Thursday, June 30, 2016

Yes, Vocabulary Instruction

Re-print: Mazenglish, June 2013

Prior knowledge and a broad vocabulary are the keys to effective reading and English skills.  As a result, the role of vocabulary acquisition cannot be underestimated in the English classroom, from kindergarten to graduate school.  Some studies estimate that lower income children enter school with a word recognition vocabulary that can be as much as 10,000 fewer words than middle and upper income kids.  Realistically, on a usage level middle and upper income kids use know and use 3000-5000 more words than others.  And that is a huge part of the story of the achievement gap.

Now, as the Common Core approaches, and literacy moves to the top of the agenda with its added - and necessary - emphasis in the content areas like social studies, science, and the arts, the role of vocabulary instruction is of paramount importance.  A new round of studies indicate "Students Must Learn More Words" in order to be successful in school.  This is certainly not news to people like E.D. Hirsch or Dan Willingham of the Core Knowledge movement.  They know - and can support with decades of research - that "the more you know, the more you can learn."  From word walls to word games to sophisticated literary offerings, lessons designed around vocabulary acquisition are integral to a successful education and any intent to close the achievement gap.

A plethora of vocabulary instruction manuals are out there these days, but Word Nerds, a new offering from Stenhouse Publishing might be worth looking at.  Any new ideas on improving vocabulary for an increasingly dys-fluent population are to be appreciated and developed.

What Does Handwriting Say About Us?

Re-print: Mazenglish, June 2014

With the decreased emphasis on handwriting that is happening in schools as a result of the Common Core State Standards (resulting from the need/plan to assess kids online via the PARCC or SB tests), some teachers decry the lost art of handwriting. Many believe handwriting can tell us so much more than the information which is actually written down. According to graphologists, many personality traits can be identified through handwriting analysis.

Here's a great presentation from BuzzFeed of some of those theories:

Certainly, there is a cognitive development and skill associated with manual writing. And it will certainly be a loss if handwriting instruction and cursive writing goes by the way-side in the name of standardized assessments.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Pro Soccer Needs to Grow Up

I started playing soccer when I was five years old, and I played year round until college. From those early years in the 1970s, when everyone told me that by the time I was an adult soccer would be as big in America as the Big Four, I've remained a fan, though I am by no means a regular viewer. And the recent third place game in Copa America between the USA and Columbia is a perfect example of why. Here are some thoughts on that game and the game:

The USA needs to learn to shoot the damn ball. How many touches can a team need when the ball is in the box? European and South American players have always known to push once and shoot. And they've always had the touch to make that happen. For as long as I've watched pro soccer, I've been mystified and annoyed at how Americans always push once too far and lose the ball. Team USA had the ball - in stoppage time down one - in the box and could have taken a dozen shots, but never had the confidence. And USA soccer will always struggle until they learn to pop the shot.

Secondly, the world's game needs to make some definitive rule changes. First, continuous substitution is a no-brainer. A player with fresh legs is more exciting to watch. A rested player stepping on to the pitch seeks to make an immediate impact and change the tempo. The limit on subs is foolish and pointless. Secondly, re-entry for any player should be allowed - another no-brainer. And, along with that, any player who flops for any significant time - especially writhing on the ground - must come off the pitch. He can come back on five minutes later. But if he is going to make a federal case about that little scratch on his elbow or bump on his thigh, he needs to take a seat. Pro soccer players are the biggest wussies in professional sports - and that's saying something considering the corybantics of Lebron James, the biggest wuss of all. Thus, soccer refs need to start issuing yellow cards for ridiculous flopping. I'm just soooooo over the theatrical silliness of the sport.

Finally, soccer needs to get rid of the penalty for off-sides. Arghhhh! Isn't that the worst disappointment to hear the whistle at the most exciting moment of the game. Defenses need to adjust and leave a man back if necessary. If they choose not to, that's their risk. Off-sides simply slows down and stagnates a game that could be so much more engaging. Hockey has made similar changes to the OT periods. And soccer should do the same.

Love you, soccer. Let's be big boys now.

Friday, June 24, 2016

An Update on the Beautiful Sport of Sumo

When I lived in Southeast Asia in the mid 1990s, I fell in love with the ancient Japanese sport of sumo. It was a timely moment to encounter sumo, as its popularity soared in the 90s with the epic matches of two incredibly popular young stars, Japan's Takanohana and the American Samoan Akebono. Akebono was the first non-Japanese wrestler to ever achieve the title of yokozuna, or grand champion. Since those epic matches and exciting days watching two weeks of the basho, I have lost track of the sport. So, I was pleasantly surprised to run across this great bit of sports commentary on the current champions and state of the sport. Sportswriter Benjamin Morris has put together an impressive review of the sport entitled "The Sumo Match Centuries in the Making," recently published on Nate Silver's The point of the title and the focus of Morris' perspective is a championship match featuring an all-time champion Hakuho who defeated his rival Harumafiji in a one-second match by "stepping aside," which is a legal move but almost unheard of at the championship level. Morris explains how the sport came to this.

There is no bell. The match starts with a tachi-ai (initial charge), which generally happens the instant the opponents are set. Harumafuji lunged from his crouch, low, exploding toward Hakuho in an effort to take control of the bout early. Instead, he caught a quick palm to the face — and then air. His momentum carried him clear out of the other side of the ring, like he’d tried to bull-rush a ghost.
The match had lasted one second. Kisenosato scowled and walked out of the ring area. Commentators didn’t quite know what to say; one of the English announcers let out a long “hmmmmm.” The crowd booed its champion. This is not normally how a match of this scale plays out. Side-stepping an opponent’s charge is legal but considered beneath the dignity of top sumotori. The move is known derisively as a henka (変化), which translates to “change” or “changing,” while connoting the root “strange” (変). That it would be used by an all-time great in one of the most consequential matches of his career was strange indeed.

In a tear-soaked post-match interview, Hakuho appeared to express regret for the tournament ending the way it did. But he did not clarify his side-step’s strategic underpinnings, such as whether it was planned, or a response to something he saw while the wrestlers were getting set, or a reflexive reaction to Harumafuji’s charge itself. But regardless of premeditation, consider the story told on the faces of the competitors: Snatch Hakuho from his peak, shove him into your DeLorean and send him into any point in the past — including the 1790s — and he will almost certainly be a favorite to stay in the ring, on his feet, against any human or human-like god-giant that he runs into. We know this.
But considering his unprecedented domination of his competition, his broad skill set and, yes, even his controversial willingness to push boundaries in pursuit of victory, he can likely match any sumotori legend for legend as well.

In reading Morris' commentary, I was inspired to do a little digging into the sport, and I was quite pleased to discover the link to the match featured on a YouTube channel. Jason's All Sumo Channel appears to be a great place for Westerners who once had a fondness for the sport to re-connect. Here's a look at that final match with some voice-over commentary from Jason, the creator of the channel.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

A Work in Progress

As we pass the summer solstice of 2016, and I reflect on years of writing - especially my plans for writing that have yet to materialize - I realize that I am still a work in progress. "A Teacher's View" is still a work in progress. I have still not fully actualized the "life that I have imagined," and my plans to "advance confidently in the direction of my dreams" have for the most part gone unfulfilled. At certain times during the year - New Year's, Fall Break, Summer Vacation - I always make plans to "get my life in order" and become the writer and cultural critic that I've long felt is what "I really want to do when I grow up." So far that hasn't happened in the style I've envisioned. So, I continue on as a "work in progress."

Some time this summer, I hope to proceed with the publication of my first work of non-fiction, a critical analysis of Douglas Coupland's early work entitled "McJob: Business and Consumer Culture in Douglas Coupland's Early Novels." It was my master's thesis which I've developed for publication. The original goal with that piece was to lay the groundwork for a serious piece of criticism I've been researching for the past year or so. It was - and is - a collection of pieces of "Generation X" criticism entitled McLife: a Gen Xer Looks Back at Twenty-Five Years. As I've noted before, 2016 is the perfect year for that commentary because it is the quarter-century mark for three definitive pieces of Gen X culture:  Douglas Coupland's Generation X, Richard Linklater's Slacker, and Nevermind from Nirvana. Of course, I haven't finished the piece, even as 2016 quickly progresses, and I move further into middle age.

Oh, well.

Beyond that, there are so many pieces I still want to write, and so many works that I want to read or experience. Currently, I am engaged with a brilliant piece of criticism from New York Times film critic A.O. Scott - it's called Better Living Through Criticism. It both inspires me with the type of thinking and writing I want to read and produce, and it scares and depresses me with how erudite it is and how small it can sometimes make me feel. That said, I will try to focus on the inpiring parts. Scott's thoughts on art may still motivate the artist and critic that I know resides somewhere inside of me. Art ... yes, more art. And more culture. If I am a work in progress, I am hopefully progressing toward an ever-deepening knowledge and appreciation of art.

This blog will remain the record of my journey.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Supporting "The Establishment" - Conservative America's Naive Views on Government

For quite a few years now, I've listened to my older, middle-class, suburban, white neighbor rant and rave and rail against "the guv'ment." He seems to believe the United States government is a huge fascist organization out to take everyday citizens' money and freedom ... not to mention guns. We all need to restrict and limit government and scale back all public funding. My response has always been something along the lines of "You want to see what no government infrastructure looks like? Move to Somalia. You'll love it, and you can have all the guns you want. Which is good because you'll actually need them."

That same sentiment is aptlhy articulated in today's USA Today with a succinct piece of commentary from Stanford professor Keith Humphreys who writes, I Like the Establishment, and You Should Too. Humphrey shares my neighborly advice when he reminds comfortable middle class conservative suburban libertarians and Trump supporters: "They should get out more. To Iraq, for example. Or Lybia or Venezuala. Or the Central African Republic. Or indeed any nation that lacks an establishment."

None of this is to say that The Establishment has ever been completely fair-minded or unfailingly open to outsiders. For example, 100 years ago virtually every establishment figure in the USA was a white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Yet as with other changes in society, The Establishment has been very good at reforming itself in response to increasing diversity in society and attendant demands for equality, including by absorbing people of diverse religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds. It is after all The Establishment and not any self-styled revolutionary that is offering the country the first woman candidate with a good chance of becoming president. Teenagers being raised by long-married parents often chafe at the rules their elders set, the traditions they keep, the mistakes they make and the conventionality they exude. Yet if those unhappy young people have a friend who is growing up in a home in which multiple divorces have occurred and the faces and rules have changed markedly every few years, they might gain a new appreciation for the stability they have enjoyed. American revolutionaries should likewise look at the world’s unstable nations before raging at their own country’s establishment. We would all miss it terribly if it were gone.

The sad reality is that far too many Americans have little understanding of the stability and safety provided by institutions like "the government." Granted, the American bureacracy has become somewhat of a behemoth in terms of public funding, and there are many common sense ways to streamline federal and state budgets and agencies. The expansive growth of government services and interference in the private sector is certainly a drag at times. But there is much to be said for consistent electricity, sound education system, fair justice system, clean water, and relatively trustworthy roads.

And when middle class suburban Americans buy into some myth that America is failing, I am dismayed by their ignorance.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Muhammed Ali - Fierce Boxer & Lyrical Poet

The passing of Muhammed Ali - one of the greatest political, cultural, and sociological forces in American history - has generated some appropriately poetic reflections on the man and the myth. Ali is one of the earliest sports icons in my Gen X memory, and I vividly recall the fight against Leon Spinx to regain his title a third time as one of the first significant sporting moments for which I was aware. Ali was something more than just a boxer or champion or icon - he is one who truly transcended the physical realities of his prowess in the process of becoming a cultural force. And, that was a result of his intellectual character and truly brilliant wit.

As an English teacher and cultural critic, I have always appreciated the writing about Ali's lyrical mastery - "the rope-a-dope" and the "Rumble in the Jungle" - and I am still intrigued by the complexity of his personality. Two pieces in today's New York Times accurately and aptly capture and explore that depth. The first is from the intellectual cultural historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who examines and explains Muhammed Ali: the Political Poet.

But the same verse can strike one critic as doggerel and another as art, and not everyone missed the power — and the point — of Ali’s poetics. Even Ahern admitted that “the guy is a master at rhyming,” and The New Yorker editor and Ali biographer David Remnick would eulogize him as “a master of rhyming prediction and derision.” Perhaps Maya Angelou, whose own poetry is sometimes labeled doggerel, said it best: “It wasn’t only what he said and it wasn’t only how he said it; it was both of those things, and maybe there was a third thing in it, the spirit of Muhammad Ali, saying his poesies — ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’ I mean, as a poet, I like that! If he hadn’t put his name on it, I might have chosen to use that!”

The second piece is a cool reflection from Rosie Schaap, and in it Schaap shares a thoughtful personal memory of Ali from when she was a young girl and had the pleasure and privilege of meeting him at a photo shoot. The sincere story about the "soft side" and genuine character of Ali is telling for its insight on the depth of this man's personality and spirit. Schaap shares the story of Muhammed Ali, my Father, and Me.

I certainly was too young to grasp, at the time, the subversive brilliance of staging Ali in the costume of one of the most famous archetypes of white privilege and power, given his unapologetic identity as “a race man,” his potent pride in his blackness. I wish I could remember more about that day, but after more than 40 years, the memories have inevitably faded. I recall it now in a softly spectral way: I somehow knew, even if I wouldn’t have said it this way at the time, that I was in the presence of a great human, who was also very funny, and who took the time to play with children and seemed to enjoy it. I remember his physical presence, so vast compared with my toddler smallness. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Literacy in the History Classroom

RE-PRINT: Mazenglish, 2012

One of the most frustrating  aspects of  teaching for  me is the struggle my students have - especially the groups of boys I mentor - in passing history and social studies classes.  For me, the biggest challenge and problem and barrier to success is the ominous social studies text books, which seemed designed to derail literacy efforts.   The  kids simply do not  handle  these books well.  And, I would assert that social studies teachers are not well trained in teaching the literacy component of their  class.  Reading and writing instruction should be part of the social studies class, precisely because the reading material can be so daunting.  And, like  English teachers, the social studies and history teachers cannot  simply continue to assign reading and writing - they need to teach it.  Students need to be taught how to engage with non-fiction texts.  They need to be inspired and intrigued enough to seek greater knowledge and understanding.

Thus, I was pleased to come across a great bit of news in Education Week about "history lessons that blend knowledge and literacy."  The Reading Like a Historian program from Stanford educational programs is designed to move past the rote memorization of historical facts and dates that have long brought about failure in history classes.  Certainly, core knowledge is a necessity in learning.  However, there is a clear point  where factual data becomes trivial information.  For example, think and answer quickly:  Who was  Samuel Gompers?  Why was  the Whiskey Rebellion fought?  What was the southern name for the Battle of  Antietam?  Who were the generals at the battle of Bunker Hill?  Who was Tippecanoe and Tyler, too?

It just  becomes such a mess of randomized information.  And without a really great storyteller in the front of the classroom - and I know many by the way - the average student and the average American just doesn't  engage with all the names of all the vice-presidents in history.  So, a bit more on the skill of studying history, and a bit less on the minutiae, would do wonders for social studies instruction.