An Invitation To Write, For ‘Non-Writers’

pen and paper
Try to see the blank page as an opportunity and not a challenge.

By A. G. Moore

You’re probably reading this essay because you want to improve your writing skills. That is the first and most important step on the path to good writing. The next step is easier.  Pick up your instrument of choice–a pen, a pencil, a keyboard–and start writing.

Writing is like speaking.  At first, when you begin–whether it’s a foreign language or your native language in the early years of life–speaking requires great effort. You struggle for the correct phrase. You stumble and make mistakes.  After a while, as you practice and use language on a daily basis, your speech becomes smoother. You think less about how you say something and more about what you want to say.  This is fluency.

Fluency is the goal in writing and is achieved in exactly the same way that it is accomplished in speech: practice.  The more frequently you write, the more fluent your writing becomes.  Once fluency is achieved, certain techniques and rules will help to make the writing more effective. These rules and techniques are easily mastered, but they won’t work unless you have something to use them on.  So write–anything.  Write what you’d like to say.  Worry about correctness later.

Organization, grammar, style–these will come with time. Think of the pieces you write as blocks of clay.  Each time you start out there is no shape, no form to the clay.  As you begin to mold you have an idea of what you would like to see at the end of your sculpting.  After the first cuts, the lump of clay won’t look like anything.  After a while, as you shape a crude form, you can go back with your chisel and refine your art.

That’s exactly what happens in most writing.

Of course, there are exceptions. There are brilliant masters who have a touch of genius.  Words pour from them as water does from a fountain. Most of us don’t have that gift. Most of us will settle for communicating effectively.  If that is your goal, then form an idea, sit in front of a blank page and begin to express your idea.  Once you have words on a page, once you have the rough clay crudely formed, you can use basic techniques to fashion a finished product.  Logic, grammar, style–these are just carefully targeted cuts in the clay.  They can be added and adjusted as the piece takes shape.

The more often you engage in the process of writing, the more fluent you will become. If you doubt this, think about the way you learned to speak. You’ll realize that the separation between the spoken word and the written word is merely a matter of perspective and familiarity. Both of these are in your control and really present no barrier at all.

Approaching the Common Core from an Uncommon Perspective

TheNationsReportCard small letters

By A. G. Moore

A Fractious Public Rejects the Common Core
The Common Core has become a lightning rod in communities across the U.S. New York Newsday, for example, recently ran an article describing a “Tsunami of test refusals” that targeted the Common Core. Despite such popular protests, a strong belief in the need for education reform continues to drive government commitment to the Common Core curriculum. Into the fray this past week came a contrary voice that supported neither Common Core nor its opponents.

Euardo Porter, writing for the New York Times, suggested that educational reform may not be the way to raise lagging U.S. student achievement scores. Rather, Porter suggested, improvements may come only if a broad range of social issues is addressed. Porter cited the results of a study by the EPI (Economic Policy Institute) which indicates that instead of comparing national achievement levels, student performance should be broken down into social classes. The data from these subsets yields an interesting result.

Seal of the Village_of_Scarsale 2

A Sounder Basis for Comparison
When students from different countries but similar economic backgrounds are compared, U. S. student achievement doesn’t look bad. It turns out that students with similar advantages (or disadvantages) demonstrate education achievement at similar levels. Economic and social class, more than nationality, correlate to academic achievement.

Though this news may be welcome by educators who have had the scolding finger of reformers pointed at them, it may not be so welcome by many others. If the EPI study is correct, it means that in order to improve academic achievement nationally, we need to address economic inequality in the U.S.

While some people will balk at this suggestion, there are aspects of the argument that are undeniable:
1) Overall academic achievement of U.S. students lags in international comparisons; 2) A dramatic academic deficit is not in the nation’s interest; 3) In order to be a global leader in the future, the U.S. will have to produce citizens who can compete with peers internationally.

redone Students_who_scored_600_or_more_on_the_math_SAT
The National Science Foundation; public domain

U.S. Education, By the Numbers
Evidence of the U.S. academic deficit can be found in a number of surveys. A 2012 report from PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), for example, showed U.S. students ranking 36th in a group of 65 participating countries. In another survey of academic achievement, the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (the ‘Nation’s Report Card’), there were signs that recent educational reform had not significantly changed student performance. As a matter of fact, students in some grades actually scored more poorly in 2015 than they did in 2013.

Something is obviously wrong with U.S. education. Whatever is at the root of the problem, we don’t seem to be able to fix it. Porter’s article offers interesting insight into the problem. This insight becomes more interesting if two sets of seemingly unrelated data are compared: one is a measure of economic equality and the other a measure of academic performance.

surplus foods 2
Photo: FDR Presidential Library; public domain
The U.S. Surplus Food Program began under
FDR and continues today as the Emergency
Food Assistance Program

The GINI, Where Scoring High Is Not a Good Thing
The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), of which the U.S. is a member state, has developed a way to quantify economic equality/inequality. Called the GINI index, this number gives members an idea of how they fare, relative to other member states, in delivering economic equality to their citizens. A high number means less equality. In 2015 the OECD released its survey. Of 34 members, the U.S. ranked 31. Only Turkey, Mexico and Chile had worse (higher) scores.

Compare the U.S. GINI (economic equality) rating to the U.S. PISA (education) rating: 31 to 34. It may strike some as remarkable that the U.S. ranking in economic equality and the U.S. ranking in education achievement are virtually at the same level.

Going Forward Toward a Solution
Do these numbers prove anything? Perhaps not, but community furor over the Common Core isn’t dying down. Nor is the government’s ambition to increase achievement levels of U.S. students. What if community and government are focused on the wrong issue? What if neither the Common Core, nor any other curriculum change will substantially improve the global standing of U.S students? The question deserves a full and honest appraisal.

Avoiding the Summer Setback in Academic Skills

By A. G. Moore

summer

We all feel it, the summer lassitude that settles in sometime in June and doesn’t lift until trees start losing their leaves. Autumnal shedding reminds us that time is passing and we have to hustle in order to catch up.

 

For kids, the casual days of summer present an opportunity for adventure–and the risk of diminished academic skills.This is especially true for lower income children.

 

In general, children lose about two months  (according to standardized tests) in math performance and about the same in reading over the summer months. The result, however, is not consistent across income levels. Children from middle and upper income homes do not on average experience this decline in reading scores. On the contrary, in many cases there is actually a bump in those scores. In seeking a reason for the disparity between middle and lower class outcomes, one study suggests that the answer lies in access to books.

 

This study is described in an article published by The Institute for Educational Sciences (a US government organization).  According to the study: “…family socioeconomic status has been linked to the access children have to books in their homes and neighborhoods”. In order to reach this conclusion researchers divided a cohort of lower income students into two groups. In one group, students were allowed to self-select books for summer reading. The second group served as control; these students were not given access to books.

 

The results, as interpreted by the study’s sponsors, showed that access to books had a “significant effect”.  The effect was more pronounced in students from the lowest income group.

 

Of course, this is one study; its conclusions may be accepted or rejected. However, most people will probably not be surprised by the authors’ analysis. It’s pretty much accepted by parents and educators that the more kids read the better their skills are likely to be. Increased access to books, particularly ‘self-selected’ books, certainly increases the chance that reading will take place.

 

While most parents may be in agreement with the basic principle that more reading makes better readers, encouraging a reading regime in the lazy summer months can be a challenge. What the study and others like it show is that rising to this challenge is worth the effort.

 

Kids take the summer off; parents can’t. Parents don’t get a vacation from their job, not until a child is grown and parental responsibility has been fulfilled.

 

The American Library Association claims that 95% of all public libraries have a summer reading program for kids. Interested parents can check local libraries to see if one of these programs is near them.

 

Besides engaging in a reading program, parents may find that summer is a good time to offer so-called ‘enrichment’ material that the crowded school curriculum increasingly neglects.  The flexible summer months may be seen as an occasion to round out a child’s academic experience with informal exposure to ideas and subjects that otherwise might not be covered.

 

A summer break from school need not be paid for with a ‘setback’ in skills.  Children learn in many ways. What they learn–academically, socially or culturally–depends largely on environment.  With access to the right environment, including books, children may not only maintain skills but may experience a ‘bounce’–in academic skills and in their general store of knowledge.

 

In that case, when summer is done and leaves turn orange, time’s passage may be regarded not with regret but with anticipation.