Tag Archives: education

Straight From the Art

“I don’t know art, but I know what I like” is an old saying that expresses what many people really feel about art. Unfortunately, what they like is seldom art. More like dreck or kitsch. Maybe not sad puppies, but over-the-sofa mass-produced art. “Art” that doesn’t evoke thoughts or feelings: wonder, awe, challenge, mystery, inspiration, anger, sexuality, tenderness, memory, questions, fascination, laughter, pity. “Art” that doesn’t take you outside of yourself or into yourself.

I did learn a little about art in school – mostly the Impressionists (and a little about the Fauvists) because I was studying French at the time. Later on I learned a bit about cubism, pointillism, and a few other -isms. Still, most of the art hanging in my house is simply what I like.

Oh, I had a Van Gogh Sunflowers poster in my college dorm room and was thrilled beyond words to see the original (or one of the originals) in the Philadelphia Art Museum. Seeing the almost sculptural aspects of the brushwork made me unable to be satisfied with a flat poster ever again.

But gradually, the artwork surrounding me has become more … idiosyncratic.

This was brought home to me recently when, after a natural disaster, most of the many artworks that graced our home were assumed lost. We never knew just how much our artworks meant to us until they were gone. They had become such a fixture in our house that we didn’t really appreciate them as we did when we first acquired them. And that was a shame, because losing them left a distinct hole in our lives.

The rental house that we moved into was entirely devoid of decoration. There were flat, neutral walls; flat, neutral carpeting; flat, neutral furniture. I know they have to make rental houses this way to appeal to renters with various kinds of furniture and taste, but we had nothing to take the edge off all those neutrals. Nothing relieved the eye.

Our “art collection” was nothing elaborate or expensive, but it had meant a lot to us. A large part of my contributions to the household decorations consisted of paintings by Peggy McCarty, a talented friend of mine. These included self-portraits, paintings of food, and a couple of paintings of me or one of our cats, as well as a tiny landscape refrigerator magnet.

Dan collected many posters and prints, some of them signed and numbered, at the science fiction conventions we went to. These featured moody or majestic planet-scapes; cacti bursting off the ground like prickly green rockets on pillars of flame; wizards, changelings, and such; and a carved head of Einstein. Not all of them were to my taste, but, as the saying says, he knew what he liked. And some of them I found stirred my heart as well.

Not that my contributions to our household artwork were all formal and highbrow. One framed poster that Dan got for me was the theatrical poster from the Puss in Boots movie, which had a prominent place on our bedroom wall. The bright orange and yellow background demanded you notice it and, well, I’ve always had a thing for anthropomorphic cats.

Not long ago, we discovered that a number of our beloved artworks had survived the tornado. Some of the unframed, unmatted ones had sustained damage and others still haven’t shown up. But I was so happy to see the ones that did, I almost cried.

Naturally, we went right out and bought a bunch of Command Hooks (“Do. No Harm”) and started alleviating all the neutral walls with things that remind us of our old home while we wait for it to be rebuilt.

My study (actually the small bedroom) walls are graced by four small works: one of apples painted on a board by my artist friend Peggy; a print of a metal tiger from the Chinese Soldiers exhibit at the local art museum; a colorful Debbie Ohi sketch with a Neil Gaiman quote that I won in a raffle; and a framed, round, black-and-white drawing of a cat on a branch with stars in the background.

We each selected one work for special placement in the living room. Dan chose a framed poster of “To Everything There Is a Season” that used to hang in his office. I chose Peggy’s painting of Dan’s first cat, which I had commissioned her to paint for him for his birthday one year.

We haven’t settled on what goes in the master bedroom yet, though there is an evocative blue and white framed print that has a good chance of making the cut. So does Puss in Boots, though it will clash terribly.

But I know what I like.

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How the World’s Crappiest Typist Got a Job Typing

Actually, I am probably not the world’s very crappiest typist. I don’t use two fingers in the style called “hunt-and-peck.” (Except the one time I had to use a Cyrillic typewriter to write our Russian vocabulary lists. But I digress.) However, I am certainly among the worst.

As a kid, I played with an antique typewriter like the one pictured here. (It wasn’t quite so antique then.) I think there was even a typing manual that went with it, but my sister and I ignored it. We just had fun clacking the little buttons and seeing if we could hit multiple keys at once and cause a traffic jam up by the ribbon.

I might have learned real typing in high school, but I didn’t. Back then, there were different “tracks” of courses for students thought to have different job potential. Typing, along with shorthand and bookkeeping, was in the “secretarial” track curriculum. (They didn’t call it “keyboarding” back then.) I was on the “college prep” track. Evidently, the powers that be thought that college students didn’t need to know how to type.

I learned how wrong they were when I entered college as an English major. A plethora of essay assignments awaited me and all of the professors wanted them typed. (Admittedly, when I became a college teaching assistant, I required the same, having by then learned from my husband just how illegible human handwriting can be.)

So I got myself a portable typewriter and, armed with that onion-skin paper called Corrasable Bond and a jug of Wite-Out, I began to develop my peculiar typing style. (When typewriter ribbons started to include a white correction segment, I was overjoyed.)

But that was the extent of my typing experience. Over the years I learned to use about four to six fingers (including thumbs) to type, all the while looking at the keyboard instead of the paper or screen like I know you’re supposed to. Memorizing QWERTY seemed beyond me.

Then suddenly, when my freelance writing jobs started coming fewer and farther between, I knew I had to find another way to make some money. And because I was by that time used to working at home in my pajamas, my options were limited.

Finally, I noticed an ad for a work-at-home transcription service. They needed typists and proofers. “Hey!” I said. “I’m a pretty darn good proofer after all those years as an English major and a writer and editor. Why don’t I give it a try?”

While I was still in proofer training, however, I figured out that transcribers made, if not the big bucks, at least larger bucks than proofers. The job required listening to audio files and typing everything that was said into a document, proofing it myself, then turning it over to the actual proofers for final scrutiny. I asked to become a transcriber. But could I do it?

Fortunately, there was no actual typing test where I would have to produce so many words a minute without mistakes. (There probably should have been.) The bosses seemed more interested in whether the applicants had trouble understanding foreign accents.

That indeed is one of the major hurdles in transcription as a job. The audios we transcribe are almost universally boring meetings of business people or lawyers. Half the businesspeople have accents and more than half the lawyers mumble. A couple of times I’ve transcribed podcasts (though they were about business topics) and once a series of interviews with an actor promoting his latest TV series. But that’s been about it for interesting material.

And my six-fingered-and-thumbed typing has been good enough, at least to work part-time. It’s kind of appalling how slow I really am and how long it takes me to transcribe 45 minutes of audio, starting and stopping the little foot pedal that controls it, and often “rewinding.”

But I must be getting better. At least part of the time now I can type-excuse-me-keyboard while looking at the screen instead of my wayward fingers.

State of the Arts

It bothers me that the two trends in art that are gaining the most ground nowadays are prettiness and functionality.

Prettiness and functionality have their place in art, of course. Who doesn’t love a Monet landscape? And Soviet Realism, while hardly pretty, performed its function of representing the worker as hero and inspiring comrades to greater effort.

But prettiness is not beauty. If you look beyond the prettiness of a Monet, you see the sheer talent that it took to break the boundaries of then-current art standards and paint in a way that revealed a different way of looking at the world. And that was beauty.

No one would call Picasso’s Guernica either pretty or beautiful. Its clashing shapes and tortured figures do not inspire “awwws.” They aren’t meant to. The painting is a condemnation of the horrors of war, and it performs that function exceedingly well.

Now, I don’t have anything against art that is pretty or functional. I just think that there is a lot more to art than just those qualities.

But art today – or at least what passes for art – is solely about prettiness and functionality. The National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency, was established to “fund, promote, and strengthen the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation.” Now the organization’s existence is in great doubt. The federal budget eliminates it completely (though it hasn’t passed yet).

Why the neglect of the NEA? It isn’t pretty enough. It isn’t functional enough. It supports and promotes a variety of types of art, some of which are challenging, unappreciated, and even shocking. At least that’s what the budgeteers focus on. The NEA, however, also provides grants for projects like arts education in communities and schools, including “the growth of arts activity in areas of the nation that were previously underserved or not served at all, especially in rural and inner-city communities.”

Why, the NEA even collaborates in a program with “more than 2,000 museums in all 50 states that offers free admission to active-duty military personnel and their families during the summer.” But you (and apparently Congress) never hear about things like that.

Arts education in the schools is languishing too. Along with music, it’s been relegated to the heap of the “unnecessary” or watered down to become “art (or music) appreciation,” with little or no thought given to allowing children to create their own art as well as studying “the masters.” It’s like art is now an extracurricular, though not as well-funded a one as sports.

STEM is the current bastion of functionality in school curricula. And admittedly, the U.S. needs more citizens educated in technical fields such as medicine, aeronautics, robotics, engineering, architecture, and so on. Art occasionally sneaks in there, so the programs reluctantly become STEAM, but the focus is still on turning out people who perform what most people consider vital functions in our society – those associated with products, and industry, and money.

But art, even when it’s disturbing, does have a function. It can make us think, love, cry, wonder, or remember. Imagine a world without art. No music, no dancing, no paintings, no sculptures – not even any graphic design. (That would mean no political campaign posters.) Life would be very different and much duller. Even if you don’t believe it, the arts touch you in some way every day of your life.

The arts are far from being a waste of time and money, as some seem to think. Winston Churchill had it right: “The arts are essen­tial to any com­plete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

 

Dressing Up and Dressing Down

Recently, there was quite a flap in Houston, TX, that quickly went viral. It seems that the administration of James Madison High School had issued a dress code. For parents. Apparently, there had been a problem with parents who came to the school inappropriately dressed.

I had my own experience with restrictive dress codes, though it was not at school (once the administration decided that girls could wear slacks). No, this was at a job I once held.

One day Doris, the HR/accounting person, sent around a memo that prohibited the wearing of shorts or tops that did not cover the hips, as with leggings.

I immediately demanded clarification.  “What about skorts?” I asked. “And culottes? How do you tell when something is baggy shorts or an actual culotte?” (I had no intention of wearing shorts, skorts, or culottes.)

“And what is this about your top must cover your hips? Don’t you mean it must cover your ass?” I inquired. Doris protested that the two meant the same thing.

“I don’t know about you,” I replied, “but my ass is a lot lower than my hips.” (It’s even lower now.)

Doris shooed me out of her office.

But I was not to be thwarted. I kept running back to her all day with requests for clarification. “Pedal pushers? Are those allowable? Gaucho pants? How about palazzo pants?” I kept it up all day, much to the amusement of my coworkers. As far as I could tell, no one changed their style of dress based on Doris’s admonitions. It was not really a concern for me, as I habitually keep my ass, as well as my hips, securely covered. And I don’t even know anyone who owns palazzo pants.

The brouhaha in Texas was a different sort of dress code, however. The school prohibited trespassing on their sacred precincts wearing a variety of attire including satin caps or bonnets, hair rollers, pajamas, leggings, low-cut tops, sagging pants, short-shorts, and “dresses that are up to your behind.”

But these were not rules for the students (although I imagine they had to follow similar ones). These strictures were for parents. In point of fact, moms. Except for the sagging pants, dads were unlikely to appear at school in any of the banned clothing. Probably.

Although it sounds amusing, this was a very serious thing. One mother was even reported to the police when she showed up at the school wearing a t-shirt dress and a headscarf. She naturally asked to see a copy of the dress code in writing, and the following day one was sent out.

Some viewed this policy as an affront to African-Americans, who evidently see nothing wrong with headscarves or satin caps. And I have no information on whether the rules were as strictly enforced on white moms as well. (I do know that bandanas, aka headscarves, have been traditional bad hair day accessories for all races for decades. Maybe even centuries.)

I can perhaps see a school not wanting visitors to enter the actual building wearing pajamas and bathrobes. But for all those moms who must get their kids to school at some ungodly hour, then return home and get dressed and ready for work, the temptation to cut corners must indeed be great. I picture the crossing guards at the drop-off car parade scrutinizing drivers and issuing citations for unapproved curlers.

It’s a good thing most moms don’t have to get out of their cars to deliver their kids to school. There might be a Doris waiting to measure the altitude of their ass and debate the propriety of palazzo pants.

Lies We Tell About Bullying

girl wearing black and white striped dress sitting on stair
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Being bullied has taught me a lot over the years. Lessons learned in childhood run deep and last long. We learn to not be noticed. That we must try to fit in. That certain people and places and situations are hazardous. That being different is a sin.

But it is not only the things that children do to one another that cause harm. Some of the things that adults say to children about bullying hurt the most. These remarks may be intended to help the bullied child, but at times they do as much damage as the bullying itself.

Chief among the responses to bullying that adults come up with is “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is a profound lie, as any bullied child knows. Oh, there are sticks and stones, even literal ones. As a third-grader I had rocks thrown at me and countless children have experienced physical bullying – pushing, tripping, hitting, and more.

But words are more than capable of hurting just as much. There are forms of bullying other than physical – emotional, social, racial, sexual. But these forms of bullying are much less visible than the physical kind. If the grown-ups responsible for the care and well-being of the child don’t see bruises or bloody noses, they may think no harm has occurred.

Socially or emotionally bullied children are often told “Don’t be so sensitive.” And it may be true that less sensitive children do not feel the effects of cruel words as drastically. But the underlying message is that there is something wrong with the bullied child – excessive sensitivity. And this is not something that children can change about themselves. It’s like telling a person not to be so tall.

Another piece of advice commonly given to bullied children is, “Just ignore them.” If becoming less sensitive is impossible, even more so is ignoring bullies. Bullies are in-your-face. It’s almost impossible to ignore insults and injuries, derisive chants or laughter. Humiliation is not something that can simply be shrugged off. Bullies rejoice in having an audience for their abuse. It’s beyond hard to ignore a room or playground of kids (or teens), all of whom have witnessed your victimization.

Similarly, bullied children are told, “Other people’s opinions don’t matter.” Again, this is a lie. Of course they do. The opinions of a child’s peers control whether other children feel safe being friends with a bully’s victim. Their opinions determine whether a child will be lonely or despised, or will develop self-esteem. Bullies affect the opinions of other children and make the circle of bullies and bystanders wider. Other people’s opinions make wide ripples.

Bullied children often hear, “Toughen up.” Again, this is an assignment given with no clue as to how it is to be accomplished. It may even be misinterpreted as tacit permission to become a bully too. After all, bullies are tough. And the saying, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” may come into play. Naturally, this only expands the number of bullies and can victimize other children. A bullied child who becomes a bully may experience not a sense of empowerment but a sense of guilt.

Another common reaction to bullying is to encourage or even to coach a child in fighting back physically. This has little chance of working if the bully is physically larger than the victim and takes a lot of practice if it is to work at all. In addition it teaches children that violence is an appropriate solution to a problem. If the bullying has been emotional or social rather than physical, the bullied child is also likely to get in trouble for striking back in a literal manner.

The problem is that the bullied child is not the problem. He or she does not need to change or be changed. The bully is the one who is demonstrating unacceptable behavior and needs to be stopped. Bystanders are bullying enablers and need to learn how to support and intervene instead.

There are no simple solutions to bullying, which will likely continue as long as children are children, though with awareness of the problem and concerted efforts on the part of adults, it may someday lessen and be less acceptable and less accepted.

But whatever the solution is, it is clearly not to tell the bullied child lies.

A Different Kind of Freelance Gig

marketing woman office working
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Most people think of freelance work as writing, or sometimes editing or proofreading. Those were the kind of gigs I myself had – editing magazines and video scripts, writing nonfiction articles and children’s stories, proofreading master’s or doctoral theses. And that was the kind of assignment I had been applying for when I suddenly fell into a different kind of freelance gig: transcription.

I was sucked into this new kind of work by applying for one of my old standards: proofreading. I did a telephone interview and the interviewer assured me that I was way overqualified, which I knew. At this point in my life, I’m overqualified for everything, except for those things for which I’m underqualified or not qualified at all.

The work was repetitive and boring, she said, sporadic and unpredictable. Some weeks there would be lots to do and others very little. I assured her that at this point in my life, that was exactly the kind of work I was looking for – not high stress, with irregular hours so I could work in some other assignments, go to appointments, or even nap. Also, I have bipolar disorder, which usually prevents me from working a standard 9-to-5 job out in the workplace. (I didn’t mention that in the interview.)

I also asked the interviewer that if any of the other successful candidates washed out, to please consider me as a replacement. It sounded like the sort of job that someone might start and then hate.

Whether it was my willingness to work beneath my skill set at odd hours or my willingness to fill in, I was accepted. To work for the transcription service I would need to purchase a certain type of foot pedal for controlling the recordings and a certain piece of software. I didn’t object, as I figured I could take them off my taxes, but I could see how reluctance to do that might indeed weed out candidates, thereby making more room for me.

What I learned is that proofing transcripts is indeed boring but relatively quick and very low-paying. So quick and low-paying, in fact, that it was hardly worth my time.

Then they got into a bind and ask me if I wanted to move up to transcriptionist.

I had to give this some serious thought. You see, the problem is that I can’t type. Oh, I type well enough to type articles, stories, and other freelance writing assignments, but I have never actually in my life taken a typing course and learned to type (excuse me, keyboard) with all ten fingers. When I was in high school a hundred years ago, typing was offered only in the secretarial track and I was solidly in the academic track. Never mind that when I got into college as an English major, I discovered exactly how many papers I would have to write and to type. And of course, I couldn’t afford to have someone else do it for me.

So all these years I’ve been faking it. But could I fake typing well enough to be a transcriptionist? I said I’d try, on the condition that I could drop back to proofreader if I wanted to.

Transcription, it turns out, is boring. A lot of business meetings that I would never want to attend. Lawyers’ consultations in which most of the lawyers mumble and most of the clients cry. Recordings that skip. Voices that are indiscernible. Financial jargon that I don’t recognize.

But making the transcripts paid much better than proofing the transcripts and since it was remote work nobody could see how unconventionally I typed. As long as I hit my deadlines, they didn’t care. I moved up from part-time transcriptionist to full time. It’s not a career, but a few hundred bucks a month sure is welcome and I still have time to work on these blogs and my mystery novel.

It’s not the part-time gig I would have imagined myself in, but it beats driving for Uber.

 

Early Childhood Education: Then and Now

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Back in the ’80s, I edited a magazine called Early Childhood News. It was aimed at owners and operators of day care centers (as we called them back then), though there was content that was of interest to employees as well.

Times have changed. But how much? A lot of what concerned early childhood educators back them reverberates through the field today, although sometimes in slightly altered form. Here’s what the experts are saying now.

Abysmal Economics. Back in the ’80s, child care worker pay was a big concern, as was the cost of child care. Government subsidies to child care centers and workers seemed like the answer but went nowhere aside from Head Start. Many mom-and-pop child care centers popped up in homes around the country, a good number of them unlicensed; they were the only kind many parents could afford. As low as teacher pay was in accredited centers, professional child care was out of reach for the poor and even for large parts of the middle class.

Not a lot has changed. Government being largely unresponsive on the subject, and child care tax credits making little actual difference, parents began to turn to employers as sources of care. Alas, only a few forward-thinking companies provided any on-site care for their employees’ children. The Baby Boomers were aging out of the parenting years and, as good a benefit as it seemed, child care in the workplace never took hold.

One thing that hasn’t changed as child care workers morphed into early childhood educators is the fact that salaries remain so low that such work cannot provide a living wage. NPR had this to say about salaries for a typical worker:

Why would she teach preschool when she could make a heck of a lot more money teaching kindergarten? … In some places, we pay early childhood teachers less than fast-food workers, less than tree trimmers. As a country, we’ve acknowledged the importance of early learning and yet, when you look at what we pay those educators, it doesn’t add up.

This despite the fact that preschool teachers are increasingly well educated – NPR reports that 24 state preschool programs require a bachelor’s degree for the main teacher in the classroom and 45 percent of preschool teachers working with children ages 3-5 have a bachelor’s degree. Even in a credentialed center with educated teachers, salaries still put early childhood workers below the poverty line.

Still, parents find it difficult to pay for child care. Care.com’s 2018 Cost of Care Survey reports that:

One in three families (33 percent) now spend 20 percent or more of their annual household income on child care. Seven in 10 families report paying rates higher than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ definition of affordable care, while nearly one in five families spends a quarter or more of their household income on child care.

Yet child care is a service that few can do without:

American families will go to great lengths to pay for child care. In fact, 26 percent would put themselves in debt or further debt to pay for child care, and parents report they’ve saved less money (54 percent) and made major budget cuts (41 percent) to pay for the rising cost of care.

Even family planning is affected. The same study finds that “one in three families (33 percent) say the cost of child care influenced their family planning, in that they either waited longer to have children or had fewer children than they would have liked because of child care costs.”

Education versus play. The term “child care” seems to be fading out in favor of “early childhood education.” Along with that change comes an increasing focus on academics.

While it is true that many children come to kindergarten unready to learn, a debate still rages about what the role of the child care center is – early education versus play. “Academic” centers abound, to the extent that some of them appear to be mini-kindergartens. Some parents apparently eat this up, perhaps thinking that for the to-them-exorbitant price of child care, their children had better be learning something.

PBS, in a focus on teachers, had this to say:

“Most kindergarten teachers will tell you what they really value is the opportunity to teach kids when they show up at school prepared and ready to learn. It’s not so much that teachers value that the kindergartner can read or write. They value that the children enjoy learning, have a set of experiences that got them used to a classroom setting, and know how to engage adults and kids in another setting,” [Dr. Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia] says.

Play-centered environments have their champions as providing that kind of readiness. They say that play-centered learning is more than mere play. In play-centered (or as they often say, “child-centered”) environments, children can learn not merely socialization skills, but preparation for learning without all the academic trappings. Preschools that feature exploratory science equipment (such as water tables and sand tables), well-stocked libraries of good-quality children’s literature (and story time to go with it), art areas, and other manipulatives and play centers are actually imparting valuable lessons about the way the world works. The NEA is a particular champion of play-centered care.

These two trends, the economics of child care and the push-pull between academics and play, are likely to continue. Absent better salaries for both workers and parents, early education centers will have to choose between offering learning and play if they cannot convince the public that they are two sides of the same coin.

 

Why a National Curriculum Makes Sense

I can hear the cries of outrage now: Local control! Washington bureaucrats! Educational fascism! One size doesn’t fit all! Who wants to be like France or Japan?

Settle down, now. I don’t mean that one central authority should determine everything taught in America’s schools.

But I do think some standardization is long overdue.

Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 book Savage Inequalities revealed massive problems with local funding in education – a system that rewarded already wealthy districts with more money. Local curriculum standards are also fraught with inequalities.

Some of the problems are due to state standards, while part of them are promulgated by local politics.

Let’s start with states. Only a few states drive the textbook industry. (I’m looking at you, Texas, California, and New York!) Textbook producers must tailor their content to the requirements of these large, influential states. Other states are lucky if they get a textbook supplement for their state or region.

When those textbook-dominating states wish to present a, let’s call it, idiosyncratic view of, say, history, much of the nation has to go along with them.

Difficult as it would be to arrive at a consensus U.S. history, given that some states appear to believe that slavery, for example, was a good or at least neutral, thing and others present U.S. presidents as paragons without regard to their flaws or challenges, a balanced, factual approach would be welcome. Not that we shouldn’t teach students to weigh various factors and form opinions – we certainly should, in pursuit of those critical-thinking skills that everyone talks about.

But in some areas of the curriculum, facts are facts. Students who live in districts or states that deny evolution are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to college biology, geology, history, and other classes. Schools that advocate “teaching the controversy” of creationism (or intelligent design, or whatever they’re calling it now) are doing their students a disservice. If you want the Christian Bible in K-12 schools, teach it as literature or in the context of comparative religions throughout history. It’s not like school shootings are caused by comparative religion classes.

And let’s talk sex education for a minute. Again, factual information, presented at age-appropriate times, is crucial. As the saying goes, “If they’re old enough to ask, they’re old enough to know.”

Presenting sex purely as reproduction is also problematic. The clitoris is not essential to reproduction, so there’s virtually no mention of it in discussions of sexual anatomy – in fact, in many states it’s forbidden. Non-reproductive but related topics like consent should also be covered.

And let’s dispel the notion that teaching kids about sex will make them have sex. Kids are going to have sex anyway – might as well see that they have the facts about it, if only to lower rates of teen pregnancies and STDs, which most people agree. Yes, that means teaching about condoms and how to use them.

So, what does my vision of a national curriculum look like? Actually, lots of things would be left up to local schools. They can spend time teaching the history of their state if they want, for instance, although with the mobility of current society, the students may end up living in another state entirely. Maybe that time could be better spent elsewhere.

I have no preference as to whether reading is taught via phonics or whole language. It should probably be a combination of both. In fact, most subjects should be taught with Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences in mind.

But when it comes to courses that are currently neglected, there are ones that I think need to be taught early and often. Civics is a big one: our town for youngsters, our state for the slightly older, and our nation for everyone.

Subjects to cover in those courses? The three branches of government (with an emphasis on what each can and cannot do, instead of the usual lip-service mention of checks and balances); the Constitution; and The Bill of Rights would be a good start. And no just memorizing the numbers of the Articles or Amendments! Students should graduate with an understanding of how these documents are supposed to work.

Other suggestions for a national curriculum?

  • STEM, but not to the exclusion of the arts.
  • Practical subjects such as budgeting and banking and credit, which could be taught in math or practical home skills classes.
  • Art and music appreciation at the very least, with not all attention in music given to the three B’s. Something modern would be nice, or even a unit on musical theater.
  • Physical fitness focusing on lifelong pursuits and health.
  • Keyboarding and use of common office software.
  • Hands-on pursuits such as woodworking, cooking, and gardening, but not segregated by sex.
  • Foreign languages to begin in grades K-3, when a child has the best chance of learning them fluently. ASL at any age.

Yes, I know that teachers already have too much to teach. A number of these subjects would have to be electives or mini-courses – gardening, for example. And we’d have to reconsider the time spent teaching to the ridiculous proliferation of “high-stakes testing,” which has too much effect on funding and not enough on actual, productive learning. And we’d have to give enough money to the schools to accomplish all this (see Savage Inequalities, above).

Who should determine the national curriculum? I don’t know, except that actual classroom teachers and school administrators should be involved as well as education theorists or bureaucrats. In fact, I don’t think anyone who has never spent time as a public school classroom teacher should have much of a say.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with all – or perhaps any – of these ideas. But as long as my tax dollars support our public schools, I’m as entitled to have an opinion as anyone else.

What Grade Level Are You Writing At?

Writing for children and writing for adults have some things in common. One is knowing what grade level you’re writing at.

Let’s start with adults. You may think, “Aha! Anyone who graduated high school, which is most of my typical audience, should be reading at the 12th-grade level.” Alas, that isn’t so.

The general rule when writing for adults of average intelligence – the ordinary readership of mainstream books, magazines, ezines, and blogs – is that the writing should be around the 8th-grade level, or at least somewhere between 7th and 9th grade.

You can speculate about the causes of this: the American education system, the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t read except for work and restaurant menus, the disappearance of not just grammar but whole parts of words in tweets and texts. Whatever, it has become the rule of thumb. Of course, if you are writing for an academic journal or a high-tech audience, you will likely be writing at a higher grade level.

Writing for children is more difficult. Yes, you can write at the grade level of the students you are trying to reach (or a bit below to include slow readers). The Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner is a big help with that. It categorizes words by what a child in each grade should or is likely to know.

If that sounds a bit formulaic, it is. But it can be worse. Producing writing or reading samples for textbooks is fraught with all sorts of perils. One can be asked to write at very precise levels – 3.1 to 3.4, for example. The change of a word or two or breaking a long sentence in half can make the difference. If your assignment includes using specific phonics or grammar requirements (diphthongs, consonant blends, irregular past tense verbs), you can be hard-pressed to write a story that follows the rules and is still enjoyable to read.

Fortunately, writing for children outside the classroom is somewhat easier. While it’s a good idea generally to stay close to the recommended levels for the grade level of your intended audience, skillful writers can break the rules at times. J.K. Rowling, for example, was able to use the word “sycophantic” because its meaning was clear in context from her description of Crabbe’s and Goyle’s behavior.

So, how do you know what grade level you’re writing at? There are various ways and a number of programs to help.

The most important of the measures of “lexile,” or grade level, is the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test. It returns results matched with readability levels. The easiest place to find it is in Microsoft Word. You can turn on the feature when you set your preferences for spelling and grammar check. It provides two different measures of lexiles, but the Flesch-Kincaid is the easier to understand.

If you prefer, or if for some reason you’re not working in Word (such as working in WordPress), you can find various readability checkers online, which use a variety of measures of readability. I’d recommend the one at  http://www.thewriter.com/what-we-think/readability-checker/. Sign up for a free account, then run your writing through it. In mere seconds, you’ll have a lexile. Plus, there is a handy chart that tells what each of the levels means.

I ran this post (so far) through Word’s checker and The Writer‘s readability tool and got a grade of about 7th- to 8th-grade reading level, which corresponds to articles on The Writer‘s website up to some of President Obama’s speeches. (Also, only 2% passive sentences. Yay, me!) I’m right on target, according to the experts.

I wouldn’t check every piece of my writing against the readability scores, though you certainly can. But if I write a post that seems to read a bit stodgy or jargon-y, I might.

It takes only a few seconds to do and may improve your connection with your readership. Not to mention giving you a direction to go when you start revising.

School Shootings and the Tipping Point

Teen activists may hold an answer to school shootings.

I say “may” and “an answer” because each shooting is different. There’s no one reason for them.

There is a common denominator. It’s not mental illness, or divorce, or bullying, or the Internet, or video games, or no prayer in schools, or toxic masculinity, though each of those may be a contributing factor in some school shootings.

The common denominator is that school shootings are, well, shootings. Before we address the contributing factors, we must address that.

To do that, we must talk. Negotiate. Problem-solve. Not rant, spout slogans, or pass around memes. Not blame mythical “crisis actors.” None of that will help. Let’s discuss what proposed solutions are feasible, practical, and actually helpful.

This time the kids are taking the lead and speaking up. Mandatory suspension means their walkouts may fail, at least if they walkout until Congress does something, as was suggested.

But other students are speaking out in other ways – talking to the media, visiting elected officials and attending sessions of legislative bodies. Encouraging voter registration among their peers.

And you know, these efforts may fail as well. It’s difficult to get your message across when you’re trying to get the attention of people who live and die by ballots, not bullets.

Here’s the thing, though. With the Parkland school shooting, we may have reached a “tipping point” in our society. Even if legislation doesn’t work, as so many say it won’t, there is a force that can catch the nation’s attention.

Grass-roots activism.

Here I won’t praise the efforts of the 1960s, when under-30s protested and helped stop a war, though I surely could.

What I want to talk about is attitudinal change. Societal change. It can happen and it has happened.

Think about the things that used to be commonplace and succumbed to pressure from groups and individuals.

Smoking is a prime example. Despite push-back from tobacco lobbies and cigarette manufacturers, smoking has tapered off in public and in private. Restaurants started with smoke-free seating areas and now in some states are completely smoke-free. Public buildings and many private ones are too. Smoking around young children is particularly looked down on.

Why? People spoke up, including teens (see truth.org). And society reacted. Look at old movies and how many characters in them smoked. Then look at modern movies and notice how few do. It’s almost like someone realized that these characters are representations of our changing society and – perhaps – role models for kids, even if only subliminally.

And look at drunk driving. MADD – Mothers Against Drunk Driving – changed society’s view of drunk drivers and prompted legislative change; for example, getting states to lower the limits for what is considered “impaired,” holding drinking establishments responsible for taking the keys from patrons too wasted to drive, and requiring harsher punishments for repeat offenders.

Non-legislative solutions are having an effect as well – the “Designated Driver” idea and PSAs that say “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” There are smaller, local efforts too, such as providing free cabs on the holidays associated with over-indulgence.

What happened in both examples was that society reached a tipping point. After so many deaths and so much ill health, individuals and groups decided that the prevailing practice had to change.

And change it did.

There are reasons to believe that the Parkland shootings may be that tipping point for change. For the idea that school shootings are not just an everyday reality – or shouldn’t be.

Businesses are cutting ties with the NRA, for one. These are protests that will get attention because they are backed up by dollars.

Sure, many teens (and adults and businesses and law-makers) will ignore the issue. Even teens succumb to the “it can’t happen here” mentality. But others are saying that it can and does happen anywhere. In elementary schools, where the students are too young to mount effective protests. In colleges, where students should.

And in the surrounding society, people are saying, “Enough already with the thoughts and prayers.” Even sincere ones have changed nothing, and insincere ones substitute for actual change.

Likely the change that is coming will be incremental and slow. And after the tipping point is reached and the mass of everyday Americans demand real answers to school shootings, maybe we can turn to the related factors like acceptance of bullying and the broken mental health care system. Grassroots efforts and public education are key.

But first, let’s listen to the kids. They have the most to lose.