Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why bad-mouthing Common Cores is a bad idea

The biggest beef I have with  the newly implemented Common Cores math curriculum in New York State is not with the government. Nor is it with the test creators, the teachers or the administration.
It's with the parents.
I get it.
The language is new, the methods are new, the modules are poorly designed and the test designers desperately need to hire skilled technical writers knowledgeable in math who can develop on-level questions with little or no ambiguity.
Kids are frustrated. Parents are frustrated. Many teachers are going out of their minds.
That's all bad enough.
But then I hear these words expressed in front of those struggling kids:
"Common Cores sucks."
"This is bull."
"If I can't understand it, she's not going to."
"Why bother? They're going to have to get rid of it anyway."
We all want to make our kids feel better. We want them to know they're not alone and that they are not incompetent. But this stuff -- the generic condemnations often peppered with vulgarities -- accomplishes the opposite.
It sends the message that they might as well give up.
It's too hard and they are not smart enough.
It erects a wall between students and their teachers, a convenient and comfortable wall that encourages similar behavior when times are tough. Teachers are deprived of the opportunity to reach these kids and the kids are deprived of an education.
This is all new for us. We don't like that. We can't help our kids as they struggle unless we understand it and there are few opportunities to become educated in the new methods ourselves. It hurts to see a child frustrated and angry by the work and to be unable to help.
For some parents, it's personal. Common Cores is an insult to their own educations. They learned math the old way and they did just fine, so why change it? They become defensive in the wake of new methods, so much so that they can't be objective.
They can't find the good in it.
But there is good in it and there are better ways.
When kids are stuck on particular concepts or terms, use Google. Learn it with them. Make a real effort. Sure, it takes a little longer, but once they know it, they know it. They can build on it and move on. It's all there on Internet and the sense of teamwork is good for parent-child relations.
This was all thrown at teachers. They haven't had time to properly prepare. Modules that should have taken two days require four. They are behind, they are frustrated and they are struggling. Help them and hope that next year will be better.
Put pressure on school districts to provide overview classes for parents and/or free tutoring after school or in the evenings for kids. Make sure your kids know about your efforts so they can see how it's done. If they don't understand something, don't encourage them to give up. Encourage them to pursue it full-force and to discover the learning methods that work best for their needs.
Lobby the right people.
Don't scream at the teacher.
Don't blame the principal.
Don't egg the superintendent's house.
Lobby the state.
Lobby the federal government.
Ask local districts officials what you can do that will be most effective.
Finally, give it a chance.
This isn't evil stuff. There are solid theories behind the Common Cores methods and they make a lot of sense, but I think we all know they could have been implemented much better and with greater care. This is a mess, but don't wash your hands of it and walk away.
It might make parents feel better to engage in screaming matches with the school board, to pull them from final exams, to berate Common Cores, the teachers, the administrators and the curriculum in front of them, but it's a cop our.
Ultimately, our kids suffer.
So don't turn your backs.
Dig in and do your part.
Love, learn, lobby and succeed.
Learn about Common Cores and pick and choose your battles.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Make-up-free selfies: Why breast cancer awareness undermines the movement

My sister is a recent survivor of stage-four breast cancer, her second battle with the disease in eight years. During her chemo treatments -- after she'd traded her hair for scarves -- she experienced an awesome show of support from the staff at the elementary school where she works.
They all wore scarves or hats in her honor.
She was overwhelmed.
With those scarves and hats, her coworkers showed they were thinking of her, that they understood every day she came to work was a struggle and every day she missed work was a disappointment. The hats and scarves were symbolic of the strength, love, prayers and positive energy they offered.
Now imagine that, instead, they all showed up without make-up.
Let's face it.
There is a reason we feel both brave and vulnerable posting make-up-free selfies. Like it or not, we judge books by their covers, especially female books. It would be awesome if the make-up-free movement helped women become comfortable with our natural selves (I know I'm not.), and if society would become more appreciative.
But here's the trouble.
These particular selfies are not posted in an effort to affect change. Rather they are intended as a show of support for those less fortunate than us in terms of their health. We wear no make-up to bring ourselves "down" to their level, the level of people who are suffering and fighting.
We, as a society, do not accept the "natural look" as inherently beautiful. We clearly do not accept it ourselves as evidenced by the fact that we consider posting such a selfie a "brave" act -- a challenge we present to others.
It's done with a gulp and a "Here it goes!"
The intent is, no doubt, honorable.
But here's the message we unconsciously send to those battling breast cancer: "You look like crap, so I'm going to make myself look like crap to make you feel better. See how brave I am? I am even willing to look like you."
I have not quizzed my sister about her feelings on this topic, but I'm pretty sure she would have been overwhelmed in an entirely different way had her female coworkers honored her by wearing no make-up. And if she cried that day, I'm fairly certain hers would be tears of a different kind.
I'm not opposed to make-up-free selfies in general.
Not at all.
In fact, I have nothing but praise for author Laura Lippman who started the movement after an actress was heavily criticized during the Oscars for looking like herself. Laura posted a natural selfie and encouraged other authors to follow suit in an effort to take down some socially created barriers. Built self-confidence. Help females authors support each other.
It worked for me.
With my novels current under submission to publishers, I'll admit that the potential for post-publication photographic attention makes me nervous. I can't help comparing myself to photos of those always-gorgeous looking authors who seem to confident, so put together.
Then I saw this slew of selfies.
I learned that many of those women looked different without make-up, but not in a negative way. The lack of make-up drew my eyes to their smiles, something I had never put much emphasis on previously. They made me smile inside.They made me realize these other authors are just as real as I am.
And that was an awesome feeling.
They were brave to post those selfies, but brave for a different cause.
They were brave in an effort to create change.
While I am absolutely certain the intentions of those who post make-up-free self portraits are honorable and that the posts show an admirable level of braveness and humility, breast cancer awareness or support is just not the right reason.
Do it for yourself.
Do it because it feels good to be free.
Do it to free woman like me who have not yet found the courage.
Do it because you believe it shouldn't require bravery and because you want that to change.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Come play with me: Warming up with memories of Adirondack springs

photo by Karen Arnold
My body ached for spring this morning as I dashed outside in sub-zero temperatures once again to start the van for the trek to school.
The ache was familiar, but this time, new sensations came with it -- sensations of spring in the Adirondacks, where I grew up.
They were so welcome, those memories, and they awakened  in me hope for warmer days to come.
I'd like to share that hope with you:

Pussy willows.
The dance of extreme temperatures brushing against my skin as warm air swoops over the icy remains of snow, lifting the cooler air and swirling with it.
Tapped maples.
Building dams with pebbles and stones in the road-side creeks formed by run-off from the banked snow.
T-shirts and sleds.
Car horns beeping at my young frame as I squat in the road for better access to those temporary creeks.
Robins.
Racing twigs in the miniature white-water rapids, eliciting more beeps as I run along the road, following them on their journeys.
Wet, squishy moss.
The joy of walking from home through downtown, touching only pavement with my shoes.
Rain.
Kicking up dust on pavement fringed by receding snow.
Pussy willows.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Writing for ... glamour?

I emailed an author a while back for information about her experiences with a publisher who was interested in one of my novels. She insisted I call her immediately and sent her phone number.
The reason for her urgency?
Apparently, the publishing world had deceived her.
Authorship wasn't glamorous at all, she said, and she suggested I get out of the novel-writing business before I suffer similar disappointment. Her advance was small, her sales were slow and she wasn't becoming famous.
What?!
It took me a while to respond.
First, I thought she was joking.
Then, I thought she must be insane.
Finally, I realized she was quite serious.
So, I laughed.
It never once occurred to me to pursue fiction for celebrity status. Nor did I ever consider the profession "glamorous." I expect to spend every penny I make on my first published novel (and then some) promoting it, so I certainly am not anticipating wealth.
Where did this illusion come from, I wondered?
How could someone who managed to write a novel, find an agent and land a publishing contract remain so ignorant to the business for so long?
So I started paying attention and this is what I found:
Novel writing has its celebrities: JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and E.L. James are rolling in cash. What so many people fail to recognize, however, is that most of their money comes from movie options, movie royalties, etc.
They were popular writers before their novels became movies and probably made some admirable amounts of cash, but glamour struck when their novels hit the theaters and their incomes reached seven to ten digits.
In fact, many of their fans are not even avid readers.
Take the woman who excitedly told me someone had entrusted her with the ending of a Harry Potter film he was working on. She was thrilled to have such privileged information. Giddy, even.
Little did she know everyone who'd read the series was already privy to the end.
Unfortunately, the attainment of millionaire or billionaire status is not the norm among authors, though many sell movie options (the exclusive rights to a film production company to someday make a movie of the novel if ever they feel like it) for perhaps $100,000 or so per novel.
Success like JK Rowling's is probably one in a million, if not more.
But those are the writers we hear about.
Those are the stories we know.
Add to that the magic of social media, and forces behind the misconceptions quickly become clearer.
Search for "author" on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, any of those sites and face-upon-smiling-face will appear. Promote, promote, promote. That's the buzz word in the writing world these days.
A self-published author with sales of ten can appear to be a celebrity simply because he or she has created that illusion via social networking, web pages and blog tours. What looks glamorous is often the result of a ton of effort and, sometimes, loads of money, on the authors' parts.
All this was starting to make sense to me.
I was beginning to understand the star-stuck author.
But then came the kicker: House Hunters International.
I rarely watch television during the day, but I was sick the other day -- can't-get-off-the-sofa sick -- and I needed something mindless to occupy me. So I chose House Hunters International, intrigued by the fact that its focus on a crime fiction writer.
According to the narrator, the husband gave up everything to follow his wife to Australia, where she had an opportunity to promote her novels. That was the first thing struck me as odd. Why move to Australia to promote her novels?
Couldn't they just visit?
Next, I noted they were leaving behind a 7,500-square-foot home in Texas.
Then, they set a budget of up to $4,000 for rent.
On a writer's salary?
Surely, I must have heard of this woman.
I researched her, figuring she was someone famous who had slipped past my radar.
Nope.
She published her novels through CreateSpace, a self-publishing company and a choice many writers make who want full control of their work. Her novels are far from best-sellers and I'd never heard of her.
So how could they afford this?
After further research, I found an article from an Australian newspaper. According to the interview, she and her husband were leaving Australian because his temporary job appointment had ended. She had sold 1,000 of her six novels overseas, for a total of what?
Maybe $3,000 in two or three years?
Surprise.
The producers had lied, further enforcing the illusion that writers live glamorous lives and make tons of money.
Here's the truth.
I know many glamorous writers. But they are not glamorous because they sold a bunch of novels, made a ton of money and are recognized in supermarkets worldwide. They are glamorous because that's who they are.
They are kind, charming, witty women and men who write with passion, not with dollar signs in their eyes. They are personable, helpful and accessible. They love their readers. They love their art (though who wouldn't mind seven-digit checks for doing what they love!).
The woman I called didn't have that.
And I doubt she ever will.