Thursday, July 31, 2008

Thinking About Reading and the Brain

I've been thinking a lot about reading this summer, and in talking to others about it, I was given the title of this book:

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain
by Maryanne Wolfe, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2007.

Disclaimer: Reading one book does not an expert make! Although I am studying neuropsychology, and I do have a biological sciences background and recent coursework in neurobiology, most of my technical reading thus far has been in general neurobiology, general neurophysiology, and child psychopathology; my interest in these areas has been mainly about differences in visual processing found in children with autism, and also in certain other populations, including a sub-set of gifted children. I have gotten interested in the neuropsychology of reading because I am teaching reading this summer using a unique methodology developed by the Institute of Reading Development. My background helps me understand this book a little differently than the lay reader might, but I claim no expertise in this area. I have downloaded some of the source research studies described in this book, but I have not yet read them. Wolf and her colleagues are the true experts and I urge you to read this book and go beyond it to get the full implications of this work.

Whew! I just had to say that because what I am about to say is personal and speculative and is no way to be construed as having come down from Sinai!

This book is really three discourses in one. The first is about the development of writing and reading as a human cultural technology, and the implications thereof for changes in the connections between relatively fixed structures in the human brain that have not been modified for reading. The second is about the development of reading skills for individuals in literate cultures, how it differs across languages, and the implications of reading for the individual's brain and self. The third is about what may be going on in the brains of those for whom reading does not develop in the expected ways, those who have dyslexia.

All three discourses are interesting and well-explained, and they are all related to the others in complex ways. It is not easy to tease them apart. For example, the development of writing and reading as a cultural technology at the beginning of history (literally!) six thousand years ago, has made changes in neural connections in literate brains that have fascinating implications for the development of each individual reader and has also created within literate individuals a different mode of thinking and self-understanding from those who are not literate. In turn, intriguing new neurobiological discoveries about dyslexia, built on the hypotheses of pioneers such as Orton, demonstrate that reading is not natural to the human brain; rather it relies on older structures and abilities that are useful for other, more innate tasks. Wolf is very good at teasing these stories apart while maintaining the connections among them, and treats the reader to passages about meaning that are quite beautifully written.

I was most interested in Wolf's discussion of the development of the expert reader. When a child first begins to read, certain neural connections begin to form in the temporal-parietal regions of the brain that create associations among nearby primary and auditory centers, primary visual centers in the occipital lobe, and the language centers in the parietal lobe and frontal lobes. Normally, these connections are primarily developed in the left hemisphere, which also provides the exquisite timing necessary for fluency, although some right hemispheric involvement also occurs, the extent of which depends on the language and writing system being read. As the child works on decoding, his brain recruits a great number of neural connections, because the child is a novice. A great deal of gray matter, white matter and energy are required in this laborious process. Feed your children often and well, and give them lots of encouragement through this stage!

When fluent reading develops, more and more of the associations necessary to decoding and parsing written words to extract meaning become automatized, and fewer neurons and neural systems are needed for the task. As reading becomes automatic, the number of neurons needed for the mechanics of it become fewer, and more brain "space" is freed up for the meta-cognitive work that makes reading so valuable and pleasurable. What is really interesting is that these meta-cognitive tasks are done in the right hemisphere, where concepts, patterns, and meaning are associated with the reader's previous experience. Connections are therefore made across the hemispheres and reading becomes an internal dialogue between the reader and his experiences and the words written on the page. This is what makes reading a transcendent experience that creates for the reader the ability to bring herself whole--mind, heart, and soul--into the mind of another, or into wholly imaginary worlds that become real through the act of reading.

Like everything learned, reading does change our brains. The brain is composed of structures that are relatively stable; that is they are much the same in a modern literate person as they were in our Cro Magnon ancestors forty thousand years ago. However, the connections between these structures do change with the development of expert reading, and the weaving together of dedicated neural systems means that the literate person gains a new way of thinking that is not available to the non-reader.

There is a great deal of concern, especially among those of us who could not live without the meta-cognitions that reading has given us, about the decline of reading in American society, in favor of the more completely visual information technologies now developing. And although we know we cannot turn back the clock, we are concerned because we know that the assimilation of vast amounts of information is not equivalent to the ability to think meta-cognitively, reflectively, in the way of an expert reader.

One valid reason for this concern relates back to the issue of timing in the firing of neurons, which primarily developed in the language centers of the left hemisphere for the purpose of sequences. There are "delay neurons" whose job is to slow down neural firing, allowing time for sequencing and decision. Reading, which requires exquisite timing for fluency, supports in turn, time for contemplation and association with experience by the reader. It is not at all clear that the more graphic, iconic nature of the internet will do the same.

From my IRD reading teacher training, I learned that the real bottleneck for developing readers occurs between the stage where the child learns decoding and basic fluency skills, and the stage where the child reads enough to develop the fluency and comprehension required to achieve identification and absorption in works of literary fiction. Almost all American children achieve the first, and thus are not technically illiterate. Fewer and fewer achieve the second. My training manual says the following"

"The reason is straightforward enough: many children don't do enough reading in chapter books...for identification and absorption to become automatic...The reasons can probably be grouped into three main categories. First there is not general, widespread acceptance or understanding on the central importance of Stage 3 goals (i.e. fluency and comprehension enough to support identification and absorption. EHL) and consequently, most schools require an inadequate amount of reading in chapter books... (I)nstead, school reading often focuses on short pieces or excerpts....Second, reading has a hard time competing with electronic media...And third, children who achieve fluency in chapter books late in elemetary school have little opportunity to catch the reading bug before being caught up in all the competing demands of the middle school years."
--Version SU 08 1.5--4/14/08, Institute of Reading Development

In answer to Lisa's question, posed in the comments here, I think that given what we know about reading and the brain at this time, it would be a good idea to limit use of the internet as an educational tool, and to limit also the use of electronic media for entertainment, at least until a child has achieved the Stage 3 goals and can read with identification and absorption in chapter books. In this way we can ensure that the vast majority of kids achieve the neural connections necessary for the kind of associational thinking and reflection that are the gift of the expert reader. Then the internet can become a tool for the creation of ever more diverse associations and the development of new ways of thinking that do not displace those acquired through reading development.

However, we must also continue to remind ourselves that for students with dyslexia, who are using different neural pathways to develop reading, all bets are off. They may need and benefit from technology in ways that do not benefit the majority of our students. But that would be another blog!

I'm closing with Maryanne Wolf's version of Hemmingway's "one true sentence," from her conclusion to Chapter 6: The Unending Story of Reading Development in Proust and the Squid:

"The end of reading development doesn't exist; the unending story of reading moves ever forward, leaving the eye, the tongue, the word, the author for a new place from which the "truth breaks forth, fresh and green," changing the brain and the reader every time."

May her words whet your reading appetite. Go forth and read great books!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Afternoon Drives to Santa Fe


The Engineering Geek and I have been making the drive up the Turquoise Trail to Santa once a week in the afternoon, during this late-summer term for IRD teaching.

We have stopped to take quite a few good pictures on the way. So without further ado, here they are!

Thunderheads build over El Corazon de los Ortiz, July 16, 2008.

Looking north toward Madrid and across to Santa Fe on the descent from the Ortiz. July 16, 2008.

Iglesia San Jose, in Old Cerillos, NM, July 23, 2008.

Rain over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Santa Fe, NM, July 16, 2008

Looking from San Marcos, NM, across the Galisteo Basin. July 23, 2008.

Sunset thunderstorm, looking southwest from Santa Fe Community College, July 23, 2008.

The world may be going to perdition, but what a view we have from our mountain paradise.

Every time I make this commute, I still say: "And they pay me to do this!"

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Carnival of Homeschooling 135: Boy Scouts of America

Today is 101st anniversary of the Boy Scouts. In the United States, scouting started a little later, and will be celebrating it's 100th anniversary soon.

We are a scouting family and Boychick (a.k.a. N.) is our current scout, and he is ambitious: he wants Order of the Arrow and to be an Eagle Scout.

He has continued in his Boy Scout troop here since his bridging ceremony from Cub Scouts--where he earned the Arrow of Light award.

Over at Consent of the Governed, Judy Aron is celebrating Boy Scouts in her Carnival of Homeschooling post for this week.

There are many ways that homeschooling is similar to scouting. We all want to raise and educate our children to be prepared for the future, and we want them to develop the discipline to work hard in order to meet their goals in life. For some homeschoolers, scouting is part of the curriculum. It has been for us, and it has served us well. Other homeschoolers participate in 4-H, or Campfire programs. I am sure that there are many more such programs designed to meet the unique needs of homeschoolers. We are such a diverse group.

NOTE: Thanks to the blogger who nominated Ragamuffin Studies for Alesandra's Homeschool Blog Awards! I am truly honored.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Hello, Dolly! Tropical Depression Meets Monsoon


This has been a bad year for the TAAS Summer Star Parties at Oak Flat Picnic Grounds on South Highway Fourteen.

In June, the forest was closed due to extreme fire danger and the Solstice Picnic and observing party was cancelled.
This month, with the Engineering Geek staging the event, it was a hurricane.

A hurricane? I hear you asking. What? Nine hundred miles from the nearest ocean waters?

Well, actually, it was the remnants of Hurricane Dolly--now the remnants of a tropical depression that moved north from the Brownsville Texas Area up the Rio Grande Valley, socking in the whole state of New Mexico and causing serious flash flooding. Our mountain neosols, already saturated, just cannot hold as much water as the deep loams in the midwest.
So without further ado, I bring you a Nearly Wordless Special post.

Here comes the second wave!

I was teaching in ABQ for the first wave, but caught this at suppertime when I got home. I was in a windowless room teaching, but I could hear the rain on the roof and I got the Engineering Geek's message by cell phone. The TAAS event was cancelled.

The torrent pours out of the dark clouds,
cascading off the eaves at the back of the house.
It rained like this for a good hour.
The Geek said we had gotten 0.98 of an inch
earlier in the afternoon.
Neither of us wanted to venture out to check
the evening total.

The clouds over the Sandia Mountain Front lift their skirts slightly, so that we can see the pink sunset horizon as the rain continues to fall.

As water puddled up over the culvert at the top of the driveway and spilled down toward Sedillo wash to the south of the house, we were glad we did not have to go anywhere.

Yesterday morning, we ventured out to observe the aftermath. The dogs were as curious as we were.

The morning did not dawn, rather the light came up gradually, softly through heavy fog.

From the Los Pecos extension of the road, we saw mud flats and standing water below the very large culvert on the new road. Los Pecos Loop.

The heavy fog was shifting, curtains of it moving across the sky, playing hide-and-seek with the rising sun.

We moved as though through a mass of warm, moist cotton, our footsteps muffled, our voices hushed.

The Geek checked the rain guage as we ended our morning walk, partially obscured by the "jungle," as we call the abundance of flora that has burgeoned in this really good monsoon summer.

We got 0.25 of an inch more Saturday night, giving us a total for Saturday of nearly an inch and a quarter.

We had some flash flooding, but nothing as severe as Ruidoso, to the southeast in the Sierra Blanco, where they got four inches in less than 24 hours.

The flash floods there cut off the entire town, and people went missing in the raging Ruidoso River.

Good-bye, Dolly!

We watched the as the storm swept northeast, over the shoulder of the Sandias as we sipped our coffee in the breakfast nook.

The rest of Sunday was warm and sunny. And more humid than we are used to experiencing.

One of my students drives down from Santa Fe for my Sunday afternoon level 5 class. His mom said they drove through serious rain and hail near Budaghers--the last wave.

As I write, five Air Guard helicopters just flew low over our house, headed to Ruidoso. They say that all the bridges over Rio Ruidoso are out, and the recovery will be long and expensive.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

IRD: Recommendations for the Adult Booklist

One of the benefits for students and/or their parents who take the IRD summer reading classes is a booklist for each level to provide some of the best books for reading for absorption and pleasure. The one level that does not get such a list is the adult speedreading course. This year, the company has asked teachers to make a list of books in several categories for a forthcoming adult level book list. This list will be unique because it contains not only works of classical and contemporary fiction, but will also have non-fiction categories.

I have been working on my list as requested, and here are some books that I have read that I believe belong on such a list. I don't know if it was wanted, but I included a short annotation about each book.

I thought readers of my blog would be interested in some of these books, too!
I am still working on the list and have not gotten to other genres, so expect updates in the coming weeks.


The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
by Michael Pollen

This book is a fascinating read that brings us from the farm, field or garden to the table for four different kinds of meals. In the process, readers learn about modern agribusiness and monocultures, nutritional science, what "organic" does not mean in the common parlance, and the ethics of eating meat and hunting. The book is well written and enjoyable reading.

Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement
by Brian Doherty

This book is an excursion through the history and people of a modern, radical political movement by a senior editor for Reason. Though a "fringe" group in the eyes of the dominant political parties, the Libertarian movement has had a surprising effect on recent politics in the United States. Like many such movements, this one is filled with fascinating and eccentric people who have uncommon interests. For example the founders of the L-5 Society for Space Colonization and the founder of the X-Prize for private spaceship design are all libertarian. This book is well written, and is in turn both serious and humorous in style. It's absorbing and enjoyable.

Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath

As per the title, this is an account of the demise of classical learning at the university level. It is also a discussion of important changes in university education brought about by the wholesale acceptance of post-modernism as critical thought in the arts, humanities and education departments. It is also a passionate argument for the eternal verity of beauty, ethics and wisdom brought about by the Greeks that are central to Western culture and tradition, and the need to teach them to each generation of scholars in the universities of the West. This book is both erudite and entertaining. Anyone who has had experience or exposure to the modern university will be nodding their heads in agreement at much of what is written here. The authors have included a booklist for the interested layman entitled: 'When All We Can Do is Read,' as well as notes for those who wish to pursue the topic on a more scholarly level.


Three Hainish Novels (also published as Worlds of Exile and Illusion: Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile, City of Illusions) by Ursula K. LeGuin

These are some of LeGuin's best works. The story woven through the three novellas is that of the developing ability to communicate instantaneously across time and space using a new technology, and from mind to mind using a unique human sense first discovered on the world of the first novella, Rocannon's world. In her evocative prose, LeGuin explores the themes of exile and return, friendship and the rejection of otherness, and the spirituality of human freedom and choice. This book was so absorbing and so beautiful that I felt a sudden sense of loss when I finished and had to rejoin the everyday world on earth.

Other recommended sci-fi by LeGuin: The Telling, Four Ways of Forgiveness, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossed.

He, She, and It
by Marge Piercy

This novel is two stories interwoven together. One is a re-telling of the creation of the Golem of Prague by the Maharal, a European Jewish story that inspired such works as Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. The second story is of a near-future dystopia in which plague and environmental crisis have rendered earth as a world ruled by corporations, and free cities survive by selling proprietary knowledge and skills to them. The story is about the creation of an android who has human capacities as a weapon. The book explores the theme of what it means to be human through such motifs as gender, technology, marriage, parenthood, slavery, freedom, and spirituality. The writing is rich and the story is absorbing.

Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper

This is the story of a choice for the fate of the earth told through the images of classic fairy tales. Time travel, space travel and magic are all devices through which the story is told and a mystery is solved. Themes include life and death, beauty and terror, spirituality and evil. The location of the repository of earth's life forms, knowledge and wisdom is found in a very surprising place; this absorbing story has implications for all of us in all times and places.


The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Normal Doige, MD

This is a well written account of recent discoveries about neuroplasticity told through accounts of people with brain injuries and diseases, and the detective work of neuroscientists over the past 100 years who overturned the paradigm of the unchangeable brain. It is well written with clear scientific explanations rendered into layman's terms.

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolfe

This popularization of the neuroscience and cultural history of reading expounds on three subjects: the cultural and neurobiological aspects of the development of writing and reading in human history; the neurobiology, methodologies, and culture of reading development in contemorary literate societies; and what happens when the brain cannot learn to read in the usual ways, the neurobiology of dyslexia. This is written for lay readers and explanations are well rendered for this purpose. Wolf is passionate about the problems in the culture of reading brought about by popular educational trends, and she draws parallels between the concerns of the Greeks (especially Plato) during the transition to alphabetic writing and reading and comtemporary concerns about the transition to digitally codified information. Very interesting and well done, and Wolf includes notes for the scientists among the general readers.

The Search for Longitude by Dava Sobel

This is an account of how the problem of calculating longitude for navigation was solved and why it took unil the late 18th century to solve it. As part of the problem the reader is brought on a journey through such subjects as the measurement of time, astronomy, and the art of navigation at sea. This is a fascinating and encouraging look at human ingenuity in the face of a great scientific problem. Sobel tells the story well!

Go forth and read great books!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Road Construction Complete: An Ode to Practical Genius


The heavy equipment is gone and the
road signs are up!
The Los Pecos Trail extension and
Los Pecos Loop are complete!

The utilities are humming at the side of road.
Until Los Pecos Homeschool made a project
out of following all the phases of
road construction across previously undeveloped land,
we had no idea what really goes into building a road. It has been a great learning to experience this project from start to finish. Such learning does not come everyday.

It is kind of amazing to consider that ten months ago, this road was a line on a map, and before that it was a spark of inspiration in the developers head as he walked through the tangled woods.

Now, it is something new under the sun!

Everything is in place: the grades, the drainage, the utility lines underneath. Soon we will forget that this hill was a tangled mass of juniper and scrub-oak, and very difficult to navigate. It is already beginning to seem like this road belongs here; that it has always been here.

And therin lies a certain danger. Many people in this country have no idea what is required to have roads, utilities and houses. They do not understand the creativity and ingenuity that go into our modern infrastructure.

And thus it has been neglected. From highways to levees, we just expect it to be there. We often don't stop to consider the amazing work of the human mind and imagination it takes to build even a simple road. We don't believe we should have to put up with the cost and inconvenience that go along along with maintaining infrastructure. And so we don't appreciate this kind of practical genius that makes our lives so rich and full, and immensely easier.

Monday, July 21, 2008

IRD Term II Week II: The Engineering Geek Has an Epiphany!

Yesterday, I arrived home at 8 PM after completing the second week of the second term.
Things are going well and I am into a teaching routine now, though I was quite tired from the long week just past, in which I had taught an extra day as a substitute. I also think I need new shoes--the really comfortable sandals I bought in May are now worn out; I am on my feet most of the hours that I teach. I may get five minutes to inhale half-a sandwich and sit down between classes. I think this is the one aspect of IRD that I would change: A dedicated lunch period of 1/2 hour would make the days less physically and mentally stressful. Anyway, this afternoon I will hie myself off the Shoes On a Shoestring to see what they've got!

Last term I had no adult classes assigned to me, but this term I have two.
I am really enjoying helping adults improve their reading and comprehension. In the adult classes, we focus mainly on non-fiction and only do some fiction in the last week of the course. These past two weeks we have been reading Dibs: In Search of Self by Dr. Virginia Axeline. This is an excellent book in it's own right. Virginia Axeline is credited with inventing Play Therapy for the purpose of helping psychologically troubled kids. In this book she tells the story of her interactions with a highly gifted young boy who does not interact with the world. In our discussions of the book in both classes, we have touched on the ideas of respect for children as people, how a child's therapy can heal the family, and also the need not to make snap judgements about a person's abilities and development.
This has been very interesting to me, and the insights from our discussions have given me new insights into my third career--that of a neurospychologist.

Within the IRD curriculum, however, we are using Dibs not only to discuss but to develop improved reading skills and comprehension strategies for adults so that they may take active control of their reading. Active control here means that adults consider their purpose for the reading that they are doing and adjust their strategies accordingly in order to achieve the greatest reading efficiency and also take pleasure from all their reading. What is interesting about teaching adults is that, although they generally do not resist the strategies we teach to the point of refusal, they do complain--vociferously--about them because the strategies feel awkward after a lifetime of poor reading strategies and habits. This is particularly true of the older students. And the engineers.

The Engineering Geek is taking my Wednesday evening class in Santa Fe. He has been complaining off and on over the six years of our marriage about how difficult reading is for him and how unpleasurable it is as a consequence. A few years ago, when I first matriculated for my Special Education MA, I received a flyer from UNM Continuing Ed for a speed reading class. (It was the IRD program, though I did not know anything about it at the time). Being a very fast reader with many academic successes under my belt, I felt no need to take such a class, so I put the flyer in the recycle. The Engineering Geek rescued it (he throws nothing away) and carried it around for the entire summer, but did nothing about it. (This is, I have learned, typical for him. Every project not involved with his work starts out this way. Eventually, I make things happen and he grumbles and then is grateful. Sigh. A woman's work...). So this summer when he learned about my schedule and was fretting about my driving home from Santa Fe on the back roads late at night, I suggested that he take the adult class there and make the drive with me. He grumbled about the cost a little bit, but when I got him a discount, he agreed.

At the first class I discovered one reason that reading was so difficult for him. He reads very slowly. Reading a book slowly is like watching Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies in slow motion: it allows the mind to wander. A slow reader ends up losing the thread of the story or explanation, and must re-read and re-read in order to remember what was read. But the adult class is a Speed Reading class. So the Engineering Geek was taught the techniques to improve reading speed. I noticed that he was having trouble with them; his technique was jerky, and it appeared that he was still re-reading. I was not sure if he was not comprehending or if he did comprehend but didn't realize it. (This can happen as one learns speed reading). So I listened to him and his partner as they retold what they had just read. The Engineering Geek was having great difficulty finding the words he wanted, which slowed him down and interfered with memory. I was planning of having a conversation with him about it after we did a group discussion

Here is what I thought was going on. Engineers are visual thinkers, and many of them have what Cheri Florance calls Maverick Minds. That is, the visual organization of their thinking is strong that they do not learn to switch to verbal strategies when they are needed. Mavericks rely so heavily on visual memory and cognition that they do not develop the verbal memory needed for certain tasks very effectively. But reading is a primarily verbal skill, even though the visual system is used for information intake. So, I was planning to discuss this with the Engineering Geek in order to determine if this interference was a problem. (This can be a big problem for males, because their verbal centers tend to be far more lateralized in the brain than those of females. Also, the male corpus collosum--the fibers that carry information across hemispheres--is smaller than that of females. It appear that females are far better "wired" for verbal thinking than males).

So, as I said, I was going to bring this up with the Geek. But when I approached him during the next independent reading session, I noticed that his speed reading technique was much smoother, and at the next timing I noticed that his time had doubled. So I recorded the time, expressed my satisfaction to him, and moved on. Why mess with success?

Later, as we were driving south on NM 14, the Engineering Geek said: "Tonight, I've had an epiphany!" He went on to explain that he had spent years trying not to sub-vocalize while he was reading. Apparently, a teacher had told him that this was the wrong way to read! (I am endlessly amazed at the strange ideas that teachers cotton onto and refuse to let go).
Evidently, he took this to heart and began to try to read without engaging the verbal centers of his brain. From that time forward, he became a slow reader, endlessly re-reading to try to comprehend.

I explained to the Geek that readers generally either hear the words in their heads or sub-vocalize as they read. There are a few people, dyslexics among them, that do not, but that this is somewhat rare. I also explained that when people who hear the words in their heads only are practicing speed reading, often they begin to sub-vocalize again for a while, until their faster speeds become comfortable and normal. Then they go back to hearing the words in their heads. What I suspect happened to create the Engineering Geek's epiphany was that when I was explaining why we did structured discussions (adults complain about this quite a bit) I said that we want to verbalize what was just read in order to organize it in memory, and that the structure provides a framework of synaptic associations so that the information read was more easily recalled. The Engineering Geek heard that and associated it with what he'd been told about not sub-vocalizing while reading. He stopped trying to interfere with this, and he found he was comprehending what he read better.

This sparked a lively discussion where the Geek spent the better part of the drive home "data mining" my brain for what I knew about the neuroscience behind reading. I know a little from my MA in Special Ed, and I can infer more from my current studies in Neurobiology. But I began to realize that there are big gaps in my knowledge since I have not studied the topic directly.

So naturally, I began asking around. My sister Madge's son D. has dyslexia, though the schools refused to acknowledge it as such. She listened to my ideas and said, "You'd love this book I just finished..."

I can see that I am embarking on a new reading and research blitz. Thank goodness for Amazon! The UPS Orange Route driver (who knows me by name) should be winding his way up our mountain to deliver Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain sometime today. In anticipation I read the Epilogue of Radicals for Capitalism this morning!

Stay tuned! There is definitely more to come...

Friday, July 18, 2008

Found: A Forthright Candidate (Too Bad He's Not Running)

Last night, Bruce and I did something I don't think we have ever done before: We went to a political comedy live broadcast at a movie theater. It cost more than a regular movie, too. But with N. in Illinois (that was last night, he's now in New Jersey--Boychick, the world traveler) we thought we'd splurge--so we mortgaged the house to buy some extra gas (just kidding!) and went to see Glenn Beck's one-man show Unelectable! We even had dinner afterwards at a nice place.

We really enjoyed it. The first half was comedy, the second half was 'the speech from a candidate that you've always wanted and never heard.' Although this guy bills himself as a conservative, he has some libertarian ideas, as you'll see from his platform.

We really weren't sure how full the theater would be, but Albuquerque is a military town, and also has the National Labs, so it was a large theater and it was pretty full, even though people had to drive to the west side (side is pronounced 'sah--eed' when combined with west here) during rush hour, which takes great bravery for the average Albuquerquean.

And when the show was going on it was very much like we were in the actual live show in Dallas. People clapped, people cheered, people enjoyed the people by them. You could feel the audience energy.

During the first half, the humor, which had a political edge was non-stop, and I doubt there was a dry seat in the house. The second half was part political speech as we'd like to hear it, and full of humor to boot, but it ended as an inspirational sermon in the American style. By the time Glenn ended by quoting the final phrases of the Declaration of Independence:

"... And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor"

there was not a dry eye in the house. It was that good.

Who wouldn't want a candidate to start a speech by removing the power coat, loosening the tie, rolling up his sleeves and then saying: 'I'm not doing this to impress you, I 'm doing it because I'm hot. These lights? They're murder!'

After stating 'for the press' that 'every bad thing I've done that you dig up, that's me! I did it,' Glenn went on to give his platform. It has five simple planks:

1. If the US goes to war, it should go to win. Otherwise it is immoral to send soldiers to fight overseas.

2. Stop spending us to oblivion. All Glenn plans for the Feds to spend money on are big missiles and smooth highways. If you need help, go to your family, your church or the local community. And he won't bale out the banks. Otherwise, the Feds should "get the hell out of our way."

3. Fix illegal immigration. Build the fence, but put Lady Liberty's golden door in, and make it wide enough to bring in those who have something to contribute and who want to be Americans. Illegal immigration is modern-day slavery and it's immoral.

4. Leave our kids a country that is better than we inherited (and what we inherited was sweet). All kinds of things were invented here, and that good old Yankee ingenuity can solve problems. The Feds can't. Washington does not have the answers to our problems. We do. We need to get back to drilling our own oil, refining it, as well as developing alternatives that we haven't yet even dreamed of. Remember, most of what was invented here was done on private money, not the public nickel. We need to start taking risks and building things again!

5. Remember who we are. We are Americans. We have freedom's inheritance. America does not reside in Washington. The answers we need (which don't come from Washington-see above) reside within us. We need to take our country back, beginning by teaching our children--which is our responsibility--who they are and the ideals this country was founded on.

Found: A candidate who will tell it like it is. Too bad he's not running for president.


But he is very funny. And very moving.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Camp Aunt Madge

The weeks are flying by, and I realized yesterday that N. will be ending his visit with family in Illinois and leaving for COTE Camp in New Jersey.

Last Thursday, I sent off a box of camping gear by UPS to our favorite cantor in New Jersey.
Tomorrow, she will be picking N. up at Newark, then they will take him to Shabbat Services on the beach courtesy of Temple Miriam. I hope she takes some pictures!

Meanwhile, though, I have been getting an eyeful and an earful about N.'s adventures at "Camp Aunt Madge." My sister, a sucessful graduate of Dad's Kitchen Table University, is not one to let boys merely "hang out." She actually plans activities for them, though she does seem to include plenty of down time for their own adventures.

Now, Dad's Kitchen Table University had a REQUIRED summer travel curriculum. You have not lived until you have fought over a window seat while driving ten hours daily for a week through hot and humid southern Illinois in a car sans air conditioning in order to see the exact spot where George Rogers Clark and his men crossed the Wabash river on a forced march from Kaskaskia to come to the aid of Fort Defiance during the French and Indian War. (Dad found this place by reading the very detailed footnotes in Wilderness Empire by Allen W. Eckhart. It's an excellent book, and Eckhart is responsible for my extensive knowledge of the settling of Kentucky, and the former "northwest territories" which in the 1700's meant Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana). "There were no freeways then!" Dad would enthuse, while driving at 15 miles an hour down a winding country road behind a farmer hauling a fully loaded hayrack. "Great," we would think while sneezing and squirming to find comfort on the vinyl seats to which our bare legs seemed permanently attached by sweat. "I like modernity," Madge would sniff, as she poked Bear in the thigh so she could put kleenex between them to soak up the offending sweat.

Aunt Madge has a similar educational philosophy, although she does not feel the need to duplicate the exact conditions of the settlers by sleeping in tents through fierce thunderstorms and boiling coffee in the coffee can on the fire the next morning while waiting for the sleeping bags to dry out. And her car is air conditioned.

N. and his cousin D. have been to Rockome Gardens, near Arcola, Illinois, to see how the Amish Folk lived and still live. There, they learned also about our more primitive ancestors, by purchasing and using an atlatl. They also have been canoeing on Clinton lake, where N. bedazzled his cousins with his canoeing prowess gained in June at BSA camp. The indefagitable Aunt Madge wrote:

"I could tell that D. was really proud of N. today. I suspect he has done some bragging about his cousin N. to his cousin J. and he was absolutely thrilled to get to show N. off on the lake today. N. says that he had a really good time, but he is not the least bit impressed by his own performance. D. went on and on about N.'s wondrous deeds and N. just shrugged and said, "Well, you would have done the same thing if you weren't stuck in the aft position." (Oh, yeah, right, whatever THAT means!)
The boys had a wonderful time today. I'm just sorry that they forgot my request for photos!"

The photos in this post are from the World Wide Web! Top, maps of Illinois from the Illinois Tourist Bureau. Middle, Reindeer Age technology from Wiki (includes atlatls), and bottom, a 'one horse power saw' from Rockome Gardens.

And of course they had the Glorious Fourth mid-western style with a cookout, followed by the town fireworks display complete with simulcast patriotic music played on hundreds of portable radios, proudly sponsored by State Farm World Headquarters.

N. has learned something about quality music, too, versus trash, all because a CD with a parental warning some irresponsible adult sold him at the Denver airport went straight into it (the trash, I mean), after Aunt Madge listened to the one half of one track. But that's another story...

I really want to bring N.'s cousin D. out here for some summertime fun, but you know, the forest was closed because of the fire danger, and, you know, Grandma and Papa don't live just down the street. (Papa is the founder and professor emeritus of Dad's Kitchen Table University).

So...maybe this fall sometime. The Chem Geek Princess will be moved out and I will have a guest suite available.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Day in the Life of Monsoon Season


The morning began with a rare mist over South Mountain in the pre-dawn gloaming.

The sun rose over Los Pecos Homeschool, scattering a golden light across the mist.

Moisture aplenty in the air means that
afternoon rain is in store for Sedillo.

In the forenoon, clouds already gather
up against South Mountain.
There is rain to the south, and to the east.

Frontal weather brings clouds
cascading down the Sandia Mountain Front,
like water spilling over a dam.
Low clouds gather over
Cedar Crest and Tijeras.

Rain falls on the curve of the new road, at Los Pecos Loop, nature testing the design of the drainage, and water gathers in the borrow ditch below.

The strategically placed rocks slow down the water and keep the slope from rilling.

Clouds over Los Pecos, and rain washing across the Sandias. There will be eight muddy paws to
wipe on the porch, and two underbellies to dry.
Tea in the kitchen as the thunder rumbles and rolls above, and the sound of the steady rain beats on the metal roof.

Carnival of Homeschooling 133: Summertime...

"Summertime, an' the livin' is easy,
Fish are jumpin, and d'cotton is high..."
(Porgy and Bess)

Ah, summertime...when the grass is in flower in the meadow...

This week, spend some easy time over at Red Sea Home School, where the Red Sea Headmistress has put together the Summertime Edition of the Carnival of Homeschool.

I'm gonna pour a glass of lemonade, pull up my Andirondak rocker on the porch and indulge in some delightful, thoughtful and provoking reading while the sun shines this morning!

Monday, July 14, 2008

IRD Term II Week I: Mid-School Loss of Confidence and Curiousity

Yesterday I segued in less than 12 hours from my second term, week one classes to substituting for another teacher for week two. (I finished up my week one by arriving home at 8 PM last night, and was out of the house by 7:15 this morning to drop Bruce off at work before continuing to UNM for subbing). I am sure glad that this is a one-time deal. The extra money will be nice, but boy, am I tired! And I actually start my own week two classes with a full day tomorrow and a drive to Santa Fe on Wednesday, before I have a break.

Before you tell me I'm crazy, let me assure you that I know it. Most of the people teaching for IRD are young whippers, just out of college. Ah, to have their energy! I remember working two shifts at my summer job (16 hours), sleeping and reporting the next day to the third shift and then partying that night. That was when I was a young whipper. Now I am the old lady of the bunch.

The first week of my classes has been pretty good, though. Now that I have the curriculum in my gut, time has shown various Einstein effects in that I do everything I am supposed to get done in 10 minutes, but I feel like I have had twice that time to work with. I think I will truly enjoy the next few weeks.

As I started this last week, I vowed to pay close attention to the Level 5 - mid-school classes that I have. So far, in every class, I have had several boys who appear to have lost both their confidence and curiousity about learning. In one of my classes this week, I met a young man who was so lacking confidence that he refused to do a timing for reading and told me to "just put in a zero." He sat with his head down during our discussions of Banner in the Sky. I spent more than a few brain cells trying to figure out how to include him so that he would begin to respond.

I got exactly nowhere.

In order to get some interaction with him, I admit to the subterfuge of assigning myself as his partner for partner discussions (there was an odd number of kids in the class) so that I could talk to him about what I like to do and find out what he likes to do. I did get a few short but informative answers, whispered into the table top, while I leaned over a bent head, struggling to hear.

I came home feeling profoundly sad about the encounter. Here is a young man who clearly has some passions and interests but he does not have the confidence to tell a teacher about them.

Here is a young man, who having been on the planet for twelve or thirteen years, has already decided that he is a failure. His mom later confirmed for me what I already suspected, that he is failing in school and has been since the beginning of his school experience. (I wonder: How can you fail Kindergarten, for heaven's sake!). She is tearing her hair out trying to figure out what to do to help him. She admitted to extreme anger at the schools, the teachers; all of those who have written off her precious boy.

Since I taught that Level 5 class immediately after teaching a Level R (ages 4-5) class, I could not help but notice a difference between the kids. Some of the little ones are shy, some are bold, some are quiet and some are active, but all of them are eager to learn. They have great curiousity about, well, just about everything, and they also display confidence that they can learn just about anything. I think their great curiosity comes from their sense of confidence that they can learn. And that confidence sustains them through the many trials necessary to become effective doers of what they have learned.

In thinking about the difference in demeanor between those little fours and fives and these middle school boys, some of whom have just about given up on life, and others of whom are heavily investing in pretending that nothing really matters, I cannot help but asking myself what has happened in the five or six years in between? These boys were once those cute little bundles of energy, with that glint of curiosity in their eyes, bolding going out into the big, big world with their big, big selves.

I think that sometimes we comfort ourselves by saying that these kids are just going through a stage; that the loss of curiosity and confidence is normal. That kids this age tend to see learning as either impossible or as some kind of terminal dullness to be survived until they can escape school. But I don't think any of this is true.

My first piece of evidence is the occaisonal middle-school kid who, while desperately trying to maintain coolness, will burst out with little bits of irrepressible enthusiasm for something. You see it sometimes from the front of the classroom, when you mention something that sparks someone's interest. I see it as a teacher's reward for managing to let the student know that you think he's good and funny and has something to say.

My second piece of evidence is the many mid-shool age homeschoolers I see around our mountain community. The ones at the library who walk out with piles of books, talking a mile-a-minute about the latest project. The ones at the "Merc," who will discuss their latest 4-H project in stunning and passionate detail with a total stranger (me) who asks an innocent question. The homeschoolers at Boy Scouts, at Home-school science classes, and even at the grocery store. Most of these kids seem to have never lost their curiousity and their confidence that it can lead them to good places. They know with every fiber of their being that they are capable, interesting and that adults are on their side, eager to help them accomplish their 'impossible' dreams.

You do see some kids who start middle-school just like that. But as school wears on, most of them become heavily defended, with terminal coolness masking their loss of confidence in their ability to accomplish, to do, to learn. Someone has taught them that they are not capable and cannot be effective.

And I am afraid that it is indeed, as John Taylor Gatto so eloquently puts it, 'the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling' that is cunningly planned to dumb schoolchildren down. Gatto teaches that this hidden curriculum is designed to teach our children confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and the acceptance of constant surveillance (Dumbing Us Down, 2005). By middle-school, this hidden curriculum is well on the way to being internalized, and the kids understand that being "normal" is a narrow, gray area of not so quiet desperation.

When I think about this, I am so very thankful that I came to my senses when I saw my son being taught as a third grader (the year of the teacher from hell) that he was not capable, that he was not smart, and that his passionate special interests were part of his disabilty rather than part of his strength. I remember looking at him and wondering to myself, where did the little boy go? The one who used practically beam with pride at every new accomplishment. The one who would spend hours working and failing, picking himself up and trying again, in order to perfect a new learning or skill. And from somewhere I was given the grace of taking a different perspective that allowed me to frame the question as "what's wrong with his schooling?" rather than "what's wrong with him?" And once I framed the question that way, it was easy enough to see that the petty officialdom of school was quite capable of blaming the child, calling him names like lazy and stubborn because he had learned their hidden curriculum only too well. I am grateful that I took him out and that my son has never seen the inside of a middle-school as a student.

Because as I sat there, listening to a boy very like my son in age and size whispering to the table what he is passionate about, I realized that in another reality, one in which I had made another decision, that would likely be my boy.

And I know that no matter what choices N. may make about his education in the future, we have given him a great gift at very little cost. You see, my boy is fourteen and is still possessed by enthusiasm. He knows, somewhere deep down inside of himself that is capable of doing things in the world. He walks with the confidence of a tracker and the curiosity of a scientist.

And when I think about that, and then about some of these lost boys--the ones who have been told otherwise--I feel very sad, because I cannot imagine what magic I can pull out of my hat that will hold up through another 180 days of being judged wanting.

Wrong Question: What's wrong with him?

Right Question: What's wrong with schooling?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Accusations of Neglect and Abuse of Power: The Shaman Case

NOTE: Be sure to read the disclaimer at the end of this post.

What happens when a government agency is allowed to operate outside the Rule of Law?

The answer: Justice is not served and individuals who live outside the social norm, however harmless their choices, are targeted, and the agency, once set on a particular course will not back down.

In all states that I am aware of, various versions of New Mexico's Children, Youth and Families Department operate outside the Rule of Law. That is they may make whatever accusations they please or accept anonymous accusations of child abuse, and act on them by invading the sanctity of the people's homes and remove children, all without being required to follow the normal constitutional procedures that protect the rights of the accused. The excuse for this blatant use of state power without protections is that it is 'to protect the children.' However, removing children from their parents for neglect often places those children in the more dangerous foster care system and leaves them vulnerable to abuses far more severe. In addition, in many such cases, the harm done to the children by removing them is greater than the alleged harm they are exposed to in their families. And of course, in the cases where the accusations are unfounded, the children have been traumatized and the innocent parents have been subjected to a very frightening tyranny from which they can never properly recover their good names. In such a situation, it would sensible for an agency to have to prove that removing the child is actually the least harmful option, and the rights of the accused ought to be fully protected.

We have seen the pattern I am about to discuss several times this year.

In the most notorious, the State of Texas removed hundreds of children from their parents based on one anonymous accusation called in from Colorado. They did so without discrimination based on any evidence that a particular child was being abused, thus literally tearing nursing babies out of the arms of their mothers.

What was the crime of these mothers? They were not legally married to the fathers of the children because they practiced polygamy. Now polygamy is against the law in Texas but these parents weren't being arrested for that. They were accused of child abuse and/or neglect simply because of the people they were associated with. I am not arguing the merits of polygamy here, nor am I saying that forcing underaged girls into marriages is not statutory rape. I am simply pointing out that for most of the removed children, no such marriages occured. Rather, these children were removed from their families because abuse might occur in the future. It brings to mind Phillip K. Dick's short story The Minority Report.

Since all parents might abuse or neglect children in future, we ought to be worried. After all, if this is standard of decision, then all parents ought to have their children removed now, as soon as possible, so that they will be placed in the state foster care system--where the chances of that might increase astronomically. (Of course, I am being facetious).

I suspect the real crime of these FLDS parents was that they had an edgy lifestyle; they lost their children because they have chosen to turn their backs on the majority culture.

Oh, and they homeschooled their children.

This Sunday I read about another, even more egregious case in the Albuquerque Journal.

This one is not likely to get the national attention of the FLDS fiasco. Instead of hundreds of children, there are three. Instead of numerous pioneer matrons, there is only one father. And since strange marriage practices are not involved, the case is not as titillating. But injustice against one is injustice for all.

Michael Travalino a.k.a. Michael Eagle Feather is an American Indian and he practices Shamanism. He is a medicine man, and he was treating a woman using these practices. The country sherriff was called by one of this woman's family members who was worried about her. Again, I am not arguing the merits of shamanistic medicine here, nor do I recommend it. But being a medicine man is not even illegal so long as he does not pretend to be an allopathic doctor or give prescriptions without a license.

When the sherriff's deputies arrived at Eagle Feather's house (according to the ABQ Journal--"on a warm June night") they found it to be "ice-cold" (in June in southern New Mexico?), and the situation "wasn't normal." So they stepped inside--without a warrant. Eagle Feather's children were in this not "normal" situation --there were herbs around and a big copper pyramid in the living room, for heaven's sake--how much more abnormal could it be? So CYFD was called in and the children were removed for suspected child neglect.

Again, what is the standard here? I suspect that "not normal" means an alternative lifestyle to that of the majority culture.
Once again, this person's crime is choosing to be different.
Oh, and guess what? Travalino homeschools his children, teaching them in traditional Native American skills and culture.

To make a long story short the state was unable to demonstrate that the children were in fact abused or neglected. In such a case, it would seem sensible to give the kids back and say "sorry." But that's not what happens when crusading do-gooders with state power are on the job. Now they are trying to remove Eagle Feather's parental rights for "educational neglect." The only problem is that New Mexico does not have a legal definition for "educational neglect." If they make such a definition now, then Eagle Feather would lose his children because he did not follow a standard that didn't exist when he was supposed to be following it. In a normal, constitutionally-based criminal case, this is called ex post facto law, and a citizen may not charged with violating such a law.

I suggest that although this case may have started out as one about abuse and neglect, it has become about the CYFD winning at any cost. Even the destruction of a family, however different, is less important than this winning.

Eagle Feather is arguing, through his lawyer, that this case ought to be taken to his Tribal Court, but that has been nixed because his tribe--although it exists--has not been recognized as a "real" tribe by the BIA. Don't get me started about the BIA, my blood pressure can't take it. I will say this, first the United States violated nearly every treaty made with these tribes, and now the United States claims the right to define who they are? Just saying.

I don't know what the judge is at liberty to do, but real justice would be met by letting the tribal courts determine if the legally defined abuse and neglect has taken place, because that court holds the standard for that community.

And as for the undefined "educational neglect," I think a state with a graduation rate that hovers between 30 and 40 percent (the state has difficulty with the definition of graduation rate) ought to awefully careful about placing a definiton of educational neglect on the books. If they develop a reasonably accurate one, then parents could begin suing the state. For educational neglect.


DISCLAIMER: (Added July 11, 2008): Please read the above carefully before you get angry that I am killing your particular sacred cow. I am NOT saying that children should not be removed when there is evidence of immediate, life-threatening danger. I am NOT saying that all foster homes are abusive. I AM saying that in the absense of immediate life-threatening danger, the proper constitutionally guarranteed rights of the accused should be observed. I AM saying that the whole state-custody situation is terribly broken, and that there are enough bad apples in it, that children are being placed in greater danger by being put into the system than they may have been in within their own families--except in cases of severe abuse.

I did NOT even begin to address the developmental damage and educational neglect that can be done to a child by removal from his or her own family. These are not factors that should be taken lightly. There is some evidence that, EXCEPT in the case of severe abuse, the damage done to the child by removal is greater than the damage caused by problems in the child's home. I wish the child-savers had the same oath as doctors: FIRST, DO NO HARM.

Perhaps we ought to be having a conversation about what kind of system would work better than what we now have.

Also someone has asked for a link to this story. It is from the Albuquerque Sunday Journal, Sunday July 6, 2008. Although I have linked, the Albuquerque Journal has a subscription only access via internet. To read the actual story, you will have to get a trial subscription.