Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Category Archives: Learning

Cloud based writing

One morning almost 60 years ago I entered a classroom to write my Grade 11 Composition final exam. I breezed through the first few pages, confident that I understood English grammar. The last page stopped me cold. It called for an essay on one of the topics in a long list. None of those topics stirred the slightest interest in my mind.

I glanced out the window. It was a glorious June day with puffy cumulus clouds drifting across the sky. I would rather have been outside, but I was stuck in that desk until I wrote the essay, or ran out of time.

Watching the clouds had a calmchild-830988_640ing effect. I saw a sheep being chased by a dragon. As I watched, the shapes slowly shifted and suddenly it was a Spanish galleon sailing through the skies. Cloud followed cloud and each one took on a recognizable shape then slowly morphed into something different.

Somebody coughed and with a jolt my mind came back into the room. The clock was ticking and the page in front of me was still blank. The list of topics was as uninspiring as ever.

Then inspiration struck: why not write about the things I had been seeing in the sky? I picked one of the topics that more or less fit and filled the page with my imagination. I handed my paper in and went outside into the sunshine.

I received full marks for that essay, 95% on the whole exam. Years later, I read in Writers’ Digest that a writer is doing the most real work when he is staring out the window. When he takes a pen in his hand or sits down at the keyboard that is just clerical work. I felt vindicated.

I still plot my stories and articles the way I did that long ago day in June. Only now the shapes I see are in my mind, not out the window. Clouds, people, ideas, arguments, incidents imagined or real, go drifting across my mind, often changing shape and becoming something totally different from the original idea. Some drift away, never to return. Some will drift through my mind for days, weeks, months, even years, before I put anything down on paper.

Sometimes I will think of a title and write it down. I might even write a list of words under the title, or a sentence or two. I have no idea how or where those words will appear in what I plan to write, but I think they will fit somewhere. Usually they do, but sometimes the whole shape of the story changes before I get it written.

I believe those idea clouds drifting through my mind are inspirations from the Holy Spirit. At least the ones that keep coming back. The changing shapes are the Spirit refining my perception so that I can understand how to put those ideas on paper so others can see what I am seeing.

Writers tend to classify themselves as either outliners or pantsers. An outliner has the whole plot down on paper before she starts – complete with descriptions of the characters, the main incidents and the conclusion. Pantsers start with an idea and proceed “by the seat of their pants” without a predetermined idea of where this is going to lead or what will happen along the way. Which category do I fall into? I don’t really know. I prefer to think of myself as a cloud-based plotter.

If you are a writer . . .

If you are a writer . . .man-29749_640.png

– you love words, you study words, their origins and all the nuances of their meanings. You don’t aim to dazzle readers with the knowledge you acquire, you want to be able to select the best words to make your readers see what you are seeing.

– you know that words are inadequate for what needs to be said. So you spend time searching for the words that come closest to saying what you want to say and avoid words and expressions that make no contribution to what you are trying to describe..

– you know that the reader can only see what you show him. A reader in Saskatchewan doesn’t know what a trillium looks like, or that many people in Ontario say youse when speaking to more than one person. A reader in Ontario doesn’t know what a slough is or what a chokecherry tastes like.

– you know that inspiration is not enough. Writing is the craft that brings the inspiration to life for your readers, by using just the right words and removing all the useless words that distract readers from perceiving what it was that inspired you.

– everything you see, and hear, and dream, becomes grist for your mill. You notice the little wildflower that is invisible to others, you hear the song of a toad at dusk, you see and hear the way people do and say things. These all become part of your storehouse and sooner or later they appear somewhere in your writing.

– you are a writer all the time. You have a full time job, you are a student, a busy mother, a caregiver to an aged relative. In all you do you find insights, nuggets of truth, startling images, moments of tenderness, moments of hilarity, and you tuck the memories away to be brought out when you sit down with a pen or at a keyboard.

– you are delighted to hear a reader repeat something you wrote that gave him new light on a subject, even if he can’t remember who wrote it.

Matthew Effects in Learning

“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath” (Matthew 25:29).

In 1986, Keith Stanovich published a study entitled Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy. The “Matthew Effects” in the title came from Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25.

The study showed that students who, at an early stage, gained a good understanding of how words are composed of sounds represented by the letters of the alphabet progressed rapidly in learning. Those who do not rapidly develop an awareness of the spelling to sound correlation will fall farther and farther behind in subsequent years.

This concept of how words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) is easily taught to young children, but our public school systems are not doing it. Instead, for at least 70 years now they have been experimenting with other methods of teaching reading. The result is that about 1/3 of children quickly make the letter-sound connection on their own, another 1/3 will struggle at first but eventually get it and the other 1/3 will be labelled learning disabled. I believe a large percentage of learning disabilities are created by inadequate teaching.

Since reading skills are the essential tool for learning everything else that a child will encounter in school, those with poor reading skills fall farther and farther behind as they progress through the school system.

This is a perfect example of the quote in my last post: “You know that the bureaucratic state has been reached in an organisation when the procedure is more important than the result.”

What we need is a more flexible system that is focussed on results. In both learning to read and in learning basic math skills, a child needs to master one set of skills before being pushed on to the next level. This concept of teaching for mastery in the basic skills has long been absent from the public school system

If this sounds like an argument for home schooling, or the old-fashioned one-room school, well, yes, I believe that they are more successful models for results-oriented learning. In any case, parents need to overcome their sense of intimidation by the big school machine and be much more involved in their child’s learning, especially in the beginning stages.

Setting education free from the bureaucracy

It was the practice at one time to teach swimming by getting the learner to lie belly down on a footstool and practice moving his hands and feet in the way that would propel him through the water. That’s not done anymore, for the simple and obvious reason that it really didn’t work.

After making billions in the internet and cell phone business, French entrepreneur Xavier Niel decided a few years ago to open a school for anyone wanting to learn computer coding. The entrance requirements for the school are that one needs to be 18 to 30 years old and able to pass an online logic test. There is one more requirement: you have to be willing to work really hard.

The school is called 42, it has no tuition and no instructors; the students are just dumped in the pool and told to swim. For the first 30 days, students are required to work at the school 15 hours a day. Those who stick it out will learn as much in those 30 days as they would in a two-year university course. Then the real education begins.

In order to earn a diploma, the student must complete 21 levels of training. It is collaborative learning with peer-to-peer correcting and each one working at their own pace. Some might finish in two years, others may take longer, it doesn’t matter.
How effective is it? A study last year tested13,000 graduates in computer programming, or software engineering, from 700 universities worldwide. The graduates from 42 topped all the others.

Much of this information comes from an article in the French news magazine le Point, written by Idriss Aberkane. M. Aberkane then goes on to ask if the whole educational system wouldn’t benefit from being remade according to the 42 model.

There is an obstacle though: the educational bureaucracy. To quote M. Aberkane, “You know that the bureaucratic state has been reached in an organisation when the procedure is more important than the result.” If that is true of the public education system in France, it is doubly true in Canada.

Prejudice + Poverty ≠ Hopelessness

Some years ago I read an article in Ebony magazine written by a man who had grown up in one of the worst black tenement ghettos in Chicago.Drug dealing, crime and violence were the everyday reality and the police felt the area was too dangerous to send in individual officers to patrol.

Like almost all the other children in this ghetto, this man and his two siblings grew up in a single parent home without much money. Their mother wanted her children to escape the ghetto and the first step was not to give in to hopelessness. She introduced them to the library and to museums and did everything that she could think of that was educational and free. When they went to the store to buy something she let the children pay and then count the change to see that it was right.

All three of those children finished school, went on to university and established professional careers. And they moved their mother out of the ghetto.

The man who wrote the article was now a lawyer. He wrote about going back to visit his old neighbourhood and trying to look up the boys he had grown up with. Some were dead, others were in jail, all the rest had criminal records. None had escaped the hopelessness of the ghetto.

There are a multitude of government programs to help children escape the effects of prejudice and poverty. Billions of dollars are being spent. What are the results? A lot of well paid government jobs to administer the programs. Besides that – not much.

One mother with hope and determination made a difference. No government program can create a mother like that.

Writng tips #2: 10 tips for writing more simply

[I have borrowed, translated and adapted these tips from a French website. That explains the references to French authors, in case you were wondering. These tips are intended for use in writing for the web, but would be useful in many other types of writing as well.]

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1. Thou shalt write short sentences.

You are not Proust! So do not write sentences of more than one or two lines. If you hesitate between several constructions, always choose the one with the fewest words. Your texts will be more rhythmic.

Tip: exchange semicolons for periods.

2. Thou shalt limit thyself to subject, verb and object.

The subject + verb + object scheme is the simplest grammatically. It is instantly recognizable and understandable to the reader. So avoid complex grammatical constructions, subordinate clauses, interpolations and parentheses within the same sentence.

Tip: turn most subordinate clauses into independent sentences.

3. Thou shalt write one idea per sentence.

One idea per sentence, one point per paragraph, one subject per article. Don’t try to say everything at once, at the risk of drowning your reader. Prioritize your ideas and start with the most important.

Tip: If your article is too long, divide it into several articles grouped by folder or series.

4. Thou shalt simplify thy vocabulary.

You do not write to amuse yourself but to make yourself understood. Don’t try to dazzle your readers with exotic words or literary style. Favour simple words known to all.

Tip: use only words that you know how to spell.

5. Thous shalt translate jargon.

You don’t need to eliminate all trade or professional jargon, but ensure the first occurrence of such a word is translated into plain English, including all acronyms and words from other languages. Not only will your readers thank you, but it will be easier for search engines to find your page because you will broaden your semantic field.

Tip: imagine you are writing for your grandmother.

6. Thou shalt avoid negations.

It is forbidden to forbid! It is not always easy (as in this article which intends to be educational), but avoid negative terms as much as possible. Opt instead for positive constructions, more involving and more direct. Flee double negatives that need to be read twice to get the meaning.

Tip: always replace “do not hesitate to do this” with “do this”!

7. Thou shalt avoid the passive voice.

Better to write “The cat eats the mouse” than “the mouse is eaten by the cat.” Not only does the passive use more words than the active form (7 words against 5), but it is also more complex to analyse. Therefore reverse passive sentences, transforming the object into subject.

Tip: choose action verbs like create, produce, decide, etc.

8. Thou shalt avoid adjectives and adverbs.

“Journalists (…) who want to use an adjective come see me in my office. Those who will use an adverb will be shown out the door,”wrote Georges Clemenceau in a memo while he was editor of L’Aurore. Years have passed, the media have changed, but the counsel remains valid.

Tip: first remove all useless instances of “true” and “genuine” from your texts.

9. Thou shalt avoid the subjunctive.

Avoid the subjunctive: limit yourself to the indicative. Also avoid the tenses we learned at school like the pluperfect, future anterior, etc. Try to stick to the present, the past, the imperfect, the future and the imperative.

Tip: use the infinitive as much as possible.

10. Thou shalt read thy article out loud.

Proofread your text carefully before publishing it. Locate the long sentences, overly complex constructions, etc. Check that you have applied all the above rules.

Tip: re-read aloud to identify difficult to read sentences. Flaubert called it the gueuloir test, you will see, it works!

(I presume Gueuloir was Flaubert’s invention; it’s not found in any dictionary. Gueuler means to speak very loudly, to yell.)

If you read French, the original article is found at: http://editoile.fr/10-astuces-pour-ecrire-plus-simplement/

Give them reasons to believe

I just read a sentence from a children’s lesson about the Bible that leaves me bewildered. I don’t want to reveal the source, but here is the sentence: “Through the past centuries many ungodly men have determined and tried to destroy the Bible, the Word of God, but have not been able to accomplish it.”

Folks, this is whistling past the graveyard. The writer is saying:“I have this uneasy feeling that there might be something scary out there, so I’ll make a happy noise and pretend that I’m not scared.”

That just won’t do. Children who are old enough to read something at this level, with its bombastic writing style, already know that confidence in the Bible has been destroyed for the majority of the people in our country. Even among those who say they are Christians and go to church, many don’t believe the first few chapters of the Bible can be considered to be fact.

Our children deserve something more than “don’t worry, just believe.” We need to endow them with a solid foundation of why the Bible can be trusted. If it’s not being done, someone needs to write a new series of lessons for children who are coming into that age where they are beginning to question the meaning of life and the validity of faith. Let’s give them solid information, not platitudes.

I think I may have just talked myself into doing some writing.

The first step in keeping your child out of prison

Teach him to read.

Maybe this sounds overly simplistic, but a young adult who is illiterate is unqualified for all but the most menial jobs. You can’t even work at McDonald’s if you can’t read the job instructions or the words on the screen of the till. 96% of the available jobs are out of reach for someone who is functionally illiterate.

Statistics from the UK show that 50% of inmates are functionally illiterate and 80% do not possess the writing skills to fill out a job application. There are supposed to be learning programs in the prisons, evidently they are not working, Two thirds of prisoners leave prison with no prospect of employment. Within two years the majority will be once again before the courts.

Systematic phonics is the one proven method for teaching reading. The public school system had abandoned it by the time I started school 68 years ago. Thankfully, I was already a prolific reader by then. The public school system has invested great gobs of money in new reading programs, remedial reading instructors, psychologists and other specialists. But they have no intention of ever returning to the one method that has been proven over and over again to work.

You cannot trust the public school system to teach your child to read. Reading to your child is the essential first step in introducing them to reading. Teach them the sounds of the letters and how they make words when blended together. Don’t trust commercial programs that are labelled “phonics.” The Society for Quality Education offers a free online reading course for children who are having difficulty in learning to read. You can find them here.

There are many other factors involved in crime and incarceration, including an unstable home life. But illiteracy is probably the number one factor in predicting who is going to have trouble with the law.

By the way, the masculine “him” in the first sentence was deliberate. Twice as many boys as girls struggle with learning to read and write.

 

Writing tips #1: Say what you mean

Writing carries a message by telling something to someone who isn’t handy for conversation. That seems simple enough, but the simplicity is deceptive. Start putting the message on paper, and trouble is looking over your shoulder with every word. You know what you want to say; you could say it in conversation with little difficulty. But sit down to write and a shade seems to descend over the brain. Nothing comes out. Or, if something does come out, it’s in a peculiar form which bears little resemblance to what you would say if you were speaking to someone.

Most of us, when we write, want to be stiff and formal, to use bigger words than are necessary, or even desirable. Somewhere in our education and upbringing we got the idea that writing must be formal. Given that unnatural starting point, we take it a step further and don’t settle for mere formality. We become unclear and ambiguous. All sorts of strange things come out of the typewriter, almost as though some other personality had taken over.

There’s no magic rule that will solve the problem. Rules and formulas aren’t the answer. That isn’t to say there are no rules. The ones that tell us what’s good grammar and what isn’t are still around. But if your approach to writing is to look for rules that will save you the trouble of thinking your way out of a corner, you won’t get far. There is, however, one “rule”that you should always keep in mind. Say what you mean. And say it in the most direct, natural way you can.

– Bill Cameron, A Way With Words, © 1979 by Bill Cameron, published by Western Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon, Sask.

Very young heros

Recently, in a small town in western France, a father was at home with his two little children, aged five and two, while his wife was working the late shift in a town 12 km away. Suddenly the father collapsed and fell to the floor and did not respond to the questions of the five year old boy.

The boy decided he needed to go  tell his mother. He put on a jacket, got on his bike and started down the road. He had gone three km when a farmer, on his way home from a night school art course, saw him and stopped him to see what was wrong. The boy had only his pyjamas under his jacket and flip-flops on his feet. It was dark, raining and cold, the boy was soaked and shivering. He told the farmer, “My papa is dead.”

The farmer put the boy in his car to warm up, while another passer-by phoned the emergency number. The boy did not know his family name or his address. The emergency services called the mayor of the town of 2,000. He digested the little bit of information the farmer and the boy could give and suggested an address. The ambulance went to that address and found the father, who was not dead but had suffered a heart attack, and transported him to the hospital.

The father was soon able to return home to recuperate. I trust that after such a tumultuous night the little boy got at least a day off of school.

This story reminded me of an incident that made the news while we were living in Montréal. A young mother had a severe type of diabetes and worried what would happen if she went into a diabetic coma while her husband was at work. She tried to teach her three year old daughter how to dial 911, but the little girl seemed to think it was a game and the mother gave up, thinking the child was just too young.

One day it happened – the mother slipped into a diabetic coma. The little girl went to the phone, picked up the receiver and pushed 9-1-1. When someone answered she said “Maman bobo” (French for “Mommy owie”), put down the phone and opened the door to wait for help to arrive.

In short order all the king’s horses and all the king’s men were there (in this case a fire rescue truck, then an ambulance and then a police car). With all these people trained in emergency health care the mother was soon brought out of the coma and then taken to hospital to be checked out. The husband arrived at the hospital to find that all was now well and he was soon able to take his family home.

Undoubtedly, these two little children saved the lives of their parents. Children should be taught their full name, their street address and the number to call in case of emergency (911 in North America, 112 in Europe). Never underestimate a child’s ability to help.

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