Monday, February 21, 2005



Sunday, February 20, 2005

Bartok String Quartets

A concert will be beginning in a little over an hour. A famous string quartet is going to play the entire cycle of Bartok's six string quartets. I can't be there, so I'm listening to them being played on CD by The Juilliard String Quartet. It's their 1981 digital cycle, which if the reviewer in our local paper is to be believed, is not as good as their 1963 recording. I don't know enough about classical music to judge, but the '81 recording is not to be sneezed at.

Playing the entire cycle live, along with two intermissions will take about four hours. That's a lot of music.

I can't remember why I bought this 2 CD set. I may have read it mentioned in interviews with old jazz greats, because, you know, they did listen to other genres of music. I may have gotten it from a CD club. I don't remember. It's great music though. The visceral impact is staggering. It's also exhausting in its intensity. I usually have to take breaks if I'm listening, and I've never listened to both CDs in the same day. But hey, it's Sunday and it's cold and snowy outside.

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Saturday, February 19, 2005


How do you know when you're ready to be a parent? Are you ever ready to be a parent? Am I ready to be a parent? My children are 15 and 11. If we had more children, I might not make the mistakes I made when my children were younger. But I would probably make different mistakes. My fifteen year old is a boy. He's a tall boy. Some of the girls seem to like him a bit too much. We've had to have "talks". My 11 year old is a girl. We haven't had to have talks yet, but I have let her know that she can start dating when she's old enough to leave the house and live on her own.

I tried to explain that as Dad, I'm more protective of my daughter. I'd venture that most dads are.

I know that as much as I'd like to, I'll never be able to raise my kids in the TV fantasy land of Leave It To Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and My Three Sons. I have desperately tried not to be The Simpsons. And I know that some day I will look back on all of this with a certain amount of satisfaction and maybe even nostalgia. I already kind of miss the days when the kids were little. My son didn't want me to go to work in the morning. My daughter would want only me to lug her . . . well, mostly me.

I miss when my son was learning lots of new words and asked me when we're going to the washcar. I miss having the - Duck Season, Rabbit Season argument with my daughter. I don't quite miss having to read Goodnight Moon 10 times in a row every day for weeks on end until I had it memorized, but I almost miss reading Green Eggs and Ham and substituting the words for Goodnight Moon. That was always good for a laugh. I miss when by daughter had to learn to read because her brother could, so we had to read every book line by line. I would read it, then she would read it. It worked.

I don't miss diapers or diaper rash, or being kept up night after night. I don't miss having to pay a babysitter when my wife and I wanted to go out on a date.

That's enough rambling for now. I'm going to log off, go into the other room and sing a few choruses of "Sunrise, Sunset".


Thursday, February 17, 2005

How to Teach Children to Read, Part 2

According to the educational establishment, you teach children to read by exposing them to a variety of great literature, have them do a lot of writing, and even let them make up their own spelling. It's called, Whole Language. Over the years, they've come up with lots of different programs that show teachers different Whole language ways to teach. Actually, there are only a few ways and they've been repackaged and recycled over the years. The Whole Language proponents claim that these methods, properly taught, will get children to read and to love reading.
So one has to ask, after many generations of Whole Language teaching methods, why is American society becoming continuously less literate? Ah, claim the Whole Language proponents, students watch too much TV, play too many video games, they are victims of poor parenting, not enough money is going to the schools, they have ADD, ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities.
Don't you believe it!
After 16 years of elementary classroom experience, I can tell you that students aren't reading because they aren't being taught correctly. Students have to begin at the beginning with a strong phonetic foundation. English is a sound/symbol language. The letters are symbols for different sounds. These sound/symbol relationships have to be taught. Some students can figure them out on their own, but many can't and don't.
By beginning with phonics, I don't mean worksheets where students have to guess that the first letter in cup and cat is "c". I'm talking about intensive study and lots of, you will excuse the expression, drill and practice until students know what sounds the letters and letter combinations make. This can actually be done for most students in only a few weeks in first grade. Drill and practice is not the only teaching method, but it should be part of a teacher's bag of tricks.
The best phonetic method I've found, and I've done a lot of research on this is, The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking, published by the Riggs Institute, It begins with students learning the sounds discussed above, then using those sounds to begin spelling. Anything a student can spell, they can read. Once a certain number of words are learned through dictation, not copying, through multi-sensory study and practice, students begin using these words in their own individually decodable sentences. This leads to reading, and finally in lesson 46 to the reading of "real books".
There is a lot more though. This is an entire language arts method covering two years of grammar and writing, and four years of spelling, that when taught properly (take the training, it's worth it) advances students way beyond what is traditionally taught in a public school classroom.
That was the short version. In addition to parents and teachers studying the Riggs website, I also recommend, and the book, The Schools We Need, and Why We Don't Have Them, by E. D. Hirsch. When he described teacher education, it read like he was there with me in teacher's school. Also, Marva Collins' Way, by Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin is highly recommended.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Duke Ellington on Reprise

Being a jazz fan, I love Mosaic box sets. If things were better financially, I'd have a lot more. I hesitated ordering the Reprise Duke Ellington set because, well, he does Mary Poppins, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and some other tunes that just sounded like they had to be cheesy. I was wrong.

As any Mosaic fan knows, it's now out of print, so you can imagine my elation when I scored a copy from a used record shop. The best part was, I got it for $51.00.

The music on this set is superb. Duke arranged all of the tunes to make them his. The band is in fine form, alto sax doesn't get any better than Johnny Hodges, and while there are some tunes that are less than golden, this is a set well worth having.

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How to Teach Children to Read, Part 1

When I graduated from Teachers' College (I'm not mentioning which one), I thought that they had taught me the current best teaching practices. After all, these were the experts. They had experience in the classroom, they had done research, and so they must know what they're talking about. I hope I'm less naive now than I was then.

My first clue to how wrong they were, should have been my first year as a teacher when I was describing to a 30 year veteran the latest and greatest in just learned, current educational thought. We both laughed when she told me that's exactly what she learned 30 years before, but it was called something different.

I didn't catch on to the joke until years later when I finally became frustrated at the constant failure of students to pass standardized tests in our "urban" school district even though I and the other teachers were doing everything we had been taught to do by the educational experts. After another staff meeting where we tried to come up with new strategies for success, I suggested that we visit "urban" schools that were successful. I had heard about them, but had never seen one. I was told by one of our administrators they didn't exist.

I was losing my naivete at this point, and thanks to the Internet, I was able to do my own research. I ordered a book by Samuel Casey Carter at The Heritage Foundation (and yes, I know they are a 'gasp!' conservative organization) called: NO EXCUSES, Lessons from 21 High-Performing, High- Poverty Schools.

I read it, visited some of the websites listed in the book, followed links to other websites, ordered samples, made phone calls, and finally bought everything I needed to teach The Writing Road to Reading, by Spalding, a phonetic language arts method based on Orton-Gillingham. I was urged to take the training but instead bought a Spalding how-to book put out by another publisher, since school started in two weeks, and I had just been moved from fourth to fifth grade.

I didn't realize how well Spalding worked until January of that school year when one of my students who was at a second grade level coming in sounded out a three syllable word. In the spring the class read Romeo and Juliet (the actual play, not a kid's version). When I finally took the training, I realized what an awful job I had done in teaching Spalding, but it still worked better than anything I had done before.

I continued my research, and found The Riggs Institute, who publish The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking. It's based on Spalding, but it's a more complete language arts method. I moved down to second grade to teach that. Parents were nervous at first, because while other classes were writing papers using "invented spelling" (a method that actually slows down learning) my class was starting at the beginning, learning letter sounds and letter combination sounds. Eventually though, the parents were loving it, raving about how their second grader was reading better than older siblings and cousins, and having to help these older students with their reading.

I took a Riggs training, and then did an in-class practicum. I taught these second graders again in third grade, and at the end of the year we read, THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW by Washington Irving. As with my fifth graders and Shakespeare, we read the real Legend, not a dumbed down children's version.

Stay tuned for part 2 and find out why Riggs works, and other methods don't.

NOTE: If anyone can offer me a dumbed down explanation of how to do the link code, you step by step as if I didn't know anything, I'd appreciate it.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Winter Break

As a public school teacher, I should love Winter Break. I have mixed feelings about it though. On the one hand, who doesn't appreciate a week off to relax? Teaching is hard work, and it doesn't end when the students leave the building. In addition to the normal after school work of lesson planning, and the take home work of correcting papers, I also tutor students in reading for another nine hours per week. So if I can spend a few extra days sitting around reading, what can be bad?

It's like this: we returned to school on January third from Christmas Break. Two weeks later we had a long weekend to honor Martin Luther King Day. Four weeks later, it's Winter Break. Five weeks after we return to school, it will be time for Spring Break. Easter comes early this year. We have a long stretch of 10 weeks after that until the end of the year, but as the weather heats up, student thoughts turn to, "hot in here . . . got to get outside!"

With all of those breaks it gets extremely hard to build up momentum in what I'm teaching. The days leading up to the breaks get the students excited, and coming back, they have to be reintroduced into the daily routine. That first day back from a break, they all walk in quietly, as if they haven't yet woken up, and try to remember just what those words on the board mean, and who this adult person is who's talking to them at this ridiculous hour of the morning.

Combine that with the ineffective methods and dumbed down curriculum we're forced to use, it's a wonder any public school graduates can function as adults. Stay tuned to my next post for how I've managed to partially circumvent the system with an effective method for teaching students to read.

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Monday, February 14, 2005

Blogger Fantasy

I've been reading other people's blogs for the past year or so, sometimes even posting comments. In fact, I've been spending too much time reading other folks' blogs, mostly political blogs, but some humorous types. It's been taking time away from reading books, something I used to do a lot more of before I began spending so much time staring at this screen. So why start my own blog?

First, I'm in charge of the topic. I post about what I want, when I want . . . if I have time. I do have a job. Second, I have this fantasy. I'm a big time blogger, with lots of readers, paid ads, links to other big-time bloggers, spending hours sifting through important events of the day, offering clever, bare-knuckle commentary, being viciously attacked by foolish detractors, etc.

I decide to take a break. I head over to a fancy martini bar, the kind that attracts an upper middle class clientle, people who have much more disposable income than I have, and who can order imported beers, aged scotch, absurdly expensive cognacs, fancy, candy-flavored martinis, and still leave a generous tip for the bartender.

I take my place at the bar inbetween groups of young professionals unwinding after a busy day, trying to add some fun to their otherwise boring existence, avoiding the fact that all they have to go home to is a 40" plasma TV with a surround sound home theater system.

Because of my big-time blogger demeanor, I fit right in. They almost take me for one of their own, but they can see that there is something more to me. I can't help the fact that the women in the group become attracted to me. They begin to ignore the other males in the crowd even when those suited males boast about their new BMWs, exotic vacations, time share condos on golf courses around the world, rolex watches, stock options, early mint condition issues of Spiderman, and all kinds of other fancy treasures.

I focus on one of these lovely prosperous women to hold a spellbinding conversation with.

"I like your pajamas", she tells me, "I especially like the Bugs Bunny design."

"Thanks," I respond, "I'm a big fan of that wascally wabbit."

"Do you always wear them when you go out?"

"Most of the time. I never know when I may have to get back to the computer in a hurry for an emergency post. I don't always have the time to change into my work-jammies. We big-time bloggers are on call 24/7. We're like doctors or plumbers in that respect."

"I didn't know that. Your pajamas have feet."

"Baby, it's cold outside, and I hate wearing slippers."

We have a few more drinks, a spot of dinner (she buys), and then we head back to my place. It would be vulgar to describe any more than that, so you're on your own now.

Remember: you can make this fantasy come true.

Thanks for reading, and welcome to Garbanzo Toons.

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