Why we should put the little people first

It’s state budget time! And Arizona is into a budget surplus, and out of excuses. We could fund education. We could even begin to “restore the years the locusts have eaten.” Here’s the letter I sent:

Dear Governor Ducey, and Arizona Legislature,

What if all our children grew up to contribute their full potential in the world? What if we provided the education they needed, all the way through college or technical training?

Cultures who honor teachers (and parents) understand that children are our future.

Education spending is the most selfish way to tax ourselves. We improve the critical thinking of fellow voters and the emotional intelligence of our neighbors, spark innovation, train our workforce, expand our economy, raise property values, reduce crime, and raise the most taxable salaries. It’s a tax hike in disguise.

If we prefer to pay for more police, prisons, blight, recession, that’s an option.

My 27-year-old son is the successful product of a great Arizona education—elementary through ASU. His brother, attending the same elementary school, had to navigate a dismantled system. Thanks to No Child Left Behind and the AZ legislators’ response to that (omnipresent testing), immigration and legislators’ counterproductive response to that (ending bilingual education), my younger son struggled in his early years: filling out boring AIMS worksheets, waiting for English Language Learners to catch up, and surviving playground gangs. It took research, effort, patience, and winning an enrollment lottery to move him into schools that work, the kind all of our children deserve to attend.

After what our federal and state governments have done to education, it is amazing we have any teachers left, or that anyone majors in Education. We are beginning to understand how brains work and people learn, and we are training marvelous teachers to capitalize on that. Then we don’t let them use what they know. We legislate stupidity, teachers struggle to teach the best they can, and we can’t even pay them a livable wage.

Teachers should not have to live in poverty, inherit money, or marry a “real’ breadwinner.

Let’s do something revolutionary: fund education, pay teachers a competitive wage, and educate ALL our children.

A+ image from WritersResort blog

Gwyn Nichols

A few of you readers also live in Arizona. I’d love to hear your stories. Here’s how to stay informed on Arizona education funding (including the upcoming Proposition 123), and send your own thoughts: http://www.expectmorearizona.org/blog/2016/04/27/first-look-whats-inside-proposed-arizona-budget-education/

And for the rest of you across the country, around the globe, I’d love to hear about your educational system with its trials and triumphs. (I wrote a college paper on education in rural Tunisia, so I kid you not: I want to know.)

It’s Harriet Tubman for the 20!

My childhood hero! Why do I love her so much?

In second grade, I was a white Yankee girl in Louisiana, bused to a Black school under Supreme Court order.

Desegregation, the sequel: where it was not enough to merely allow students to attend the nearest school. That order combined our two neighboring towns and school districts, added other districts, and affected the nation. I became a racial minority in a separate and not equal facility, with experiences ranging from terror to delight. (Will I ever finish my novel inspired by it?)

We had dedicated teachers of both races, and a small but potent library, where Black history was richly represented.

Harriet Tubman Library of Congress

We could not discuss race at school–the Klan’s invisible presence was a palpable threat–but I could read on the sly. I also read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle–I was 7, 8, and 9–but Harriet was real-life magical. Battle scarred warrior, escape artist, master of disguises, brilliant strategist, wilderness survivor, spy, and savior. She led 300 passengers through her line of the Underground Railroad, and never lost one. Her story gave me courage, and a passion for freedom.

Abraham Lincoln owned a whole shelf in that library, and Miss Harriet starred in a half-dozen biographies nearby. Now they will be neighbors in our currency.

I am glad Hamilton’s fans fought to keep him on the 10, because the 20 is even better and worth the wait. The 20 is the mother of currency: the one counterfeiters covet, cash machines dispense, and any establishment is willing to break. Ironically, Harriet Tubman does not completely replace that slave-holding, Native American-destroying Jackson. Instead, she bumps him to the back of the bill. He will be sent to the back of the train, to ride the coattails of an ultimate Freedom Rider, while we reflect on his part in history as well, and let Harriet be our face forward.

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s Open Letter


Gwyn Nichols, WritersResort.com

Have you left your dream in the case for a while?

I was touched by this story of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Academy Week, where amateur musicians are invited in, especially when music teacher Tanesha Mitchell, who contributes so beautifully to her neighborhood, said, “There were times when that violin stayed in the case for a year. But then that means you open it back up, and new things begin.”

Have you left your dream in the case for a while? How do you open it back up? What happens?

Tanesha Mitchell - NPR Ravenna Koenig reporting on BSO Academy Week
Tanesha Mitchell – NPR – Ravenna Koenig reporting on BSO Academy Week


Reading is for Babies

Father reading to baby The American Pediatrics Association says, “Immunize your children against illiteracy.”

NPR’s Audie Cornish interviewed Professor Susan Neuman about new evidence showing that the younger you read to your children, the better. Reading benefits babies, from earliest vocabulary development though later achievements.

Were you one of those lucky children who was read to?

I have preschool memories of my dad reading me Dr. Seuss and, I kid you not, The Wall Street Journal, and my mom reading me a chapter of Johanna Spyri’s Heidi before every nap.

Reading to my own children was even more enjoyable. My first toddler was barely forming two-word sentences when he announced from his car seat, “No, Pat! No, Pat!” He was pointing to a cactus, alluding to Dr. Seuss: “No, Pat, no! Don’t sit on that!” My younger son, by 3 or 4 spoke fluent King James, holding a book, pretending to read, making up stories and admonitions with archaic verb tenses and expressions, never confusing it with our colloquial English.

Reading is not only for babies. Don’t let children outgrow it! Jim Trelease (The Read-Aloud Handbook) suggests that teens wash dishes while parents read aloud. Talk about a Win-Win. The Phantom Tollbooth made a favorite dish-time hit.

Reading obviously benefits brain development, language acquisition, and academic achievements, but what I love most about reading/being read to, in classrooms and families, is the social development, between the literature and the readers, and the readers amongst themselves.

  • Empathy: reading another’s mind, walking in others’ shoes, experiencing other ages, places, cultures, and times.
  • Common vocabulary, allusions, characters, and private jokes, instantly conveying a concept or strengthening a relationship.
  • It’s hard to read and argue at the same time. (Certain people can pull it off—it helps to be attached to the literal, as in high-functioning autism—but imagine where such a person would be without literature and those ensuing discussions.)

What is your favorite reading benefit? Your favorite memory of communal reading?

Interview: http://www.npr.org/2014/06/24/325229904/to-immunize-kids-against-illiteracy-break-out-a-book-in-infancy


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2014. All rights reserved. WritersResort.com

Photo © Liza McCorkle. iStockPhoto.

Grade Inflation: What’s Really Going On

A+ image from WritersResort blogI had the dubious honor of starting college during the first crackdown on grade inflation. My professors overtly ensured that every grade on our transcripts was hard-earned. Then I immediately started teaching college, where I was required to submit charts comparing my grades to the traditional bell curve, along with an explanation for any divergence. I did award more As or Bs than a bell curve would predict, and it wasn’t hard to explain. I was good at teaching people to write, so when essays were scored against rubrics instead of against other people’s essays, the curve skewed higher as the semester progressed, as I believe it should.

These days, rumors have it that 40% of students get As, and the debate about grade inflation flares again. Rumor has it that this time, we instructors are too wimpy to be honest with these consumer-students whose evaluations now determine whether we work or not.

But that isn’t my experience. What’s happening in my world is that the most common grade is the W. When students realize they aren’t getting that A–and this is especially easy with my institution’s generous midpoint withdrawal point–they drop.

Some students don’t do the work, realize where they are headed, then drop. Many take heavy loads, then drop the lowest grade. Many have illnesses, or car accidents, or family crises; while some emergency withdrawals seem necessary, in other cases, it’s clear that these students could complete the class (with an A even), but they fear what might happen–not that they won’t pass the class, but that they won’t get an A.

It’s midpoint for my students, so every day brings e-mails like these two, this morning’s samples:

“Sadly, I wish to be withdrawn from your class. I am taking a ton of classes right now and I can’t keep up with all the work this course requires and still get an A at the moment. The [college] office told me to send you an email asking for a withdrawal from the class. Thanks for everything!”

“Looks like I am going to have to withdrawal. It sucks but I cant take a chance that i will not get an ‘A’ in this class. I have talked to my lawyer and the responsible party with pay for this class, and I will re-sign up. I will attempt to try and get you as an instructor again. Thank you for all your help and constructive criticism.”

Even a non-A for a single assignment can trigger a drop. And the work required to focus a research question according to the course’s instructions, based on actual research, is too much for many students.

I have students announce early that they must have an A in my class. Students actually earning As don’t say that; they do the work and earn the grades. But the ones who get behind and/or don’t follow instructions announce that their As are non-negotiable, as though I have power to grant the prize despite any lack of effort or achievement.

When my own 7th grader got a C on his progress report (the result of missing assignments rather than aptitude) he declared that this didn’t matter because “C is average.” Them’s fighting words around here. I explained grade inflation and reminded him that even if Cs were still average, rocket scientists don’t have a reputation for being average students. (We used to say, “It isn’t brain surgery,” and now we say, “It isn’t rocket science.”) If Cs become the norm, his grades and his dreams won’t be accurately aligned for a successful Mars landing, or anything else he’s passionate about.

Today’s world requires collaboration and cooperation more than competition. Nothing would please me more than to have all my students earning As, because they worked that hard, and because I supported their learning that effectively. But human nature being operational, that is not happening.

It only appears to be happening, because for most students, it’s an A or nothing. Most students would rather pay for the class two or three times than get a B. This has me feeling increased respect for students who do stick it out for a B or a C. Those grades are often hard-won by students who are more gifted in other fields. I hope that in the future, along with students’ GPAs, we will report their course completion rates. Employers would do well to value the latter as more indicative of planning skills, tenacity, and raw courage.


Do you agree? What are you experiencing?


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2012. All rights reserved. WritersResort.com
Image created by author in Mac Pages, Helvetica oblique.

Harry Potter Jazz

From a fun son: Drew Nichols, “Harry Potter Jazz” 

Drew Nichols as Drewlius Lumblelore
Drew Nichols as Drewlius Lumblelore

Hamlet in Prison

This American Life Hamlet in Prison, screenshot

Jack Hitt’s hour-long report  for This American Life on Hamlet performed by prisoners, originally broadcast in 2002, has inspired me all week with its deep insights about Hamlet and encouragement for my own students, a few of whom have come from prison.

Nobody points out the ex-cons in my classes–I wouldn’t know that detail if they didn’t confide in me themselves. A couple have broken my heart by returning to prison or to the streets, but most are determined to take their second chance and become a blessing to their families. Like this reporter, I don’t necessarily want to know what they’ve done in the past. For me, their life begins here and now.

And I’d love to have all of my students think of my class-as one prisoner/performer said of his experience with teacher/director, Agnes Wilcox–“For a few hours a week, we get to feel human again.”


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011