Two Reviews— Waiting for Superman and Temple Grandin

While I have made most of the money I have ever made (or ever hope to) in public education, I genuinely enjoyed and appreciated the expose of public education called Waiting for Superman. The film is captivating, and somewhat suspenseful for a documentary.

As it opens, viewers meet five young people, of different ages, genders, and ethnicities. Each one has hopes and dreams which can only be fulfilled by a proper education. And each one is in a school which feeds into a “failure factory.” That term is applied to high schools where most students either drop out or fail to have the right background to get into college and succeed there. The facts and figures are playfully represented, and the stories of the five subjects introduced early on unfold gradually, along with commentary from educators.

Viewers will take away different images, I am sure, but I certainly identified with the “hidden camera” video of a classroom where the students were in the back of the room, playing craps, while the teacher sat in front of the room, with a magazine, waiting for his time to be up. My husband found that footage to be shocking, but I did not. Certain classes are like that. Really. I know, because I used to work in a public high school.

My experience tells me what the filmmaker does, and that is the answer to education problems is to hire good teachers and only good teachers. A good teacher is indeed “a work of art.” Of course, making sure that only good teachers are employed in public schools would entail firing bad ones. The filmmaker explains how difficult it can be to fire a bad teacher, and he professes to have an answer for this problem. I enjoyed the film, including the solution part; but as an educator, I am also skeptical that the solution can be so simple. (No, I won’t say what it is, but I hope readers of Pam’s Pages will want to know and will watch Waiting for Superman.) As the film draws to a close, viewers get a glimpse of the future of each of the youngsters, with mixed results, of course.

On a recent evening, our whole family enjoyed the excellent biopic from HBO which explains the life and thought patterns of the most famous autistic person in America, Dr. Temple Grandin. Anyone who has dealt with autism, or merely wants to know more, should see this film. And anyone who likes a good story will probably be just as impressed with it. Clare Danes is simply amazing, as she becomes the namesake of the film, Temple Grandin, in her speech patterns, her mannerisms, and she does a fair job of suppressing her movie star looks to appear more like Grandin would have looked in her earlier years.

Dr. Grandin writes well, and I first learned about her via her articles on how autistic people think. But, before she was famous for speaking out about autism, she was famous for being an expert in animal husbandry, and this biography begins with her summer trip to her aunt’s ranch, which was the beginning of her intense interest in animals and how they think. Grandin believes that there are distinct similarities in the thought processes of animals and autistics, and that is in pictures. Indeed, she has authored several books, as well as becoming a college professor, and one of her books is entitled Thinking in Pictures.

There is quite a bit of humor in this film, as Grandin blunders through social situations, but there is plenty of heart, too, as she is befriended and mentored by various people. As a mother, I do identify with Grandin’s mother, ably portrayed by Julia Armond. There can be no greater task than that of the mother of an autism spectrum child.

Unfortunately, neither of these movies will attract the viewers of the latest sci-fi blockbuster, but they are such worthy films that I hope you’ll go rent them or buy them and then share them so their messages will be spread a bit farther.

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How Many Moms Does It Take to Graduate Eight Boys from Homeschool?

Homeschooled

Three years ago, a post a entitled “Graduating and Graduating Some More” was written on the day that our daughter graduated from the local high school.

Only a few months after that, our son, who has never found education to his liking for more than a few minutes at a time, was so unhappy that he began to rebel against education and his parents. Not good. Over his years in public school, both teachers and administrators had suggested that we consider homeschooling, and early his sophomore year, we took the plunge. During that time, I have learned some things that didn’t work well for him, and some that did. In some ways, homeschooling is no different than public school education. For instance, taking the ACT involved getting up early on Saturday, just like it does for public school students. Formal dances require flowers, spiffy clothes, and all that is left are the pictures, and that is just like public school, too.

In other ways, homeschooling is more like college. Until I embarked upon the homeschooling journey, I did not know that there are homeschool “groups” and “co-ops” and private tutors who cater to homeschooler families. The state of Georgia also allows homeschoolers to enroll in online classes via the Georgia Virtual School. During our three years of homeschooling, we have experienced all of those. Actually, not only are there many options open for educating, there are also opportunities for socialization, from drama groups to homeschool swim day, skate day, winter and spring formal dances, and bowling leagues. And I learned that one can order everything from entire curriculums with books, tests, and DVD instruction; to invitations, a diploma, and even the cap and gown. I’ve met a number of interesting people, including my son’s tutor, his music teacher, and a number of other homeschooling moms. Without participating in homeschooling, and a homeschool group over in Hall County, I would never have known about the Frances Meadows Aquatic Center, Yonah Skate and Bowl, the nifty ice cream cones at the Corner Drug Store on Thompson Bridge Road, the HEART co-op, Nuçi’s Space, Camp Amped, Baxendale Guitar, the Athens School of Music, Oasis Bowl, and I probably would not have visited nearly so many churches and parks in Hall County. My car has added a humongous number of miles, too. (Thank goodness, it is Honda.) As I look back on it, there are many activities we did not do. I don’t see how anyone could come close to doing them all.

When I was in graduate school, studying English and education, a chronologically gifted professor had us read The Sabre Toothed Curriculum, a satire which points out how old ways remain a part of schooling, far beyond their usefulness. Things have not changed much since its publication in 1939; schools still teach outdated skills. Some homeschool families have made it a priority to teaching their children life skills, rather than merely to sit still for long hours. The group instruction model does not take into account individual learning styles, either. Among homeschool moms, there are discussions about the Charlotte Mason method, Classical Conversations, and whether Saxon math is better than Teaching Textbooks. My curriculum and methods classes at Piedmont College did not cover the myriad of choices available to enterprising moms who choose to homeschool.

My daughter had gone through four graduations before her high school ceremony, and my son had also gone through four previous ceremonies, from preschool to middle school. Despite his lack of interest in the homeschool ceremony, our son did agree to this last ceremony, so he graduated, along with seven other young men, at a church in Hall County. All the moms have helped with the preparations, so the answer to my title question is eight, plus eight dads, and a number of siblings and friends.

Quite honestly, homeschooling has not been easy, nor inexpensive, but it is often a better plan for children. Most of the homeschool students I have met are more polite, more social, more mature, much more moral, and usually smarter than their public school peers. The bullying and moral decline evidenced in many public schools is reason enough to consider homeschooling. The main problem with it, other than time and expense, is the prejudice which is better summed up by the video than by me.

Star Trek as the Mother of Invention

iPad/Padd

This is an odd post for Mother’s Day, but it is tough to discuss it without writing about my mom, myself, or other family members.

But, as one who appreciates gadgets, I am grateful to science fiction authors for dreaming up some of the useful objects that we take for granted. Like other science fiction yarns, Star Trek is a mother of invention.

The original series of Star Trek was telecast in the mid-60s, and there were not many computers around. Those that were in existence then were low in processing power and huge in size. They recorded data on large spools of magnetic tape. During its three-year run, the characters on STOS used objects which resembled computer disks. They also used wireless (blue-tooth) ear phones, projectile free weapons, and even flip open communicators that look quite similar to Motorola’s flip phones.

In my youth, I just thought that science fiction writers were a bit prophetic. However, more reading has helped me understand that SF writers may be helping fulfill the prophecies in their fiction. Among the most ardent fans of SF on the page and one the screen are engineers and scientists, and they derive some of their inspiration from SF. So, the reason we have flip phones is because an engineer saw Captain Kirk chatting with his ship, and decided to build a device which can actually do that.

Since the Enterprise was only a space-going vessel, characters used shuttlecraft to make some short trips down to planets, and this concept no doubt inspired the name and some functionality of the space shuttle fleet which came along a few years after the series ended.

Technical inspiration did not end with the original series. When Roddenberry’s Star Trek, the Next Generation aired, the entire ship ran via touch interface. I can’t view a rerun of STNG without seeing technical concepts which have made the jump from screen to reality. Notable STNG inventions in everyday use include their oft used PADD, which clearly helped inspire today’s iPhone and iPad. The frequently used touch panels have inspired many kitchen gadgets, too. My microwave, my stove, and my dishwasher all use multi-colored touch pads, just like the USS Enterprise NCC 1701D.

The Borg of STNG and Star Trek Voyager relied heavily on nano technology. That is an up and coming method of enhancing everyday objects. Recently, I saw a pair of men’s pants which professed to have a nano stain fighter woven right into the fabric.

Star Trek gave us five different television series, and the tech of Trek continues to inspire engineers and scientists to create more and better gadgets. In fact, you may have given one to your mom today.

EPub, Kindle, and a new to me author

My iPad does many things, and it has become my reader of choice. After playing with it for a day or two, I began downloading eBook reading “apps” and right now, Kindle for iPad is beating out iBooks. In part, that is due to the vast selection of books at Amazon, but in part, it is due to the way Amazon can zero in on what I enjoy reading.

Within the last couple of weeks I have read two novels by D. A. Boulter, both purchased from Amazon. Indeed, Amazon Digital Services is listed as his publisher. For $2.99 one would be hard pressed to find a better novel than his Courtesan. Now, readers of romance or erotica, do not get excited. It isn’t that sort of book at all. If anything, it reminds me of early Elizabeth Moon space operas, and that is a complement. As the story opens, Jaswinder Saroya is on the run. The author sprinkles in enough back story to create suspense, but not so much as to give away his plot line too soon. There are not so many scenes and characters that a reader has to work too hard, either. I suppose I would have to call this lighter science fiction. But, the plot would be just as welcome in a more tech savvy thriller, and I rather liked it just the way it unfolded.

Having enjoyed Courtesan so very much, I went back to the Kindle store and purchased a book which seemed to inhabit the same “universe” but with different characters, Pelgraff. This one was also entertaining, but I did not find it to be as much fun to read as Courtesan. If anything, the world building in Pelgraff is better, because it is set on that planet, whereas, Courtesan is set mostly onboard a space going vessel. But the characters are not nearly so engaging in Pelgraff, and the plot is mostly fight, withdraw, fight some more. Still, it is a war story, so that is how it goes.

I’m sure I will read more of D.A. Boulter, but for now, I am rating Courtesan four and a half stars and Pelgraff is a solid three star read. Either one is well worth the asking price, and with an eBook, there is nothing to sell at a yard sale or try to trade at the used book store.

I am loving the iPad, and I would like to see my own works in ePub format so that other eBook readers will be able to enjoy them.

Bible Babel— a review

Last Christmas, one of my sisters gave me an autographed copy of Kristin Swinson‘s latest book, Bible Babel, Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time. Professor Swinson’s goal is to make some sense of what the Bible says, and what people say about it. That’s an almost impossible task, but the author makes a good effort, and the result is a highly readable book with a really interesting cover. One of my favorite passages is in the introduction:

“…many think that the Adam and Eve story in Genesis equates its talking snake with Satan, that the fateful fruit was specifically an apple, and that to this day men have one less rib than women. None of these are true…”

Some books are to be read at a fast pace, such as the latest thriller on someone’s best seller list, but others are worthy of more thought, and Bible Babel falls into that category. With a blend of pop culture usage (think DaVinci Code in the movies), and common concepts and misconceptions used as a springboard for topics, the author attempts to blend history, linguistics, scholarly research, and the good book itself to explain what it says, and why everyone seems to think it says something else. The table of contents reflects the varied topics she addresses, including “As It Is Written” History and the Bible….” and “Quotes and Misquotes….” and even “Flora, Fauna, Etcetera….”

As one of the best selling books of all time, and one of the least read, the Bible is constantly alluded to, but many of those who say, “it says in the Bible ________” could not give a book, chapter, and verse for the rest of the sentence. That’s because their “reading” isn’t reading at all, but they have heard something, somewhere, which was purported to have come from the Bible. Those readers who believe, for instance, that the Bible says, “God helps those who help themselves” are not Bible readers, but are instead, have been educated by proxy. Bible Babel is written for such readers, as an introduction to what the Bible does say, and in what context. Those who have read and studied the Bible may be bored with passages which explain that the Jewish Bible is the basis for the Christian Bible, or that Paul is the author of much of the New Testament. And those Christians who believe that Jesus spoke in Elizabethan English, as recorded in the King James Version, will be a bit disappointed as well.

But, for those who are religious, the author is quite respectful. For those who are skeptical, there is plenty of fuel for their skepticism. While I fall into the former category, my brain is still working, so I enjoyed both aspects of this book. If you have ever wondered why the scripture seems to be in conflict with itself, at least some of the time, or if you simply want to know more about one of the foundations of western world literature, then do read Bible Babel. Just carve out some time, because, like its subject matter, it is worthy of more than a casual reading.

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in writing

Reading (rather than writing)

Since my last post, I have been reading, reading, reading. First there were research papers, and while that is work, it is work I mostly enjoy. Over the four going on five years I have taught at the post secondary level, I have read papers on welding, auto repair, hair coloring, the history of perfumes, heat pumps, dirigibles, the physics of guitars, and even drag racing. There is much to learn in life, and those who stop learning must be really sad people. Anyway, I learn quite a lot when I read student papers.

When the quarter break came, we did some historical traveling, including a visit to the “Little White House” in Warm Springs, and the POW museum at Andersonville. At each of these spots, there are, of course, many many plaques and brochures to read, so I just kept on with my reading. Among the things I needed a refresher on were the vast number of progressive programs which began under FDR, including the “Rural Electrification Act.” Most everyone associates social security and with Roosevelt’s New Deal, but how many realize that without his direct input, farmers might have gone for many more decades without affordable electrical power? Another stop was the Currahee Military Museum in Toccoa, Georgia. There, visitors can see a number of artifacts from WWII, including a reconstructed stable, which housed troops in England, prior to the invasion of Normandy.

Also, a writer’s group in North Georgia has asked me to judge a category in their annual contest, which means more reading. While these entries won’t be like my research papers, I do look forward to reading the submissions.

Yes, I am really behind on writing, but I’ve been reading like crazy, and some writing will follow. (I hope so, anyway.)

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in writing

If It Bleeds, It Leads

One of my sisters is a journalism major, and when discussing television news, she often laughs and says, “Oh, if it bleeds, it leads!”

Television is such a visual medium that, by its very nature, can’t objectively report news. As a journalism major, who has dabbled in the field but seldom actually made a living in it, my sister once told me that she records the evening local news, two hours per day, each week, and reviews it in an hour or two on Saturday morning. She’s right, of course, the stories and film clips are recycled so often that there are only enough actual new items to fill a two-hour per week broadcast. My sister’s method makes for much more balanced coverage of the “news” since she is not bombarded by the same stories over and over. Just like viewing a commercial for a candy bar three times an hour can lead to a trip to the store for chocolate, seeing the same news clip once an hour for three days can make a natural disaster into Armageddon.

Worse, there are many news stories which ought to lead, but recently, the most visual (and loud, of course) stories were the “lead” items.

Charlie Sheen, with broken teeth and loud expressions of ego-centric rage, was the lead story for a few days. Important? Too those with only a few portions of gray matter still functioning, perhaps.

The New York City bus crash? A human tragedy, to be sure, but it was leading because it was bleeding. No doubt the driver was tired and dozed off. It probably happens every day, somewhere, but because there were many folks on the bus, it was visually stunning, so it became a lead story.

Japan’s earthquake aftermath should be a “lead” story. But, the constant emphasis on the “nuclear” disaster is a bit misleading, if you’ll pardon the pun. There is not going to be a Chernobyl situation in Japan, because the nuclear reactors there were built to withstand most problems, and the containment devices are working fairly well, given the trying circumstances of the earthquake and tsunami. If Japan had used coal or oil to generate electricity, there would have been problems with that as well. The microscope of television news is making the problem(s) associated with radiation appear much, much worse than they actually are. Right now, the Japanese need clean water, food, and shelter; and hopefully, Americans will do what they usually do, and provide aid to a nation in need.

There is much good going on in the world, but it doesn’t bleed, therefore it does not lead. For example, legislatures across this country are attempting to deal with illegal immigration by enacting laws which attempt to verify citizenship (and therefore harass non-citizens) and those actions are misguided. Most of us “Americans” came from somewhere else and became Americans. On my way to work, I pass by a church which has a huge sign out front, touting “Free Classes in English and Citizenship.” That church, with its parking lot filled with cars of those who want to become citizens, is doing more to help the immigration problem by helping assimilate immigrants than all of the legislatures combined. But the efforts of these kind Christians won’t make the news, because doing good is not a lead story.

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in news

Blooms and Trash

Wow, I had forgotten just how many days have passed since my last entry. Nothing’s wrong, but I have had a busy quarter at school, so I my reading has been rather limited. Soon, I will have another book review, but in the mean time, I will share one of my activities. 

Since I know that good health requires exercise, I have been going outside in our early spring weather. The daffodils are blooming nicely, and the vinca has never looked better. Our three Bradford pear trees are about to make a wonderful showing, as is the tulip tree. But, after the winter, I always end up with some chores, such as cutting back the junipers and crepe myrtles, picking up sticks, and in front of our house, picking up the trash. Yes, trash. I have the misfortune of living on a main road (didn’t used to be) and folks do litter.

I’ve picked up many “scratch off” lottery tickets, but I kinda hate to complain, since Georgia’s lottery funds the vast majority of technical school student tuition. Complaining about those would be rather like biting the hand that feeds, and I have better sense. Wadded up wrappers from Mickey D’s are usually in the trash bag as well. Makes me wonder what is it about Mickey D’s customer base that makes them trashier than the rest of the fast food nation. As usual, I found a couple of styrofoam cups clinging to the weeds near the woods. There are usually some receipts, flyers, and an occasional home burned CD. Actually, it is interesting, because I read the trash. I read everything, and my students are usually amazed that I read every word of their papers.

My favorite bit of recent trash was a pharmacy bag from a nearby Kroger. One of my fellow Jeffersonians, whom I do know slightly, tossed away his Cialis paperwork. He’s probably in his sixties now, so I guess he needs a little help. Well, I hope he and the lady of his choosing had a nice weekend.

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in writing

Twenty-five Years Later

Where were you when __________?

There are some events so powerful that we remember exactly where we were when we heard the news. As youngster, I was in my seat in Mrs. Spratlin’s second grade class when our principal, Mr. Ash, told us that the president, Mr. Kennedy, had been killed in Dallas. My parents were feverishly working on renovations to our new (very old) home, and I rode the bus there, telling them the news. Neither of them knew, having spent the day installing a floor in what would soon be my bedroom.

When Ronald Reagan was shot, I was working as a sales clerk in a lumber store in Winder. We stood around a radio, listening to coverage of that event, remembering the Kennedy assassination.

And, when the Challenger blew up, I was at Jefferson High School. It was so cold (below zero) in northeast Georgia that the school had cancelled classes for students, but we had a “work day” for teachers. I was in the business department lab, averaging grades on a calculator, since this was before the proliferation of computers and electronic gradebooks. A fellow teacher stopped by to tell me, and at first I thought she was joking. Space travel had become so routine that it was not particularly newsworthy. That day, however, when I got home, I saw image after image on television, like the one above, and heard the stunned anguish of the friends and colleagues of the astronauts.

That day proved that space travel is still a very risky business. And one person in particular, teacher Christa McAuliffe, represented all Americans that day. There were seven people killed in that explosion, but the others were NASA people, trained for the space program, and presumably ready to risk their lives. But McAuliffe was one of us, granted the opportunity to do her job, teaching, from a platform high above the earth. At first, news outlets showed the unfolding reaction on the faces of McAuliffe’s parents, who were in Florida for the launch, but later, the news outlets became more sensitive to the loss.

Yes, twenty-five years have passed since the Challenger made its seventy-three second journey, and NASA has not fully recovered from the blow. The space program still has no better vehicle than the space shuttle, and in part, that is due to America and Americans deciding that manned space travel is too expensive and too risky. Politicians have gone along with the desires of their constituents to spend the nation’s money on programs to defeat poverty instead. So, if there is to be travel to the rest of the solar system, or beyond, America won’t be the force behind it. I’ve accepted that.

Still, someone, somewhere, will take up the task, because this planet will run out of resources, and there will only be “out there” for man to explore. When Spain, France, and even England ran out of money and gusto, they became lesser nations. The decline of European nations led to America being a “super power” in the second half of the twentieth century. There are many signs of decay here in America, but the lack of any desire to expand beyond these shores, a kind of political egocentrism, is a sure sign that our bright sun is setting. China, which holds much of our nation’s debt, seems to be the up-and-coming power now, so the first man on Mars probably won’t be speaking English.

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in writing

Let them watch Star Trek

We have had a bout of bad (or good) weather, depending on one’s point of view. This week, we have had a snow followed by freezing rain, followed by enough cold to keep refreezing the roadways. I really can’t recall missing an entire week of classes over a weather event, but that is what we have had. So, in addition to some organizing at home, I have been watching the telly a bit more. I’ve seen both The Wrath of Khan (1982) and  the DVD version of JJ Abrams Star Trek (2009) with Chris Pine as James T. Kirk and Zachary Quinto as Spock in the course of one week. Until now, my favorite film version of Trek was Khan, with the riveting Ricardo Montleban in the title role, and the original series stars reprising their television roles.

As I am old enough to remember the original series in first run episodes, and am still a fan of it, I was skeptical of this new version. Still, JJ Abrams’ Alias was one of the few modern television series that I watched eagerly, so I did indeed go to the theatre to take in this “reboot” of Star Trek. By using the science fiction theme of time travel, and the subsequent altered reality, the script writers were able to retell the story, with fresh new versions of the characters. Yet, for the most part, the film pays homage to the original, and the use of both Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto as Spock (the elderly ambassador and the fresh young Star Fleet officer) helps make the whole thing work.

Any summer block buster needs plenty of top-notch special effects, and this Star Trek does not disappoint in that department. The casting is simply superb, and the script isn’t half bad either. But, I am most happy that this new version did attract an audience of younger folks. The last time I went to see a Trek movie in the theatre (prior to this one) the audience looked like a convention for middle aged science fiction fans, and there weren’t too many of them. My own children, who don’t care for the original series or the next generation versions of Trek, really liked this film. For the concept of Star Trek to go on, it must reach young people, and this one did a great service for the fan base by re-introducing beloved characters and the magnificent vehicle known as the star ship Enterprise.

By Pamela/Pilar Posted in writing