brought up by a single mother who used drugs, and he says teachers and counselors seemed oblivious to what was going on in his life.

He would have liked for someone to sit him down and say, "'You really need to go to class. We're going to work with you. We're going to help you'," Miller said. Instead,"I had nobody."

Answer: they don't.

Off to look up schools that are considered "dropout factories."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


We just got back from a glorious trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. First, I have the satisfaction of a trip well planned and somewhat frugal. By scrimping on meals, we felt more free to splurge on activities such as the Cog Railway and Storyland.

I love to travel, challenging as it can be with children. I love cities in particular, exploring architecture and history. But since we've had kids, our trips involve nature more often than not. While I miss the cities, I do value our excursions in nature because it's good for the kids.

When I was young, I spent a lot more time outdoors than my kids do. This issue has been much discussed. The increase in television viewing and computer game playing makes our children more sedentary. Even now, my daughter is downstairs playing with her Webkinz online.

Getting out into the wilderness is a conscious choice we make to ensure that our kids appreciate nature. This weekend we hiked 5.4 miles and played in the Zealand Falls. We went to the top of Mt. Washington on a crystal clear day and could see for miles. We scrambled through a series of natural caves, cool and dark. On the hike, my daughter stopped when she noticed tree roots in a pattern that resembled a hand. We all put our hands next to the roots while my husband took photos.

But we don't always have to travel far to appreciate nature. Our backyard has been an amazing resource. We live right outside a major city in the Northeast. Less than a mile away to the east you can find horse farms and livestock, and a mile or so to the west you can find a major urban area. Here's what we have found in our backyard:

Bunny rabbits
A woodchuck
A painted turtle
A catbird nest with many eggs that later hatched
A star-nosed mole (actually, my husband found it in the house!)
And of course the usual squirrels, chipmunks, and generic birds. I have seen a cardinal once or twice.

This fall I plan to put up some bird feeders to attract some more birds.

I have never been "into" nature; it's my husband who has encouraged us all to appreciate the outdoors more. But I'm glad that he has pushed us to appreciate the outdoors. So much about our culture today drives us indoors instead of outside.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Vacation and Pop! Goes My Culture

We left on August 5 for a vacation to Cape Cod, overlapping Laura's vacation. I'm a bit of a Cape Cod purist, so I avoid the south coast of the Cape as much as possible, preferring the elbow. We camped at Nickerson State Park, without electricity or water hookups (there's running water in the bathrooms). We're still iffy on whether camping is for us. I have fond memories of camping as a child, but back then, camping was a financial necessity if we were going to travel at all. I saw most of the Northeast from a camper 30+ years ago.

But now we're back and readjusted to living in a house again. Time to re-start the blogging.

Timothy Burke has written on the experience of parenting in a world of cultural norms that are still sexist. Though I objected to his characterization of "Politically Correct" parents denying their children sexist playthings, there was a lot about his post I liked. When Tim says "Maybe we change culture best by viewing and doing and being what we desire and love best, and less by trying to perform the role of an ideal and virtuous self," that really resonates with me.

I'm a woman of strong politically progressive beliefs, and it goes without saying, I think, that I would like to see our society become less sexist. I am concerned about the negative/stereotyped portrayals of gender in popular culture. And I have two children, an 8 year old girl and a 5 year old boy. In many ways my daughter fits the stereotype of a "girly girl." She loves pink, she loves nurturing her stuffed animals, she prefers dresses, she would rather dance than participate in most sports. And my son? Loves dinosaurs, trucks, taking things apart, throwing a baseball.

But as Tim said, as parents, we share the things we love with our kids. The kids now share my husband's love of nature and science. As a family we bike and canoe. And me? They share my love of tv. :) Back in grad school, I put together a panel entitled "Can I Be a Feminist and Still Like Popular Culture?" One panelist talked about rap music, another about Tolkien, another about graphic novels, and I talked about soap operas, particularly the portrayal of rape on soap operas. I took pleasure in watching soaps (I don't watch them now; once I had my daughter, I had no time to watch any more), yet I was surrounded by people who told me soaps were stupid and below me.

My response back in grad school at Postmodern University was not to hide my love of soaps but to be open about it. Most of my fellow students thought I was kind of strange, but others felt more empowered to "come out" about their "guilty pleasures" to me (hence my collection of fellow students who were willing to join the panel). In fact, it became a kind of test of someone's character (to me) how they responded to my assertion that I watched and enjoyed soap operas. Never had much use for people whose opinion of me would obviously change.

I may sound unconcerned about others' opinions, but I think maybe I'm applying 2o years of hindsight and experience. I was self-conscious, but I'd found so little value in performing a certain "ideal and virtual self" that I became more and more confident in this aspect of myself. This confidence was further bolstered when I met Famous Feminist Philosopher, who was visiting Postmodern University for a year and was teaching the grad course in Women's Studies. We ended up bonding over our enjoyment of General Hospital (I remember her as a fan of Colton and Felicia).

Over the next few years, the Internet started to evolve, and I became involved with online communities. And though I shouldn't have been surprised, I still was to find that the online communities for soap fans (and romance novel fans) were filled with smart intelligent women of my age. And for the past 15 years, I have spent a lot of time with these women (and some men) talking about television and popular culture and taking pleasure in it--and sometimes taking pleasure in criticizing it.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this other than to say I think that not only speaking about my pleasure in certain cultural texts but also expressing my criticism of some aspects of them has led to some very positive experiences. I'm not only sharing my love for pop culture but also my ambivalence for it, if that makes sense.

Friday, August 03, 2007

No Life Without E-mail

Parent Hacks asks:

How has email changed how you communicate with your long-distance family?

All of my family live at least 3 hours away. For several years, they lived 7 hours away. Without e-mail and other online tools for communication, I don't know what I would have done. When I was 6 weeks postpartum with my son, my sister (who lived 3+ hours away) noticed that I "sounded" a bit tense on AOL IM, so she called me right away. She then made me call a doctor to get some help.

My dad and I communicate much more since we've been using e-mail, and that's especially important now that he is bedridden from a spinal tumor/prostate cancer. We send each other links and notes. When he and my mom would travel, he'd e-mail their itinerary so we'd know where they were each day.

With my father's cancer diagnosis, my family members and I communicate more than ever. We were e-mailing back and forth so much to keep us updated (besides me, one sister lives 1.5 hours away and another sister has one year old twins, so she has communication issues, too) that I set up a Writeboard for us to communicate. We use that not only for sharing news about my dad, but also for anything else on our minds, and we use Skrbl when we need to draw pictures (for example, I'm having trouble planning a deck or patio in my backyard because of various setback issues).

I'm close with my family emotionally, if not geographically, and without e-mail, I don't think I would be able to live where I do, and I'd be settling for a job I don't love as much as the job I have now.

Unfortunately, my mother is not so e-mail friendly, which is why I'm entering this contest. ;)

Monday, July 16, 2007


I have such trouble blogging on the weekends. And even now I'm cheating. I wrote this for a department newsletter and edited out some identifying information.

My original title was "Blessings of a Chagrined C," but the editor didn't like it, so I changed it.

Reflections from the Helicopter Generation

I’ve been a teacher for 18 years and a mother for 7, but it’s only recently that I’ve been self-conscious about the way these two roles intersect. At first I thought that being a teacher would help me be a better mom. I know how to communicate, how to be patient, and how to break down a seemingly unmanageable task into smaller, more easily mastered steps. Suffice it to say that my expectations proved to be wishful thinking.

Nowadays I’m more interested in how being a mother has started to affect my teaching. I can’t remember when I realized I was using similar techniques to manage students in the classroom as I do to manage my active three-year-old and six-year-old in my living room, but I can tell you I felt quite a bit of guilt about it. Was I infantilizing my students? Isn’t it insulting them to treat them like toddlers? When I need to get my children’s attention in a non-threatening way, I often make a silly face or sing a song. How much different is that from singing Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to wake up a classroom of drowsy students bored by a lesson on simile? For most parents, anticipating trouble times is the key to parental success with moody toddlers. “We’re leaving in 5 minutes,” I often tell my son to prepare him for leaving the playground. How is that much different from warning students, most of whom have watches and all of whom know how to read the clock on the wall, that they have 5 minutes left to complete an exam?

I often fear I am coddling my students the way I tell myself not to coddle my children. We live in a world of helicopter parents, hovering over their children every minute of the day, ready to swoop in whenever their children face the slightest obstacle. I often vow not to be that kind of parent, but inevitably I cannot help seeing myself as my children’s advocate. I come from a generation where we expect ourselves, as parents, to take on this role. And now, having turned 40 this year, I have entered the same decade as the moms of most of my students. Though my children are younger, I share these values with my students’ parents.

So does being a mom help me be a better teacher? Or am I merely replicating the same dynamic many of our students have with their parents? Should I be a different kind of role model, a different kind of authority figure?

Last summer, the line between parenting and teaching became even more permeable to me when I read a book on parenting called Blessing of a Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel. Mogel is a family therapist who had an epiphany about her parenting philosophy as she was re-exploring her Jewish spiritual heritage. Mogel realized that many of the tenets of her religion offer important life lessons for parents trying to raise happy, successful children. Too often, she says, the parents she works with in her therapy sessions are overly invested in making their children happy. When that desire guides all their actions as parents, the results are devastating. The children that these parents want to be happy instead lack confidence and become overly dependant on their parents.

Mogel argues instead that parents should be motivated by the desire to create resilient, self-reliant children. Instead of making their children happy, parents should see their job as preparing children for adulthood. This doesn’t mean treating children as adults but instead encompasses the idea of gradually preparing children to handle future obstacles and problems they will face – with confidence, strength and grace. The skinned knee can be a blessing because it teaches a child to handle being hurt, and an overprotective parent who tries to cushion the child from pain and risk does the child a disservice.

And both as a mom and a teacher, I understand that gut reaction to make the child happy. When I’m in a store, it gives me pleasure to buy my daughter or son a toy; it’s easier to let the children have chicken nuggets for the fifth time this week instead of making them eat their vegetables; when they’re bored, why not let them evict me from the computer instead of requiring them to use their imaginations and make up a game.

The same often holds true in teaching. I find myself choosing stories on the basis of what I think the students will like to read, as if making them happy is the main reason for the choices on my syllabus. The students like group work and they seem grumpy today, so should I throw out my lesson plan and put them in groups? When they moan at a challenging assignment, I feel an internal pressure to immediately console them or offer them a treat if they only read their broccoli.

But why should I be so invested in making them happy? On one hand, faculty assessment is based on student evaluations, thus creating a culture where happy students mean happy faculty and administrators. But on the other, I think it’s a generational problem. This is how I and my peers act with our children; it’s unsurprising that we feel compelled to act this way with our students.

So in the end, with a bit of reflection, I’m finding that being a mother is teaching me a lot about education. It’s teaching me to be self-conscious of my own desire to please rather than to guide. Reading books like Wendy Mogel’s reminds me of the principle underlying what we do when we teach. I am here not just to make my students happy in my classroom but to prepare them for the world outside of college. And that means that the classroom is going to be a little bit like my house right when I’m reminding my children to brush their teeth: “But do we have to?”

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Closer

The Closer, starring Kyra Sedgwick as Brenda Leigh Johnson, is one of my favorite shows. I used to call Brenda one of my two favorite blonde tv detectives until Veronica Mars started sucking. So now Brenda is it. In fact, I often refer to the show as "Brenda," as in "I have a new Brenda to watch tonight!"

Brenda is in some ways a typical Ally McBeal type of character. In a New York Times piece (not available online, though it was in one of our composition textbooks), Karen Durbin argues that Ally McBeal is endearing to many modern women because she is good at her career but somehow clueless in her romantic and interpersonal relationships. Brenda is similar, except that she does have a working, long-term romantic relationship. She did have a romantic past with her boss, but she gave it up, along with the junk food. In fact, I'm trying to remember if I've seen a junk food scene in Season 3. I think not. At the end of Season 2, she ended up choosing not to re-entangle herself with Pope, her boss, and her rejection of him was telegraphed by the way she scooped up all the junk food she'd hidden in her office and threw it all away.

In some ways, the recurring theme of Brenda's love for junk food was irritating; portraying a woman as addicted to junk food? Wow, original. But the way it was portrayed was so wonderful. Each scene where she contemplated eating a Ring-Ding was like watching foreplay. I sometimes found myself almost as interested in whether or when she'd eat the Ring-Ding as in how she solved the case. In Season 2, the squad themselves became involved in her games with the junk food, hiding it or providing it as necessary, offering up some clever nonverbal background action alongside the primary dialogue in the scene.

But that's over now. Meanwhile, Brenda is a working woman who isn't sacrificing love (so much) for her work. Yes, work causes conflict in her relationship with Fritzie. (OK, his name is Fritz, but like Brenda, I call him Fritzie.) Yes, her high status (Deputy Chief of Priority Homicide, a high-profile job) is in some ways more demanding than Fritzie's job in the FBI, and his co-workers hassle him about it, calling him "Mr. Johnson." But Brenda and Fritz are making it work. Yes, they have fights. Mainly over her work, sometimes over her family. I guess I'd like to see more conflict over his work or family, but hey, that's what we have Season 4 for, no? Gotta leave some drama out there to mine.

In many of the fandoms I've been involved in, "shipping," i.e., the viewing strategy involving rooting for a couple to form a romantic/sexual relationship, has created divisiveness. As I tend to like shows featuring lead female characters and I tend to like shipping, I've often been put on the defensive for wanting to see a lead female character involved with a man, accused of being somehow anti-feminist for not appreciating that a strong female character does not need a man to be complete.

And yet, most women today, strong and otherwise, do have partners, and about 90% of those who do have male partners. I am interested in seeing how a strong female character works through a relationship. Why? Because I'm a strong female, and a bit of a character, some say. ;) And I have a relationship (15 years of marriage), and I like to see these relationships onscreen in ways that don't offend me.

Brenda and Fritzie never offend me, except when Brenda is a bit too concerned about her father's view of her. But when they fight because she works too much? How many times has my husband complained that I am answering e-mail from my students that I could just as well leave to tomorrow? Using work as an excuse to avoid doing something she doesn't want to do? I've done it, too.

I'm also interested in the gendered implications of Brenda as leader of her squad. Sometimes she seems like a mom, especially when she has to chew out Flynn and Provenza, which is humorously often. In one of my favorite episodes, she shuts out Gabriel again and again, to his consternation, but we know and he later finds out that Brenda was trying to protect him because she was doing something ethically questionable, and she wanted him to be out of the loop. There was some pragmatism there as well; she knew that if her attempts to deal with the situation failed, she would need Gabriel there to pick up the pieces, and she trusted him to do so.

That makes this past week's episode all the more interesting. Brenda has saved Provenza's skin more than once when he's made mistakes. But this past week, Gabriel beat an admission (not a confession) out of a suspect, and after Brenda fixed the situation so that she could close the case, she promptly suspended Gabriel without pay for use of excessive force. Garance Franke-Ruta notes this development as well, with praise, and I agree. This was one of the hardest things Brenda has had to do on this show, and you could see it. But she would not sacrifice her principles for her favorite. Not only that, by doing so, she was in many ways saving him and saving his career. She's making sure that he will turn into the ethical and superb law enforcement professional she knows he can be. And you don't do that by covering up their wrongdoings.

Gabriel has two mentors: Brenda and Taylor. Both care about Gabriel and his career. But Taylor will use questionable policing methods (such as putting a child murderer suspect into general detention to let him be beaten up) again and again without a lick of conscience. Brenda knows she is there in that department to bring honor and integrity as well as skill to the office. She knows Taylor has his strengths, but he also has flaws. She can't let Gabriel turn into Taylor when she knows he can be so much better.

We know Brenda has feelings, and we know they inform her work. But she balances those feelings with integrity. We have so often been trained to see the expression of feeling by a woman leader as an example of her weakness. In last week's episode of The Closer, it was an example of her strength.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Road to a Teaching Job

I went to a high-powered graduate program in English, one that has made the news many times, particularly during my grad school years. And I knew what we were there for: to get high-powered research jobs, teaching as few courses as possible and producing as much writing as possible. And for quiet little me, back in 1987, that seemed ideal.

Then someone put me in front of a classroom.

My students find it very hard to believe that I was once the quiet student in the class. I tell them that so they know I empathize with their concerns about speaking in front of the class. But man oh man, being given the role as teacher changed me.

In a way, I didn't want to go back to research. We all always complained about how teaching took time away from our classes, but really, I didn't feel it did. Rather, I resented the time that classes took away from my teaching.

Most people thought I loved writing, would love a writing career, but the fact is that writing exhausts me. I fall asleep while writing (not blog entries, but academic writing :). It is hard work for me. But I love knowing things, and I love explaining things to people. I love being the one people come to with questions, and I love being able to answer them.

I struggled for years with the expectation that success for me was a high-powered research job. And it didn't help that I was surrounded by people who felt that way, too. In my Big City Administrative Job, I was told that my administrative background (I ran the tutoring program) and part-time teaching status ruled me out of any jobs in the English department.
They just didn't take me seriously, I was told. At the one-year position I took, hoping to get hired full-time, I was surrounded by others who assumed that I too wanted that magical job at a "serious" institution with prestige.

But then I learned something else about myself. My father used to tell me I needed to teach "better" students, but at Small Liberal Arts college, I learned that I can't stand teaching people like me! I prefer to teach students with weaker skills. Maybe that speaks to my need for power or something. Who knows.

I finally allowed myself to aim "lower." I rejected job postings from schools with better reputations and sought out the smaller colleges, the community colleges. And finally my current job came through, with a little help from some insider mojo. Recently, my chair told me that I was hired (even though she prefers to hire from within her part-time pool or from the area--I lived 3 hours away and had to move when I was hired) precisely because of my tutoring experience. And indeed, this experience has served me well as I have been spearheading a developmental writing initiative. I enjoy doing this kind of work. I like teaching writing skills to the weakest of students, feeling proud when they improve. I hate teaching English majors. I love that I can teach all the African American literature I want, and it means something because I'm teaching it to students in a general education course, not someone voluntarily taking an African American literature course. I'm preaching to the unconverted!

Why all this reflection? Our university is updating its web site and we've been asked for faculty bios. I looked at the list of places I had taught before my current job and had an attack of "How did I get here?" Well, however it happened, I am glad.

Monday, July 09, 2007

A conversation with a friend who is 12-13 weeks pregnant and a thread I got involved in at Mad Melancholic Feminista make me feel as though I should write my Manifesto of Pregnancy and Childbirth.

I believe:

1. It is better to avoid too many tests and ultrasounds during pregnancy. A lot of them are unnecessary and just create undue anxiety.

2. Many of the foods that women are encouraged to avoid ingesting are really harmless in moderation. I include in this list: deli meats, caffeine, aspartame, alcohol, cheeses, etc.,

3. Taking antidepressants during pregnancy is probably safe and is a good idea if you're suffering from depression. I wish I had taken anti-depressants during my pregnancy with my son. Unfortunately, I had enough issues taking them in the first place, much less taking them while pregnant.

4. Women should try to have a childbirth without interventions if possible. I think women giving birth are afraid of the pain because we're trained to see it as a signal that something is wrong. But the pain of childbirth is not a bad pain. It's a pain telling us that something is happening. If a woman can't handle the pain, she should take advantage of her options. But I think it doesn't hurt to remind people that there are consequences to the use of epidurals and other drugs.

5. The c-section rate is too high. I hate it when people say "I had a c-section because the doctor said the baby was too big." I wish they would just be honest and say "I had a c-section because I was afraid it would hurt" or "I had a c-section because the doctor told me to." This is similar to the excuses of women who "tried" breastfeeding. I hate it when women say "I tried to breastfeed, but I didn't have enough milk." I wish they would just say "I didn't want to breastfeed." Why? Because what they are doing is spreading falsehoods about childbirth and breastfeeding. In very few cases are babies "too big" to deliver vaginally, and in very few cases do women have insufficient milk. But by lying about their own reasons, they propagate fictions about childbirth and breastfeeding and make it harder for women to make informed decisions.

6. (This is the most controversial): abortion for the reason of fetal birth defects is wrong (though I think it should still be legal). My feeling is that I would love any child who was disabled after birth, and so I would love any child who was disabled at birth. Strangely, I tend not to mourn miscarriages in the first trimester* because I feel they are often non-viable embryos that the woman's body is rejecting.
*I've never had a miscarriage; I don't mourn miscarriages in and of themselves, but I do mourn for the woman if she is saddened by the miscarriage.

7. My position on abortion is this: legally, it should be a matter of a woman's choice. That is not to say I agree with all the choices. However, I believe that women have the right/authority to make those choices no matter how much I disagree with them. I do reserve the right, however, to express my disagreement.

If I think of any other manifesto-ish positions on pregnancy or childbirth, I will edit this post.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Well, that was an unexpected break. After promising myself I would write every day, I've basically been silent for the past week. Part of that can be explained: we were in New York for 4-5 days visiting family. But also, I just haven't been able to stay focussed at night when it is prime blogging time.

My biggest obsession lately has been organizing: organizing rooms, furniture, paperwork, food in the kitchen. Planning planning planning. I am great with the big ideas and not so good with the follow through, which pretty much describes 90% of people, right? I make lists and lists and lists and slowly cross off items I've completed. I have a 4-part list right now with 4 categories:

1. Monday with kids (list of everything I need to do with them).
2. Home (pretty much all my organizing/cleaning things)
3. Outdoors (gardening etc.; can't touch these tasks till at least 5 pm, when it's cooler)
4. Shopping (oh, I have been making quite a dent here).

I've spent hundreds of dollars in the past few days. I've bought:
- curtains
- a storage ottoman
- a purse organizer
- dresser drawer organizers
- Quicken

What is sad is how much work it takes to get organized. And even once you do it, you're never as organized as you think you will be. My issue is this: during the school year I am always so busy and tired that I want to do everything now so that all processes are streamlined and I can devote more time to fun/kids/relaxation between September and May than to cleaning/organizing.

My secondary goal is to make home improvements. I am so glad I pushed myself on painting in June because the heat now is rendering me fairly immobile. I also managed to pull my left hamstring, which makes bending difficult.

I wish I had something ... wise to say, but I don't. I'm just explaining myself. Tomorrow is Monday, and I hope to write something tomorrow more thoughtful and less whiny.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Already Behind on Posting

So much for my handy dandy schedule! I got overwhelmed by work/home stuff and haven't posted as planned.

I've started watching Life on Mars, a BBC series that aired 16 episodes over 2006-2007. (David Kelley is planning a remake in the US.) I'd read the pilot script here a few weeks ago and was intrigued, then even more so by John Simm's (Sam, the main character of LoM) appearance on Doctor Who.

LoM is about Sam Tyler, a police detective investigating a serial killer who is hit by a car and wakes up back in 1973. But is it time travel or a coma? Who knows. What I like about the show is the fish out of water story of the 2006 metrosexual Sam amid the misogynist frat party atmosphere of the 1973 police headquarters. I especially love Hunt, the traditional slightly corrupt/ed old school boss.

The scenes of sexism towards the women officers (WCPs, they were called) make you wince. It's not that long ago that such behavior was condoned. It does remind you that Anita Hill started working for Clarence Thomas only 8 years later.

But more importantly, it makes me think about how things I once found funny and remember as funny aren't all that funny any more. Case in point: Eddie Murphy's HBO special, Delirious. My sister and I still quote lines from that show. "Oh my god I'm falling down the stairs!" "Ice cream, I got some ice cream. You want some? Psych!" Wow, that was 1983. But part of that routine is a pretty homophobic riff on how Mr. T would be if he were gay. Years later, my sister and I found a video of Delirious and put it on, excited, only to turn to each other in embarrassment when it came to that part.

So I appreciate what LoM is trying to do--remind us that those days of "fun" humor where people could just joke around without fear of being politically correct, were kind of painful to experience.

I'm sure there's some sort of comparison to be made to SCOTUS's ruling on affirmative action this week, relating to people's capacity for remembering the past far more positively than it actually happened.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Teaching Grammar

For the past two years, I've been teaching a developmental writing course. Oh, let's just call it what it is--a remedial grammar course. The twist on this course is that students take it *after* they've completed their two required writing courses, and pedagogically, I find this approach to be interesting. The students at our university tend to be career oriented, and they don't really "find" themselves as students until they get motivated to pursue a career. And as we all know, I think, once they become involved in a career, working, they start to understand just how important communication skills are. Letting the students work through this first before coming to a grammar class is, I think, a smart move. Starting off students in their first term with a remedial non-credit course can be discouraging.

Most of us learn communication, writing, and grammar through exposure to the language--speaking and writing in it. My 5 year old makes grammar mistakes all the time, but by the time he is 18, I am sure he won't say "I goed outside today, Mommy!" Yes, I correct him (most of the time), but he will learn the right way to say that sentence mainly by hearing and reading it presented correctly.

Today's students, as we all know, seem to be reading and writing less often. But they *do* often know proper grammar. I sit down with students all the time and go over their writing with them, and most of the time, the most egregious errors are ones they can correct themselves--and they do, right in front of me.

So, what's happening?

The students who come into my grammar classes often perceive themselves as bad writers, and I think many of them fear they will not be able to graduate (they have to attain a particular level of writing skill in order to graduate, assessed through a handwritten essay written in two hours). They think their problems are insurmountable.

It's my job to take a different approach. I take advantage of the workshop approach to work as individually as possible with students and figure out what they know and what they don't know. I deal with what they don't know, but then I have to deal with what they aready know but forget to do while writing. This is crucial! Then I try to help them figure out why they do what they do.

Most of the time, it's laziness, pure and simple! Or they have low expectations of themselves. Or they just haven't trained themselves to see details in written language; they're not close readers. I cannot turn these students into writers at the level of A students at an Ivy League college, but I can get them to correct basic grammar errors. What I do is use behavior modification techniques, individualized as much as possible for each student.

For example, I have a student whose first language is Korean. Like many students who speak/write Korean as a first language, he has many difficulties with plural forms, verb forms, and articles. Articles are tricky, so I won't deal with that now. Verb forms require a lot of practice, but again, as I went over more and more writing with the student, I could see what he tended to do wrong and why. What I discovered with T is that he was confusing present perfect and present progressive tenses. Now, this makes sense, in a way. Both tenses involve something that is currently happening. But T kept wanting to make everything into the present progressive tense. The first thing I advised him was to use simple present (and past) whenever he was unsure. Now, we certainly found exceptions, but this trick was helping him simplify his sentence constructions. He also kept wanting to use passive voice constructions (i.e., "As an employer, Disney is being appealed because of its great health benefits"). I explained passive constructions and what they mean. (So often, students are taught that passive voice is wrong.)

When we found a sentence that was especially perplexing for him, we came up with a "model" sentence, a sentence in the same pattern. Then I suggested he memorize the sentence and when he came upon something similar, he could call upon that sentence in his head to remember how to structure the sentence he was working on.

Another example of this is the construction "one of the best movies of the year is Spiderman 3." T kept dropping the "s" on movies because he thought that because he was using "one," the word should not be plural. I went over this construction again and again with him, and we settled on a similar construction as the one above for his "model." And in his most recent essay, he used the structure in a different context, i.e., "one of the advantages of X is Y." I was SO happy!

I do the same kind of thing with sentence structure. If students tend to use commas to try to connect two independent clauses with a conjunctive adverb such as "however," I remind them to read through their papers to find the word "however," then I give them a few tricks to figure out if it's connecting two independent clauses.

The thing is that when we tell students to proofread their papers, internally they groan. They become overwhelmed by the prospect of re-reading every single word. And in fact, with computers, they can benefit from spellcheck to find many of those simple errors. But they need to understand that in an essay that is 20 sentences long, it is likely that 15-18 of those sentences are not run-ons or comma splices. They need to figure out why they fuse some sentences and not others, and they are more motivated when they have shortcuts to help them skip over the perfectly fine sentences and find and focus on the sentences that are troublesome.

Now, this approach doesn't address the needs of all students. Some are still struggling with basic communication skills, and some make egregious errors in every sentence. But it does work with many students. The other benefit is that once they see how they can identify and improve some aspects of their essays, they become motivated to catch the other errors. They realize that they *can* change their behaviors, and that, together with the knowledge that they will be needing to enter the working world and communicate effectively, gives them that extra boost in confidence and energy to improve.

I am so excited by the improvement I've seen in T this summer. He is such a smart, hard-working kid, and I'm glad to see him take control of his writing. He has big dreams, and I'd like to see him achieve them.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Cell Phones for Kids

Today WSJ's parenting blog The Juggle is discussing whether or not children should have cell phones.

I want to avoid getting my children a cell phone as long as possible.

My students know me as someone who hates cell phones. Why? Because they take students' attention away from my teaching, and it's rude. Students claim they need the phones for "emergencies," but really, how often is there an emergency? Their concept of what constitutes an emergency is inflated.

As the wife of the original poster on The Juggle pointed out, cell phones are seen as ways for people to connect with each other. In this case, a mother found that a cell phone was the most effect means for connecting with her eight year old daughter. I have an eight year old (well, she'll be eight tomorrow), and I'm pretty flabbergasted by this. My daughter and I share time at bedtime, when I read her a story or we just "talk." When we're doing some sort of chore together or playing a game, she'll start talking about things. Part of the problem is that she won't talk when her brother is around, mainly because once she starts talking, he feels the need to interrupt. What is really needed, I think, is one-on-one time for mother and daughter.

Part of me wants to question the use of cell phones to establish connections; it feels like something is lost without face-to-face contact. But who am I to talk? Most of my friends are on the Internet these days (long story for another post).

I think that if people can talk face to face, they should. The internet and cell phones (and that old-fashion technology, the telephone) should probably be reserved for people whom we cannot see face to face. For example, my sisters and I have been using Writeboard (a free web-based program) to connect with each other to discuss my father's health (and also to share little bits of news about ourselves).

A former boss of mine, when discussing the use of computers in education, once said that computers shouldn't replicate processes that already exist. In other words, online chats shouldn't be used to replace in-class discussion of literature unless the use of the computer could add something to the experience (and it could--some introverted people might be more likely to share their ideas if they could type them out first instead of having to jockey for time in a classroom discussion).

Cell phone technologies should be used in this way, as well.

Another issue that concerns me is that the constant connection breeds dependence. One commenter on the Juggle post explained that he could remember several times when he was stranded after a practice or school event, waiting for his ride home. Cell phones, he said, would solve this problem.

Why is it a problem? Yes, I know we fear pedophiles (why now more than ever, I don't know?), but other than that, is it really a problem for a child to have to use his or her own resources to figure out how to get home and/or get a message to his/her parents? While it would certainly be frightening/scary for a child at first, I'm sure that the sense of pride at having faced something scary and overcome it would be amazing for the child's well-being. We want our children to be independent, don't we?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

I'm going to give this blog a try again over the summer.

I have a fandom-related blog, but I tend to resist posting anything controversial (uh, non-fandom controversial) there. I'm not sure what's stopping me, but I think in part it's because I've already forged connections with my readers there and don't really want to see the differences after so many years. Here on a new blog, I will be able to start over, and the political differences will be more apparent from the start. Of course, it may end up that I attract reality television fans here, and that is just unacceptable!

But it's so hard to go from a readership of 200+ to a readership of ... no one. Well, I'll get posting and see what happens.


The thing about having children is that everything is magnified. If you're having fun, the fun is 100 times greater with children. But anything that goes wrong or isn't otherwise perfect can also be magnified 100 times.

I'm not the most active person in the world, and the sheer effort involved in simply getting out of the house with two children, one husband, and assorted outdoors equipment is enough to send me back to bed in a fetal position.

Today's trip was an outing to the Cape Cod Canal. We brought 4 bikes, the trail-a-bike, panniers filled with lunch, our swimsuits and changes of clothing for the kids. We forgot the towels. We parked at a beach at one end of the canal, unloaded our bicycles, strapped on our helmets, and set off. My 8 year old daughter rides a bicycle she was given for her 4th birthday. She has seemingly doubled in size since then, but she refuses to get a new bike. Also, it has training wheels, and she is scared to ride without them. But she was quite the sight, bicycling with her knees nearly to her chin, her stuffed animals riding in the basket in front of her (Seal, Baby Beluga, Baxter, Melody, and Gizmo).

Meanwhile, my 5 year old, who just learned how to ride a two-wheeler with training wheels and who cried when his tricycle was sold at a yard sale last month, has graduated to the trail-a-bike that attaches to my husband's bike. He did quite well and seemed quite proud.

Halfway through the trip, my daughter got too tired to ride any more (and who can blame her? The wheels on her bike can't be more than 15" in diameter, making her 10-mile ride the most demanding of the four of us). We tried to switch the children, put my daughter on the trai-a-bike to give her a break, but the seat on my daughter's bike was too high for my son, and we couldn't find the hex wrench. Now, I don't know what a hex wrench is, but I'm told it's needed to raise and lower the seat of a bicycle. You'd think that on a beautiful weekend afternoon on a well-known bike path we'd find someone with a hex wrench, but it just wasn't a hex wrench crowd. A hex wrench crowd usually wears bike shorts, and I don't think I saw a single pair of bike shorts the whole afternoon!

Back Before Kids, my husband and I used to ride 30-40 miles a few times a month. BBK, I was also a good 20 lbs. less, coincidentally. I'd like to do 20 miles now, but we managed only 10 this time. The first leg of the ride was into a headwind, which made the riding even more difficult for my scrunched up daughter. The ride back was, in comparison, a breeze.