Posts Tagged ‘Education’

Discouraged and Disjointed

May 9, 2012 15 comments

maths (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

While I was on Facebook this morning, I read a short conversation that took place yesterday between two of my closer friends; one from years past and close to my heart, the other newly formed and also close enough to hear my heartbeat.

What struck me as interesting was the subject of their discussion. They talked about poetry. Not just any poetry, but about well-known Sufi poets, both those of many decades or more past, as well as those of more contemporary times.

That subject isn’t one you can find lying around the average library when seeking good reading material. It struck me as relevant, too, that my older friend hasn’t been reading from these poets for very long. He’d discovered them after taking a recommendation from a newer acquaintance. An early morning discussion of Sufi philosophy isn’t usual FB fare, but it happens sometimes between educated people.

I realize that this doesn’t seem significant to the average reader. What makes it significant is that it came on the heels of a report I read this past week on the Illiteracy Reality that was released recently. The numbers on that report would make anyone stand up and protest or sit down in total discouragement.

According to the latest and greatest research, the current number of American adults, classified as functionally illiterate increases by 2.25 million each year.

Stop and think about that for just one second. It equates to having an equivalent population to the city of St. Louis joining the ranks of those who’re reading below a 5th grade level. The number of people who are able to do routine math is even more dismal.

Here’s another factoid for you. When I worked corporate, albeit many years ago for one of the Fortune 500, I was asked to simplify my internal memos. Why? Because, my informant replied, the language structure accepted by upper echelon never exceeds 8th grade reading level. Everyone else, used 5th grade level to communicate.

I was stunned, to say the least. I suppose it comes from jargon needs. Jargon? Oh yeah. Every industry as its own jargon/language. Even fast food joints. This verbal shorthand makes communicating between employees faster, easier, and less likely to confuse the employees.

My question is this: if top level executives at some of the largest corporations in the world need to have internal memos at such a low level of reading competency, can we expect our school children to perform any better?

For long years now, a controversy has been slowly gaining momentum regarding the dumbing down of our school children and our overall population. Here are some numbers that were in this recent report. Once you’ve read them, think about the impact of those numbers on the future. Then go back to the top of this post and think about that conversation between my two friends.

The report cited these numbers:

  • 42 million Americans can’t read at all
  • 50 million read below the 5th grade level
  • 20% of graduating HS seniors are classified as illiterate
  • Only 42% of Americans can order two items on a menu, add them up, and calculate the tip
  • Only 1 in 5 can calculate mortgage interest
  • 1 in 5 can’t calculate weekly salary when given an hourly pay rate
  • Only 13% are “proficient” in math: 1 in 10 women, 1 in 25 Hispanics, 1 in 15 African Americans made the grade
  • 20 million Americans pay someone else to fill out a 1040EZ tax form w/10 blanks to fill in
  • US is ranked 25th in the world of industrialized nations in Math, while US students believe their scores are the highest in the world.
  • One half of all 17 yr. olds don’t have the math skills to work in an auto plant

If these numbers are a mere 50% accurate, we’re worse off than anticipated, dreamt, or feared. I suppose that’s why I had such a strong reaction to reading the FB discussion yesterday. Below, you’ll find the links to find the raw numbers that produced the report I found. Try them on for yourself.

If you come to different conclusions, please bring them here and air them out. I’d like to think that this isn’t true.



Related articles

Whether Right or Wrong—Write

March 2, 2012 8 comments

Tension abducts the shoulders and arms. Fingers twitch ever so slightly as they rest on the keyboard. Eyes see only a blank desert before them, boding ill for any who traverse that lonely stretch of white.

Why is it that beginning a piece of writing looms, as guillotine over neck, waiting for the blade to drop? How can a simple exercise of putting words to paper or computer exact such a toll? Writers have debated the issue for years, probably centuries, and definitive answers remain elusive.

Having suffered from this debility a time or two—okay, read that as every day—I can only suggest my personal reasons for suffering and the relief measures I take to combat those reasons.

10 Reasons for Avoiding the Keyboard

  1. No one is interested in anything I have to say.
  2. What I have to say has no value.
  3. What’s the point of putting myself out there?
  4. I don’t have the talent that it takes to make it as a writer.
  5. This dream is a waste of time I could be using elsewhere.
  6. I’ll never gain approval from anyone for writing, so why do it?
  7. Getting something published takes too much time.
  8. I have too many other things to do with my time than sit here pretending to be a writer.
  9. So I have a story idea. It will never sell.
  10.  Only my friends ever read my stuff. I’m going out and enjoy the sunshine instead of being cooped up in here writing drivel.

Did any of these sound familiar? I’d bet that you’ve experienced at least five of these in the past three months.

Doubt is a normal human response to anything that exposes us to criticism. After all, no one likes being criticized for anything. Avoidance is the common remedy for dealing with criticism. If a venture is never begun, never made available for others to see, no one has an opportunity to criticize you for anything.

Taking Charge of Self-Doubt and Fear

Children are taught both self-doubt and fear of disapproval when they’re seldom praised for their efforts. Adults who’ve lived without much praise for good performance, good effort, etc. constantly seek out the missing approval. That, too, is a normal human motivation.

This constant seeking of approval can lead down a road to success or continued failure. The signpost for the direction taken, I think, is the one that reads “YOU’RE HERE—FEAR”

If fear is allowed to control you’re actions, it controls your life and your freedom. Whether you become agoraphobic or not doesn’t matter. You’re still hiding inside a locked room—the one you’ve made for yourself and your aspirations.

I created a motto for myself today and shared it with another writer this morning. It is: “If you never begin, you never arrive.”

Will the world end if your story isn’t equal to one belonging to Dickens, Heinlein, King, or Hemingway? If your poem isn’t of the same caliber as Tennyson, Whitman, Browning, or Frost, will people pound on your door, demanding that you cease writing immediately?

Of course not!

My Relief Measures

Over the past three plus years I’ve developed a few relief measures that get me writing whether I believe I’m a “real” writer or not. Try on a few of them. See if they work for you. If not, take a likely candidate and modify it for your own circumstance.

Remember: “Fear is the little mind killer, I shall not FEAR.” (Paraphrased from Paul Atreides of Frank Herbert’s “Dune”)

  1. Think of writing poetry as immersing yourself in a memory. Writing it will capture that memory in a way nothing else can.
  2. Write that children’s story or article for your niece/nephew. They’ll first love it because you wrote it. If they keep asking for it to be read, you’ll know it’s good. (“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” began this way.)
  3. Write back cover blurbs for the story or book that keeps running through your mind, the story that haunts you but you’re terrified is too “out-there.”
  4. Do some brainstorming with a friend who has an active imagination. Keep throwing out ideas until you feel comfortable with a storyline and then transfer your notes to the computer. You’ve just begun your writing process.
  5. Take the time to sit and think about whatever project is waiting for you. Life tends to get frantic at times, forcing the writer to feel as if her particular house of cards is ready to collapse with every breath. Slow down and think for a while. Unless critical deadlines are set regarding the project, you have the time to ponder your approach, your intent, and your criteria. Use it wisely.
  6. Finally, take workshops when available and affordable. Take online courses in that area of writing that you prefer. Many are excellent university courses and they are free. You’ll work your keyboard into the desktop, but it will be worth every moment. You’ll come out of the experience with renewed confidence and drive.

There you have it; doubt and fear, each on a half shell. Neither half shell can work without the other being present. The writer can arm herself with the knowledge and practice to defeat both of these naysayers. Good luck and happy writing.

Turning Points–Then and Now

February 12, 2012 Leave a comment

To all intents and purposes I never belonged where I began. Not as a full-time adult, I mean. I learned more than I can remember about too many things to count while growing up. I’ve used that learning numerous times as well. I enjoyed the wave-like movement of all that education and wish that I could recall it all clearly.

But, I never really fit that mold. I was the one who loved classical music and opera. Somehow, I was the one who introduced me to it. I was the one who taught myself about ballet and other dance forms and watched it whenever I could. I also read Shakespeare and Tennyson in upper elementary and middle school when others my age were devouring Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. I never heard of those books until I was an adult.

I didn’t see anything by C.S. Lewis until in my late 30’s. All I had was adult reading material, and I learned to suck it in like a vacuum.

My family listened to early Country music much of the time that I didn’t tolerate very well. None of them could tolerate my preferences either. We accommodated the differences.

We attended great auctions back then. They were better and cheaper than going to the Drive-In theatre. Dad didn’t have to spend more than a few bucks for a hot dog and drink for each of us, and we could spend an entire evening watching people go frantic with bidding paddles and someone else’s junk. Learning how the operation worked was an education in itself. I especially learned to watch the auctioneers.

We all loved going to them.

One dat, when I was in eighth grade, my dad went to an auction without the rest of us. He returned with many things, plus a box specifically for me.

Inside it were books. The box was filled with books. The pièce de résistance nearly floored me. Nestled among the novels by Faulkner and Updike and English books, to the side of those volumes on history, was a complete set of Shakespeare bound in moss green fabric and gilt lettering (pub. England, 1863), including his sonnets and other poetry.

I knew I’d died and ascended to Heaven without realizing it. That’s when I saw the tiny tomes. Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Thoreau, etc. (pub. NY 1909 approx.,) each bound in exquisite jacquard fabric, small enough to fit inside a pocket, huddled behind Shakespeare like so many children behind their mother’s apron.

That one act of consideration on Dad’s part sealed my fate. I was a classicist and would never truly fit into my birth family completely. I would always love them and honor them, but never be one of them. I’d been set free with that box of books and the knowledge that my father had unwittingly given me the ticket on the train to a literary career somewhere in my future.

Looking back on that moment, I can relax now. I understand that the family that I love doesn’t have to understand why I do what I do, or even how I do it. It’s enough to know that they acknowledge that that’s who I am and that they accept the fact that I can’t be anything else.

Dumbing Down

December 17, 2009 Leave a comment

This week a few of my friends have been having a discussion. It started innocuously enough. “What have you learned this year?”

It didn’t take long to segue into a discussion of reading levels, reading skills, word power, and has “the system” been dumbing down the youth of our society in recent decades. If you ask some of the older, former teachers that have gone into writing, you will see this discussion frequently.

One such former teacher indicated that she’s appalled at the level to which some books are pitched today as Middle Grade and would have been second, third, or at most fourth grade level material when she was in school. I have to say, I agree with her.

In point of fact, I got my hands on a copy of an 8th grade final exam from 1895.  It’s been going around the web for over a decade to elucidate this very point. It begs the reader to take the test and see if he/she can pass it. This was an exam which determined those who would go on to high school and those who didn’t.

Having said that, I must remind everyone that during that period in our history and well into the late 1920’s, a high school diploma qualified an individual to teach K thru 12. They went on to teach the generation that fought WWII and the Korean War. Some even taught through the fifties and into the 60’s. The expectations of an education were different then and with different reasoning.

My little brother had a teacher, whom he loved, who began her teaching career at the ripe old age of 16, in a one room schoolhouse in the country. We lived, as she had, in the rural midwest. She was in her 40’s by the time he had her during the late fifties. She was training kids to the very best of her ability through the sixties and retired as a model educator. Her flare for teaching brought out the very best in her students and her expectations were very high.

But then the expectations and standards were very high for all of us in that school system at that time. By third grade we were building detailed early American historical-based dioramas to authenticate our social studies work. Fourth grade had us learning public speaking and performance each week. That went along with creative writing, singing, dance and art. Our Fridays were very lively at Jones Elementary.

Fifth grade I took at a rural school where K-12 occupied the same building.  We did 10 page research papers. My class was studying the ancient Middle East-Asia Minor then. We had to write on one  culture assigned to us and how and why it functioned the way it did. I drew Syria as my subject and chose to write on the trade routes coming into the Damascus markets and how the trade influenced the living conditions of the people of the city.  I remember because I loved the subject and did well on that first research  paper.

Also, we had guest speakers that came in for advanced subjects such as the Earth’s electromagnetic field and how the whole world of magnetism worked. That was for science class.  Fifth grade health, for both boys and girls was when we all learned how human sexual development came into play, what to expect, what not to “catch”, and how to handle the subject when it came up. I guess they figured since most of us were farm kids and saw stock breeding all the time anyway with the resultant birthing processes, we might as well get to know our own bodies and how they functioned.

Sixth grade was treated as Middle school at that facility, so it was multiple classrooms, lockers, etc. like it is now. Curriculum expectations continued with US History, State history, advanced math, etc. The highlight of seventh grade for me was being asked to the Freshmen Prom. [Dad didn’t feel I was old enough for that.] Eighth grade moved me back to the former school system.

That eighth-grade year all girls and boys were required to take both Home Economics so that we could “do” for ourselves later in life, and shop so that we could take care of those little crises that happen around the house. Each student  had one semester of each subject.

High school allowed us to differentiate somewhat, though expectations of performance was still in place. But here, the culture dictated somewhat as well. Unless a girl intended to go into the sciences like nursing  in college, she was discouraged and sometimes prevented from taking most of the higher sciences except for math. Which is why I didn’t get to take physics or chemistry. I still managed to cram in two majors, two minors, and a full-time job the last two years of school. As I’ve said before, it was a classic education and I loved it. Really disliked Dickens, though. Never could  feel any warm fuzzies for his works. Driver’s Ed taught us as much freeway driving as street and how to maintain a car, change a tire, the oil and check other fluids, etc. We got the whole gamut.

Our schools taught us how to live in the world once we left their halls as much as how to real, write, and do our math. It prepared us to be and function as adults. Considering that the last functional illiteracy rates I’ve seen for this country stood at just over 50%, I don’t think we’re doing a very good job of educating our generations anymore. We’ve slipped down the scale of advanced cultures below a few of the “third world” countries, even in infant mortality rates.

So where are we heading with our kids that can text faster than most people can talk aloud and drink to excess, etc.? For what did we really prepare these last couple of generations? And as writers we help educate the readers whether they know it or not. Do we as writers have a responsibility to help the reader stretch his/her ability to read as well as entertain with our stories?

Not many years after my class’s graduation, the school’s expectation levels and standards dropped until twenty years later, I didn’t recognize them. The school has many programs and opportunities that weren’t there when I went. However, the standard of performance has lessened, I think. The ranking may still be the same, but the standards of achievement have dropped.

Today I look at the children’s books being marketed. Many are beautifully written and do the industry proud. Others are a travesty, and I wonder what publisher had put them out in good conscience. MG books that read like those for 8-9 year olds stump me. YA novels that are geared to be read by 12-13 year olds drive a wedge into my heart.

I see bright, inquisitive kids whose only desire is to soak up every piece of knowledge that they can find, and they’re handed books that treat them like struggling remedial students. And yet, for the average teen, the books would have been below level. There’s nothing wrong with that. Ask any children’s writer what they read and most will say they read anything for kids, from picture books to YA novels.

It’s true. One has to research what’s in the market from the past, what’s there now, and what’s projected for the future. It’s part of the business. But also, we have to find out what level kids are reading consistently.

If you’re writing middle grade novels and using language too adult or advanced for the average MG child, the publisher will tell you to rewrite to level or to take your work and leave. If you write too low, the same thing will happen. You might also get told to study the market more completely before you submit anything again. It’s a fine-tuned balancing act of what kids are capable of and what they’re fed.

So, think about this question. Given TV programming today, educational expectations vs. school’s shrinking budgets, the reading material being made available on the stands, are we, as a society, dumbing down our population with each generation? If you look at the stats and the studies, you might be surprised.

 Now that you have the question, watch Jay Leno’s Man on the Street question sessions. See if you come to some of the same conclusions many of us have. What I shake my head at are the college educated, teachers and professionals among those answering. Have fun. Enjoy.

A bientot,