Friday, March 30, 2012

Skeletons, Ghosts, and Shadows

If you wish to be a writer, write.
                                        -- Epictetus

On Saturday, I went to a workshop on writing children's picture books. The teacher was Barbara Bottner, truly the rock star diva of pictures and truly a gifted teacher.

Even if one had no writing aspirations lurking in one's bosom (in which case one would be rare indeed), one would have benefited from her teaching, which offered a mix of general life instruction (know yourself, be authentic) in addition to the highly specific (and immensely useful) writing instruction having to do with language, tone, plot structure, characterization, and so on.

It was such a fantastic surprise that Ms. Bottner began by explaining the pressing need to rummage around in the dark subconscious closets and haul out what we've made sure to pack deep in the recesses because we've been afraid or unwilling to look at, think about, or even admit the presence of what's creeping about in there. They being the source of our conflicts and therefore the drivers of our actions.

Lately I've spent much time reviewing passages and what I'm seeing is that boring writing is superficial and disconnected -- from real life (lacks detail) and from human experience (lacks heart, lacks authentic expression of emotion and experience). I corresponded with a writer today about her poem, which I loved for its sheer discipline and precision, and she said it was fun to write.

No surprises there: in On Writing Well, Zinsser talks about "the intangibles that produce good writing--confidence, enjoyment, intention, and integrity."

As for me, it's a pleasure to work with writers who are having fun and it's even a greater pleasure when the fun shows up and waves at me from the page.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


The discovery of a new joy is sometimes accompanied by a sense of regret for what I've lost by not having discovered it sooner. When I began studying with Mr. Mudrick, I knew that I had missed a lot of what had come before.

As little as I knew of anything -- my ignorance was spectacular even for a college sophomore -- even I could see his greatness, his remarkable brilliance, his sheer goodness, his wit (he was such an entertainer!). His genius wasn't just literary; he understood being human more than anyone I've ever known. To see what I mean, read Mudrick Transcribed: Classes and Talks, a book of his lectures carefully recorded by fellow student Lance Kaplan, or Well, Mr. Mudrick Said, a memoir by friend and fellow student Bob Blaisdell.

I knew that I would be the fool of all fools if I didn't take every class he taught until I graduated. But there was always that regret that I missed a year and a half, that five university quarters had passed during which I could have been listened to Mr. Mudrick. It was time I had lost and would never get back.

My first memory of this kind of regret is when I read David Copperfield. I was eight. Seeking refuge from the din and chaos of what passed for daycare in those days, I'd wandered into the den and shut the door behind me. The den was furnished with black vinyl recliners and dark bookcases twice my height. The bookcases were filled with Reader's Digest editions and Book-of-the-Month hardbacks still in glossy book jackets. All were pristine. I doubt whether any of the books had ever been opened.

I liked the name David Copperfield and I liked how it looked in the gold lettering on the spine. I read all day, sitting on the shiny blue shag carpet. When I began reading, I was sitting in a square of bright sunlight. When the babysitter (herself a Dickensian character, being as wide as she was tall, with her topping of curly orange hair, her pale freckled skin, her face slightly smashed in, as if it had been formed of clay and then the top and bottom ends squished together to push the center inward, and her relentless grimness) opened to door to call me, she scolded me for reading in the dark. 

That night, lying in bed, David Copperfield was all I could think about. Both how much I loved it, and how angry I was that this amazing and wonderful world had existed all this time without my knowledge. Why didn't anyone ever tell me?

This must be the greatest aspiration for a writer: to inspire this feeling in a reader.

(I'd been planning to write about craftsmanship. I'm reading another writing manual, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, which had come recommended and is well worth the read, and which in its devotion to and insistence upon writerly craftsmanship made me think of that master craftsman, Anthony Trollope, who began writing every morning at 5:30 at a pace of 250 words per quarter hour. I was introduced to Trollope's novels in college, and it was love at the first turn of the page. And yes, that turn of the page was accompanied by a twinge of regret that I hadn't known of and read Trollope sooner. I made up for it as best I could -- and keep making up for it. He wrote a lot.)

UPDATE: More on regret from the NYT here.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Words to Write By

Writing is related to character. If your values are sound, your writing will be sound. It all begins with intention. Figure out what you want to do and how you want to do it, and work your way with humanity and integrity to the completed article.
From On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction by William Zinsser.

I recommend books on writing about as often as I read books on writing--which is to say never.

Though it has been many years since I graduated from college, I still can't quite believe my luck in having studied writing (and literature) with the greatest of teachers: Marvin Mudrick. Nowhere to go after him.

But I couldn't and didn't--though I wish I could have--memorize every word he said about literature and writing. Hence the utility and pleasure of a book like On Writing Well. It is truly a pleasure to read. How many manuals or guides can you say that about?

If you are a writer and you haven't read it, do. You'll be so glad you did. If you know everything Zinsser tells you, you'll feel gratified; if you learn something new, you'll profit from it.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Shame, Cross-Referenced to Morally Reprehensible, Really? Still?, and Just Plain Sorry

I'm reading The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America by Jonathon Kozol. I'd read writing by Kozol before, and this news is, unfortunately, no news to me. It's been seven years since its publication, and there doesn't seem any indication that there's been any reform in desegregating the schools:
Looking specifically at racial segregation, both White flight and minority flight are evidenced in charter schools. Compounding the effects of the nation’s highly segregated neighborhoods, policy makers must consider the economic, social and ethnic segregative effects of charter schools along with potential segregation that may be driven by other forms of school choice.
(As reported in the Daily Kos a few months ago. I'm a little behind on my blog-reading.) 

It's not just charter schools, as reported in Colorlines:
But now more than ever, mustering the energy to address, head-on, the roots of educational inequities is an issue of utmost urgency. Students of color are 44 percent, and growing, of the U.S. public school system. Racial segregation is a legacy we’ve yet to shake off, nowhere more than in American public schools, where students of color are educated in schools that are today both separate and unequal.
I believe this, in spite of Clarence Thomas:
"It never ceases to amaze me that the courts are so willing to assume that anything that is predominantly black must be inferior. Instead of focusing on remedying the harm done to those black schoolchildren injured by segregation, the District Court here sought to convert the Kansas City, Missouri, School District (KCMSD) into a "magnet district" that would reverse the "white flight" caused by desegregation.... there is no reason to think that black students cannot learn as well when surrounded by members of their own race as when they are in an integrated environment."  --Justice Clarence Thomas, 1995, Missouri v. Jenkins concurring opinion
(Speaking of amazement, that Thomas could write this without his pen bursting into flames of hellfire amazes me. If I may speak frankly.) It's not that the students isolated by policies that establish and inexorably enforce segregation "cannot learn as well," but rather that the segregation creates inequities that necessarily rob students of opportunities and tools for learning, that rob them of even a decent environment in which to learn. Which I think we can all agree (in theory, anyway) is still a right in the United States, rather than the privilege it has become--an idea supported by the New Jersey Supreme Court last year:
The New Jersey Supreme Court delivered a sharp setback to Gov. Chris Christie's determination to destroy New Jersey's public schools. The court by a 3 to 2 vote on May 24 voted to uphold the New Jersey state constitution's provision which guarantees a "thorough and efficient" education to all New Jersey children. The court ruled that the Christie administration must restore $500 million to the state's 31 poorest school districts.
Back in 2005, when The Shame of the Nation was first published, Nathan Glazer responded in the NYT with the kneejerk white majority response of Yes, yes, but it's not that simple, and Who, me? I'm not racist:
TO be sure, the case for both integration and equality of expenditure is powerful. But the chief obstacle to achieving these goals does not seem to be the indifference of whites and the nonpoor to the education of nonwhites and the poor, although this is what one would conclude from Kozol's account. Rather, other values, which are not simply shields for racism, stand in the way: the value of the neighborhood school; the value of local control of education and, above all, the value of freedom from state imposition when it affects matters so personal as the future of one's children.
Unbelievable. But maybe the NYT was just trying to stir it with a stick, you know how public feuds are fun to read, and Glazer was someone that Kozol had "criticized severely and repeatedly" in the past, so really, how likely would it be that Glazer would be willing to extend the right hand of fellowship and seek common ground?

Here is a tiny bit of Kozol's response to the above quote from Glazer:
Is it not strange that no such exculpation was provided by Mr. Glazer or by any other reputable Northern intellectuals to white segregationists in Mississippi when they raised exactly the same clarion call of "freedom from state imposition'' (or, in that case, "federal imposition'') to defend their own apartheid system 50 years ago? Why was it so transparently "racism'' in the South? And why is it now conveniently discovered to be "other values'' when it comes to Northern states such as New York?
(The whole of Kozol's response is well worth reading--you can read it here.)

As a nation, as citizens, as neighbors, as fellow parents, as human beings--how can we allow this to continue? How can we participate in this as if there is any kind of reasonable justification? It's wrong. And if we cannot understand how we are hurting children, can we understand how we are hurting ourselves by so doing

UPDATE: Fixed typo. You know the drill.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Mi Flow

. . . en las palabras inmortales de Baby Ranks.

As discussed previously, flow is that state of optimal creativity, focus, and absorption. As described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Cows are pastured where my dog and I walk in the mornings. Our schedule and that of the cows don't usually coincide (those cows must have many big busy doings, for they are more often absent than present), but when they do, it's a thrill.
My dog was bred to tend and guard grazing animals. (On both sides; she's a mix of Belgian Tervuren and chow chow.) She is no slouch at guarding, as anyone who's ever walked past my car or been to my house can attest. I wouldn't want to be our mail carrier. As to her herding skills--let's just say her opportunities to prove her mettle are limited. I don't let her herd me, and my daughters just push her out of the way when she tries to herd them.

So when she catches sight of those cows--it's deep calling to deep. One can see that she feels inspired to the depths of her soul to go and herd those cows.
Everyone should feel that calling, right? It's a great feeling.

UPDATE: 4/2/12--Today the dog got loose and herded the cows up the hills and through the brush down to the pasture. When you get close to a cow, you are shocked by how big they are. They make a lot of noise crashing through the brush. The dog had a wonderful time, but when she turned her attention to a calf, I was worried the mother would kick her. She was back on the leash before anyone--bovine or canine--got hurt. When we passed by later, the cows seemed none the worse for the exercise. The dog is exhausted. I think it was the best day of her life. So far.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Getting Our House in Order

What is fun about homeschooling is a lot. All those lectures in the car to a captive audience? (Parents, you know what I'm talking about.) I get to make my kids take notes while I'm talking. Heheheheheheheh.

The regime schedule includes vocabulary study, a subject about which I hold strong opinions. For proficient readers, I believe vocabulary study best takes place in context, so one required activity is that the girls keep a notebook in which they write down every unfamiliar word.

Yesterday we were reading together (I was reading "The Law of Genre" by Derrida, don't ask, because anyone who knows me knows how I feel about deconstruction, but more on that in another post; Naomi was finishing Rebecca), and I came across an unfamiliar word ("liminal") and looked up the definition, and in so doing, we talked about what we thought it meant, both from the context and prior knowledge ("subliminal"). (In the same essay, I stumbled upon "invaginate." Diction is so telling, is it not. Talk about subliminal. Although my French is so poor that I'm unable to tell whether the choice of "invaginate" was necessary or creative license on the part of the translator.) And yes, "liminal" meant exactly what we thought.

In addition to keeping a record of unfamiliar words, the girls must find a definition and then write a sentence with each word, a sentence that provides enough context that would allow the reader to determine the meaning of the word.

Which meant that the topic of one of our commuting lectures was context clues, and specifically how context clues provide information about word meaning:

  • restatement/definition--In which a synonym or paraphrase is provided:
All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take. --Mahatma Gandi [This example also uses contrast, which is described below.]
Restatement and definition cues are sometimes cued by punctuation, such as commas or parentheses:
A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true. -- Socrates 
  • example--In which one or more illustrative examples are provided. The use of example may also be cued by punctuation: 
Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science. -- Charles Darwin
  • contrast--In which the opposite is provided:
There exists a kind of laughter which is worthy to be ranked with the higher lyric emotions and is infinitely different from the twitchings of a mean merrymaker.--Nikolai Gogol 
He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things he has not, but rejoices for those which he has. -- Epictetus 
As far as I'm concerned, I prefer silent vice to ostentatious virtue. -- Albert Einstein
  • restriction--In which the use of other words in the sentence limits the possible meaning of a word (some like to call this the use of key words, to which I say "tomato, tomahto"):

A high station in life is earned  by the gallantry with which appalling experiences are survived with grace. -- Tennessee Williams 
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the species that is the most adaptable to change. -- Charles Darwin

Of these basic categories, infinite variety may exist. That is, restriction clues may indicate relationship, such as cause and effect:
As in nature, as in art, so in grace: it is rough treatment that gives souls, as well as stones, their luster. -- Thomas Guthrie
And examples may be given as part of a system of classification:
Raptors, such as hawks, eagles, kites, and falcons, are known to be diurnal.
This is a foundational concept to ELA content development, both in terms of passage and item development. Writers of passages must build in context clues for difficult words, particularly words that are above grade level or words that have specific technical meanings; item writers must be sure to select target vocabulary words for which there are sufficient clues in the text for the reader to determine meanings.

Once this is explained, it probably seems fairly basic. You may already know all of this. But given the lack of training and lack of experience (because believe me, all you have to do in order to have the importance of this concept seared into your soul is to attend one item review committee meeting attended by master teachers with a solid grasp of the underlying principles of vocabulary acquisition) we see nowadays in content developers (already deplored previously), many item writers have no clue idea about context clues. They have no understanding of what real context clues look like, how context clues are created, nor of how readers rely on context clues -- these inexperienced or untrained item writers have no understanding that reading is a systematic process that relies on a variety of extremely complex skills, of which this is one, and even this one is very complex and employs different processes. Which means that the work they do is going to be fundamentally unsound.

When you go to build a house, you first make sure to lay a solid foundation. Make sure that house is built upon a rock.

More on vocabulary another time. I'm also big on word structure and derivatives, as you might have guessed.

P.S. Just for fun: a word frequency analyzer. You can see how language usage changes over time. Another way to while away the minutes.

UPDATE: Fixed a typo.
UDATE THE SECOND: And two others. Goodness gracious.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Get Ready!

It's not too early to start making your arrangements to attend that conference of conferences sponsored by the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, which takes place August 3-6, 2012. Mark your calendars and start checking Priceline.

The annual SCBWI conference is where you want to be. Fun. Inspiring. Informative. And you're surrounded by creative, smart, interesting people. Gorgeous art for children's books. Great writers giving you advice. Glitter, glitter everywhere. If you even think you might possibly one day consider the hint of the eventuality of maybe writing or illustrating books for children, it's more than worth your while to attend.

This week's news: If anyone who aspires to write children's picture books be anywhere near this part of the world on March 24, there is a workshop at the E.P. Foster Library from 9-12. For more information, click here.

As far as everything else goes, we finish one project, we start another, we've got work to do and lots to think about, so it's all good and we've got a good feeling. In the immortal words of Etta James.


Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Friday, March 16, 2012

You Can't Know It Until You Know It

What to do about grades? Researchers suggest that extrinsic motivation doesn't work as well (certainly not in the longterm) as intrinsic motivation--but what to do in the case of tasks that must be done, and yet are not as inherently appealing as other tasks? 

 UCSC tried to address the grade trap by using a narrative evaluation system (NES), but capitulated to the demand for grades in 1997, when the university began to offer a letter grade option, and then rolled over on students gave up joined the herd in 2000, as a result of faculty voting, began to require letter grades for all courses. (I imagine faculty were tired of writing, writing, writing all those evaluations.)

My alma mater, the College of Creative Studies at UCSB, did not offer letter grades. I transferred into the College as a sophomore. The absence of grades was a shock to my constitution. Eventually, that absence allowed for a pathway to greater achievement. Because I wasn't afraid of receiving low grades, I stopped pandering to what I thought my professors wanted. (Yes, I was shameless. It was all about the A. It was not so much about learning.) CCS pushed me into taking risks in my writing and in my thinking, risks I certainly would never have taken if I knew I were going to be graded on the efforts. I was always a hard-working student, and this didn't change; if anything, I worked even harder because there was no ceiling to what I could do.

Which sort of points out the biggest problem with a letter grade system: how it inhibits learning.

Learning requires failure and bumbling and getting things wrong. Students accustomed to getting As begin to feel that they should never fail--that they should know everything before they even learn it. That's crazy, isn't it?

I'm very interested to see how my daughters will respond to receiving evaluations instead of grades, especially as I've often been concerned about the value they place on grades, and about the choices they've made to do what they know is acceptable, rather than to launch into unknown territory.

From a study at the University of Poitiers, France via GOOD:
. . .new research in the American Psychological Association's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General concludes kids might perform better in school if teachers and parents sent the message that failing is a normal part of learning.
As Einstein said, "A person who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new."

Happy Friday.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

It's Like That

. . . in the immortal words of Run DMC

Recently, as part of my quality reform campaign, I took several protégées under my wing. It was a responsibility I'd been ducking for years. I've always thought that I more than met my obligations to my industry by simply doing the best work that I could do.

But how much of a difference can I make by myself? Yesterday I was talking with a friend who mentioned that 22,000 items will be coming through the agency where she wields her magic works. 22,000! How is it even possible to glance at 22,000 items, let alone perform a thorough content review?

Hence the protégées, whom I've been training in the manner in which I was trained, but more so. That is, much of the training I received was on-the-job, and even though it was much better, much more comprehensive than what is passing (or not passing) for training in most places nowadays, there certainly could have been more of it. (More did come later, when the director of our department launched the development of a processes and procedures manual.) Which I recognized at the time, and which inspired me to educate myself in the work of the industry.

I spent a great deal of time talking to colleagues in various departments of the Great Big Huge Company where I was employed. Like many companies, Great Big Huge Company had a silo culture. People mostly stuck with their own. The programmers ate lunch with the programmers. The style editors took walks together. The content people went out for coffee together. The psychometricians mostly remained in their offices, except for when they appeared at meetings. The upstairs people stayed upstairs, while the people in operations kept everything in motion downstairs. I went everywhere (I got lost a few times in that first few months, once in the warehouse, a cavern with concrete floors on which were stacked towers of testbooks on wooden pallets) and talked to everyone, from those in shipping and operations to manufacturing and finance. I wanted to know what everyone did and how everyone's work fit together to create the bigger picture. (With much envy, I listened to stories of the glory days of Great Big Huge Company, the days of raucous St. Patrick's Day parties and of flights in some executive's small plane and of leisurely, sociable Friday lunches. It was the '80s.)

I started reading. A lot of what I read made no sense to me. I didn't speak the language yet. It was discouraging to understand so little, but I approached it as if it were grad school and kept reading, kept asking questions, and always, kept doing the work, and then eventually I knew what I was doing.

This sense of mastery is what I hope for the protégées--this group, the group to come, maybe many groups in the future. Maybe these will go on to train others in best practices. Now that I've begun, I see that it's a worthwhile endeavor. Two or three or four protégées who may go on to become experts and provide work of the highest quality may not sound like a lot. But these two or three more people doing excellent work will leave less room for two or three bumblers. And then when clients get into the habit of receiving excellent work, they'll have less patience for the substandard. That's my fond hope, anyway.

Assessment content development is a funny little world. There's not much published information about what it is and how to do it right. Content developers don't often meet to share information, to talk about challenges and discuss solutions. When people ask me for sources, I point them in the direction of Thomas Haladyna. James Popham. Grant Wiggins. Jay McTighe.

Even so, one won't always agree, and when one does agree, there will be gaping chasms gaps between theory and execution.

[Thanks to Bob DeBris, who introduced me to the video posted above.]

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Speaking of Language, Cross-Referenced to Value-Added

Some item writers love multiple-choice language items; some hate them. I pitch my tent in the former category. Several years ago, I wrote all of the language items (writing conventions and writing strategies) that appeared on multiple parallel forms of a statewide high school exit examination. 

Language items may be either standalone or passage-dependent. The former are discrete entities, e.g.:
Read the sentence.
The Supreme Court may rule in favor of restrictions to freedom of speech when words are considered insendiary. 
Which is the correct spelling of the underlined word?
A incendiary *   B incendairy    C ensendiary     D Leave as is.

Passage-dependent language items accompany an editing passage as previously discussed

Language items may address any kind of writing skill or content knowledge targeted by an assessment: conventions (punctuation, capitalization, spelling), usage (grammar, diction), style (sentence structure and variety, diction), and organization (focus, elaboration, and support). (Rarely, writing applications skills are also assessed by multiple-choice items; one can easily see the difficulty of assessing any applied skill in this mode.)

There is some overlap (you see "diction" may fall into the usage camp or the style camp, for example, and sometimes grammar items fall into conventions, but basically, you might think of language items as mechanics and style/organization. Proofreading items then generally address mechanics, while editing and revision items may target either mechanics or style/organization, depending on the assessable skills.

Not all item writers can write language items. It's almost more of an editorly than a writerly undertaking, requiring a combination of specialized knowledge, persnicketiness, and an excellent grammar handbook. Some language items produced by unqualified writers are incomprehensible.

Sometimes these slip through the quality control cracks because language items are difficult to review because one must read very closely in order to identify that the error is an error, that the correct response is indeed correct, that the error is the type of error indicated by the standard/objective, and that there are no errors other than those intended. When we read, our brains automatically correct much of the error that we see, even when trained to do otherwise, so to review an item with intentional error that may also contain unintentional error is asking a lot. It's overwhelming, especially if you add in the editing passage, which means you have to do a lot of checking back and forth. Not to mention that a thorough knowledge of English usage and grammar is a rare commodity these days.

I have strong opinions about the content and construction of language items, to wit:
1. A language item should include only one type of error. A spelling item should not be contaminated by punctuation errors.
2. Each wrong answer choice should contain only one error.
3. The errors in the item must be the kinds of errors that students at the targeted grade level would reasonably make.
4. The errors should be obvious to the student who possesses the skill or content knowledge being assessed.
5. Trivial, why-bother sentences (or passages) should not be used to assess language skills. Language items should use actual facts in the stimulus sentences and paragraphs, rather than the easy but lame sentence.

Here is an example of an item with a trivial stimulus sentence:
Read the sentence.
 I haven't seen ______ since December.
Which pronoun should be used in the sentence?
A him *   B she    C they    D we

Here is an example of a language item based in fact:
Read the sentence.
 Langston Hughes had been writing poetry for years before Vachel Lindsay helped ____ publish his work.
 Which pronoun should be used in the sentence?
A he     B him *    C them    D they

I've written language items based on marine biology, space exploration, phenotypic plasticity, you name it. What is interesting in the world is a lot. There's no need to write about the purely meaningless.

UPDATE: Fixed some formatting with the MC items. Those are kind of tricky with the line breaks and indents.

UPDATE: Oh! I forgot to mention a recent dethspicable deplorable practice, that of using sentences from previously published (usually classic literature) as the stimulus for language items, either containing (newly imposed) embedded error or offering students options for improvements to the original (classic) writing.

Your mind is probably as boggled as mine was when first I came across this nastiness in the woodshed unspeakable horror unsound practice.

How might this work, you ask? Not well, as illustrated in the following examples.

Here is an example of the addition of error to a line from classic literature:

Read the sentence from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. 
Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves.
Which word would best replace the underlined word in the sentence? 
A himself*   B myself   C ourselves   D Leave as is.  

Here is an example of an invitation to students to improve upon a line from classic literature:

Read the sentence from Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. 
Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.
To avoid repetition, which word would best replace the underlined word in the sentence? 
A altering*   B becoming   C improving   D renovating   
Why would anyone perform such sacrilege and blasphemy do such a thing? From the best of intentions.

An item writer, bored with the trivial, why-bother stimulus sentences, feels inspired to use sentences culled from the books she loves, sentences that are themselves little masterpieces of beauty, wit, and style. Won't this be good for the students? And there is no one to stop her, as these sentences are stolen borrowed from works now in the public domain.

Good intentions, road to you-know-where, cross-referenced to the law of unintended consequences.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

It's Verbalerity*

I've always loved words. As a child, I whiled away many an hour reading the dictionary. (I know. Ridiculous. Thus I have always been.)

I'm finishing up a vocabulary project now, and one of the pleasures of the work is simply thinking about words and their many meanings and shades of meaning, and why this word works when used in this way when that one doesn't.

Yesterday I stopped in at the Friends of the Library bookstore and picked up a few books: a book of Matthew Arnold's poems, a Norton Anthology of English Literature because I thought it would come in handy with this new venture, The Bluest Eye (I don't know how I missed reading it, especially as I read and very much admired Sula and Beloved), and The Life of Language: The Fascinating Ways Words Are Born, Live, & Die.

The latter is what I'm reading. I confess as early as page 3, I was a bit put off by this:
We enjoy Hollywood's versions of such 19th century novels as Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice, but would find reading the novels of Dickens and Jane Austen pretty hard going because of their highly formal and convoluted language.

Speak for yourself, pal. Dickens, yes, well, sometimes he do wander a bit in the thickets in his diction. But Jane Austen? A writer known for her economy of language? Not to mention the sheer grace. And to suggest that these two novels--two of my favorite novels, two novels I read at least once a year and have done for lo, these many years because it is such a pleasure--are "pretty hard going"? Can we all agree that this is the swamp of low expectations? What I find hard going is trying to read bad writing. 

Don't let this little sticking point keep you from reading this book, though, if you like words and you be so inclined. It's very interesting and fun to read, and it's fun to think about how all these words came into being, how new words are coming, and how words no longer serviceable will return to some dusty parchment in a library in the sky. Written for Everyman, not for the linguist, the authors are quick to tell you.

*In the immortal words of DL Incognito.

Monday, March 12, 2012

One Bad Apple: File Under Problems Not Addressed by NCLB

It may be a testament to public education that not until my daughters were in 8th grade that we encountered a teacher whose practices were so fundamentally unsound that I was forced to take action.

From kindergarten until now, my daughters have had a series of teachers whose professional abilities ranged from the solidly competent to the level of breathtaking mastery. (This includes the year we spent in Las Vegas--we lived in the suburbs, and our school was known for its academic rigor. Had we stayed, the girls would have attended a high school that is ranked by The Washington Post as one of the top 100 high schools in the country. You may be surprised to hear that.) Once in a rare while, I've had occasion to talk to a teacher about a tiny worry, but I've never felt my children were in other than able hands, educationally speaking. I trusted the teachers; I respected their methods; I often admired their patience and dedication; I appreciated their desire to bring out the best in my children (there is a lot of best to bring out in those two); and nearly always, I came to like my daughters' teachers a great deal.

I think of my daughters' kindergarten teacher, whose heart burned with her passion to teach tiny ones to read. That little lady was on fire! She demanded a lot from those tiny savages children--and she got a lot out of them. I think of one daughter's third and fourth grade teacher (she taught both grades), who instinctively understood my daughter's reserved and quiet temperament, and whose directions were unfailingly given in the most gentle manner possible. I think of all those talented, young, energetic, creative fifth grade teachers who worked so hard to prepare their students for the challenges of middle school. We had so many wonderful teachers. Looking back, I only wish I had said so more frequently to them and to their principals. (It's not too late. Some letters may be in order.)

As parent, there is no greater trust, is there? To give over the reins of authority over one's children to another adult? Yet we do it, every day, we send our children off to school where they are subject to the will (and, unfortunately, sometimes the whim) of others.

We trust that if we send our children to what is considered a good school--and what measure have we, other than test scores?--everything will be okay. But if one analyzed the longitudinal data from such a school, I doubt whether the scores would allow us to diagnose unsound teaching practices therein. Rather, we'd follow this cohort from K all the way to 12, the majority of whom are average to good students, the majority of whom are high SES, the majority of whom take music lessons and go to soccer or gymnastics or Irish dance or what have you, the majority of whom take for granted they will go on to college (and not just any college; you see them wearing the sweatshirts from their parents' alma maters and so you know this train is bound for glory) and I propose that their scores would remain relatively stable. We wouldn't see spikes for the best teachers; we wouldn't see dips for the worst. And so bad instruction may never be diagnosed, unless there be push back from parents. And yet, how many parents feel comfortable offering such push back? (Reasonable parents, you know, I'm not talking about the ones--and yes, I know such ones exist--that are like the leaky faucet in the constancy of the expression of their unhappiness about every little dang thing, every pebble in the path, every cloud on the horizon, every smudge on the window pane.)

I've seen grown men and women, giants in their fields, bright folks accustomed to wearing the mantle of authority in their chosen professions, shrink before the stern gaze of a classroom teacher or that of a principal.  The jargon of pedagogy intimidates them. Years of K-12 education haunt them. Nor does it increase one's sense of personal power to fold one's adult-sized body into those creaky little desk chairs. And experience unfortunately builds a false sense of confidence, so that a very bad teacher may teach very badly for 15 years and then use that 15 years of bad teaching to justify the continuation of bad practices.

For me, this is when the professional meets the personal. After six months of observation of very bad teaching, I decided to homeschool my two daughters. Just through the end of the year, and then they'll go on to high school. What an adventure, eh.

The unfortunate part is that this teacher will go on teaching, will rest in undeserved complacency, will feel comfortable that the unsound practices are good because the test scores (for which this teacher deserves no credit) remain high, and will be able to continue to ignore parents' complaints that what this teacher is doing is hurting the students.

UPDATE: What are my two star students doing today, you may ask? I am administering a pretest to obtain a measure of baseline performance. Then once we conclude our homeschooling adventure, I'll administer an equivalent parallel test form as a post-test in order to evaluate the effectiveness of my instruction. I'll probably write about it, both here and for a wider audience in another venue.

UPDATE: Correction to maintain consistency in verb tense in first paragraph. Ah, error-free publishing, that elusive goal.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Big News!

Such wonderful news here. I've got 3 cover designs for my book The Hidden Market for Children's Literature: Getting Paid to Write for Reading Tests. My publisher, Frank Brockmann of Paceline Publishing (you may know him from Center Point Assessment Solutions), and I haven't been able to decide which we like best.*


If you feel inspired, please leave a comment with a vote for Cover A, Cover B, or Cover C. Let's give it a week, and then tally up the votes and see which cover is the winner.

COVER A: The cool, minimalist approach:

COVER B: The retro, old-school style:

COVER C: A bit of whimsy:

Design concepts by Chris Di Natale of Di Natale Design, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, though we have never met nor spoken nary a word. However, when I see these designs, it's clear to me that Chris listened carefully to Frank and me as we talked about our aesthetics and what was important to us. There is nothing I appreciate more than being listened to. Thanks, Chris.

* Um. I actually do have money down on one a favorite. Frank also has a favorite, but his favorite is not the same as my favorite. I'll reveal all when the votes are in.

UPDATE: I hear from someone that sometimes Blogger eats the comments and they don't appear. If you have any problem with that, just find me on Facebook and you can vote there.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Magic Number

In honor of World Read-Aloud Day, here are 3 lovely poems to read aloud:

April Rain Song by Langston Hughes
Color by Christina Rossetti
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

Keep reading.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

I've Got My Reasons

. . . in the immortal but out of context words of Talib Kweli.

Speaking of intention, what if one's intention be muddled? One wouldn't get very far. But even if one does not aspire to go far, one needs to know where one is going (and though it is always lovely to leave space for beautiful surprises, it's also good to have an idea of what one might do when one gets there).

That is, intention--like levels of interpretation--can rest comfortably in the shallows or can swim in the deepest depths of the deep blue sea.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a colleague about the interpretation of figurative language. As we talked, I realized I have an internal framework for the interpretation of figurative language, a framework that I used when I taught, that I use when I help my daughters with their ELA homework*, and on which I absolutely rely in my work--but that I'd never fully articulated.

At the time, I was putting finishing touches on the manuscript of a book that will be published in June, God willing and the creek don't rise, a book with a title that leaves little room for ambiguity and makes up in clarity what it lacks in evocativeness (The Hidden Market for Children's Literature: Getting Paid to Write for Reading Tests) I decided to include this part of the conversation in the book toward the interest of value-added:
If we're talking about imagery and figurative language, we would say that the progressive levels of interpretation would proceed in a manner something like this:
    1. literal meaning: this is the basic, word-by-word view and is restricted to the literal definitions of the words that are then combined into sentences, lines, and paragraphs to convey literal meaning. Nothing wrong with the shallows in some circumstances. Sometimes that is the best place to be.
    2. sensory-dependent meaning: creating visual images, developing rhythm through meter and structure, musicality through rhyme, assonance, repetition, etc., and the sensations of touch and taste through the use of evocative words and phrases. I see this as the body level of interpretation.
    3. connotative: suggestive of shades of meanings and feelings, thereby establishing and developing tone and mood. This is emotional.
    4. in terms of author's craft: contributing to and supporting the development of narrative elements(e.g., characters, setting, plot). This is artistic and intellectual. 
    5. symbolic: offering motifs to represent or carry the overarching theme and other big ideas of the work. Touching the soul here.
    6. extending ideas and making connections: taking the aerial view and creating a bigger, more universal picture of the human experience that may cross genders, generations, social class, cultures, historical epochs, philosophical schools/movements, etc.; making allusions to people, objects, historical events, or even cultural (including artistic or literary) periods, values, and movements. Connecting with the universal human spirit.

    To return to the aerial view, when we writers are working on an assignment, sometimes our intention is so limited that it becomes wrongheaded. We forget the big idea. We think that our intention is to deliver a certain number of words assembled according to certain rules by a certain date in order to get paid. (We're not the only ones who do this; it happens in companies, too. Who hasn't seen the tension between marketing and development? Not that tension is necessarily bad--I mean it in the sense of pulling from both sides--it keeps the tent aloft.)

    Some of this is necessary, right? We have to sit down, engage the mental machinery, and produce. We can't always be floating among the stars. But, and--it's well to keep in mind the ultimate goal, the real underlying purpose, which in our case is generally to give a child a fair opportunity to show us what he knows or can do in a given arena of knowledge and skill.

    Because knowing this helps us to make decisions in our work that will serve that child.

    UPDATE: I always think of more to say after I walk away. Esprit d'escalier. This is directly related to the deplorable tendency to repeat standard language verbatim in test items. You see? The item writer is thinking in the limited terms of providing a question that meets the specifications at the lowest possible level: You want a transition item? Here is a transition item. Again in the immortal words of that great sage Oprah, when we know better, we do better. We can do better.

    UPDATE: Oh, gracious, I forgot to add the footnote to the * following "ELA homework." Here it be:
    * I simply cannot believe how much homework my daughters have. I will go out on a limb and say it is immoral. Why, you may well ask. Because one strategy to compensate for inadequate instruction is to load up on the homework and in so doing, assure oneself that the kids will learn as they plod through hours of busy work at home. Sometimes my daughters have 4-6 hours of homework. They're not getting a Ph.d. They're in the eighth grade.

    Monday, March 5, 2012

    First Things First

    Years ago, I attended a writing workshop with Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarian. Now I don't even remember how I decided to go to this workshop, but I knew it was the right place for me when I learned that Anna Karenina (this translation) and Aristotle's Poetics were among the required reading for the week.

    Now I'm reading Anna Karenina (again, I don't know how many times I have read it, though I don't think one could ever tire of it), and so I was thinking about something Tom and Carol said during the workshop, about how one's writing needs to have a big idea, that everything--everything!--in the writing should be developing and supporting this big idea.

    As modest an endeavor as writing a test question is, it is still writing. Each question must have a big idea. And the item writer must know what that big idea is, and then marshal all of the everything of the item in support of that big idea.

    Last November I went to that heaven on earth, home of all manner of delights, such as Frank Lloyd Wright houses and the Art Institute and French-fried green beans. I love Chicago. I love the people there--Stormy, husky, brawling/City of the Big Shoulders. (As the doorman of my hotel, whom I had come to know fairly well in the course of a few days of comings and goings, put me in a cab to travel to Oak Park late on a Friday evening, he said to the driver, "This here is my sister. You take care of her like she is my sister. You understand?" The funny part is that, indeed, we were of an age and did resemble each other closely enough to be siblings. Siblings raised apart, as we didn't share that distinctive accent.)

    The reason for my visit was not just to have the best time in the world with my friend Carrie; it was to give a presentation on an assessment content development-related topic of my choosing. I rummaged around in my brain for a while before I came up with intention.

    I thought of intention because of something that Kate Nash, my friend and genius dance teacher once said, probably in response to all of our awkwardly flailing limbs: that if you focus your intention, your bones will organize themselves. It reminded me of how, when I learned to ski, everyone told me not to look down, because I would fall. You cannot help but follow the direction of your gaze.

    Then I found there was what seemed like an orienting magic in setting an intention. Having a laserlike focus burns off what is inessential. It builds a solid foundation. I tried intention in areas of my life other than dance. There was something about doing this simple step first that cleared away debris distractions.

    Around that time, I was asked to perform triage ride in like the cavalry edit a set of questions that had been rejected by a customer. It soon became apparent that the main problem with the set was that the item writer had no firm intention. Not only was there no unifying purpose for the questions as a group, but each question could have been measuring two or more skills. Which meant that none of the questions could measure any skill accurately.

    It takes time to do this, but more than time, it takes a reflective pause. Which may not sound like much--but when folks are busy and feeling overwhelmed, the reflective pause gets thrown overboard.

    In the immortal words of Epictetus, First say to yourself what you would be, and then do what you have to do.

    (When I returned home, my daughters were so jealous of all of my Chicago adventures, especially the French-fried green beans. I found a recipe and made a big batch and we ate a million each. It is safe to say neither of them will ever look at a French-fried green bean again. In fact, there is a ban on saying the words aloud in their presence.)

    UPDATE: Identified supernova Kate Nash by name.