Friday, November 27, 2009

Read it and Reap

Unless you teach elementary school, you may not know about the "reading wars" going on as we speak.

According to John Reyhner at Northern Arizona University ("Home of the Tourists Headed to Vegas"), the outcome of these wars could determine how your child or grandchild learns to read.

On one side are those who believe in phonics -- memorizing how letters sound in certain situations and then "sounding out" new words.

As a little tyke, I had an easy time with phonics. You might even say I was hooked on it.

By first grade, even words like "laughter" I could pronounce easily, just by making the sound for "l," then the sound for "a," then the sound for a cow getting sucked into a jet engine. No problem.

On the other side are those who support a "whole language" approach, which emphasizes connecting the appearance of a word with a concept, so a child can recognize it on sight, without having to figure out the spelling.

This was the philosophy behind those infernal "Dick and Jane" books, in which words were repeated enough times on each page so kids would absorb what they look like.

Because it is very important for every first grader to know the word "Dick" before anything else.

Nowadays, there is a commonly accepted list of "sight words" that the little tykes actually need to make their way through most children's literature. It contains not just the obvious ones like "snd" and "lol," but other words they frequently encounter in their formative reading experiences, such as "run," "from," "the," "scary," and "pervert."

The very first "sight word" most children learn is their own name, which is why modern parents feel they can get away with choosing names like "Mykaelya" or "Khloe." If I ever have another child, I'm going to call it "Ptragvknic" (pronounced "Kevin").

You might think the main problem with ignoring spelling is that children don't learn how to spell.  Does recognition of a word in the reading process translate to being able to reproduce it when you write?  The process of writing involves inscribing one letter at a time from left to write -- in other words, it functions phonetically.

But, as you wel no, a compleat understanding of fonix is no garantee of speling abilitee.

Anyway, which side has the upper hand in this epic battle? 

The cynic in me wants to say, "which ever one costs less."  In reality, there may be room for the two methods to cooperate, after all.

Some experts have pointed out that a kid can learn a word phonetically, then come to know it by sight after seeing frequently enough. It works both ways.

And, as NAU's Jon Reyhner points out, children who come from "high literacy" households--where young children are read to on a regular basis, there are lots of children's books, and adults read regularly--tend to learn to read well regardless of the teaching approach used."

So, read to your kids a lot, and don't worry about it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

All I Need to Know about Women I Learned from Oprah Winfrey

No human being has been hated more for making absurd amounts of money in a way that is ostensibly altruistic than Oprah Winfrey.

As I write this, Oprah just announced that she is quitting her daytime talk show in 2011. It's hard to find a woman alive who has not felt her influence. Therefore, any serious effort to understand females must involve a careful study of Oprahness -- her magazine, her show, the whole works.

I undertook this grueling task, which absorbed all my free time and attention for many, many minutes.  Gentlemen, I highly recommend you take note of my findings. They will change your life.

The most common complaint women have about men is that they don't communicate. We fellas just don't see what there is to talk about once the relevant biographical details (who you've slept with) are out of the way.

Suppose you hear the question, "What are you thinking about?"  Why do women ask this question? Because no one taught them how to fish, so they have no other way of building bonds with people.

Typically, the honest answer will be something like "baseball" or "sex." These answers won't do.

Women want to believe their men are deep thinkers.  But there is no need to lie, because you are, in fact, a deep thinker. You're just thinking deeply about a topic she hasn't learned to appreciate, and it's not a priority for you to frame it in the proper context for her.

But give it a try.

Women love context.

(It also helps if you start with the words "I'm feeling.")

So if you're thinking about sex, for example, your answer needs to be "intimacy;" or, even better: "I'm feeling intimate/a lack of intimacy." 

Now you're speaking her language.

If you're thinking about whether or not the Red Sox will continue to use Ortiz at DH if his power numbers stay down, you need to say: "I've noticed that I like to feel like I can accomplish a lot athletically, so when I ponder the drama played out by highly paid athletes, in a sense it helps me feel more powerful. Watching one hero in the declining stages of his career gives me a parallel to my own fears that my best days are behind me."

Get the idea?

More examples:

Wrong: "I'm thinking I'd like to put in a new tree stand down by the property line."

Right: "I'm feeling frustrated by limited recreational opportunities, so I'm pondering some specific strategies to address that issue."

Wrong: "I'm thinking about maybe washing and waxing the truck."

Right: "I wonder if I'm doing enough to maintain our vehicles, because feeling like I can providing for us is very important to me."

Wrong: "I was remembering a Sylvester Stallone movie I saw a few years ago."

Right: "I was remembering a Hugh Grant movie I saw a few years ago."

Okay, that one probably requires a fib. This is hard, even for me! Again, better to stick with the truth, but reframe it:

"I was reflecting on how Hollywood war films promote reckless loyalty and violent physical domination as masculine traits. This is probably a side of myself that I need to explore more deeply in one of my four therapy sessions this week."

Hey, the ancient Greeks said "know thyself." Oprah reminded us that to be absorbed in your own self-improvement might be the greatest gift you can give to those around you.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Playing Chicken with Needles

It's nice to know the government is always right.

The Maine legislature has killed a bill that would have made it illegal for the government to require vaccination for all citizens, according to the Bangor Daily News.

“If we don’t have the right to control our own bodies, what gets injected into our bodies, what rights do we have?” asks Rep. Doug Thomas (R-Ripley).

Well, for starters, you have the right to put blind faith in scientists and politicians.

A Nov. 12 BDN editorial argues, incredibly, that the government "must retain the power to protect people" if some horrendous virus starts killing off vast chunks of the population.

"It is hard to imagine any scenario," so sayeth the BDN, "setting aside any Big Brother-inspired paranoia, that would have [government] tapping this power with reckless or bad intent."

Yes, politicians are such nice people.  And it's not like there's any money involved in the manufacture and distribution of vaccines, so the whole process is bound to remain pure and innocent as kittens selling Girl Scout cookies.

First of all, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to have a healthy skepticism about vaccine, or anything else you are asked (told) to put into your body. And those who choose not to protect themselves would only be harming themselves.

Secondly, there is no reason to believe the government is capable of making enough vaccine to protect millions of people at a time from some horrible new bug, so protecting its authority to make vaccines compulsory seems a bit peculiar. It's sort of like insisting I should have the right to bring my gerbil with me when I vacation on the moon.

Vaccines are still grown in chicken eggs, a method widely criticized as being not just a little creepy, but also way too slow.  What, is there a shortage of eggs?

Maybe I could help.

Back in July I wrote about how my wife and daughter brought home six fuzzy chicks in a cardboard box. Two of them were "broilers," which meant that eight weeks later they had grown too large to support their own weight, barely able to move from the feeder to the water pan.  Sort of like General Motors.

At that point, we were left with only one logical option, which was to put the broilers out by the road with a "free" sign on them, and hope a hungry person with experience in humane slaughtering and evisceration happened by.

Unfortunately, that is not what we did. Instead, I absorbed the responsibility for giving two fat fowl a dignified finish.  I'll spare you the details.

But we still have four hens who need a home (my wife and daughter will insist that they already have a home, since I managed to nail some pieces of wood together until they formed a chicken coop, but pay no attention to them).

So, on second thought, let's make vaccination against any and all flu viruses mandatory for all Americans. The demand for chickens and eggs will go through the roof, and I'll be able to make some quick cash.

The owners of the Bangor Daily News will be happy, too, since they can always count on their editorial writers to lay an egg once in a while.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

A Brief Civics Lesson

Apparently some people think the state constitution is an infallible document that should never be tampered with under any circumstances.

That's the only conceivable explanation for rejecting Question 7, which 53% of voters did on Nov. 3.

The constitution gives city and town officials five days to verify signatures on petitions. The amendment would have allowed ballooned this deadline all the way out to ten days.

Yikes! The revolution is at hand! Call in the National Guard!


First of all, let's clear something up. The constitution is not perfect. 

If it were perfect, it would contain the following clause: "No citizen shall be compelled to view or listen to any advertising that contains an unrealistically hyper used car salesman who exhorts people to 'come join the party' in a voice that sounds like the love child of Tim Sample and an over-caffeinated red-tailed hawk."

Yeah, I'm talking about you, Glenn What's-his-face from Bangor Car Care. You recently made a commercial you promised would be "serious" because of "these tough economic times," but then you slipped back into buffoonery by breaking Television Personality Rule Number One: "always talk into the camera."

Dude, I'm over here! Look at me when you're insulting my intelligence, dammit!

So, yeah, that guy needs to go. But no matter how much we all agree on this point, or any other, there's no way we can put it in the constitution, because it's a pure and sacred document.

We citizens exist to protect and preserve its welfare. Not the other way around.

Suppose I own a company, and an employee asks me for a few extra days to complete a project. The extension would have no tangible impact on our operations. This employee happens to be the only one who does not spend half his or her shift in the break room, pumping inane status updates into Facebook.

Am I a jerk boss for not granting this request? No, because I'm preserving The Way We've Always Done Things.

I probably don't have to tell you where I'm going with this.

People voting "yes" on Question 1 were most likely conservative. If you're a conservative, you like to conserve. Conserving is sometimes good. I hope people 50 years from now still know how to quilt, or who Elvis was, or what trees look like. 

But conservatism sometimes takes the form of cainotophobia (fear of change).

The margin of victory for Question 1 looks remarkably similar to the margin of defeat for Question 7. Is it a stretch to suppose all the same conservative fogeys who turned out to "preserve marriage" got carried away with preserving stuff and voted down a constitutional amendment for absolutely no logical reason?

Is the state constitution so completely infallible that it should never be tampered with -- except to ban gay weddings?

Let's find out. If you voted "no" on Question 1 and on Question 7, please email me at Kindly include your name, what town you live in, and a quick explanation of what the hell you were thinking.

If I hear from anyone, I'll let you know. Otherwise, you can assume what 47% of us have already started to suspect:

Maybe we're not doing this democracy thing quite right.