21 December 2014

Reading for the Year, 2014

OK, it's time for a victory lap of sorts. If you're wondering what's on my mind, take a look at the books I read this year. I'm at 66, and while I'll finish a few over the Christmas break, I'm not sure I'll make it to 70 before 2015 begins and brings with it new experiences (trips to New Orleans, Germany, the Republic of Georgia, and a return to Philadelphia and New York City) to read up on.

Looking back at 2014, I spent a month reading fiction from countries competing in the World Cup--Germany's win was capped by my reading of five novels by German writers:Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, The Mussel Feast, A Minute's Silence, Thomas Mann's His Royal Highness, and Peter Longerich's massive biography of Josef Goebbels. Looking back, though, I think my favorite World Cup-related novel was Paolo Giordini's The Solitude of Prime Numbers, a thoughtful love story.

My trips to New York were aided by Kevin Baker's Dreamland and John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer. I read four Dos Passos books this year, and he just blew me away. He is truly America's greatest modernist writer.

My favorite novel of the year was Henderson Smith's Fourth of July Creek, which was lyrical and which vividly described themes that began during the book's historical setting (Reagan's first two years in office) and which resonate today.

The best nonfiction I read was Timothy Egan's Short Nights of the Shadowcatcher: the Epic Life & Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. Curtis's quest to capture the images and ceremonies of the remaining Native American tribes in the American West in the 1910s rendered him divorced and penniless, but it preserved traits of those cultures that were dying out, and they allow Americans today to appreciate them. Egan is one of the best writers working in America today, whether you read his columns for The New York Times or others of his fine books, the best of which might be The Worst Hard Time about the Dust Bowl.

I crossed a few more classics off my list of to-reads: Alex Haley's Roots, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (yes, that's right), Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, and the Goethe book (my Audible subscription really helps me to get through these). I also got to re-read John Steinbeck's East of Eden and The Old Man and the Sea.

A few other books that I would recommend that I didn't mention above:
1. Two historical novels, Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings begins with the gift of a slave to a Charleston teenager, and follows her repulsion to slavery to Philadelphia and a prominence in the abolitionist movement. Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See was an epic tale and brought back to me a visit I made to St. Malo, France, hitchhiking over my spring break in 1991.
2. Books that I put right to use in my teaching included Edgar Sawtelle, The Smithsonian's History of America in 101 Objects, Where'd You Go Bernadette (a delightful surprise), and Boy, Snow, Bird.

If you have any recommendations for 2015, post them below. I'm already building a collection, and I'm looking forward to sharing some recommendations with my brother-in-law, Don Gates over the Christmas holiday. I can't wait to read more!

07 December 2014

The "We Three Kings" Wormhole into another Time and Space

At choir practice today, I was assigned a solo to sing along with our Three Wisemen.

The thing about getting into your mid forties is this: the space-time continuum starts to break down. We're in the church, getting ready to go over the song, and all of a sudden, I'm in my home church in Athens, Ohio, eleven years old, with a towel on my head, with several extra-large rubber bands clamping the towel to my cranium, with my buddies, Seth Jasovsky and Eric Jasovsky, getting ready to walk down the aisle with me, singing "We Three Kings" for the Christmas pageant.

I'm not sure if the space-time continuum is fuzzy or if it was just too long ago, but I can't see how ridiculous I/we must have looked in our costumes that night. At the time, we either thought we were cool--or we just didn't care. What was cool was this: hanging around ANYWHERE with Seth & Eric and Julie Dittes Gates and Sonia and  Paul Jasovsky that Christmas in the "magical land of Ohio," or any other for that matter.

In church, reveling in the memory, I was grinning so much, I missed the first note or so of the solo. It's OK. I have until the weekend to get it right. I just know that my solo will NEVER top the trio singing "We Three Kings" that shuffled down the main aisle, dragging the hems of fathers' bathrobes, that unforgettable Advent evening at the Athens Seventh-day Adventist Church over 30 years ago.

30 November 2014

Some Tips I've Learned for the College Bound

This blog is in response to the New York Times article, "For Accomplished Students, Getting into a Good College Isn't as Hard as it Seems"

Bottom line: 80% of top students get into the schools they want, and ridiculous acceptance numbers (<7% at the Ivies) are because of students applying to too many schools. Ellie is at the end of the application process now. She targeted four schools, applied to three, and has been accepted by two of the three (we're waiting on the last one, which also happens to be her dream school--Penn).

Most of my Facebook friends have kids who are younger than Ellie, so let me break down the college process for you, to save you some stress and ensure that your child controls their educational & fiscal destiny.

1. Any school is a be-all, never an end-all. "Be all you can be" is no longer the motto of the U.S. Army, but it is the key to successful education in every kind of school. The value of a school isn't in its tennis courts or travel programs; it's in the teachers, the curriculum, and the range of classes offered there. More importantly, it is in that school's ability to prepare the child for the next step: elementary school for middle school, middle school for high school, high school for college, college for career, and career for the next career (today's students will work for 10-14 different employers by the age of 38). A smart parent doesn't say, "My kid is at a great school," anymore. They say, "My kid is getting great opportunities."

2. Connect present with future. It wasn't good grades that made Ellie think she could attend the top schools. It was her school business club--especially when she placed first at nationals in International Business as a sophomore. "You punched your ticket," I told her at the time. I said it a lot--every time she brought back a high test score or excelled at competition. Good schools, whether they are public or private, prepare kids to compete and excel, and having the word "champion" on a resume moves the student to the front of the college application line.

3. Every dollar spent is an investment. I'm not just talking about tuition here. How much is the family spending on books, classical concerts, museum visits? When there is travel, is there learning, too? Some technology investments--computers, music players--are better than others. A trip to Yellowstone National Park or a week at music camp is a better investment than Disney. A lot of the money I saved by putting my kids through public schools, I spent on travel, music and books. The money is all the same, it all got spent, but I had more control over the quality of the spending.

4. Tests are tools, not lotteries. Ellie took every practice test she could: the PLAN in 10th grade, the PSAT in 10th & 11th grades, and, of course, the ACT, which she took three times from December of her junior year to June before her senior year. Together we shamelessly used the testing companies to build interest in colleges (who buy the testing information) and increase her scores, knowing that above a certain level, every added point on the ACT is worth $1000-$2000 more in scholarships. If colleges are going to make it that easy to game the system, we'll take it!

On her first ACT, Ellie scored a 29, which was the score both her mother and I earned on our single experiences with the test. Ellie hated the score and acted like ACT had sent her a poop sandwich instead of a ticket into 95% of American colleges. The score included a perfect 36 in reading, but showed room for improvement in writing and math. She was already in AP Writing, so we knew the score would go up. We added a community college precalculus class to her schedule that spring. In the March ACT, her score was up a little, but she hadn't matched that perfect 36 in reading from the original test, while the other scores were higher. In the June ACT she came back with a 32 (which to her still wasn't high enough, despite she was up to qualifying for 98% of universities). It wasn't until we met with a Penn recruiter and learned that Penn "superscores" the ACT results, meaning that they take the highest grades from among the various tests, that she was satisfied. The 36 in reading held up, and added to her final test score, meant that she how had a 33 composite: another ticket punched.

A final thing about testing: I disagree with those who say they "don't test well." Tests are timed exercises in reading, writing and computation. They are not a mysterious portal between the world of high school and that of college. As a teacher, I know that if I can prepare my students to read every word of the prompt, or write an outline in preparation of a written prompt, their test scores will go up. I pity the poor kids who have been coached in "testing strategies" and spend more time gaming the answers than actually reading or computing the questions they're given. These kids "don't test well" because they haven't been taught well, because they believe that test results are 'magical' and not 'earned.'

5. Talk, talk, talk. Every college has a floor filled with offices and cubicles known as The Admissions Office. People go to work there every day, and they're there to recruit prospective students from specific regions of the state or country. They love to talk to kids. They answer e-mails in less than an hour. They record every interaction, hoping that it will result in an application. It was through talking with recruiters that we learned about the superscore. Through talking with a South Carolina recruiter, Ellie learned she needed a 3rd lab science, allowing her to drop an easy class and add Anatomy & Physiology to the Chemistry and Biology grades on her transcript. Through talking with a Penn recruiter, she learned that they prefer students with a calculus background for their business school, so she added an extra math class and devoted considerable time her senior year to AP Calculus. Without talking, she would have a solid transcript (a better GPA perhaps), but she would have gaps in her record that might cost her a place at her dream school.

6. Tour, tour, tour. No one would spend $5,000 on a car without test-driving it. No one should spend $50,000-$200,000 on a college education without visits. Every college visit offers an opportunity for learning, whether it's a drive-by or a full college tour. And you're not just touring the community and facilities, you're looking at the kids who go to school there--and want to go to school there. We toured NYU and Georgetown together, but didn't find either a good fit worth the price of application. We drove by Ohio University, West Virginia University and Temple. Ellie made two official visits to South Carolina and three additional informal visits. Interestingly, Ellie wasn't sold on Temple until she had both toured the campus AND worked out ways to use the Philadelphia subway to find her way around the city by herself. She felt at home there--without Daddy's help--and it helped her see herself studying and living in the city. Another ticket punched.

7. Dream, dream, dream. The final determination of where a student attends is NOT the college admissions or financial aid office. It's the parent or student who signs the deposit check. It frustrates me to hear finances brought up during the Talking Phase, the Touring Phase, or the Dreaming Phase, which should be about students reaching for the best opportunities available and preparing themselves to be successful in life. (When Ellie learned to walk, I imagined her in the Olympics; after her first piano lesson, I started thinking about Carnegie Hall; when she played soccer, I took her to see Mia Hamm and the US Women's Team.) It wasn't for me to tell her she would never be great because we. just. couldn't. afford. it.

Parents should identify students' strengths, help them identify programs or careers that will let them use those strengths, and take them to the colleges/ locations of their dreams. (Parents, this also makes an indelible impression on your child as to the depth of your love and respect for them.) The local community college or commuter state school will still cash the check, whether you've toured Harvard or not. A student who says, "I was accepted to X Unversity, but I chose Y College," is a student who is in control of their destiny and one who will live their life looking forward without regret.

Let me be clear. Ellie is an extraordinary kid. I'm not here to toot my horn, or act like anyone else's child has the same drive and dedication that she has shown over the past four years.They might. We have learned some important lessons over the past two years of looking at and preparing for college admission, and I just wanted to share them with all of you.

24 May 2014

Last of the Jims

I can think of three dates that determined the outcome of these 43 years I have spent so far on this wonderful green globe:
  • 22 May 1997 I became a father.
  • The weekend of 3-7 May 1991 Destiny thrust me into the great love of my life
  • In January of 1984, just a few weeks shy of my 13th birthday, I moved from Amesville, Ohio, to Portland, Tennessee. 
Uprooted in the middle of 7th grade, I was planted in a new school, a new community. The experience marked me for life--my best friends and my boyhood were boxed up back at home--a place I tell my kids was "the Magical Land." My awkward teenage years and the longest chapters in the unwritten book, JD's Book of Blunders, would take place in a strange land of Tennessee.

A story from those first days in Tennessee came back to mind this week, when I learned that my classmate at Highland Elementary, James "Bobo" Ayers, had passed away due to cancer. Like me, he was 43.

I have always had a problem with my name. Growing up, my family called me "JD," which always seemed like a baby name to me. To make things worse, my mom tells the story that the name had been given to me while I was still in utero, given by a man who assumed I would be "Junior Dittes."

When I was ready for 1st grade, I came up with a plan. I was going to leave "JD" behind and become "Jimmy." I remember writing "Jimmy" over and over on my wide-lined, elementary writing book, curling the y's this way and that. It didn't phase my parents--nor did it seem to matter to the other seven kids in the one-room Adventist school I attended.

A Return to the Question of Satan

A couple of events this week led me back to explore the topic of Satan.

I have admitted earlier in this blog my difficulty in really believing in the Evil One--or at least with the certainty that many of the Lucifer-wielders seem to have for him.

Two events this week brought Satan back to light and led to some interesting new takes on the subject.

First, at a Bible study this week, a group leader resorted to Satan to prove a supposition that cannot be supported by the Bible: in this case it was the erroneous belief that Paul and other early Christians didn't worship on Sunday, among other days.

"The Devil wants us to believe," he began. My blood began to boil. "It's all part of Satan's plan." I wanted to walk out. This was a blatant logical fallacy--as if I made decisions or interpreted scripture with any care what some made-up entity really wants!

Later, a friend posted on Facebook a question about  atheists and Satan. Two brushes with the Evil One in one week. I took to Google to figure out the term for "a person who refuses to believe in Satan."

The answer I found was "atheist."  An atheist, I learned, rejects any form of the divine, whether good or evil.

13 March 2014

Living My Grandpa's Life

Woke up this morning in my grandpa's bed.
Put the kettle on for coffee on my grandpa's stove
Took a walk down Grandpa's driveway
     looking up at constellations--
     the very ones I learned from him.
I paused next to Grandpa's arched, white mailbox,
Stared up at Venus to the east-southeast.

That was when I realized
Today, March 13
Is the day I lost my grandpa--
Seven years ago,
     the world at this very point in its wide orbit
     end-of-winter stars in these places overhead--
     a Universe eternal save his heartbeat.
He died
On a Tuesday