Is 50 a More Reasonable “F” Than Zero?


If you want to play political football in a school system, talk about eliminating zeros. The practice, seemingly laughable only a decade ago in education (which is notoriously resistant to change), seems to be gaining traction across the country, as summed up in this Washington Post article.

The biggest hurdle is tradition. The 100-point scale is an institution. Teachers know it, parents know it, and students know it. Teachers grew up with it, parents grew up with it, and students are growing up with it. Well, most of them are. But now, under the logical argument that “F” is a grand canyon of 59 points while A, B, C, and D are mere gulches of 10, the times they are a changin’. That’s right. Reformists believe grading is more fairly done on a 5-point scale, one which apportions ten more democratic points to each letter.

This logic is hard to dispute, but the sticking point comes with students who do no work whatsoever. As stated in the article, some students working under the new criteria have learned to “job” the system, passing a course even when they do not do some of the assignments. After all, you can survive such neglect if you are awarded 50 points vs. zero for nothing. Thus you see terms like “reasonable attempt” and “good-faith effort” as requirements for the 50.

The trouble with that is clear: What constitutes a “reasonable attempt”? And how do I know “good-faith effort” when I see it? One teacher may rule that a student made a reasonable attempt to complete an assignment while another may scoff. Here we go again–out of the frying pan and into the fire. The semantics of these terms are as fuzzy as grades themselves, wherein my “B” may be the equivalent of your “C.”

In his book Grading Smarter, Not Harder, Myron Dueck offers ways out of the dilemma, but it includes solutions not viable in every school, including Saturday in-school and lunch work sessions as solutions for incomplete work. Teachers might, nevertheless, be interested in looking at Dueck’s Late or Incomplete Assignment form, which can be found by scrolling down to Strategies for Addressing Uncompleted Work.

The other kick-around mentioned in the Washington Post article is the up-and-coming “do-over” or “retake.” Dueck addresses this in the free first chapter (see link above) in his book. You simply give fewer choices in the retake/make-up version of the test, thus making it a more difficult test. It’s only fair, he argues, because students have had more time (in the case of students out the day of the test) or a second chance (in the case of retakers) than the students who took it on the assigned day. Knowing the retake is more challenging should discourage students from “not studying so hard” because they know they have a fall-back, too.

One clever “turnabout is fair play” argument in Dueck’s chapter addresses late work. Many teachers are adamant about deducting points for late work, arguing that it merely reflects the “real world” and that students would quickly lose jobs if they did not complete work on time. Dueck says this is simply not true and uses teachers themselves as proof. He gives the example of collecting reports or data from teachers by a specific date. Getting 100% of the reports on the given day is a pipe dream (true). What about volunteer reports, such as collecting data on students who might be eligible for certain awards? Many teachers who, like their students, are “busy,” take a pass on this type of thing every time. In both cases, imagine if it went into their files on some report! OK. Don’t.

Is there a single solution to these zero and retake debates? No. Is either the old or new system completely fair? Probably not. Teachers and schools need to make decisions based on which system  is MORE fair. Also essential? That they constantly ask themselves this question: What is my primary purpose as a teacher, and how does the system I adopt help me to achieve that purpose? No, not so it is easiest for me, the teacher, but so it best serves learners who need to learn–even those who would play cat-and-mouse with any system presented to them.





Ah, Memorial Day Weekend


I can see by my television that it is Memorial Day weekend. Tributes to fallen soldiers? Documentaries? Public-service announcements? Car commercials, actually. Big-time sales. Hurry. Now. All those “Russian” words (jarring, isn’t it?).

I can see by my neighborhood that it is Memorial Day weekend — the unofficial official (or is it official unofficial?) opening to summer. What I am seeing is the absence of a lot of things I usually see. Namely people. They are all gone, it seems, to their unofficial official summer houses. Or, at the very least, to their official unofficial holiday weekend rental.

Meanwhile, I walk my dog in eerie silence. No one for the pooch to snarl at. He should be named Monopoly because he dislikes other dogs and wants the neighborhood to himself. Happy, happy dog!

I can see by the temperature that it is Memorial Day weekend. The past two days Mr. Fahrenheit has nudged ninety, pas-de-deux with his partner, Ms. Humidity. Fans. Air conditioners. Dry throats. I might as well move to the South where entire existences are spent indoors on recycled air. “The South” being the 7th Circle of Dante’s Hell, of course.

How is your Memorial Day weekend, then? Are you on the ocean with your family and your phone? The mountains, maybe? Don’t tell me. A lake house!

Or are you like me, feeling… left behind, out of it, un-hip? As Emily Dickinson would say, “Then there’s a pair of us–don’t tell!”


Acupuncture with the People


I call it pins and needles, though I couldn’t tell you the technical term for those sharp objects practitioners stick in us. Pin? Needle? Whatever. You get the point if you’re lying there.

I decided to try it a few months back and, as my choice of venue, entered a “fast-food” style acupuncture establishment. These locations are cheaper by far, but you don’t get the one-on-one handholding (er… puncturing) you get at a more expensive joint.

Instead, you enter a room with six La-Z-Boys covered in moss-covered sheets, are offered a neck warmer as a collar of comfort, and lean back until you are almost on your back looking up. There is also a single bed for those who prefer it–and they’re out there–but for the most part, your fellow acu-nauts, like you, get La-Z.

When the guy with the needles sits by your side, he will whisper the gateway words: “How you doing?” Woe is he who dares ask a patient how he’s doing. Would he be decked out like a filet awaiting skewers if he were “doing” at all? No. But it is a formality. A protocol to be observed.

When I am stuck to my chair like a bug to an entomologist’s cardboard, I often hear the whispered laments of other patients: “Buzz, buzz, buzz, my back… buzz, buzz, my stomach…buzz stress…buzz, buzz, buzz, my shoulder, elbow, knee, arthritis.” After a few questions and assurances, the pointillist tears open the new, germ-free needles and selects his points of entry.

Which brings us to another quirk of “Acupuncture with the People.” All you do is roll up your pant legs to the knee and sleeves to the elbows. All pins go on these extremities (and, occasionally, your face). It seems limited in its way, and I imagine, though can’t prove due to my penury, that people with private sessions get more pins over more real estate than we do. In that sense, I envision something similar to a massage, where you get down to the essentials and the doctor finds every tributary known to Chinese man.

No, they’re not called tributaries. Meridians. Like you’re a globe. A map. A cartographer’s pin cushion.

It’s a relaxing hour, anyway. You know. Lying peacefully to the soundtrack of Chinese music and the sounds of water falling, trilling, flowing. And birds, too, like the dawn of the ages.

Very Zen. Zen interrupted, that is, by the creak of La-Z-Boys (people getting up, people lying down), by the buzz-buzz-buzz of lamentations, by the whispers of comfort, and, now and then, by stentorian snoring.

Me, I can’t sleep. I don’t do it very well in my own bed at 3 a.m., never mind in a room with six other pilgrims seeking succor in ancient Chinese wisdom. But it’s all one, and it all becomes a habit, after awhile.

Doesn’t everything?

My New Book Is Out

Indifferent World

Like how casually I said that? As if I ever had an OLD book out?

Whatever. Enjoy the moment, St. Andy Warhol once said. It’s fleeting. So am I. And at my age, you avoid Fleet Street all you can. Know of any very long streets I can stroll?

The new book is called The Indifferent World and it is available from my publisher. Or, if you want a signed copy, you can buy direct from me and hope the pony express I employ gets it to you as fast as amazon prime. For that purpose, I’ve fired up a separate poetry-only blog site here.

Pretty cool, no? (Rhetorical question)

Walter Isaacson: Advice for Wanna-Writers

walter isaacson

The world does not lack for advice. It is easy to lay down pronouncements and critiques. Still, if it’s backed by action, it’s worthy of our attention. Any number of adages support this truth: “Actions speak louder than words,” “Show, don’t tell,” and “Don’t just talk the talk–walk the walk.”

Recently my nephew was in the audience at a Washington D.C. speaking engagement for Walter Isaacson. The name was news to me, but a little digging (with a Google shovel) showed that he is president and CEO of the Aspen Institute. He also authored a biography of Steve Jobs, the late and much-heralded leader of Apple.

Walter’s advice has to do with writing. The two most memorable ear nuggets he offered my note-taking nephew were these: Don’t own a TV and spend at least two hours writing every day.

Alarmed? If you’re an American with writing ambitions, I can see why. Not own a TV? Oh your God!

Isaacson claims the empty corner gives him three more hours a day over the average person (average persons, you may now wave from your computer monitors).

If I took his advice and dumped my TV, I would save a lot of extortionist cable TV company money, for starters. And I wouldn’t miss it as much as my wife would. I no longer follow any television series to speak of. It’s come down to this: I only watch Red Sox baseball games (and even those serve mostly as background noise while I do other things) and UConn basketball games (admittedly, these exercises in “Jekyll or Hyde tonight?” torture get my undivided).

Could I learn to live without these televised sporting events? Sure. But once the Wicked Witch of the East’s snazzy socks curled up and disappeared under the foundation, there’d be the Wicked Witch of the West to contend with: the surrogate TV I’m watching right now as I type this post.

Uh-huh. Computer time. Every bit the match for TV time when it comes to ambition-suckage. And a distraction I would miss more than my wife would, making us even in our venial sins.

What about two hours of writing a day? This is tougher still for those of us working full time. Especially if, like me, your best hours are first thing in the morning. And you’re due at work by 7 a.m.

True, I could take the Walter I. plunge after supper, but I’m a shell of my former creative being by then. By 7 p.m., fatigue is my muse.

Nevertheless, Walter Isaacson’s are words to mull like unsipped cider. Getting published is not for the faint of heart; it is for serious warriors. Who don’t pay cable TV bills. And who “type the type” for at least two hours a day.

End of wannabe story.

Raymond Carver–Not Just Short Stories

all of us

Here’s my review of Raymond Carver’s complete collection of poetry, All of Us:


Sometimes reading an entire collection of poems cover to cover is exhausting and maybe even inadvisable work. In fact, I often read poetry collections on the side as I’m reading fiction (or non-) because it requires such focus.

You know the feeling. Especially with poems that yawn and stretch out over a page or two. You’re reading and suddenly you realize your mind has drifted, like a newbie meditation acolyte trying on Buddhism for size. You go back. Remind yourself. Focus on the words! Start over! Deep breath and go….

With Raymond Carver, this is less of an issue. One reason is his style. It is quite idiomatic, often written in chummy vernacular. Deceivingly simple, too. A Hemingway of poetry, then. And before long, due to the repeating themes coming at you in waves (like, say, Bach’s music), you feel like ole Ray is your bud. Your best pal. Sympatico. Amigo.

And, say. I can write like this, too! Look how simple! Just as Hem breeds legions of aspiring short story writers who crash into the craggy shores of imitation, so does Carver with poetry imitators. The Scylla and Charybdis of deceptively simple. Scrivener sailors beware.

If, like me, you’re not at home with narrative poetry and caught up with the Johnny One-Note of lyrical poetry, Carver’s the antidote. He’s known for his short stories more than his poetry, but so many of these thrive on the same strengths–the ability to choose a few key details from his own life or another’s, to quickly build a story, to deftly find emotion or one small note of truth in it.

Many of the poems focus on simple things that make life worth living. And on death. Which is ironic and not. On the one hand, death is a theme in most all writer’s writing from the dawn of days. Where do we go? And why me? Special old me? The other irony is Ray’s own early demise to cancer. Struck down at age 50. The last poems are written through that glass darkly.

This particular collection contains every poem Raymond Carver ever wrote. In the back there are appendices, the first one containing his early, unpublished poems. I read these first, then went back and read in order of his four published collections so I could see his growth as a poet. He’s an end-stop guy. When he’s in an enjambment, he knows how to get out of it, so to speak. Lots of dependent clauses with periods. If you’re enamored of complete sentences in your poetry and if grammar violations bother you, enter at your own school marm-ish risk.

Here are some sample works I like:


On the Columbia River near Vantage,
Washington, we fished for whitefish
in the winter months; my dad, Swede-
Mr. Lindgren-and me. They used belly-reels,
pencil-length sinkers, red, yellow, or brown
flies baited with maggots.
They wanted distance and went clear out there
to the edge of the riffle.
I fished near shore with a quill bobber and a cane pole.

My dad kept his maggots alive and warm
under his lower lip. Mr. Lindgren didn’t drink.
I liked him better than my dad for a time.
He lets me steer his car, teased me
about my name “Junior,” and said
one day I’d grow into a fine man, remember
all this, and fish with my own son.
But my dad was right. I mean
he kept silent and looked into the river,
worked his tongue, like a thought, behind the bait.


“This Morning”

This morning was something. A little snow
lay on the ground. The sun floated in a clear
blue sky. The sea was blue, and blue-green,
as far as the eye could see.
Scarcely a ripple. Calm. I dressed and went
for a walk — determined not to return
until I took in what Nature had to offer.
I passed close to some old, bent-over trees.
Crossed a field strewn with rocks
where snow had drifted. Kept going
until I reached the bluff.
Where I gazed at the sea, and the sky, and
the gulls wheeling over the white beach
far below. All lovely. All bathed in a pure
cold light. But, as usual, my thoughts
began to wander. I had to will
myself to see what I was seeing
and nothing else. I had to tell myself this is what
mattered, not the other. (And I did see it,
for a minute or two!) For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong — duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat
with my former wife. All the things
I hoped would go away this morning.
The stuff I live with every day. What
I’ve trampled on in order to stay alive.
But for a minute or two I did forget
myself and everything else. I know I did.
For when I turned back i didn’t know
where I was. Until some birds rose up
from the gnarled trees. And flew
in the direction I needed to be going.


“My Dad’s Wallet”

Long before he thought of his own death,
my dad said he wanted to lie close
to his parents. He missed them so
after they went away.
He said this enough that my mother remembered,
and I remembered. But when the breath
left his lungs and all signs of life
had faded, he found himself in a town
512 miles away from where he wanted most to be.
My dad, though. He was restless
even in death. Even in death
he had this one last trip to take.
All his life he liked to wander,
and now he had one more place to get to.
The undertaker said he’d arrange it,
not to worry. Some poor light
from the window fell on the dusty floor
where we waited that afternoon
until the man came out of the back room
and peeled off his rubber gloves.
He carried the smell of formaldehyde with him.
He was a big man, the undertaker said.

Then began to tell us why
he liked living in this small town.
This man who’d just opened up my dad’s veins.
How much is it going to cost? I said.
He took out his pad and pen and began
to write. First, the preparation charges.
Then he figured the transportation
of the remains at 22 cents a mile.
But this was a round-trip for the undertaker,
don’t forget. Plus, say, six meals
and two nights in a motel. He figured
some more. Add a surcharge of
$210 for his time and trouble,
and there you have it.
He thought we might argue.
There was a spot of color on
each of his cheeks as he looked up
from his figures. The same poor light
fell in the same poor place on
the dusty floor. My mother nodded
as if she understood. But she
hadn’t understood a word of it.
None of it made any sense to her,
beginning with the time she left home
with my dad. She only knew
that whatever was happening
was going to take money.
She reached into her purse and bought up
my dad’s wallet. The three of us
in that little room that afternoon.
Our breath coming and going.
We stared at the wallet for a minute.
Nobody said anything.
All the life had gone out of the wallet.
It was old and rent and soiled.
But it was my dad’s wallet. And she opened
it and looked inside. Drew out
a handful of money that would go
toward this last, most astounding, trip.

The best compliment I can pay a book is to say I won’t pass it on to a like-minded friend. When I get a little selfish about a book, when I make permanent space like a star on Hollywood on the bookshelf so I can return to it for inspiration, ideas, and unpacking, it’s a five plus. I realize he’s not everybody’s cuppa. He’s not into rhyme, meter, or form poems of any sort. But that’s a snapshot of me, too. Those don’t much appeal to me.

As Mark Twain said of classics, so I say of poetry: I prefer water to fine wine. And if that says something about me, so be it!

The Antiquated Concept of Snow Days


I work in a school district that justifiably prides itself on its technological prowess. Much time, effort, and money has been invested in software, hardware, and training of staff and students. The district even devotes an entire professional day to technology each year.

That said, in one way we—along with all the other school districts in the state—are hopelessly antiquated. I’m talking horse-and-buggy antiquated. Yes, it’s the venerable snow day.

Monday the 8th of February was cancelled due to an impending storm. This further extended an already long weekend because Friday the 5th was sacrificed to Old Man Winter as well.

Meanwhile, in my district, the school calendar flagged Friday the 12th as a professional day for teachers. Not only would students miss class again, they would not be in session for the entire following week due to February vacation.

If I may dip into my bag of clichés, this sequence of events amounts to a perfect (snow) storm, one where a cold front of illogical scheduling meets a low pressure system of antiquated bureaucratic practice.

And sadly enough, the practice just won’t change.

Solutions? I have a few. Some savvy districts in the country have made more than talk of their technology by proactively setting up computer-based learning should the weather go north. Much like online coursework for college students, these lessons are prepared in advance by teachers and available online. Instead of a full day of snowmen, television, and video games, homebound students devote a few hours to their educations via the Internet.

If students have no access to technology, they take home “snow work”—sometimes called “blizzard bags”—in the fall. For these, each course’s instructor prescribes work that will move the students’ skill sets along so their learning remains fresh.

Another remedy is greater flexibility in scheduling. In this scenario, parents are notified up front that professional and vacation days are tentative, not cast in concrete. In my district’s case, by decree of the superintendent, the professional day on the 12th could become a make-up day for the 5th, and next Monday, the first day of “winter vacation” (as if we haven’t had enough of that already) would be tabbed as a makeup for Monday the 8th.

A third fix? The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education could amend their regulations regarding the 180-day attendance requirement by simply waiving days lost to inclement weather.

Radical? Maybe. But it’s better than the present practice of tacking days on to the end of the June. It also acknowledges a simple reality and poorly-kept secret: student learning, the ultimate goal of everyone in the education business, is sacrificed each time a winter snow day is declared and an end-of-year makeup day is used to make amends.

By then, heat and humidity rule the day. Some students have already left for summer camps and, even if they are physically present, most have checked out mentally. January and February school days in exchange for late June school days is not a fair trade. Not even close.

Of course, for administrators in air-conditioned offices, resistance to change and adherence to numbers is easy. But for students and teachers melting like Dali clocks on the desks and chairs of late-June heat, the system cries out for another look, one better in keeping with our technological times.

Simply put, snow days and the way we make them up have become the 8-track cassettes of education. It’s time to download a better way.