Instilling a love of reading, by whatever means

31 Jul

An online teaser for the New York Times Sunday Review section of July 31 got my attention: “Bribe Kids to Read.”

I clicked and it got me to an opinion piece by young-adult author Maile Meloy, in which she weaves a nostalgic tale of being required by her father to read 10 books before she could get a shiny new 10-speed bike. She was 10 at the time, and in the piece she confesses that she doesn’t remember the contents of the books all that well. Still, the goal of 10 books — a goal she met — and the actual books (The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, Tom Sawyer) are quite impressive.

Meloy explains that developing a love of reading was simply an expectation in her family; they didn’t know that it would help lead her to a life as a writer. Here’s a nice sentence:

“I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I was 10, but I think that having all those books and sentences composting in my brain may have pushed me toward becoming a writer in the long run,” Meloy says.

The teacher in me wants to say to parents, “So how about it? How about bribing your kids to read?” Especially as they begin to outgrow picture books and move into books for middle-school readers and above. If bribery is what it takes, then bribery it should be. It doesn’t mean you’re expecting them to be writers; it just means you’re expecting them to understand the world through excellent writing. It means you’re steering them — through osmosis, if you will — to the art of good writing and storytelling; you are nurturing their critical thinking; you are helping them in so many other ways.

My experience in teaching freshman and sophomore English classes is that way too many kids come in without a good foundation in reading, which makes their required readings in Shakespeare, Harper Lee, Homer and other greats incredibly hard for them at times. Many kids struggle with keeping their eyes on the page, with sorting out the details of plots, and with understanding the nuances of characters.

But I have to say that it’s a fantastic feeling to lead a reluctant reader to a book that he or she loves. I’ve seen high school kids devour young-adult books, and bookstores offer such a fantastic selection, even in these post-Harry Potter days.

So my advice is, don’t assume that your child will learn to love reading just by virtue of being in a classroom. Guarantee that it happens by instituting good reading habits at home. And if you have to, bribe them.


The Freelance Life – A Year Later

28 Jul

Am I really still plugging away at freelance writing? Well, I’ve kinda got to, since there are no job prospects in sight. I like it fine, but I’ve come to the realization that big breaks (magazine pieces, for instance) will be slow in coming. And there’s no way I can make a living off this; I continue to admire the folks that do.

Maybe it’s because my butt seems quite comfortably planted here in front of my trusty Mac, at my old teak desk, on my old cushiony chair. But I’m less uptight about job-hunting because I have enough to keep me busy at least three days a week, and working part time is just fine.

Current gigs: VAS, EmpowHer and None of them pays great, but the work is steady and the paychecks are reliable.

Sometimes I get paranoid about the art writing, my most prestigious gig — will my secret be revealed? I am neither an artist nor an art critic, just a museum-goer. I like the challenge, for sure.

I have to look for excuses to leave my desk and the house, which makes the art reviews important to hang onto, for the sake of getting out to the galleries.

There are small bumps in the road here and there: cranky editors, poor copy editing, miscommunications. Alas, they are nothing like the stress-makers of my previous job.

I often spend too long on articles, then my metacognition kicks in and I look at the time; I hurry to finish and think, “Oh, that’s my $30 worth.” Even if it’s not my best effort.

The writing machine seems less rusty as the months go by. I’ve learned to adjust my writing style to what’s appropriate to each client. I like the advice from one of the freelancers’ newsletters I receive: to write well and write often. So there’s something that I tap-tap out every day, even if it’s something small for the blog.

The past several months have included lots of burst bubbles — StudySync, State 8 Publishing, ParentDish. There have been disappointments with article-generating websites that could be more impolitely termed as content mills — Constant Content and Demand Media — but I’m glad I tried them. No harm, no foul, and a few hundred dollars that I didn’t have to sweat over.

CC is sometimes a joke — articles are requested on such topics as medical marijuana, gaming, superficial health and diet stories, destination stories — the silliness is compounded by the fact that most of the requestors offer $10 to $30 per article with word range of up to 500 to 800 words. I thought I’d get a few bucks out of a Phx destination article that was easy to write, even corresponded with the requestor; but he never bit — so either I didn’t write the article fast enough or it was “too good,” or the guy is a jerk. There must be a desperate competition for these writing assignments — from around the world. A content request for today says, “Please write in U.S. English.” But my attitude about CC when I first joined it was good — I’d get back into the writing routine, choose topics that were easy for me, not get tied up in research or interviews, and just see where it led. Now I think I’ll just give it another month or two then withdraw my membership.

I’m stewing over applying to write longer features for Demand because they pay “up to $350” — whatever that means. And there’s probably strong competition for those features.

The copy editing thing was OK for a while, but when I neglected my “work desk” I got locked out of it. Harumph. Also, I didn’t appreciate the snippy note from the copy desk supervisor.

I think most of all, with this freelance thing, I’m learning not to take myself too seriously. Today was a good day, for instance. Why? I got to use the word “tableaux” in a VAS review, and I got to insert “diarrhea” once again in an EmpowHer piece.

The Freelance Life

6 Jul

(Blogger’s note: Written in September 2010, but I forgot to upload it. Update on my freelance life to come, in another post.)

The Freelance Life
Random thoughts on what it’s been like to renew my freelancing career after more than 10 years away from it:
— I have cracked open the latest AP stylebook more often — have to, because Demand Studios follows AP style (mostly). That’s why I know “freelance,” whether verb or adjective, is not hyphenated. (I think it used to be hyphenated many years ago, but further discussion of this will remind me of how old I am.)
— I have had more time for trivial matters, like reading feature and entertainment stories on MSN and elsewhere (“Pear-shaped? Might be in the genes” from today’s home page, for instance). Hey, it’s research!
— Thanks to, I learned of various newsletters for freelancers that not only have writing and editing job listings, but also offer motivational advice. It’s nice to have them pop up in an otherwise sluggish gmail account. There’s even Facebook4Freelancers. So the idea of networking with other freelancers this way is quite different from 10 years ago.
— I’ve had to look at the idea of going to networking events and handing out business cards, which kind of takes me out of my comfort zone. But thanks to the many events listed in a weekly Phx networking newsletter, I can pick and choose from several options.
— I am thrilled whenever I go out to lunch with a friend.
— I work harder at actually writing (even if it’s just for the blog) when I am home alone.
— I like the quiet; occasionally, iTunes is nice.
— I like the freedom to wander to the kitchen whenever.
— My tea hardly ever gets cold, because there’s not something or someone (like a student or teacher) to divert me. And even if it does get cold, the microwave is in that kitchen that I like to wander to …
— I would be happy to have just a few projects to keep me busy. The last few weeks I’ve thought, “OK, I’ll keep going with the copy editing for Demand; it would be great to write occasionally for ParentDish; and researching family and/or restaurant stories for City’s Best would be fun and fairly involving. All that, and sending queries to magazines now and then, would keep me busy enough.”
— Problem No. 1 — Demand Studios pay so little for the time expended, thus earning it the accolade of “sweatshop” from a recent SPJ column. The reviews of my work have been by e-mail (oops! email) only, which is awkward. In fact, all dealings with Demand have been by email. Never a phone call. I don’t know what my supervisor looks like; I only found out his name with the second performance review. It’s hard to be motivated to work hard for Demand when I feel like a cog in the machine. And the stories I edit are, for the most part, of mediocre quality, poorly researched and somewhat boring.
— Problem No. 2 — Editors at magazines and online publications seem to either take their time in responding (if at all) or want to communicate with you immediately (as with AOL). The e-mail correspondence with the ParentDish editor has been weird. She seems happy to have me write an article on spec, engages me in casual e-mail conversation about the subject, makes fun of me for my not knowing what to charge, sends me the link to a blogging platform like I’m a regular contributor, takes me to task for asking if I can start blogging … Anyway, who knows if my article will run and whether I’ll get paid. As for City’s Best, I thought I had the gig after the phone interview (yeah! something akin to human contact!), but the editor has not said word one since then, even after I sent her a polite e-mail. Similar situation with the ArtScene newsletter.
(Postscript: the VAS online magazine gave me an assignment; I enjoyed writing it but it was rejected; I rewrote it but who knows if it’ll be used because the editor’s emails have been vague.)
— On the other hand, the potential markets for freelancers are phenomenal now that online publications have been added to the mix. Pay is a big unknown, but at least there are several places where I can get started with producing current clips.
— Is it that the editors are flaky or that they are inundated with queries and other e-mails from aspiring writers? I would like to think that my background captures more attention than that of a fledgling writer, but maybe not.
— I’ve said to myself that 30 hours or so a week on this thing is fine. But I’m having a hard time disciplining myself to do even that. Over the summer, I had distractions — understandable distractions, like recovering from teaching, the whole family being in the house, things to get caught up on, etc. And now that I have more time to concentrate on freelancing, I still am not attacking it like I should. (this blog — good or bad distraction?)
— I am in awe of freelancers out there who actually make a decent wage from this.
— It’s probably natural that, coming back into this after a long time away, I have forgotten how tough it is to sell articles and I am mistakenly pinning my hopes on just a few gigs. Sooner rather than later, I need to start sending out queries all over the place.
— It’s awkward to explain how I spend my days to extended family members and to friends in these post-teaching months. “I’m at my computer” could mean anything. They all should infer that my family is not penniless and is doing OK financially. I like to remind them I’m receiving a pension.
— This

A compelling diversion from work: hiking and taking photos.

WordPress blog has been kinda fun. One day I had five readers. Woo-hoo.
— The www at my disposal almost makes it child’s play when I have to research something. That’s a definite advantage over 10 years ago. And a distraction. (See point #2)
— Overall, I am my own boss, which gives me an even greater feeling of freedom than when I ruled my classroom. The boss says this blog is long enough already and to go eat a cookie.

Tastebuds Diary

5 Jul

A continuing and ostensibly peculiar accounting of foods I ate (from my kitchen and from stores and restaurants) that made my palate happy:

Cranberry-oat cookie from Safeway’s bakery.

Beef enchiladas from Blanco on Scottsdale Road. Great red sauce, with meat from braised short ribs.

True Blonde pale ale from Ska Brewing in Durango, Colo.

My gazpacho — put through the food processor but not pulverized, with addition of cucumber chunks, imitation crab or baby shrimp.

Simple spinach and egg white omelette. Or is it omelet?

Vegetable masala patties from Trader Joe’s frozen food section.

My guacamole — splendid simplicity: get out the avocado masher and stir in favorite salsa.

Cracklin’ Oat Bran cereal — It’s one of a kind.

Arizona-grown cantaloupe that I bought at a farmer’s market.

McDonald’s mango-pineapple fruit smoothie when it’s nearing 110 outside.

Thinly sliced rare roast beef with special mustard on pumpernickel — called the “Van Gogh” from Sacks Sandwicherie

Chocolate chip scone from Wildflower Bakery — shoving thoughts about the calories out of my mind.

Seattle brand Iced Mocha — from the can, diluted with almond milk. Not too bad on calories, creamy and not too sweet.

Zucchini, tomato and yellow squash gratin — appropriate for the season.

Organic apples — they do taste better.

Late July organic sandwich cookies — dark chocolate or green tea vanilla flavors. Who needs Oreos?

Ghirardelli dark chocolate brownies — just one highlight of holiday baking.

Rice crackers — I don’t know why.

Mamma Toledo’s mini cherry cream cheese pie — food truck fare.

Liberte full fat yogurt from Quebec City, available at safeway. Any flavor.

Train travel: I think I can …

28 Jun

I think I can get to like train travel again. Hadn’t chugged along on Amtrak since I was a kid. I settled into eight hours each way from Boston to D.C. and back and actually enjoyed it more than I thought I would. With plenty of time on my hands, I jotted down a list of the pros and cons.

First con: My handwriting was messy with the somewhat jerky motion of the train. Big deal. Other cons: the cafe car had limited hours; there were delays on the trip to D.C. because it was the start of a three-day holiday; butt paralysis; and too much graffiti and poverty on view from train windows.

But, really, that was it. Pros: I saved myself from horrible traffic through New York and New Jersey, part of which I could see from the train. The legroom and seat width are better than on a plane. The lavatories are bigger too. There’s wireless if you’re set up for it with Amtrak. Electrical outlets at every seat. The cafe car is decent. There’s a “quiet room,” but I found the car I was in was quiet enough already. It’s possible to strike up an interesting conversation, as I did for two hours with someone who was, ironically, from the same Western city as me. It’s fun to walk from car to car — woo-hoo! Whooshing train, swaying platforms, (pretend) danger! The conductors seem to have personality. People-watching takes on new proportions. The motion of a train is conducive to catching up on sleep. And, of course, there’s the scenery from a train window — for me, best showcased in Connecticut and Philadelphia. Small-town harbors and urban skyline — impressive contrast.

It was kind of a geography lesson too, to recall how the states line up along the Eastern seaboard. It was a semi-thrill to think I blasted through several Connecticut towns, Providence, Newark, New York’s Penn Station, Trenton, Wilmington, Philly, Baltimore … the last city is one I hadn’t been to since I was 16 and visiting my best friend. She and I spent what seemed like all summer listening to Carole King’s Tapestry on vinyl. So I enjoyed the serendipity when my iPod shuffle landed on “It’s Too Late” just outside of Baltimore.

The best part, though: beautiful Union Station in D.C. and the ability to step outside it and view the Capitol. Quite stunning during the thunderstorm when I arrived.

My route from Boston to D.C. and back

Only in Canada (Until Someone Tells Me Otherwise)

23 Jun

O Canada! Go ahead and display those kitschy souvenirs at Niagara Falls.

I loved my recent jaunt over the border to Toronto (I’m sure I saw a border of maple leaves as I flew over Lake Ontario), and in just a few days there I could tell that some things were … well, just different:

— The neighborhoods look American until you get to a street with half-Tudor style or nouveau half-timbered homes here and there. God save the queen.

— At a chain coffee store, Urbana, on a hot, humid afternoon, the barista assumed that I wanted my black tea hot. Had to assure him that, yes, my English Breakfast would be fine over ice.

— There were ethnic faces wherever I went: Asian, African, Indian, Middle Eastern, to name a few.

— A Pakistani crowd marched down Yonge Street, waving flags and banners and shouting, “Musharraf has to go!”

— Canadian coins work a lot like American coins, but their appearance and texture is just different enough from Lincolns, Jeffersons, etc.

— An American tourist can definitely feel like she’s in a foreign country, yet take heart that English is spoken without any discernible accent. I am fascinated, though, by the Canadian pronunciation of “about” — “uh-boat,” with a little bit of “ew” on the second syllable. Did I hear “eh,” eh? Not a lot. But I was hanging around my South African-born relatives, who say Canadians recognize their accent immediately.

— Humidity that made 70 degrees Fahrenheit feel like 90. Not a purely Canadian phenomenon, I know, but a desert rat like me needs to mention it.

— Does every country have a different euphemism for a public toilet? Here it’s “washroom.” Maybe that means Canadians are better at washing their hands after using the facilities?

— Restaurants give you straws for your water glasses.

— Fireworks, anyone? It’s Victoria Day.

— Many American TV shows run a few weeks or months behind the schedule in the States. So I was watching the season finale of “The Event” with my cousin, who expressed how he couldn’t wait for the next season. Somehow the news of its cancellation hadn’t reached Canada, but I didn’t let on.

— Husky, fair-faced guys that look like John Candy.

— Herring!

— Signage almost everywhere that was in both English and French, acknowledging my proximity to Quebec.

I’m looking forward to my next run for the border, which will probably be Montreal.

Why We Should Cry for Change in Education, Part 4

10 Jun

OK, so I was just skimming the previous three posts on education and I figure I better keep the momentum going — I don’t get my dander up all that often!

Here’s a virtual pat on the back and a hip, hip, hooray to a parent writing a guest column for this week:

In “Reformers, please listen to what parents want for schools,” parent Helen Gym of Philadelphia does what I wish more parents would do: She seeks out the latest information on education reform from reliable sources (not blowhards on talk radio, for instance), digests the information and relates it to her own kids and the school they attend, then synthesizes that information into direct recommendations that make a whole lot of sense. I congratulate Gym on this sincere effort of parent involvement, with a capital I.

The writer is founder of Parents United for Public Education, and I like many of her thoughts. By the way, it does take a village to not only raise but also to educate a child. Let’s not leave all the decisions on reform to highly paid education consultants and the legislators that they happened to connect with. Teachers AND parents have a voice. I wish I would have heard a bigger smattering of constructive comments on education in general from parents when I was a public school teacher.

Gym cautions against evaluating schools only by measurements on such things as teacher performance and standardized tests; instead, look at the aspects of school life that have touched families like hers: things like cultural connections, community service projects and kind words from teachers. What integrates school with home life? The answers are important.

The column also gets into how parents and educational policy experts are often at odds in their views. For instance, parents ask for smaller class sizes to nurture teacher-child relationships (crucial all the way through high school!), while the policy makers talk about creating efficiencies (meaning bigger classes).

The writer mentions Parents Across America, a national group, and its blueprint for reform. Here’s how she summarizes some of its points:

“Among the suggestions: Address the dramatic inequity in resources within and among school districts so we can maintain smaller class sizes and early childhood programs. Create strong, effective support for teachers, provide a rich well-rounded curriculum, and create multiple ways to evaluate teaching and learning. Make parental involvement meaningful and include roles for governance.”

Well said. Here’s the link to the whole column:

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