Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Liberating the World's Educational Burnouts

My eldest graduates this Friday night. And of course, anytime I mention this, my listener asks what plans she has for next year. An appropriate question, but a little annoying because I can't answer sufficiently without a lot of words.
She's taking a “gap year”, as is apparently common in other parts of the world. She's still pretty unsure what she wants to do with her life, so she's going to look for a job – hopefully in a preschool, because her gifts and passions have always been with little kids – and spend the year figuring out if that's what she wants to do for a career, and if so, what further education will benefit her the most in that endeavor.
But she's also going to get a step up on her education through CLEP tests. You can get credit for a lot of college courses by testing out of them this way. It's MUCH cheaper than college (about $100 per test, for 3-6 credit hours). She can do it on her own time, around her work schedule. It's a good thing.
Hubby and I think this is a wise move on her part. It just makes no sense at all for her to spend the money and time to start on a college degree that, in the end, she may not need. It used to be that one went to college, puttered around a bit, and eventually found some direction in life. Higher education has become far too expensive to serve that purpose well. You gotta find your direction first and then decide if college is a necessary spot on that path.
Here's my concern, though. College isn't just about career preparation (or at least, it shouldn't be): colleges traditionally instructed people in the Liberal Arts, the subjects and skills that antiquity taught us are necessary for a person to know to be able to take an active part in civic life. History, literature, composition, public speaking, logic, mathematics, science, languages, philosophy, the arts, debate and discourse . . . yes, someone can make a living without knowing this stuff, but you would lose a lot in the making of a life. This is the art of living in liberty, of being a free person, a person of consequence, a person who can and chooses to make a difference. This is the stuff that develops good citizens. This is the stuff that develops good humans. 
The Liberal Arts used to be the essence of education. They used to be the focus of learning even at the high school level. But I don't think even our colleges do them justice anymore. Somehow over the years, we have become a specialized, practical race who can't see the forest of Real Life for the trees of Making An Income. We're more afraid of our kids ending up in a dead end job than we are of them being dead-hearted people.
So, while I'm all on board with my daughter's "college and career" plans, I'm hoping I can encourage her, in some way, to continue to cultivate the Liberal Arts in her life. Unfortunately, that door may be temporarily closed. She's burnt out. Her high school years turned her off on education that doesn't seem to have a practical purpose. I'm hoping a year's break may make room for the love of learning to ignite again. But when it does, where will she go to feed that fire?
Society needs a way to take our educational burnouts and nurse them in the Liberal Arts without their having to go back to the schools that burnt them out in the first place.
Ah. A summer project for me.

Monday, May 26, 2014

On Elections and Why I Hate Them

As much as I believe in the system of representative democracy and appreciate that I live in a country where it is practiced pretty successfully, truth is, I hate elections. Mainly, I hate campaigns. There just HAS to be a better way to do this.

We have a run-off primary election here in Texas tomorrow. The first primary election was in February or something, and it caught me completely off guard. I knew absolutely nobody on the ballot; I didn't even know much about the offices I was voting for. (Railroad commissioner? Really? We vote for railroad commissioner? Turns out, I guess, that the railroad commissioner is in charge of the oil industry in Texas, so it's a very important job, but I still can't believe it's an elected office.)

And the fact that it was a primary complicated things. Frankly, when it's Republicans versus Democrats, I usually can assume that the Republican is going to be closer to where I stand on issues. (However, for some of the smaller local offices, I'm not sure where they stand on big issues is as important as their general competence -- and how the heck am I supposed to know about that?)

The problem comes with choosing a Republican candidate that I like, because again, the difference is not in where they stand on issues, usually. The difference is in experience: Do they know the ins and outs of the job? Have they done something like this before and succeeded? Do they have the requisite skills to get the job done? And the difference is in character: Are they one to keep their word? Are they one to not be swayed by the temptation to act in their own best interest rather than in the interests of their constituents? Are they one to do the right thing even if it's hard?

And just how the heck do you get to know these things about people?

I addressed this problem with some friends at lunch the other day. One said that she went to the library, picked up a sample ballot, and then looked each candidate up online to get info about them. Brilliant. I did the same. You know what I found out? All candidates say nothing but positive things about themselves. (Duh.) And all candidates' opponents say nothing but negative things about their opponents. (Duh.) And any source of information that should be objective about the candidates cannot be trusted to be objective. (Duh -- and sigh.)

My friend who made this suggestion said that she mainly looked on a candidate's website for values statements. Thing is, Texas Republicans know what values other Texas Republicans want in a candidate and will trumpet them whether they personally hold them or not.

Not only that, but I'm finding myself getting a bit turned off, actually, by the "values statements" that I think this friend is looking for. One of these candidates (I don't remember who) made a big deal of the fact that he championed the effort to get the phrase "under God" put in the Texas state pledge. Now, I personally appreciate the fact that this phrase is in the pledge, I suppose. But if I'm honest about it, that's not something I would have wanted my state representative to spend a lot of energy, time, and effort on. Surely, there were more important things going on that needed his attention. The fact that he lists this on his website as one of the accomplishments he's most proud of . . . well, it rubs me the wrong way. As if he's just pandering to the churchy folks who are scanning his site looking for "values statements".

For February's election, I emailed a new friend from my daughter's school who seemed to be really into this political stuff and who seemed to be one with whom I would agree on most issues. She graciously gave me a detailed list of her recommendations (and she knew many of these people personally, so I trusted her). I hate to bug her again. I wish I could figure out how to get the objective information I need on my own.

Because I really do want to do this right. It does matter.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Puppy is Cute; I Am Not

There was a time in my life -- actually several "times", really -- as an insecure bespectacled child, as a teenager desperate for positive male attention, as a young woman no longer in the dating game and wondering about my continued appeal, that I would have given anything for anyone to call me cute.

That time has passed.

Babies are cute. Puppies are cute. Dresses and purses and shoes are cute. Teenage heartthrobs can rightfully be referred to as cute . . . that is, Ross Lynch from the Disney channel is cute while George Clooney, for example, requires another descriptor.

Middle-aged women are not cute. At least this one isn't. I'll gladly hear that I'm pretty, lovely, beautiful, stunning, gorgeous, attractive, nice-looking, "fetching" . . . but cute does not feel like a compliment I want anymore (except perhaps from my husband in certain circumstances which don't need elaboration here).

Several years ago, I did a monologue at a church service in New Jersey as a homeless person, talking to the audience about how I was invisible. I really made an effort to look the part (I'm not a costume person); I dressed as scummy as I could, had my hair back, no makeup, all that. I affected a limp and a different voice (again, as best I could do). A few people told me afterwards that they didn't recognize me for most of the piece. It was a challenging persona for me to put on, and it was a challenging message for the congregation to hear in the monologue. I wasn't brilliant or anything, but I was pleased that I was able to pull it off as well as I did.

A chipper friend came up to me after the service. She smiled a chipper smile, gave me a chipper hug, and chirped, in obvious reference to the monologue I had just performed: "You're so cute!"

Cute?!? You found that cute?!?? Nothing about what I had done on the platform that morning was supposed to be cute, thank you very much.

Now, I try to remind myself that "cute" seems to be the go-to compliment for many women out there, and especially many Texas women I have met (my chipper New Jersey friend was born and raised in Texas). I understand that they don't mean to belittle or demean, for example, a piece of serious, intense writing that I've belabored over by calling it cute. They just don't have the mental time or energy (or maybe the vocabulary?) to search for a more accurate word to describe it. My chipper friend didn't mean to imply that my dramatic efforts that morning looked childish or amusing (I hope). She wanted to say something nice, and "cute" was the word that fell out of her mouth. My hurt and offense was probably unwarranted. I hope.

In any case, "cute" is going on the banned word list for my English classes next year. Even if you're describing babies, puppies, and brand new pumps, it's worth the effort to learn some new adjectives.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Image of God Behind the Hedgeclippers

My sister and her husband visited our home this weekend while he attended a work conference downtown. Nancy and I had a lovely time, eating at girly restaurants, shopping at girly stores. And I discovered something new about my big sister: she enjoys yardwork.

During the neighborhood garage sale Saturday morning while I sat at the end of the driveway with the riding lawnmower and the '71 Yamaha bike hoping to clear out some room in the garage, she went around trimming up plants, raking out corners, pulling up weeds and stragglers, just generally cleaning up our front yard something beautiful. And after lunch, she came home and did it in the back, too. For fun. Because she wanted to do it.

I've never been much for yardwork, and I realized today that this is because I didn't know what I was doing. While I watched her taking out deadwood (literally) on our grounds, I joined in (now that I was aware of the deadwood also and of the correct and efficient way to get it out). And now I get the appeal.

It's the same feeling I have when I clean out the refrigerator and dump the partially eaten restaurant leftovers, the two-week-old chicken breast, the ketchup bottle so nearly empty that everybody gave up trying to force more ketchup out and opened a new bottle. Clear it out.

The same feeling I have when a party is over, and the excitement is still kind of ringing in the air but the guests are gone, and I'm walking through the party room, picking up cups and plates, gathering the evening's toys, putting away the pens and tossing the paper scraps, returning pillows and afghans to their rightful places, getting leftover food in the fridge, emptying the trash.

The same feeling I will have at the end of the week going through the girls' backpacks, throwing out food wrappers and scraps of paper, piling up books and deciding where they will be kept for future reference, setting aside tests and papers and interesting assignments to store for posterity, dumping the crumbs at the bottom of the bag in the trash and wiping it out so it doesn't attract vermin before we need it again in the fall.

Decluttering. Re-creating order. It is SOOOO satisfying. It is satisfying enough to me that I have a hard time understanding how people can stand to live very long in clutter and disorder. I mean, when you have a busy period of your life, yes, picking up may have to wait. But to just live with unnecessary items all around you, sitting in your way, making it hard to find what you need when you need it -- or even to get from one side of the room to another -- how can you not just scream after a while?

But I've learned that not everyone is like me. And I'm gradually learning to recognize this "fault" in other people as not necessarily being a fault at all. God is a God of order, and my urge to declutter is one of the ways I am made to reflect His image. Others reflect His image in ways I can't touch. Through creativity that astounds me. Through persistence that inspires me. Through compassion for the difficult-to-love that shames me.

Nevertheless, I am grateful to now know better how to maintain order in my yard. And if I find the persistence to keep it up, I'm sure my husband will be grateful, too.

Friday, May 16, 2014

There's a Mystery Afoot!

We've done a variety of interesting birthday parties over the years. The Peter Pan party with the bouncy-house so the kids could "fly". The chef party -- did that one twice. The Blue's Clues party collecting food for the local animal shelter. The overnight makeover party. The arts and crafts party. The backyard carnival party. The Hawaiian luau party. The scavenger hunt. The improvisational film-making event.

Some flew; some flopped (well, they sputtered anyway -- having a good group of friends over makes it hard to flop a party altogether).

But tonight we trek into new territory. Our youngest is all about mysteries, specifically Nancy Drew computer game mysteries. And it occurred to us that the group of friends she was inviting (her class) consisted of three boys and three girls, exactly like the characters in the board game Clue. When is that likely to happen again? So, we try a new adventure tonight: the mystery party.

Each kid was assigned a Clue character with their invitation -- Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlet,
Professor Plum, Ms. Peacock, Mr. Green, and Mrs. White. To our delight, they seem to be getting into this. They're hunting down costumes and have been finagling all week trying to figure out who everyone's character is (I didn't instruct them to keep it a secret, but they decided to do so and are having fun with that).

We have the whole scenario laid out tonight, with secret information they receive at designated points in the evening, evidence they reveal, questions they need to ask, secrets they want to hide . . . I tell you, this was a complicated ruse to pull together. I'm just praying the mystery works out in the end; my first attempt at something like this, you know.

Last night, we were all about the food. Kiddo wants to have "elegant" looking food, as if this were a fancy affair. But then, we are feeding a bunch of teenagers. So, we have a freezer full of appetizers (mini quiches, potstickers, mini quesadillas, shrimp -- ooh, probably should pick up some cocktail sauce today -- bacon-wrapped scallops, friend mac-n-cheese squares) . . . we'll come up with some fancy French names for it all and set them out on the china in the Formal Dining Room. Cocktails when they arrive (Coke, Sprite, and juice in wine glasses offered on a silver tray). Desserts in the Courtyard toward the end of the evening (mini cheesecake bites, mini cream puffs, and strawberries with chocolate for dipping).

Yeah, we surely have far too much food. I expect to be eating this junk for the next week. But then, they're teenagers. You never know.

And once the mystery is solved and the culprit revealed, they'll play a rousing round of the Clue DVD game . . . and finish up with the Nancy Drew movie if there's time. This party screams my daughter's name, and they'll all know that.

But they will have fun just because they are fun kids and they genuinely enjoy each other's company. What a blessing this class is.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

My Nook

I got a Nook for Mother's Day. I'm still deciding what I think of it.

Don't get me wrong: I wanted a Nook -- or a Kindle, something of the sort. As I'm planning for my world literature class I'm teaching this fall, I realized how many books my students are going to need to purchase, and I started wondering if it made more sense to have them invest in one of these devices (which they could use throughout high school and beyond) and carry it back and forth to school each day instead of a book. Save money and prevent back strain. Still exploring that possibility.

But I mean, in general, I'm still deciding what I think of my Nook. I like that's it's small and light. This would be such a JOY to take on trips versus the pile of heavy books I usually carry in my suitcase (because yes, I take books on most trips -- if nothing else, I'm going to need to read at night to go to sleep). I like that I can highlight things and make notes about them and then erase those notes if need be later without leaving a mark of any kind.

What do I not like? It's not a book.

As I was searching the online store for books I could buy and read on my new toy, I found myself hesitating on many because I thought, No, that's one I want a hard copy of to put on my shelf. It seems like any book I love, I want in paper in my hand. C.S. Lewis? I want that in paper in my hand. I want the pretty cover and the spine showing on my bookshelf . . . not an icon on an electronic device.

Plus, just browsing the selections at the Nook store, I was a little disappointed at the prices. Yes, there were quite a few bargains, and some free books, also -- especially among the classics, which I would be inclined to buy. But a lot of current books cost $17 or so, which is sometimes pretty costly even in a hard copy. I can't imagine why a book needs to cost that much without the actual printing costs involved.

I blogged about a year ago about getting a smart phone and how I realized immediately that this was going to change my life. And Lord knows, it has -- some for the better, some maybe not. One of the first things I was excited about was that I could keep my to-do lists on the phone, and yes, that has been awesome. But the thing is, I still have days when I find I need to make a written list. I need to put a pen in my hand and a scrap of paper on the table and write down what I need to get done that day . . . group things by category . . . order them by priority . . . and I need to do it by hand. I need to cross each item off by hand. I can't explain exactly why. But it makes everything feel better, some days.

That's what I suspect I will find about my Nook. I think this will be a great thing for school, a great thing for travel, a great thing for my practical reading needs. But reading is not all about practicality for me. And when reading is about comfort, I think I'm still going to need a real, honest-to-goodness book.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Book Review: And Now For Something Completely Different

The book of Hebrews is a challenging portion of the Bible, heavy on Old Testament references to the Jewish law system that most modern Christians are pretty ignorant of. To read it and understand it requires knowledge of that system – or a guide to fill you in on the details. Matthew Martin's And Now For Something Completely Different strives to be that guide.
The author thoroughly dissects the book of Hebrews verse by verse, explaining in great detail the ideas in each as well as its place in the overall argument the book is making about the superiority of the New Covenant to the Old. Martin seems to have extensive knowledge in this area and offers a good number of helpful insights. The chapter titles alone gave me a good overall picture of the organization and argument being made in the biblical book.
However, on a more “micro” level, I didn't find Martin's guide that useful for me . . . although I think that's my fault and not Martin's. His intention seems to be that someone struggling with a particular section of, say, chapter four can turn to that part in the guide and get help in their understanding. And it probably serves that purpose well. To someone like me, on the other hand, who is just reading straight through to get an overall view of the entire biblical book, he often seems to be saying the same thing over and over. (My husband remarked that he had the same experience reading through his study Bible with all the notes; it's not really meant to be read that way.) Personally, I think I would have benefitted from a more general discussion of each chapter's main points, followed by the detailed analysis of each verse if I wanted to dig deeper or had a more specific question.
Martin also uses the King James Version of the Bible, which I find very difficult to understand in Hebrews. Few Christian writers use the KJV exclusively anymore other than the minority group who hold to the belief that it is the only accurate English translation we have – so I am led to assume that Martin is one of that crowd. That being the case, I was surprised then to find places in his analysis where he offered what he thought would be a better translation of a certain word or phrase.
My biggest beef with the book, however, came before I even started chapter one. Martin ends his introduction saying, “This book is written only for the benefit of any who wish to read another's opinions (grammatical errors included) and reflections on this marvelous work of inspiration.” Grammatical errors included? He's not kidding about that. Angel is sometimes spelled angel and sometimes angle. Altar and alter are interchangeable, no matter which meaning is intended. Weird spacing errors . . . random capitalizations of words (with no consistency throughout even the paragraph that contains them) . . . blatant misspellings that a spellcheck would have found (beng?) . . . various wording errors that would have been easily caught by a close reading of the text. For an English teacher and self-proclaimed grammar diva, it was very distracting. Not that I'm a total snob – I could appreciate the points he was making even with the errors (which is apparently what he asked me to do there at the end of the introduction). But it is easy to get the impression that there wasn't a lot of care put into getting things right -- which is not the impression one wants to give of a scholarly work. I found myself searching for a biography of the author to determine whether he had the credentials to justify his claims on the biblical text (such a biography is not included, by the way – I'm left to simply trust that this guy knows what he's talking about).

In the end, I felt this was a work with good intentions, a work with good potential, but a work in search of a good editor. If you are not troubled by editorial needs and are looking for a new analysis of the book of Hebrews, you can find this one right here.

Disclosure:  I received this book free from the publisher through in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Giving Up on The Writing Process?

Because I'm going to be teaching in a classroom again this fall, I've been trying to solidify the lessons I've learned over my homeschooling years about learning and teaching and writing and so forth so I can use those lessons. And since writing is a way of thinking, I'm going to use this post today for that purpose.

See, one of the sacred cows of the English-teaching profession is The Writing Process. It's a primary objective on every list of objectives for every English class in the country (I'm sure) that the students understand and use The Writing Process when they write: pre-writing, roughdraft, revision, editing and proofreading, publishing . . . or some variation of that. Everyone knows that's how good writers write. There are scads of quotes out there from good writers telling us so.

Only, I'm not so sure now.

When I started homeschooling, I had a friend at church at the time who was a professional writer, and an excellent writer, and I asked him if sometime I might be able to have my daughter talk to him about the importance of The Writing Process . . . you know, revision and stuff. He listened thoughtfully and said, "Well, I'd be happy to do that, but the truth is, I don't really revise when I write." That stymied me. What do you mean, you don't revise? ALL good writers revise, right? Well, no, not this good writer. He doesn't even pre-write or plan too much either . . . he just writes.

Now, through later conversations and through working with him on various projects, I realized that, essentially, he does pre-write and revise; he just does it all in his head. You know: if you're asked to write a paragraph on your history exam explaining the causes of the civil war, you may not need to make an outline or notes or anything -- you plan it all in your head. And you don't have time to go back and revise -- you "revise" as you write. That's what he does. He's just good enough that he can do it with much bigger chunks of writing. Like, book-size chunks.

I would have been tempted to say that he's just a freak of nature, some natural-born writing savant that defies all conventions. But the thing is, my eldest daughter seems to be the same way. She hates to "plan out" her essays for school. She just confided to me that when they wrote research papers her junior year, she didn't do any of the notecards and outlines and everything they were required to do because it was just making her crazy. And she doesn't revise much once she's got it written down, either. And yet, her writing is good. The lowest score she got on a paper in her AP English class last semester was an 85 -- and that was only because the website she had to turn it in on erased her underlining and indentions and such. I might be able to make a case to her that her writing would be even better if she employed The Writing Process as prescribed, but the thing is, employing The Writing Process would make her hate writing.

So, is it better to write well, or to write with pleasure? Of course, the preference would be to do both, if I can figure out how to teach that.

Let me shift gears a bit to teaching vocabulary. I've understood for quite a while that there are levels to our vocabulary knowledge. There's our "vague sense" vocabulary, where we have a vague sense of what a word means when we read it or hear it. Putrid . . . that's something bad, I know that. There's our passive vocabulary, which are the words we don't normally think of, but we know what they mean when we see them -- we can pick them out of a thesaurus as the word we need. Repulsive, rancid . . . putrid! That's the word I want! Then there's our active vocabulary, the words that immediately come to our mind when the situation calls for them. Sniff . . . ew! What is this putrid-ness in my kitchen?!?

When a word reaches the level of our active vocabulary, it changes the way we think. And so does learning the skills of good writing. It appears that writers like my friend and my daughter have taken those writing skills we teach people to do in the stages of pre-writing and revision and they've internalized them -- they've become a part of the way they process the information in the first place. Requiring them to go through the steps of The Writing Process like I do will only make the act of writing an artificial, dreadful, despised thing for them.

Instead of being taught to go back to a roughdraft to improve the sentence fluency of her writing, my daughter needed to be taught the principles of sentence fluency so well that it changed the way she thought in sentences, so it changed the way the sentences came out of her head in the first place.

Can I teach other students like her to write that way? Probably. Can I convince parents and other teachers that I'm teaching well when I teach that way? I hope so.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Why Should I Bother to Pray?

Last night was the final night of BSF for the year, and we spent the evening sharing what God has done in our lives through this year's study. I shared, but I felt like I did a lousy job of explaining myself. I hate it when I do that.

You see, for some reason, I've struggled this year with the idea of prayer -- of why it's necessary that we ask God for things. I mean, He's going to do what He's going to do, right? He's wiser than we are, much more knowledgeable, and I can trust Him to do the best thing for me and everyone I'm praying for. In fact, some of the stuff I may ask Him to do may be terrible ideas . . . so why should I ask? Those "unanswered" prayers that were probably blessings in disguise also tend to make me feel like He's not there listening sometimes . . . so I'm tempted to not ask at all.

So, yeah, I've struggled with that this year. But as we studied Matthew in BSF, I noticed something important.

Jesus prayed. A lot.

He would steal away from the crowds and spend all night in prayer sometimes, especially before an important event like the selecting of His disciples. Good heavens, if the man who was God Himself in the flesh needed to communicate with the Father . . . well, I don't quite understand the dynamics of that, but I don't need to understand the dynamics to understand that I surely have more need to pray than He does.

He not only asked God for things, He specifically instructed us to ask God for things -- and to ask with persistence and importunity (a word I've been reading in the works of some older authors and had to look up) and with the expectation of a positive answer.

So, I decided at some point that it doesn't really matter if I understand the mechanics of this praying business. Jesus told me to bring my requests to God, and so there must be a good reason why I need to do that. So I kept praying . . . and I kept asking for the faith to continue to pray and, if He would be gracious enough to give it to me, the understanding of why. And behold, my God is gracious -- I think I have an inkling of why today.

For some reason, God made the decision to do His work on earth through the Church -- not the institution, but the individual believers. We are His body, He taught us. We are His hands and feet in the world. He could very easily feed the poor by zapping food-bearing plants in the ground at their feet, but He usually chooses instead to feed them through our giving of our excess. He could easily touch the cancer cells in a diseased body and make them disappear, but He usually chooses instead to heal them through the hands of a doctor. He could wrap up the lonely in His own spiritual comfort, but He usually chooses instead to send a friend to wrap their arms around them.

It seems an inefficient way to get His work done, relying on unreliable human beings who are prone to selfishness and sin. But only if you think that His ultimate goal is to get His work done. I don't think it is. His ultimate goal is to restore relationship between us and Him -- genuine, reality-based, intimate relationship that lasts for eternity.

When my daughters were tiny ones, I could prepare dinner for my family much more efficiently without their assistance, but I brought them into the kitchen to help sometimes -- partly to teach them the skills to do it themselves someday, but also to spend the time with them. To develop our relationship. Working together in this way tied strings around our hearts that bonded us together.

If God just gave me good things without my ever coming to Him to ask for them, I would probably never really connect those good things with Him (let's be honest, that already happens, doesn't it?). When I come to Him with my requests, I'm reminded that He is the source of all good things . . . I'm reminded of my smallness and His greatness . . . I'm reminded of how much God loves me and stirred to love Him all the more . . . I'm brought back to the relationship between us . . . and that relationship is far more important to God than the giving to me of good things, because earthly good things will pass away, but my relationship with Him is forever.

So, there -- that's what I wanted to say at BSF last night. Thanks for listening. :)