Bookbyte Blog

readingbabyThere’s a problem that always seems to be at the root of the debate over education policy: When do we standardize and when do we personalize? If we don’t standardize enough, there’s no guarantee that everyone will receive the same opportunities and the same basic education. If we don’t personalize enough, we can ignore some really basic common sense in the interest of keeping everything “equal.” This post is about the second problem.

The institution of the Common Core Standards in most states tries to find measurable ways to ensure schools are meeting their state standards. For math, that’s not too hard. You just set the grade you should know your multiplication tables and the grade you should tackle geometry. For reading, things get trickier. That’s where the Lexile system comes into place.

The Lexile system runs the text of a book through an algorithm to assign it a difficulty level, from 0 to 2,000, based on the complexity of the individual words and overall sentence structure. The Cat in the Hat, with its deliberately limited vocabulary, is ranked 260L. The historical/ethical/literary classic Plutarch’s Lives comes in at the significantly more intimidating 1560L.

My knee-jerk reaction is that it’s an incredibly stupid system. Sentence and vocabulary complexity is in no way equal to literary complexity. Otherwise our fourth graders should all be reading For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Road, just because Hemingway and McCarthy like curt, direct language. Sure, a 9-year-old could read a William Carlos Williams poem and comprehend the words, the sentence structure, and the syntax, but no one thinks 9-year-olds should be studying early 20th century poetry.

Now before you panic enough to write an editorial about The Hunger Games outranking The Grapes of Wrath, keep in mind that the Lexile system is just one aspect of the Common Core Standards. Nobody’s taking this as a perfect indicator of the quality and complexity of writing. It’s not incredibly stupid if you just take it with a more than a few grains of salt. A football game isn’t won or lost purely based on the quarterback’s rating, right? It takes a lot of moving parts to make it all work.

But it is managing to trickle into education more and more as a subtle influencer of curriculum standards. That gets to be troublesome when you read articles like this one from The Atlantic, bemoaning the fact that teachers are refusing to assign difficult books. The measure of “difficulty” in the article? The Lexile system. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to quantify language, there is something wrong with thinking that ranking equals value or even grade level.

The effort to consistently challenge students fairly across the board is a noble one. But maybe some things just can’t be quantified.

As the provisions in the Affordable Care Act start rolling out, the state of Colorado decided to spread awareness with one of the most confusing ad campaigns I’ve ever seen.

keg_stand

Let’s catalog this ad’s many crimes against humanity:

  • Stealing the tagline and font from the “got milk?” campaign, which may very well be older than the models used in this campaign.
  • The “word” “brosurance.”
  • The sentence “Don’t tap into your beer money to cover those medical bills.”
  • Attempting to turn the perfectly good “Thanks, Obama!” meme into a tagline for insurance.
  • A website that is genuinely called “doyougotinsurance.com.”
  • The combination of calf-high white socks and American flag shorts.
  • The combination of backwards baseball cap and tank top.
  • The “word” “brosurance.”

This is satire, right? It has to be. I refuse to accept this as a real thing. This was put together by people who are secretly criticizing healthcare reform, right? It has to be. Please tell me this isn’t real. The world isn’t that sad of a place.

But wait, there are other ads in the campaign that weren’t written by crazy people.

mom

Okay… that’s weirdly normal. Now I’m even more confused. The message here is “You shouldn’t have to go shopping for medical help. You should get medical help when you need it,” whereas the message of the last ad was “Who needs a liver when you’ve got easy access to a healthcare brofessional? #YOLO”

What are you trying to do here, Colorado? Do you just have a really low opinion of college students? Do you even have a plan, or are you just throwing models on white backgrounds and freestyling the rest?

Every year, there are a handful of costumes (usually something topical) that dominate Halloween. This is especially true in college, where the resources you have to throw together a decent costume are usually pretty limited. Last year, if you overlook the typical pirates and Marios and other costumes that never go out of fashion, you got around 25% Mitt Romney, 25% Barack Obama, and 50% Bane from The Dark Knight Rises.

Here’s our list of ten costumes you’re basically guaranteed to see walking around this year, ranked on the Heath Ledger as Joker Terrifying Scale.

Daft Punk

  • Costume: Biker helmets, gloves, shiny jackets
  • Why this costume? Because this was the year that everyone on the planet suddenly remembered how much they liked Daft Punk.
  • Terrifying Level: 0 Heath Ledger Jokers

North West

  • Costume: Diaper, shutter shades
  • Why this costume? You might be surprised at how many college students jump at the opportunity to dress like a baby. When it’s a famous baby that’s easily recognized with the addition of cheap props, you have a dream costume.
  • Terrifying Level: 0.2 Heath Ledger Jokers020p_joker

Lance Armstrong and/or A-Rod

arod

Source: USA Today

  • Costume: Biking jersey or Yankees uniform, fake muscle suit, Livestrong bracelet or t-shirt that says “Biogenesis”
  • Why this costume? It was a bad year to be world-class athlete caught cheating.
  • Terrifying Level: 0.4 Heath Ledger Jokers040p_joker

Read the rest of this entry »

Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker on Bespin

Image via Wookiepedia

According to an article published in the science journal Nature, scientists from MIT and Harvard have managed to observe light photons as particles. That means that while light doesn’t really have matter or mass in the way we normally understand it, it can still be made to “stick together” to form light molecules.

Now, if we can just get three or four feet worth of these light molecules to stick together and add whatever properties let it deflect lasers and slice through flesh, we’ll have ourselves our very own lightsabers.

 

Book banning always struck me as a special kind of terrible. Not necessarily because of direct harm done — a student forbidden from reading, say Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is not a different end result than just not having that book on the syllabus — but because of the principle. There’s no greater insult to the very idea of education and to the discerning capabilities of young minds than to say, “You students can’t handle this book. You need to be protected from it.”Captainunderpantscover

Once a year, the American Library Association hosts Banned Book Week (Sept. 22-28 this year), a way to spread word about which books are being challenged or removed as a way of informing the public about its ongoing battles against censorship. The ALA will compile a list every year of books with the most objections. The “winner” for 2012? That great spoiler of childhood innocence, Captain Underpants.

Last week, a North Carolina county school district decided to start the celebrations early by pulling Invisible Man from the curriculum and the shelves. Just so we’re on the same page, I’m talking about Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel about a man struggling to find his identity in a world intent on using and abusing him as a tool for personal and political gain, not H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel about an invisible man.

Invisible_ManInvisible Man would unquestionably make my personal list of top ten favorite novels. It’s a book that has proven itself more meaningful each time I’ve returned to it. It pulls off the nearly impossible feat of perfectly representing a specific moment in history (racial tension in the mid-20th century) while asking universal questions about defining oneself as an individual, not just as a part of a uniform group or ideology. This is all achieved through a lightly surreal lens which makes every magically realist metaphor indelible.

So needless to say, I think this is a pretty worthwhile book for high schoolers to read. It has the potential to carry a lot of personal significance, as it did for me, for young people looking to define their role in the world. It’s an easy book to digest with a lot of meaning to unpack, depending on what you bring to it.

It’s also a book about which one North Carolina education board member said, “I didn’t find any literary value.”

If you can’t find literary value in Invisible Man, you have no right to be ruling on what students should or shouldn’t be reading. It’s a criticism that I simply don’t believe. There’s no chance that board member actually took issue with Invisible Man‘s literary value, this was simply a matter of objectionable content. The book has sex, violence, and racism. You might be able to get away with one or two of these, but all three? Forget it.

The challenge to the book’s “literary value” is a cop-out. What good is literature if it can’t address difficult topics like racial violence and sexual politics? What good is education if you’re shielding 18 year olds from discussing these sorts of painful real-world issues through the lens of literature, where it can be analyzed and discussed in a structured setting?

 

See the full strip at Zen Pencils

See the full strip at Zen Pencils

I worry constantly about dating myself in these blog posts. I’m fully aware that I have less than 2 years of my 20′s left, while most of my readership has significantly more than that. So I hope I don’t make too many references that are meaningless to you guys.

That being said, I can recommend Calvin & Hobbes without reservation to every generation. I was lucky enough to be able to read it while it was being published in newspapers. I also got to see it come to an end, and see just how boring every other comic strip afterwards seemed in comparison. I guess it’s appropriate that newspaper comics have fizzled and died steadily since C&H ended in the mid-90s. So much of what its writer/artist Bill Watterson did helped break away from stuffy newspaper formatting. Most cartoonists these days are web-only, so they can have ambitious designs like xkcd‘s infographics or Homestuck‘s interactive and animated strips.

Anyways, in 1990, at the height of C&H‘s popularity, Watterson delivered the commencement speech at his alma mater, Kenyon University. It was an excellent speech on the variable definitions of success, lauding people who seek happiness and fulfillment in their work, even if that means turning down more profitable opportunities.

Recently, the artist at Zen Pencils got hold of this speech. Zen Pencils illustrates inspirational quotes from people like Einstein, Buddha, andThoreau as beautiful prints, wallpapers, iPhone covers, etc. The artist rendered a large section of Watterson’s speech in cartoon form, and the results are really a must read for any college student, particularly those about to graduate or those with ambitions, creative or otherwise, that aren’t directly linked to profit.

In keeping with Watterson’s merchandise ban on Calvin & Hobbes, Zen Pencils isn’t selling this print, just letting the cartoon form speak for itself.

99% of resumes divide their information into two sections: Education and Work Experience. There’s a reason for this. Potential employers want to know about your education to see what your interests are, what your talents are, if you’re generally pretty smart, and if you have a nice looking institution to put next to your name. They want to know about your work experience so they can tell how you’re able to handle the day-to-day responsibilities of a workplace and if you can meet the minimum requirements of the job.

iStock_000009629000XSmall In other words, employers look at your education to know who you are. They look at your work experience, on the other hand, to see what it is you can do.

Despite this visible distinction right on the resume, many entry-level applicants, especially the ones who have impressive higher education credentials, think leaning on their education will be good enough.

I don’t care if you aced all your classes at Harvard. If you aren’t showing off outside interests, experience, or ambition, you’re not offering your employer very much at all.

So how do you fill out those non-education chunks of the resume? By volunteering, working odd jobs, and extracurriculars. I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before, but I’m going to try to be as crudely practical about it, based on my observations, as I can. Hopefully that’ll provide a fresh perspective.

Volunteering. Aside from all the good altruistic reasons for volunteering, from a purely strategic perspective, volunteering is a great way of getting work experience without competing for the job position beforehand. It doesn’t matter all that much what you’re doing, but if you want to show that you can show up to work on time, follow instructions, and work well in a group, give up a few hours to a soup kitchen, a youth group, or whatever other charitable labor you can find.

Working odd jobs. Work experience doesn’t have to mean a corporate position with benefits, 401(k)s, and regular salaries. Anything you can get paid for doing (as long as it’s legal) counts as a job. So if you need to show that you can hold your own in a professional setting, mow some lawns, paint some houses, or weed some garden beds. If you do it enough times over the course of a couple months, then you’re technically “freelance.”

Extracurriculars. After your first one or two jobs, the structured things you did with your spare time aren’t going to matter very much. You’ll probably cut them out of your resume altogether. However, before that first job, the extracurriculars are not optional. They’re an essential part to the overall story of you as a professional. Whatever field you want to work in, you’ll need to prove that your interest in it runs deeper than the minimum credits required to get your degree. And you’ll need these extracurriculars, once again, to show off your ability to handle the basics of a professional setting: showing up on time, handling responsibilities, and working well with others.

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