Writing Essays, America, Beyond Bert and Ernie

Florida's writing test forces teachers to teach students to write a short essay demonstrating "focus, organization, word choice, sentence structure and grammar" rather than "creativity." The horror. The horror. Or so the Tampa Trib seems to think.

Teachers look for ways to help students handle the FCAT's rigid demands while using other assignments to keep them interested in writing.

. . . When not preparing for the FCAT, students learn how to write business and personal letters. They're also encouraged to enter writing contests.

The implication is that writing a coherent essay is a useless, mindless, boring skill. While learning to write a business letter is fun, fun, fun. Well, Florida is a strange place.

In the past, Hillsborough County teachers taught students a five-paragraph essay structure. The first paragraph was an introduction, outlining three main points; three more paragraphs followed, supporting each point; and the conclusion tied the essay together.

"We have some teachers who are still using five paragraphs,'' said Max Hutto, the district's middle school language arts supervisor. "We're trying to move away from that. We're not into that formulaic writing.''

My high school English teachers taught us to write a topic sentence and support it with three or more points; a conclusion was optional. They weren't teaching to a test. They were preparing us for college. It's possible to write creatively within the format, once you master it.

There is no conflict between creativity and focus, organization, (good) word choice, sentence structure and grammar. Focus, organization, etc. come in handy in writing business letters too.

Kids who can't pass Florida's writing test aren't junior Joyces or budding Frosts, I guarantee you. They're kids who can't write.

Testing the tests

Teachers aren't just teaching narrow test skills when they teach to the test, according to a new Manhattan Institute study. Scores on low-stakes tests, which teachers don't have to teach to because there aren't any consequences, correlate with scores on high-stakes tests, which are tied to accountability systems.

Beyond Bert and Ernie

Matt the lighthouse keeper yearns for his nautical boyfriend, who finally returns in a child's picture book called Hello Sailor, which Macmillan is releasing in Britain. (In the U.S., Amazon carries Hello Sailor!, subtitled The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea. It's a completely different book.) In The Observer, Kate Kellaway praises the picture book's photos of seagulls, lighthouses and sand dunes:

You can almost smell the sea salt. And there are no children in it. There is no family. There is no sex. It is about yearning. And it makes -- just as it should -- the love between two men as natural and deep as any other.

. . . When I read the book to my boys (four and six), they admired the lighthouse greatly. But not an eyebrow nor a question was raised about anything else. As an attempt to educate children about homosexual love by awakening discussion, it is a failure.

Gosh, how frustrating for all those parents eager to kick off a discussion of homosexuality with their pre-schoolers. Actually, I have a feeling the demand for picture books about adult homosexual love is even smaller than the demand for picture books about adult heterosexual love. Kids who identify with Thomas the Tank Engine aren't interested in Matt and Sailor.

There are many books for young children that feature same-sex friends. Pooh and Piglet, for example. And we all know about Bert and Ernie.


Meanwhile, at a school in Canada, first graders no longer will learn to spell "gun," lest they grow up to be vicious killers.

Came to America

What do immigrants think of life in America? They like it, concludes a survey by Public Agenda, a non-profit group.

Eighty percent say the U.S. is a unique country that stands for something special in the world. Most rate the U.S. as better than their home countries on issues from women's rights to making immigrants feel welcome. Ninety percent said they experienced no negative fallout after Sept. 11; two-thirds say they've experienced little or no discrimination as immigrants. And most believe public school classes should be taught in English, though Mexican immigrants are less likely to push English than other immigrants.

Adios, Nativo

In a mostly Mexican-American school district in Southern California, a bilingual education advocate and ethnic agitator was recalled from the school board -- by a 40 percent margin. In every precinct, Santa Ana voters rejected Nativo (changed from Larry) Lopez, replacing him with a white Republican.

Daniel Weintraub of the Sacramento Bee writes that Lopez was "done in by his advocacy of a brand of politics that emphasizes ethnic identity over assimilation, separatism rather than inclusion." And Spanish rather than English. Naturally, Lopez claimed racists were trying to keep Hispanics down. But he lost heavily in Hispanic neighborhoods too.

Arturo Lomeli, a Santa Ana dentist who was born in Mexico and who is president of the Downtown Business Association, told the Los Angeles Times that he voted for the recall because he was convinced that Lopez was trying to re-create Mexico in Santa Ana.

"You don't come to the United States and say, 'I'd like to live in a city that looks like Mexico.' ... You want nice things. You don't get them with a Nativo Lopez," Lomeli said.

Fighting for an education

What happens when a high school gives up on educating its students? Ben Ehrenreich of the Los Angeles Weekly tells the story of Ami Motevalli, who was hired to teach art at Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles. One class had 60 students, 10 of whom were classified as severely emotionally disturbed. She had no books or supplies.

Discipline was a problem, in class and out, but the administration's reactions were erratic at best. She would send students who acted up to the dean's office, but "there was no follow-up, or the follow-up was too severe." She recalls going to a dean at the end of the school day. "At 3:16, right after she signed out, I asked her, 'Can you help me out with this student?' She literally blew up at me, 'I'm off the clock!' That was the type of response I felt I was getting, period. It was hostility, anger and irritation. It was like, 'Just go baby-sit, don't complain.'"

When students organized to demand books, supplies, teachers who'd stay awake in class and an end to random searches, the principal blamed the art teacher, refusing to believe students cared about the issues they were raising. One student was counseled to drop out. A talented artist, he now works at Jack in the Box.

Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at JoanneJacobs.com while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.

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