Simplicity's out: Teachers say use more expressive words.

Simplicity’s out: Teachers say use more expressive words.

Does the American population need to become more expressive? I don’t know, but I think the jury’s still out on that.

Happy Change of Venue Friday. Today I share an odd news story about a new way some kids are being taught to write. If I could boil it down for you, it would be: “Fancier words, please.”

I honestly want to know what you think. But I won’t hide the ball: This sounds pretty awful to me.

Here is part of the story:

English teachers were once satisfied if they could prevent their pupils from splitting infinitives. Now some also want to stop them from using words like “good,” “bad,” “fun” and “said.”

“We call them dead words,” said (or declared) Leilen Shelton, a middle school teacher in Costa Mesa, Calif. She and many others strive to purge pupils’ compositions of words deemed vague or dull.

“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” said (or affirmed) Ms. Shelton, whose manual “Banish Boring Words” has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009.

Here is the story from the Wall Street Journal.

As someone I follow closely said. “This pretty much goes against every guide to good writing, fiction or nonfiction.”

And for journalists, the idea that you should say “exclaimed” rather than “said” could get you fired. After all, the goal is to report in a straightforward way, minus the spin that words like “squawked,” “bellowed,” and “intimated” might … intimate.

Of course, if kids want to make their creative writing more evocative, have at it. But adding $5 words when a nickel word will do isn’t helping anyone.

But maybe I’m just being overly pusillanimous.

Have a great—and thesaurus-free—weekend.


A Bushmaster .233 Remington semiautomatic rifle, one of the weapons used in recent school murders

A Bushmaster .233 Remington semiautomatic rifle, one of the weapons used in recent school murders

What, if anything, should we do with our gun laws?

In the wake of a massacre in Sandy Hook, Conn., that’s just one of the difficult questions facing a nation.

It may be too early to tell, but this tragedy seems to have spurred a deeper impetus for change than previous multiple shootings have done. But the question is: Should changes to ensure safety include changes to laws regarding guns? And if so, what should those changes be?

In the past few days, I’ve spotted a few articles that pitch two straw men against each other. The battle, according to that narrative, is between doing nothing (it’s all fine) to banning all guns.

However, no actual person I’ve ever spoken with sees those as the alternatives. As another has said, we support all the amendments, including the Second. The real question is how to effectuate those enumerated rights in a way that does not infringe upon others.

Just as distracting is the position that the national conversation should just be about mental health. It’s certainly true that our country must establish better methods to address those who are a danger to themselves and others. But surely we can manage to wrestle with more than one concept at a time. Can it really be true that as a nation we must rank the challenges we face (mental health, easy access to large-magazine weapons, school security) and propose solutions to only one?

A hint that the conversation may go farther this time arises in a New York Times story yesterday. It explores the decision of the corporation Cerberus to divest itself of the nation’s largest gun company. That decision goes far beyond previous efforts to address a too-recurring tragedy.

The story is titled “In Unusual Move, Cerberus to Sell Gun Company,” and it opens:

“Sitting in their offices high above Park Avenue late on Monday, the private equity executives who own the country’s largest gun company received a phone call from one of their most influential investors.”

“An official at the California teachers’ pension fund, which has $750 million invested with the private equity firm, Cerberus Capital Management, was on the line, raising questions about the firm’s ownership of the Freedom Group, the gun maker that made the rifle used in the Connecticut school shootings. Hours later, at 1 a.m. on Tuesday, Cerberus said that it was putting the Freedom Group up for sale.”

“‘It is apparent that the Sandy Hook tragedy was a watershed event that has raised the national debate on gun control to an unprecedented level,’ Cerberus said in a statement.”

So I ask for your thoughts: Is this truly a watershed event? And what should or can change in our laws to address it?

Here are a few other resources that cover the topic:

The New York Times has another story, this one on what some state leaders are proposing:

“The first concrete responses to the massacre in Newtown, Conn., began emerging on Tuesday, as state leaders proposed measures to curb gun violence, corporations distanced themselves from an event that has traumatized the nation and the White House pointed to gun control measures that President Obama would champion in the months ahead.”

“The reactions were considerably more broad-based than what had followed previous mass shootings, coming from Republicans as well as Democrats, from gun control advocates and those who have favored gun rights in the past, and even from the corporate and retail worlds. Proponents of stricter controls on firearms said they were cautiously optimistic that, perhaps this time, something concrete and lasting would be enacted.”

And here is an examination of whether proposed laws conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller:

“Despite the sweeping language of a 2008 Supreme Court decision that struck down parts of the District of Columbia’s strict gun-control law, the decision appears perfectly consistent with many of the policy options being discussed after the shootings in Newtown, Conn.”

“Legal experts say the decision in the case, District of Columbia v. Heller, has been of mainly symbolic importance so far. There have been more than 500 challenges to gun laws and gun prosecutions since Heller was decided, and vanishingly few of them have succeeded.”

Finally, the Arizona Republic has published multiple opinions on the way forward.

Two days ago, I wrote about a Mesa school district program that gets truant students in front of a justice of the peace. The goal is to get them on the straight and narrow. But the outcome is, necessarily, more misdemeanor convictions.

Last night, I read a disturbing Washington Post article that analyzed data from schools in that city and its suburbs. It found that African American students are disciplined far more often than other children.

Read the whole story here.

The story, by reporter Donna St. George, opens:

“Across the Washington area, black students are suspended and expelled two to five times as often as white students, creating disparities in discipline that experts say reflect a growing national problem. … Experts say disparities appear to have complex causes. A disproportionate number of black students live below the poverty line or with a single parent, factors that affect disciplinary patterns. But experts say those factors do not fully explain racial differences in discipline. Other contributing factors could include unintended bias, unequal access to highly effective teachers and differences in school leadership styles.”

Daniel J. Losen

As the story indicates, the challenge of equalizing discipline is a national one. So much so that a joint effort of the Departments of Justice and Education was announced last July to combat the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to the Department of Education press release:

“Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder today announced the launch of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a collaborative project between the Departments of Justice and Education that will address the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ and the disciplinary policies and practices that can push students out of school and into the justice system. The initiative aims to support good discipline practices to foster safe and productive learning environments in every classroom.”

The Post story explains the problematic nature of many of the suspendable offenses, which are labeled “soft” infractions—disrespect, defiance, insubordination, disruption and foul language. Some offenses, the reporter notes, allow administrators “significant latitude in how they respond.”

Discipline rates in DC schools (click for larger version)

And things really have changed in schools since many of us were kids: “Suspensions have surged nationally since the 1970s, fueled in part by a zero-tolerance culture.”

“‘We associate getting kicked out of school with something really really bad, but there has been a sea change in recent years in what kids get suspended for and how often we use suspension,’ said researcher Daniel J. Losen, who recently authored a report on suspension and disparities for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.”

Russell Skiba

The disparities are troubling, the reporter says, especially for parents who may already be suspicious of an unbalanced ledger in school administration:

“Lea Collins-Lee, an African American parent in Prince George’s [County], said her eldest son was first suspended a decade ago for placing an extra dessert on his cafeteria tray. Last month, her youngest son, now 18, was suspended for five days after a tussle that she said he did not start.

“‘I really do think it’s harder for black kids,’ she said. ‘If they get into a fight, it’s a gang fight. If white kids get into a fight, it’s a disagreement.’”

For those who suggest a suspension may be no big deal, a recent Texas study drew a stark line between school discipline and the likelihood of dropping out and ending up in the juvenile justice system. And as I noted Tuesday, a criminal record may be forever. (Here is another study examining disparities in the Virginia schools.)

In the Post article, a researcher answered in advance one of the questions many may have:

“‘It is not just a matter of kids coming from poverty,’ [Indiana University’s Russell] Skiba said. ‘Poor kids do get suspended more. But that does not explain why poor black kids get suspended more than poor white kids and why affluent black kids get suspended more than affluent white kids.’”

Angela Ciolfi

Donna St. George quotes another researcher, Angela Ciolfi of the Legal Aid Justice Center, which published the study of Virginia schools:

“I think people assume it has to be this way. [But], when schools pay attention to who gets in trouble and why, they find they are able to reduce misbehavior overall and also address the discipline gap.”

What do you think of this discipline gap? Do you see it in Arizona? And for those in the juvenile justice system, what do you think of the notion that wielding too much discipline in schools provides a gateway to the courthouse?

Even before I lived in Arizona, I was told by many of the state’s boosters that Arizona was a “test-market” region. Apparently, because of the variety of people and the diversity of their origins, companies liked to share their evolving products with our residents to see what we thought. As Arizona went, so went the nation—at least in regard to New Coke.

If we were considered a model for the nation in commerce, we should not be surprised to see that other of our qualities have caused a national stir.

Today launches the national effort called Ethnic Studies Week. Though its recognition will occur in cities and towns across the United States, it got at least part of its genesis right here. As the organizers describe it:

“The first Ethnic Studies Week October 1-7, 2010 was inspired by opposition to the May 11 2010 passage of HB 2281 in Arizona banning ethnic studies in the AZ public schools and the May 21 2010 passage of new social studies standards by the influential Texas State Board of Education. It was initiated by 225 educators, endorsed by educational and activist organizations around the country, and open to all who wanted to participate, as hundreds did in individual K-12 and college classrooms, where students, listened to speakers, watched films and paused to reflect on the importance of ethnic studies. Public events occurred in dozens of venues … .”

Odd, in a way, that businesses choose to focus-group their products here due to diverse origins, but a national movement was launched due to a conflict over whether that very thing was even admirable. But ethnic studies has become a rallying cry for opposing camps. Of interest to me, it also had a “legal” beginning, and the resolution is likely to end with a court’s opinion.

Eddy Zheng

Locally, if you’re Ethnic Studies-curious, I came across a few events at which you might listen, learn and maybe vent your own spleen, depending on your viewpoint. One event is this afternoon, and the second is on Thursday.  They are listed through ASU’s School of Social Transformation:

Monday, October 3
“Be the Change Within,” a talk by Eddy Zheng
3:30 – 5 p.m.
West Hall 135, ASU’s Tempe campus
Activist, community organizer and former prisoner Eddy Zheng will speak about his experiences and perspectives concerning youth, education, immigration and the prison industrial complex, as well as coming into political consciousness while reading ethnic studies texts behind bars.

Thursday, October 6
“A World We Were Never Meant to Survive: Education, Repression and Resistance in Tucson,” a Teach-in/Panel Discussion
6 -8 p.m.
West Hall 135, ASU’s Tempe campus
What is the status of the fight over Mexican American studies curriculum in the Tucson Unified School District in the wake of HR 2281? How might it affect us here in Tempe/Phoenix and why should it concern us? Join Tucson teachers and students, activists and professors from the University of Arizona for a special teach-in and panel discussion.

Complete details are here.