Archive for the ‘literacy’ Category


I Never Go Anywhere Without A Book Or Two Or Three Or Four Or More

May 31, 2010

A book is like a garden carried in a pocket. • Chinese proverb

Many persons read and like fiction.  It does not tax the intelligence and the intelligence of most of us can so ill afford taxation that we rightly welcome any reading matter which avoids this. • Rose Macaulay 
(Or perhaps, Rose, some of us are taxing our intelligence so much that we need to levy some amusement.)

Warning: Touching story of self-sacrifice opens this post. Our son, who just recently bought an iPad, loaned my husband and I this delight for our train trip. What can you say about a son like that? Of course, we already knew he was wonderful, but this confirmed that he’s thoughtful too. I’ve already played with it enough to know that I want one. Unfortunately, only one of us at a time can use it to read the books available on it. We’re schlepping paperbooks aboard too.

I am tired. Our cross-country voyage begins today and ends on Thursday. Of course, I’ll be reading. I’ll be reading my summer syllabi and making sure I have the schedules planned for my classes. I’ll be reading my conference presentation materials and making sure I know what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it. I’ll be reading some of the things I haven’t had a chance to work on yet and writing reports to finish up the quarter. I’ll be reading for inspiration so I can write along the way.

I won’t be reading papers. I finished that yesterday. All I have left is final essays and they’re not due until later this week.

The author Gilbert Keith (usually known as G.K., even by those who weren’t his pals) said that there is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and a tired man who wants a book to read.  Ditto for women.

I’ll also be reading junk. Stuff that’s the mental equivalent of cotton candy. It will taste good going in, but if I take the 300 pages or so and compress the wisdom, there won’t be much left. And that’s okay. So much of your life if you’re a teacher or student is consumed by reading the haftas. For me, many of the haftas are pleasurable, but sometimes, my brain needs a break. I’m looking forward to reading something that won’t stimulate a thousand thoughts. Two or three are all I want to deal with.

When my husband and I travel with books, we choose ones that we both want to read and when we finish with them, we leave them along the way for others to find and enjoy. A Post-It® gift message keeps our leavings out of the lost and found. This sprinkling the country with books is also one of the reasons I don’t travel with my favorites or with the non-fiction that is my particular addiction. I don’t want to have to carry it across the country and back.

I hope that required reading hasn’t dampened your enthusiasm for the joys of relaxing with an entertaining book. If you don’t usually read for fun, give it a try. Visit a bookstore and look in places you wouldn’t usually check for reading. Look for titles that are enticing. Summer is coming. Read.

If you’re going to read purely for fun, what kind(s) of reading do you choose? (Note: In an extremely informal survey of English teachers, many of them like books featuring serial killers, real and imaginary. It’s up to you to decide what this might mean.)

I’ve never known any trouble that an hour’s reading didn’t assuage. • Charles de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu, Pensées Diverses


Twelve Things to Remember

February 22, 2010

The wisdom of the wise and the experience of the ages are perpetuated by quotations.
• Benjamin Disraeli

I love books of quotations. I know that it’s possible to Google® quotations about just about anything, but the problem with such searches is that they limit the serendipity of discovery. I like hunting through quotation books for the same reason I enjoy searching the shelves in bookstores and libraries. I never know what I’ll find.

If you’re looking for something specific, the internet and Google® searches are extremely helpful, but if you’re just on the prowl for general inspiration and ideas—something to prime the pump of thought—books of quotations on a broad range of topics can be extremely helpful.

They also help me feel less alone. They help me realize the commonality—and differences—of human experience. They encourage me to formulate my own thoughts about things that matter. This weekend I bought The All-American Quote Book by Michael Reagan and Bob Phillips (1995) at a thrift store. This paperback promises on its cover to provide “a wealth of wit and wisdom” (and it only cost fifty cents). As I paged through it this morning, I found Marshall Field’s* “Twelve Things to Remember” (p. 65):

1. The value of time.
2. The success of perseverance.
3. The pleasure of working.
4. The dignity of simplicity
5. The worth of character.
6. The power of kindness.
7. The influence of example
8. The obligation of duty.
9. The wisdom of economy
10. The virtue of patience.
11. The improvement of talent.
12. The joy of origination.

As I read Field’s twelve things, I began to try to formulate my own. This is not as easy as it might seem and it’s a useful braindance. At first, I stymied myself as I tried to come up with a dozen most important things, but then I realized that things to remember could be an endless list. Here’s the start of mine:

1. That people are different.
2. That creativity is evidenced in many different ways.
3. That people need your smile.
4. That little things matter.
5. That you should sometimes speak up.
6. That you should sometimes stay silent.
7. That life happens whether you’re an optimist or pessimist.
8. That optimism is more fun.
9. That people need to have fun, laugh, and be playful.
10. That kindness is a deliberate choice—patience too.
11. That money helps, but it is only a tool.
12. That quality is a choice.

I could go on. I could change my mind. I could. But I won’t. I’ll post this list and revisit it sometime to see what I’d add or delete. Meanwhile, it’s back to the book and the hunt for inspiration so I can write my way into another day.

What twelve things would begin your list of things to remember? (This is also a great dinner table or study group conversation starter.)

There are thousands of thoughts lying within a man [women too] that he does not know till he takes up the pen and writes.
• William Makepeace Thackeray

* Field (1834-1906) was the founder of Marshall Field and Company, a Chicago-based department store eventually acquired by Macy’s. I remember shopping at Marshall Field’s in Chicago with my mother. Even a person’s name can evoke many memories.


You Must Stay Drunk on Writing so Reality Cannot Destroy You *

February 18, 2010

It seems to me that those songs that have been any good, I have nothing much to do with the writing of them. The words have just crawled down my sleeve and come out on the page.
• Joan Baez

I love words. I struggle with words. I wait for words. I long for words. Sometimes I look for them and wonder if they will ever come to me again. Other times, they flow from some unknown place, appearing so quickly I can scarcely capture them.

Words were medicine; they were magic and invisible. They came from nothing into sound and meaning. They were beyond price; they could neither be bought nor sold.
• Navarre Scott Momaday

Words are a slavery that I love and hate. A passion and a prison. Sanity and insanity. Words keep me company, remind me that I am not alone.

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
• Mark Strand (1965), “Eating Poetry,”
Reasons for Moving

Made of Words
by W-OZ, Community College Moment, Vol. 9, Spring 2009

I am maid of words
enslaved by ear and eye
imprisoned by a pen
charged with
dusting off
and neatly, in some proper order,
sentenced to a-line-ing
hidden in my palm
struggling down my fingers
cuffing my wrist
remember remember
they plead
plump my pockets
captured on cards
locked away on napkins and
movie stubs and
cash register receipts and
the inside of a small cardboard box that once held spearmint gum.


There’s no escape.

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music the words make.
• Truman Capote in
McCall’s Magazine, November 1967

What would you, could you, should you, do you write about?

I write about a world that should exist, but doesn’t except in the reality of my words.
• Ayn O’Hara Neimous

* Title quotation provided by Ray Bradbury.


His Study Was a Total Mess, Like the Results of an Explosion in a Public Library*

February 11, 2010

Books overtake me. They are piled everywhere, stacked to reveal my current interests and my ongoing passions. The staircase in our house is narrowed by the books that line the wall since stairs are a handy place to keep categorized stacks of books that can also be used to display things like majorette boots, rubber alligators, and old toys and games.

While it’s true that books can be expensive, especially textbooks, you can also acquire a personal library quite cheaply by thrift shopping, garage sale-ing, and shopping the bargain shelves at bookstores. One of my favorite recent acquisitions cost less than a latte: Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman’s (2006), A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. I love this book, subtitled, “How crammed closets cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place.”

Did I say I love this book? I do. Probably because my multiple obsessions leave me in interesting messes. Plus, it’s always comforting to find even the most tenuous support for my personal pathologies. I take my comfort where I can find it, and in a world that’s currently dedicated to simplification, my complification often seems out of place. Note re: complification. Whenever I write a word that appears to be a neologism, I look it up. Despite never having used complification before, and despite the fact that it is red-lined by my computer, it IS a word and a tasty and useful one to boot. According to the Urban Dictionary at, to complify is “the act or process of making something more complicated and less simple” and “the opposite of simple.” Aha! I love complification. I live complification.

On page 145, the Mess authors note that “[O]ur personalities tend to be more clearly expressed in our disorder than in our neatness. When we are being ruthless about ridding ourselves of what naturally accumulates around us and about meticulously straightening out what remains, we are in a sense tidying our identities. The truth is, we are all at least a bit of a mess—and all the more interesting for it.”

Books and papers tend to be messy and yet, when you’re in school, a bit of a mess can be a good thing, especially if it’s organized. This might seem to be conflicting advice, so let me explain. When I was working on my dissertation, I kept a large box on the floor next to my desk. As I finished pages, I tossed the notes I’d used and the notes I’d decided not to use into the box, along with a hard copy of each page.

When I lost an entire chapter to a weird computer glitch (I’m sure this has never happened to anyone else, right?), I was able to recreate it easily. I ended up with several boxes full of materials that I’ve used multiple times since, especially the stuff that didn’t end up in my writing. This is also handy advice when you’re a student. Don’t get rid of things. Keep hard copy of all your work. Organize the whole mess somehow so you’ll be able to access things later. Yes, it’s much neater to get rid of things when the quarter is over, but you never know when you might want to use something you’ve written. I often quote myself!

As for textbooks, don’t wait until class begins to find out what text you need. There are too many ways to save money on them, so relieve some stress by starting early. Also, always check the school library to see it there’s a copy of the text on reserve; if there isn’t, ask the teacher if s/he can do this. You can also check to see if the library has the book on its shelves. This was always my strategy in English classes—I didn’t buy Moby Dick, for example; I checked him out of the public library, but the great white whale was also available at school.

Several times, I shared expensive texts with someone in a different section of the same class. Please note that anyone with whom you share a text must be trustworthy and reliable, and that this sharing functions best if you study together, especially for tests, and work out a schedule ahead of time for solo book time that’s agreeable for both of you.

Anatole Broyard, literary critic for The New York Times (and a fascinating man—Google® him sometime), wrote that “[r]eading a book is only the beginning, the first step in the relationship. After you’ve finished it, the book enters on its real career. It stands there as a badge, a blackmailer, a monument, a scar. It’s both a flaw in the room, like a crack in the plaster, and a decoration. The contents of someone’s bookcase are part of his [or her] history, like an ancestral portrait.”

I have many bookshelves filled with books, but there are several shelves in my bedroom and studio that hold my favorite books, the ones I return to again and again. L. Frank Baum’s The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913) is there. Maxine Greene’s (1995) Releasing the Imagination is there. Several books by Alfie Kohn and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly are on the shelves. So are Twyla Tharpe’s (2003) The Creative Habit and Kenneth W. Thomas’s (2000) Intrinsic Motivation at Work. These shelves are stuffed with words that resonate with me, and that’s why A Perfect Mess is joining the ranks.

Do you need to cultivate reading interests or do you already have them? What does your bookshelf hold and what portrait does it paint of your interests?

Personality is partially an extension of the personal bibliography that every mature adult carries within. The books which we have read provide the most challenging windows into the precious privacy that remains as a steady and sustaining quiet, a centering identity, within all of us.
• Kevin Starr

* Thanks to Douglas Adams for the title quotation.


I Think It Is Good that Books Still Exist, but They Make Me Sleepy *

February 10, 2010

When I was in elementary school, I dreaded reading time. I’d learned to read early, first figuring out the connection between words in print and sounds I heard when I heard Campbell soup’s “mmm, mmm, good” on the radio at the same time I saw it on a billboard. By the time I was in school and part of reading groups slowly slogging through the illustrated pages of look-look-see-see sameness, I was bored spitless by the slow-moving ordeal.

I hid Nancy Drew behind my textbooks and got lost in her world of always escapable peril. I got in trouble for this. Books were confiscated, but were always returned. In retrospect, these teachers, none of whom ever got to know me very well because my family moved a lot, probably couldn’t bring themselves to keep a book from a child who was actually enthralled by reading.

As I got older, the library was my refuge. One of my greatest thrills was being old enough to ride my bicycle to the library and having a basket large enough to hold the books that fed my voracious appetite for reading. Now I teach a course called language and literacy for people who will soon be teaching middle and high schoolers and I’m saddened when some of them say that they hate to read, not because I think that everybody should love to read, but because I’m afraid that their attitude may influence someone who could get joy from this passion but may turn away because of words from a respected adult.

I understand that some people don’t enjoy reading, but it saddens me equally when someone discounts the value of anyone else’s passion for learning. It could be math or science that’s dismissed as “not fun.” It could be social studies that’s denigrated or art that’s deemed worthless to study. Perhaps it’s music or PE or–oh, no!–writing that’s a waste of time. Whatever.

If you’re a college student, you might be surprised to know that your attitudes toward your studies can shape the beliefs of younger siblings, of cousins, of friends’ children, of your children, of anyone younger than you who is listening and watching and wondering what life will be like once they have the endless choices they imagine are in store for them once they complete their compulsory education.

Class discussion in adolescent development this week centered on the influence of adults. When you’re still in school—even if you are choosing to be there—it’s easy to imagine that you won’t have any influence on someone else’s growth until you actually get where you’re going yourself. But I’ve just finished reading lots of stories about the influence not only of teachers and parents, but also of others not much past adolescence themselves who made a difference in the life of someone younger. Role models are found in unexpected places. Are you one?

What would someone younger than you learn about student success from watching you in school or listening to you talk about it?

Don’t worry that children never listen to you, worry that they are always watching you.
• Robert Fulghum

* Thanks to Frank Zappa for the title quotation.


What ARE Pirate Stools And Why Do I Need Them for My Kitchen?

January 24, 2010

The television is often on while I am working. The chatter keeps me from noticing annoying and distracting noises like the leaf blower across the street or the neighbor using a power saw. Even though I’m not paying attention, there are certain words like fart and breast that get my immediate attention. I don’t hear those often on my favorite white noise, QVC’s home shopping. The only thing I ever really watch on QVC is Jeanne Bice, hawking her Quacker Factory apparel. She fascinates me. So do her sparkly, shiny, seasonally-themed clothes, the kind that many people think that I would surely want to wear and I surely don’t.

An advertisement was on when I heard the words “pirate stools” followed by the announcer telling me how necessary they were for my kitchen. I’m pretty sure I was “watching“ the TV Guide Channel since it circles round and round while offering regular doses of paid advertisements for things I don’t need along with people who think they look like celebrities and can’t wait to have the resemblance enhanced (Note: This has always baffled me. Wouldn’t it be better to look like the best you you can instead of like Angelina Jolie or Tom Hanks or Kim Kardashian? Would it really be thrilling to have someone think you were someone else?)

Oh, and the other thing that seems to be on this channel a lot is the perpetual adolescence of Ashton Kutcher. If he is privately anything at all like his public persona, I pity Demi Moore. Punking people is mean, not funny—ha, ha, your house burned down and you’re being arrested and your dog is dead and you owe the government a quarter of a million dollars and you’ve been fired—maybe I’m just too old to get it, but then I never was a prankster. Incidentally, being in school is probably stressfull enough without getting punked; don’t be tempted to prank.

But back to those pirate stools. Who wouldn’t be curious? Are they missing a leg? Is it because all of their legs are made of wood? Are they emblazoned with gold coins and other booty? Is it because you put your booty on them? My imagination runs wild and I look up, hoping to see what this special seating looks like. And I see it, an advertisement for Pyrex tools. It says so on the screen. And then the voiceover says it again, “Pirate stools.“ I haven’t misheard. He’s not articulating. He’s slurring the words, running them together so that the Pyrex and the tools unite to create the piratestools.

I imagine that such slurring is what leads to other verbal misunderstandings and to people thinking that they’re saying the right thing when they aren’t. Certainly it makes sense when I hear someone call Alzheimer’s disease “old-timers disease“ since it afflicts older folks. It’s actually named for the German neurologist, Dr. Alois Alzheimer. And “carpool tunnel syndrome” could possibly be brought on by too much driving, but it’s still carpal tunnel syndrome because carpal means pertaining to the wrist. One of my all-time favorites is something I heard a Miss USA contestant say in 2007: “With the windshield factor, it was 50 below.“ Anyway, be sure you know what you’re talking about if you’re planning a presentation. A dry run in front of a friendly, but critical audience is a good idea.

As for me, I’m still longing for some pirate stools.

What words have you heard or seen misused?

I hate increment weather.
• Overheard at school, January 2007


When the World Becomes Standard, I Will Start Caring About Standards.*

January 23, 2010

A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides,
start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.
• Salman Rushdie

I do care about standards. I care about the standards I set for myself. I care that my students set standards for themselves. And I care that the standards each of us sets represent our attempts to produce work that is meaningful and of high quality. Although I understand the need for standardized tests, particularly in courses where it’s necessary to demonstrate knowledge of essential information, and while I also live with the reality of my own somewhat looser attempts to standardize assignments so that I will be able to complete the assessment process while also staying sane, it is always my dream that I will remain open to the possibilities of creative response and leave room for the unexpected in assignments where it is appropriate. For the learner, the ability to articulate her or his intentions in creative work is crucial and is an essential standard for non-standard work submitted to meet standards!

Another kind of standardization I cannot support is the tyranny of the majority, the idea that the majority rules. If a thousand people believe something that I do not believe, their belief does not make it true for me. There is far too much of this kind of talk from media pontificators. Listen long enough and you might believe that in a democracy, once a vote is taken, everyone, regardless of her or his  beliefs, should shut up and go along. I wrote this poem in response to such talk, framing it with quotations from Charles’ Dickens (1854) book, Hard Times. Dickens’ fears that the utilitarian values of his time could emphasize facts over imagination in education are certainly relevant today.

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will be of any service to them.
• Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, explaining his teaching methods, Charles Dickens (1854),
Hard Times

Just the Facts, M’am
Wlikins-O’Riley Zinn
West Wind Review (2006)

Show me the data.
Show me the numbers.
Show me the chart the graph the quadrangle of meaning so I’ll know
what to think what to do who I am. Why.
Show me the data.
Crunch ’em grind ’em wheedle ’em.
Churn out the facts, the truth, the real stuff.
Show me the data.
Tell me how many people hate to eat rats,
and if it’s not the majority,
why I’ll saute some for supper.
Show me the data.
Let’s see what we know about whether people like
being tied to posts in the desert while being bitten
by small furry mammals flung at them
by chanting crowds of arthritic tap dancers.
Show me the data.
It isn’t clear to me if we should consider requiring all drivers
to affix rhinestone buckles to their foreheads
to reflect the glare of oncoming headlights.
Show me the data.
I’m wondering if students would opt for being
superglued to their desks during tests
or if I should simply tie them down
with ropes braided from the hair of Venusian virgins.
Show me the data.
I’m not sure whether I’d prefer eating Spaghettios directly from the can while having my toenails pierced by ten-inch nails
or eating a quiet meal of Indonesian curry
with a few close friends and a good yet inexpensive bottle
of California chardonnay.

Show me the data so I can decide if I should
get out of bed brush my teeth eat breakfast drive my car go to work fall in love.

Show me the data.
So I can know.
Who to be.

You are to be in all things regulated and governed by Fact. We hope to have, before long, a Board of Fact, composed of Commissioners of Fact, who will force the people to be a people of Fact, and of nothing but Fact.
• Gentleman, Charles Dickens (1954)
, Hard Times

I write down quotations in the movies. Here’s one from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: “It is not our abilities that tell us who we truly are. . .it is our choices.” Choosing for yourself does not mean taking a vote among friends and family and advisors, no matter how tempting it might be to listen to other voices to find direction for your life. Having standards does not mean relying solely on outside guidelines to determine if your work is of high quality. The world is not standard. It never will be. The standards we set for ourselves are the standards that matter.

What standards have you set for yourself? What standards have you set for your work?

We should be seeking diversity, not proficient mediocrity.
• Donald M. Murray

* Rasmus Ledort