Thursday, April 27, 2006

Mama mia, oh Maya

Esther got a Maya wrap baby sling recently from Julie L., and I decided to try it out Tuesday. Jon likes to sit up and face forward in the wrap and any other time. He really loves sitting up these days. He complains if you lay him down.

The wrap is very comfortable. I have to hold Jon close to me when I walk or otherwise he bounces around too much, but my shoulders bear the brunt of his weight. We later went to the library and he fell asleep in the wrap while I looked at a magazine.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Baseball been berry good to Bissinger

Who knows what that title is referencing? 50 bonus points to the first to answer in the comments.

Yes, the baseball season is upon us, and April showers bring baseball books out of hibernation, though sometimes I've read a baseball book in the dead of winter to get a fix of my favorite sport. They're usually fun, brisk reads, full of anecdote, and, at least to the non-aficionado, over-analysis of what is a simple game.

Three Nights in August by Buzz BissingerEdition: Hardcover
Price: $15.75

Availability: Usually ships in 24 hours
21 used & new from $3.00

Bissinger book's 'filthy' good, April 18, 2006

"Three Nights in August" gets into the mind of Tony LaRussa, one of the greatest tacticians to ever manage the game of baseball. Bissinger makes us feel the loneliness LaRussa feels at the end of the dugout, shows how the emotional and physical demands of the game take a toll on his family, and gets into the minutia of three games to see how tiny behind-the-scenes decisions like putting on a hit-and-run or stealing another's teams signs can affect the outcome of a game.

Weaved around these games are stories of the players, like comeback kid Cal Eldred, still pitching after four arm surgeries and more than 1,000 days between wins; or the insouciant JD Drew, too confident to play with heart. There is also the tragic tale of Darryl Kile, the Cards' pitcher found dead in June 2002 before a series against the Cubs. Bissinger finishes with a short narrative about the 2004 season, the year the Cards won their division with the best record in baseball, but were swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.

"Three Nights in August" is lyrical without being overly romantic and factual without being overly analytical. Kind of like Tony LaRussa, a statistics junkie who ultimately decides with his heart.

I was attracted to this book because I'm a Cubs fan and heard about Bissinger around the movie release of "Friday Night Lights."

Next up for reading is "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," by Michael Lewis, is another baseball book that showcases an emerging managerial strategy (or at least general managing strategy) devoted to statistical analysis. "Moneyball" is mentioned in "Three Nights in August," and I first heard about in the summer of 2003 on NPR while I was driving around mowing lawns. I remember the NPR piece focused on Scott Hatteberg, who, in 2002, was a member of the Oakland A's, and how he converted from a catcher to a first baseman valued at the plate not for his power or average, but because he works the count and forces the pitcher to throw a lot of pitches. The "Moneyball" interview on NPR illustrated that Oakland's scouts used advanced statistical analysis, such as determining how many pitches a batter takes in an at-bat, to find hidden talent.

I saw Hatteberg play against the Cubs recently (he's now with the Cincinnati Reds) and thought of that summer afternoon listening to NPR, remembered the lawn that I went to, remembered the homeowner and how he suffered from a long-term illness, wondered if he was alive anymore. This thought cycle lasted all of 30 seconds, but then was suddenly recalled when I saw "Moneyball" referenced in "Three Nights..."

That happens a lot. Knowledge, especially new knowledge, comes in coincidental bunches.

Friday, April 14, 2006

The latest dirt on education

I had to write an argumentative essay for my portfolio I must submit for admission into teacher certification. This portfolio only needs three to four writing samples for the department to determine, I guess, if you have enough writing ability and experience to be an English teacher. I chose to include my 2003 collection of short stories, "Thru," the article I wrote for the Beloit Daily News that gave me a front-page above-the-fold byline credit on Sept. 12, 2001, and an academic essay I wrote last semester for my Victorian prose class.

I decided to focus my argumentative essay on the No Child Left Behind Act because most educators I talk to have strong feelings either for or against (mostly against) the legislation, and I realized I don't know much about it. Also, I substitute taught recently for many teachers that needed the time off to prepare themselves and selected special needs students for the ISAT tests, so I got to see firsthand what goes into test preparation.

Here's the essay. Please comment.

Greg Locascio
Argumentative essay

“No Child Left Behind” is a Bureaucratic Nightmare

The “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) Act is a sweeping education reform act proposed by President Bush shortly after his first election into office and voted into law by Congress in the fall of 2001. The legislation is a revision and reauthorization of President Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Key hallmarks of NCLB include annual standardized tests for all students grade three through 8 and corrective action against schools and districts that fail to make federally-mandated annual yearly progress (AYP), including transfer vouchers out of underperforming schools and government takeover of chronically failing schools.
The goals of NCLB are noble and include increasing educational standards for all districts, identifying underperforming schools and implementing school improvement plans to get them up to a federal standard, an increased focus on reading and math education, and giving parents a greater choice about where to send their children to school. But NCLB is fundamentally flawed because of its reliance on comprehensive testing. This reliance creates a bureaucratic nightmare for educators, who are now forced to veer away from educating in favor of test preparation. Reliance on testing gives a mere snapshot of a school’s performance, is racially and culturally biased, and is rife with a history of errors. Punishment for schools that fail to make AYP is too severe and sets unrealistic goals for underperforming schools and districts.
According to a U.S. Department of Education (USDE) press release, NCLB “focuses on teaching methods that have been proven by research to work. There will be no more experimenting on children with educational fads.” How can NCLB focus on “teaching methods” when the primary method of assessment of a school’s performance is reliance on standardized testing? If the USDE wanted to focus on teaching methods, it would implement some mechanism of oversight that, in addition to testing, monitored teacher and student performance day to day in the classroom. Standardized tests do not give an accurate picture of what is being taught in America’s schools. When administered correctly, which isn’t always the case, they can only provide a brief look at what student’s knew on a particular day in a particular classroom setting. A school devoted solely to increasing its standardized test scores becomes an institution devoted to flash cards and rote memorization, not learning or any semblance of a well-rounded education.
NCLB mandates schools adopt School Improvement Plans (SIP), based on how well the school performs on these standardized tests from year to year. Schools face sanctions, forced tutoring, or even federal overhaul, including replacement of all the management and school staff, if they fail to make adequate AYP. According to an article published by Fair Test: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, the rigid AYP formula is a “false accountability system based on testing and punishing… Thus, the weaknesses of standardized exams – their cultural biases and their failure to measure higher order thinking – are reinforced by strict penalties.” The AYP formula virtually guarantees failure for most schools, especially those in high poverty districts that don’t have the money or the resources to implement the dramatic changes necessary to conform to the standard.
Standardized testing is not a reliable way to gauge student performance. It is difficult to administer to students with learning disabilities and English language learners, and has a history of cultural and racial bias. In addition to these problems, test scoring is often error-prone. In 1999, two years before the implementation of NCLB, nearly 9,000 New York City school children were mistakenly sent to summer school because of a programming error in grading a comprehensive test administered by CTB/McGraw-Hill. From a May 21, 2001, New York Times article about the debacle: “[S]chool districts lack the ability to uncover serious testing errors on their own, and must rely on the testing companies to do so.” In 1999 New York City schools, for the first time, relied solely on CTB’s test scores to determine whether or not elementary school children needed to attend summer school. “Making such decisions based on a single test score violates the testing industry’s standards, and both CTB and city school officials agree that the company advised the city against putting such a premium on its test,” the article said.
NCLB puts a premium on a single test score, except instead of being isolated to a city, this premium, advised against by the very same industry that administers the tests, is writ large and has far-reaching effects on how schools are run, funded, and staffed. Districts and states now employ loopholes to work around this premium. In Illinois, the state relaxed testing standards in order for more schools to reach federal testing goals. According to a November 9, 2005, Chicago Sun-Times article, “27.1 percent of [Illinois] schools failed to meet federal testing targets. But after removing the 227 schools that benefited from the softer standards, that jumps to 33.1 percent.” The article says the softened standards were implemented to make it easier for limited English and special needs students to pass. Illinois is not the only state to request and be granted softened standards by USDE.
NCLB and its focus on standardized testing is a flawed system, albeit with noble goals. Any federal education standard should include standardized testing, but only in a broader framework of assessment. If we really want to rely solely on standardized testing, the government should force districts to test students monthly and create spreadsheets of progress from month to month. The slippery slope to test preparation would then be complete. Teachers could be absolved of grading duties. The government could provide a teaching kit, per grade level, that can be done online or CD-ROM, and the teacher’s role could change to “technology facilitator.” Current NCLB legislation and its reliance on standardized tests already creates this type of scenario, at least in the weeks leading up to testing.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Cool song lyrics

"In The Days Of A Caveman"

When you go on camping trips you're stuck right out in nature
Foraging the forests like a primate
Using sharpened tools instead of hotplates

Your thumb and forefinger supposed to show you're not a wild beast
You can hear their noises at night time
They don't have to keep a certain bedtime

See in the shapes of my body
Leftover parts from apes and monkeys

Sometimes when I lie awake I hear the rainfall on my tent fly
I think of all the insects that are sleeping
And wonder if the animals are dreaming

See in the shapes of my body
Leftover parts from apes and monkeys

In the days of the caveman and mammoths and glaciers
Bugs and trees were your food then; no pyjamas or doctors

And when I finally get to sleep, I dream in technicolor
I see creatures come back from the Ice Age
Alive and being fed inside a zoo cage

My friend Andy introduced me to the Crash Test Dummies back in the late 90s. I've got about six of the Winnipeg, Manitoba band's albums. They had one hit song, "Mmmm Mmmm Mmmm," back in 1993, and then fell, like all one-hit wonder novelty acts, into obscurity. The song lyrics above are from their best-selling album, "God Shuffled His Feet."

This song always reminds me of my first overnight backpacking trip with my own equipment in the spring of 1999 on the Ice Age Trail from Townline Lake in Langlade County to the lookout tower (the highest point on the Ice Age Trail, 1,875 feet) in Lincoln County in the Harrison Hills segment. I remember Esther and I camped about this time of year, and that it was cold at night, and gray and blustery during the day. At one point we heard gunfire close by, so started singing loudly, ridiculously loud, in an Ethel Merman stridency, "Please don't shoot us! We're people, not turkeys, most of the time!!!" Or something along those lines. We stopped for the night at what the map listed as a shelter. The "shelter" was a lean-to, a bullet-riddled aluminum roof -- no sidewalls, no floor, the muddy ground it sheltered littered with broken glass and used as a firepit. We slept in our Kelty Zen tent for the first time ever.

The next day took us through the Harrison Hills, still my favorite and, in my opinion, prettiest section of the Ice Age Trail. The lakes nestled amongst the topsy-turvy (like a dropped chocolate cake) landscape seemed black and imposing. I remember we crossed a river, and as I was putting my shoes on a little yellow bird lighted on a small branch just inches from my eye.

I just heard this song again, and whenever I do it reminds me of that weekend. It is funny, but in spite of the fact I've ventured to far more beautiful places and given up many of the ridiculously stupid backpacking ways I had then, I still think that weekend in the north woods was one of the best backpacking experiences ever.

Maybe it's just stupid, simpering nostalgia. Probably. It was seven years ago. Or maybe it was just a good trip. I'll have to venture back someday and find the guestbook in the lookout tower. What did I write? What day was I there? Does it really matter? Is the next Ice Age upon us?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Two new poems

From the control room
the bunker the inner recesses
comes a frosty analysis
of a bleak situation

But all is safe
though the concrete walls
sweat crack decay
All is well
though outside the fallout
invisibly contaminates everything
All is calm
except for some rumbling from below,
a vibration the detectors cannot
identify or analyze

From the control room
that faint, fetid, cold electric place
comes a survivor's guilt
and a damned isolation

But all is as planned
down to the most basic of nutritional needs
boxed stores, canned remnants
sun-given energy
All is in place
cots neatly arranged
ready for a long wait
All is ready
except for the rumbling from below
that damned insistent
unaccounted-for shake
that threatens to ruin everything.


Breathing, wheezy cherub
what makes you twitch and punch
out your arms reflexive in sleep?
Collective subconscious nightmares of our race?
Drowning, falling, the reaching, clutching
cold grasp of death and the deep?
Or muscle memory learning paths
to explore?
Tendrils reaching out from the same
source of chaos rendered flesh?

Book of Sketches

The latest posthumous release by Jack Kerouac is Book of Sketches. From the article I read in the Sunday Chicago Tribune by Gerald Nicosia: "Book of Sketches records the life of an outward failure, a man with no income and nothing to his name..." "...still stung by his sister's charge that he was a bum and had let down their widowed mother, he [Kerouac] writes, 'I am not a dead duck, not a criminal, a bum, an idiot, a fool -- but a great poet & a good man -- & now that's settled I will stop worrying about my position -- & -- concentrate on working for stakes on Sp. [Southern Pacific] RR so I can write in peace, get my innerworld lifework underway."

The writings in Book of Sketches span 1952-57, Kerouac's wandering years between the writing of On the Road and its publication. Kerouac appeals because he burned with a manic, lively, yet contemplative, lonely and misunderstood energy. And he loved America, loved its landscapes, the city cacophany of bowery San Francisco, the seaside pounding isolation of Big Sur or a lonely Washington fire lookout tower. Kerouac is a life-loving folk hero in the tradition of Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson. These men all loved life and wrote of that love with keen observational eyes.