Tuesday, May 29, 2012

File Under: Use with Caution, Cross-Referenced to: There's No Such Thing as Free

I understand why literature that is in the public domain finds favor in the eyes of assessment and curriculum publishing companies:

1. It's free! Who doesn't like free stuff? Besides, even when the content itself is free, the company still has to sink a lot of money into it. Passage selection, data entry, researching copyright to make sure it is in the public domain, proofreading, formatting, reviewing, preparing for external review, graphic design, QA. The process is more costly than the passage itself. 

2. The quality of the material is presumably not up for debate. Who's going to have the temerity to say that he or she doesn't think kids should read a poem by Emily Dickinson or Wordsworth? 

3. The writing is generally good to great. (I'm not talking about classics now, but about these unknown texts that I see excerpted from published essays, letters, stories.) Did people just write better 100 years ago? They certainly wrote differently. (More to come on this last.) 

Which all makes it sound like the world of public domain literature is a great big treasure chest of high-quality reading passages perfectly suited for assessment.

However. That treasure chest may be a little wooden Trojan horse wheeling in troubles unforeseen:

1. The world has changed a lot in the last 100-300 years. In terms of how we think about gender, race, social classes, social relationships, government, labor, marriage, families, values, religion, science, technology. International relations. Economics. And that's just a short list off the top of my head. Some of the attitudes and concepts are simply outdated and appear old-fashioned; others appear downright offensive or even cruel and oppressive. Not to mention the language, which brings us to the following. 
 2. How we use language has also changed. I do like the complicated architecture of the 17th-18th century sentence. I'm charmed by the ease with which Swift, Johnson, et al toss the polysyllabic words as if tossing handfuls of confetti in a parade of wits. But. This seems a matter for classroom instruction, rather than assessment--unless we know for a certainty that there has been thorough classroom instruction with texts of like complexity. 
3. How we use language has also changed. Part II. As attitudes evolve, language evolves. Attitudes and terms once considered acceptable are now considered intolerant and offensive, respectively. 
4. How we use language has also changed. Part III. Words once considered standard are now considered high-faluting and are relegated to the realm of academia or appropriate only in the most formal settings. So the content of a poem may be appropriate for a young child, but the vocabulary renders the poem too difficult to use for any grade lower than 10. We can't present high schoolers with literature written for elementary school children. 
5. Passage length may be a problem. When this happens, editors may excerpt from public domain material. Sometimes this results in text that lacks context or that appears choppy, with ideas that seem disconnected, even if this was not the case in the original text.
Should we teach students so that they are able to read classic literature? Anyone who knows me would respond with something along the lines of "Do the stars shine? Does my dog bark at the mail carrier? Is the sea salty?" Why, that would be a resounding yes.

Should we include classic literature on reading tests? That would be an affirmative, sir, especially if such inclusion is required by the standards to be assessed.

How about including literature of unfamiliar and complex syntax, unfamiliar and difficult vocabulary, and, possibly, questionable quality that may only be considered because it is in the public domain and therefore may be used freely with nary a by your leave? That's a negative.

All the publishing companies do it. I don't mean to pick on anyone in particular. And the Great Pineapple Debacle makes such public domain passage selection all the more attractive to publishing companies who would prefer (naturally, like all of us) to receive more positive attention than negative.

Balance is what we need. And thoughtful consideration of the passage, whether it might be of interest to the audience, whether its literary value outweighs its disadvantages, and whether we can unreservedly justify its use for this purpose. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Poetry Poker

Another diversion during the week of festivities was a round or three of poetry poker. I believe the idea came from Kenneth Koch. Or so I was told. So you take a pack of cards, write words or phrases on them, and then deal 5 to each player. (We tend to be lax on rules, so we let players replace cards that seemed impossible.)

Here's one round:

  • I didn't mean
  • tarnished
  • tiny
  • little box with monsters inside
  • mangoes

And here's the poem:

I didn't mean 
to give you a tarnished tiny
little box with monsters inside.
I meant to give you 

And here's another:

  • two quiet lines
  • peanuts
  • sea
  • boiled over
  • who wanted most

And here's the poem:

Two quiet lines at the bar
we ate peanuts while we waited
the peanuts tasted like
the sea boiled over.
Who wanted most
to go to the beach, then:
you or I?

It's fun. More fun than it sounds like, especially after an evening of swimming and pizza, when you're sitting in a large bright kitchen with a dear friend. My daughters like it, too. We agreed that it's more fun the more decks you have in play. We've got two now, but we think it's not enough.

There never are enough words, are there.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Life Is Art

We are accustomed to understand art to be only what we hear and see in theaters, concerts, and exhibitions, together with buildings, statues, poems, novels. . . . But all this is but the smallest part of the art by which we communicate with each other in life. All human life is filled with works of art of every kind - from cradlesong, jest, mimicry, the ornamentation of houses, dress, and utensils, up to church services, buildings, monuments, and triumphal processions. It is all artistic activity. So that by art, in the limited sense of the word, we do not mean all human activity transmitting feelings, but only that part which we for some reason select from it and to which we attach special importance.   Tolstoy, "What Is Art?"

We clipped the clothespins to an egg carton to dry. Whence camest this beautifully colored egg carton, you ask? Farmers market. From the chicken lady.
The festivities went on for some time. Last night was the concluding soiree. We had friends over to make art and drink champagne.

We all brought out boxes and bins of supplies from our art closets.

You see some results above: wooden clothespins, which we painted gold, and embellished with glitter or metallic confetti or fake gems or those waxy sticks that are fun to make shapes out of.

A close-up:

My favorite is that created by Stephanie: the one with the yellow sprigs.

There were also lantern-makers among us:

Heather made these. Are they not gorgeous?

And Matisse made an appearance in Caroline's collage:
I just love this.
And therefore the activity of art is a most important one, as important as the activity of speech itself and as generally diffused.-- Tolstoy, again, "What Is Art?"

Friday, May 18, 2012

Cool Friday

It's Friday. Feeling kind of festive round my way. I'm looking at a bit of blue ocean. Went to a dance class this morning. Going to swim in a friend's pool and eat pizza (not simultaneously) tonight.

Some fun things:
Radiolab: From one of the protégées, God bless her. (Did I get those accents right? Who cares! It's Friday! Ima go a little crazy and not even look it up!)
Grammar Revolution: I love that a Bright Young Thing is diagramming sentences!
Math4Love: I know, I'm an ELA person through and through. You know how I be with the numbers. But I'm charmed by this blog. I mean!
Jessica Hagy at Forbes: (Also linked to in previous.) From partner-in-crime co-conspirator colleague and publisher Frank. Because I'm late to this party--but just in time for the fun.
"Stop Working More than Forty Hours a Week": File under: Do as I Say, Not as I Do. Something to think about.
Howcast: How to do pretty much anything, including a lot of stuff you probably don't want to do.
Freerice: Been liking this for many years now. Bringing together word geeks and do-gooders. (From TIME's 2011 Best of list.)
Khan Academy:Since we began our home-schooling, four or five or twenty people have told me about this site. (From TIME's 2011 Best of list.)

That's what I got. Go have some fun.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

When Everything Goes South

Bad news in Florida.
Preliminary results released Monday indicate that just 27 percent of fourth-graders earned a passing score of 4.0 or better (out of 6) on the writing test. A year ago, 81 percent scored 4.0 or better. . . .
Passing scores plummeted from 81 percent to 27 percent for fourth-graders and showed similar drops in eighth and 10th grades, according to statewide results released by the Department of Education.

(Aforementioned preliminary results here.)

I did what I always do when I come across an item of note, whether it be a dime on the sidewalk or a pineapple in the headlines: I called a friend.

We compared our reactions, which were predictably (and comically, as we spoke simultaneously and in the same lexicon--not only are we friends of many years' standing, but we worked together for years, and are in the habit of oft discussing our work, a habit all the more agreeable as we share so many opinions) identical:
1. What up with the scoring? 
2. What up with the test construction? 
3. What up with the cohort?
 4. What up with the cut scores? 

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/05/14/2799146/fcat-writing-scores-plummet.html#storylink=cpy

Them's being the usual suspects. Occam's Razor.

As it happens, there was a change in the cut scores recently. The state DOE is (reportedly--I didn't talk to anyone myself) taking the line "that the results of prior years were artificially high and these are the real ones." Although the state did turn around and decide to lower the bar so more students would pass.

Take a look at the exemplar writing sets. These show examples of student essays at each score point level.

And then there may be other factors beyond the cut score. Never dismiss the possibility that someone, somewhere, made a mistake. It happens.

According to Stuart R. Kahl, Ph.d., in a paper for Measured Progress,
A test score estimates something--a student's mathematical proficiency, perhaps. It is an estimate because it is based on a small sampling of the universe of items that could have been included on the test. Further, a test score is affected by factors other than the student’s mathematical proficiency, such as: how well or motivated the student feels, whether there were distractions or interruptions during the testing session, and whether the student made good or bad guesses, to name a few. These factors, which can all be sources of measurement error, explain the difference between a student’s calculated score on a particular test and that student’s hypothetical “true” score. That true score, forever unknown, would reflect the student’s real level of proficiency.
Estimate, inference--these are the words we must use when we talk about our suppositions of what a student knows or is able to do when those suppositions are based on the results of a test.

Florida may sit herself down to rest on the lowered bar. Or there may be an investigation. The investigation will crawl through the maze of scoring operations.

If nothing turns up, the investigation could lumber over to focus on the construction of the test. Again, if the test construction is immaculate, there may be something going on with the cohort.

Or maybe it really was just the cut scores. ("Just." As if that's nothing.)

In other news: the latest on the pineapple here, along with newly reported mistakes on the New York State math tests. There's no glee in reporting that. We all of us get tarred by that brush, even if we have nothing to do with that particular test.

That's what's going on today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/05/14/2799146/fcat-writing-scores-plummet.html#storylink=cpy

Beginning at the Beginning

A great thing about this work is that I do a lot of research on esoteric topics, and in following the bread crumb trail, often end up in surprising places.

Anyone who knows me would be surprised to find me lurking at a programmer's blog. My most recent experience with programming was a college class in BASIC and Pascal, a class I took only because my father wanted me to, which was an early lesson in how disagreeable it is to do that which one is disinclined to do out of a desire to please another.

In spite of my dedicated efforts to the contrary, I miraculously passed this class in which I learned nothing but how to memorize like a monkey. (I got an A or a B, which didn't surprise me at the time--I was just relieved. Now I find it shocking.)

Really, all I remember of the class was how the professor had eyebrows that looked like furry caterpillars crawling across his face and how miserable I was one day, while I was shivering in the front row of the cavernous lecture hall--I'd ridden my bike through torrential rain to get to the campus, and my hair and clothes were soaked through. The skin on my face was wet. Puddles formed on the floor under my chair. 

And yet,today I found myself here in programming land:
I'm going to give you a piece of advice when you're trying to learn something new: Never listen to people who try to make beginners feel like losers. For whatever reason, some people get off on making beginners feel like they're worthless for attempting something. Maybe it's because they feel threatened by new entrants, or maybe they were picked on as kids and this makes them feel powerful. Who knows, but generally if they're trying to make you feel like a loser because right now you're not that good at something, then just ignore them. 
Few people enjoy the disorientation of not knowing what to do, especially those who are accustomed to being what my grandmother would have called quick studies. Probably the more capable one is, the less one likes feeling adrift in the sea of ignorance.

The other day I was telling a friend about how I'd once nearly spontaneously combusted at a country western line dancing class (I had intended to register for Cajun Zydeco, but there'd been a misprint in the catalogue, and so I thought, What the hey, might as well do this thing that I would have never in a million years considered doing, being as the only country music I ever listen to is either Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline, except for this). The teacher, used to students already well versed in that style, gave few demonstrations, but instead called out the names of steps and then corrected students as they flailed. Knowing neither the steps nor the names of the steps, I flailed mightily.

No matter what it is we find ourselves expert at now, we were all beginners once.
The truth is, if us old dogs really believe in a meritocracy, then we should be embracing beginners no matter what their reason for learning. If we believe that someone's capability has nothing to do with their past or qualifications, then that means everyone can improve and you have to evaluate them on their skill at the moment. Running around yelling at people because they didn't happen to follow your path is just spiteful resentment.
Another truth is that it's exhilarating to work with beginners. Their very unfamiliarity makes the whole world new again. They bring a new perspective that can be challenging--why indeed do we do that task in that particular way, is there a good reason, or is it just something that's become habit but has no value?--and this challenge to our established modes can be invigorating. If we let it.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Reading Aloud

Tomorrow afternoon I'll be reading from a yet-to-be-published novel at the CCS Penny Reading at the Blue Agave in Santa Barbara. There will be writers representing the current student body (not me) and alumni (me). The event begins at 4.

I can't decide which chapter to read, but I'm thinking about the last:

On the afternoon of Frank and Cathy’s wedding, everything went wrong. Adrienne opened the refrigerator and the loose shelf on the door finally fell off. Three bottles crashed on the tile floor, leaving amber, red, and purple puddles of maple syrup, crème de cassis, and ketchup. She shooed Sam away from helping and the dog from lapping up the syrup, then picked up the glass, sopped up some of the sticky mess with paper towels and had begun to mop when they heard a shriek from upstairs.

Or maybe something else.

I find it strange to read my work aloud. I've never been theatrically inclined (except when I find myself overcome with appreciation for my brand of humor), so I greet any sort of stage performance with some inward show of trepidation. Always hoping the trepidation doesn't leak out too much.

The last time I read (from a yet-to-be-finished novel, also in Santa Barbara), a young woman approached me afterward and remarked that I had seemed nervous. I said I had been, a little. If she had been reading, she said, she would have acted like she owned it. I should do that next time, she said.

It was good advice, and like most good advice, much easier to offer than to follow.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

About Music

Without something like this we wouldn't have something like this.

It's the week of the Ventura Music Festival. We went to hear the Emerson String Quartet last night. My daughters, themselves cellists, were especially taken with the cellist, whose face was marvelously expressive as he played, and who was indeed charming when they asked him to sign a CD. (But so were they all.) The music was gorgeous. 

The musicians played to a packed house. The audience was wildly appreciative of both the original set (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven) and the encore (Charles Ives).

And yet, the audience--How can I say this?--almost everyone in the venue was well over 60. In fact, I'd say past 70. There was also a small contingent of young musicians--by which I mean teen-agers, all of whom play in a school orchestra. There were a few parents of teen-agers and a few young couples--and by "few," I mean you could have counted them and not come up with half a dozen. 

A friend of ours volunteers for the VMF. She was telling me that although they do a tremendous amount of fund-raising, and it has worked so far, their goal is to support the festival through ticket sales. She also said she didn't know how that could be accomplished, as ticket sales seem to be declining over the past few years.

I wonder--and I really do wonder, I'm not just offering that as a disingenuous rhetorical technique--whether this is related to the drastic reductions in education spending in the 1970s? (2004 NEA report on K-12 Education in the U.S. Economy here.) School music programs were certainly among the first to get thrown overboard in order to keep districts afloat. 

Music isn't just a luxury, though:
Studies highlighted in the review suggest connections made between brain cells during musical training can aid in other forms of communication, such as speech, reading and understanding a foreign language.

But if listening to or paying attention to or playing classical music is not part of one's life as a child, how likely is one to consider it a source of pleasure as an adult? (Instead, one most likely sees it as a should, and nobody likes shoulds. There's no quicker route to irritation than to be told what one should do.)

The benefits of music extend far beyond the realm of academics--there are studies that suggest that music can be used to accelerate recovery, reduce pain, elevate the mood, enhance athletic performance, and improve health. If we knew of a pill that accomplished so much and with so much pleasure and yet without negative side effects, we'd all be taking it.

Last year, on a trip to NOLA, I went to hear Bernice Reagon Johnson talk about bringing not just music into schools, but gospel--children need song, and they need to hear and sing the stories. (And yes, she sang. Beautifully. Her voice was so big--it filled that cavernous lecture room at the university. You could feel her voice pressing against you. And she roundly scolded the audience for singing in a muffled, embarrassed manner, pushing all of us to sing out loud. Some of us sounded better than others. I'm just saying that my voice appears to best advantage in the shower.)

In If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder Me, Johnson says
. . . you can hear a song, enjoy it for what is understood at that time and in that moment. Then, there is a future time when you have another message. Songs and singing become part of your life. . . .

Here's something else great about music: a talk with Eric Barnhill about music and the brain.

And the great Leela James performing "Music":

 (Part of the reason I'm thinking of all this is that fellow CCS alumni and writer Jo Perry wrote a terrific piece on music for a project I'm working on. We all inspire each other, don't we.)

UPDATE: Corrected a typo.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Opposing Views

Or maybe not.

I'm reading Raising Lifelong Learners by Lucy Calkins (with Lydia Bellino). It's worth reading for many reasons. (It's always horrifying to read that children between the ages of four and fourteen watch about four hours of TV a day, isn't it? Those statistics shock me so much that my brain wanders away and I immediately skip to thinking about something else, lalalalalalalala, kind of like how we can't bear thinking about global warming or the receding coastline.)

While I was reading, I was thinking my personal and professional opinions were sorting themselves into a Venn diagram. Aligning at some points, bickering at others. 

On one hand, I agree with much of what Calkins says. We parents need to talk and read with our children; we need to spend time with them and ask them questions and listen to the answers. And yet--at about page 123, I started chafing from the reins. There's just so much direction, there's so much talk, there are so many questions. I started to wonder what it would be like for kids to live under constant instruction.

Not everything has to be a lesson. Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes we just take the dog for a walk or see a butterfly amid the geraniums. Sometimes we go to the beach just to walk barefoot in the water, not to talk about the tides. When we see  pelicans, we can just watch the formation they take in flight, rather than talk about how having hollow bones pelicans lets pelicans be light in the air. Experience is enough in itself. Learning also happens without explicit instruction and the constant talkitty talk talk talk.

Maybe I'm talking to myself. I do tire of the sound of my own voice.

But Calkins' book is about accomplishing a specific goal, and she offers many means toward a worthy end. Or maybe I haven't yet gotten to the part about how lovely it is to sit and look out the window at the bumblebees in the morning glories and, off in the distance, to see the soft haze of fog coming in from the ocean.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mine! Mine! Mine!

Yesterday we reviewed the California STAR released tests for grade 8 because my daughters were scheduled to begin testing today, and they were apprehensive.

I confess I have a bit of the compulsive in me and once I started, I went through all the grade levels. When I got to grade 5, I was shocked to see a story for which I own the copyright, "Gabe's Experiment." This was published without a byline, without my permission, and without any reprint contract. It was also edited without my permission. (An adaptation of this story was published in the New York test, and has since been released. You can see it here. You see that I have a byline and a copyright line. I was also paid by the publisher of the New York test--and was thrilled to get the check.)

You can imagine that the first item on my to-do list this morning was to call the California Department of Education. I talked with someone who works with CDE and who was so helpful and responsive that I was almost sorry for bringing it to his attention. He was so responsive that the story has already been removed from the website.

I had discovered that this story was being used without my permission a few years ago. I had been invited by HUMRRO to participate in a review of the STAR tests. During the review--and how coincidental that I ended up with that grade level of test book in which my story appeared!--I saw my story. As soon as I returned home from Sacramento, I called the permissions department of that test publisher. The conversation didn't go well.

At the time, I was doing quite a bit of work for that publisher, in both content development and alignment. The permissions representative told me that the test publisher had bought the story, along with a bank of other materials, from another test publisher. She further told me that she didn't see that she had any responsibility whatsoever to help me protect my ownership of my story. I needed to talk to the other test publishing company, she said.

Also at that time, I was in the middle of an intrastate move. My household was boxed up. I was selling some furniture, giving away the rest (and I am so sorry I got rid of the retro yellow leather loveseat, I can't even tell you), and making my farewells to my hometown. I called a few people at the other test publishing company, I didn't get anywhere, I had to move, I put the (yellow) post-it away and forgot about it in the muddle. That test publishing company has since been purchased by another and is no longer in existence.

However. Seeing my story available online, with no byline and no copyright line, made me feel as if someone had picked my pocket. That story is mine. It was never work-for-hire. The California STAR test publisher never requested permission to use that story. The publisher from whom that publisher bought my story never asked permission to use my story, nor paid me anything for that story. Having been in this business for lo, these many years, I have an idea of how much money they made from that story. But they got it for free.

Until now. I expect to be paid for each time the story was printed, and for the time it was available online.

How did it happen? I have a theory. I don't at all think that it was intentional theft. And yet, theft it was.

UPDATE: 6/6/12
The matter is almost resolved. The test publishing company responded with a handsome apology, a contract requesting reprint permission, and a promise to add the appropriate copyright and byline. All I have to do is return the signed contract--which I will do today--and wait by the mailbox for the check to arrive.