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The law and other democratic institutions ensure little if they are not backed up by the willingness and courage of decent people to guard against their abuse.
As I walked home from my polling place this brisk November morning, I felt that satisfying, contented feeling I always get after I've voted, but this time it was tinged with a little sorrow and nervousness. Here's why.
There were many uncontested races on my ballot today: County Clerk, Board of Regents, County Commissioner, Sheriff, County Engineer, Public Defender, and several Lower Platte District races.
When I was doing my pre-election research, I found that most of the uncontested candidates didn't respond to interview questions on voter-friendly web sites. Why should they? They're going to be filling those seats whether or not they explain their positions. As a voter, I knew it didn't matter if I filled in the oval next to their names. My vote didn't seem to count if I didn't make a choice.
I thought back to the summer of 1992 when I was a foreign exchange student in Czechoslovakia. That summer the Czechs and the Slovaks were alive with the prospect of making a choice that would forever change their lives and their country. At just 2 1/2 years old, their democracy was still perilously fragile, but they were holding an election to determine whether they would remain Czechoslovakia or become the Czech Republic and Slovakia. People were out on the streets talking about political ideas and philosophy. Their playwright president (who had served jail time for his outspoken ideas about democracy) had recently written a book about his vision for the country. I remember the day of that election. Of course I couldn't vote in it, but I could soak up the feel of it, the palpable joy of once-oppressed people directing their own destinies, for better or for worse.
Yesterday I spoke with one of our elected representatives here in Lincoln who told me who would be "taking his seat" this coming May in our next election. "Taking his seat." Not "running for office" or "campaigning." I suppose in a city where so many races go uncontested, his remark makes sense in a disheartening, ominous way.
But that's not democracy.
Preserving a democracy isn't easy. It takes work and thought and initiative. We have so long enjoyed the blessings of our hard-fought democracy that apathy has set in. We haven't been ground down by years of totalitarianism or monarchy, and we little appreciate the control we have over our lives. In 1991, Havel wrote, "And yet, if a handful of friends and I were able to bang our heads against the wall for years by speaking the truth about Communist totalitarianism while surrounded by an ocean of apathy, there is no reason why I shouldn't go on banging my head against the wall by speaking ad nauseam, despite the condescending smiles, about responsibility and morality in the face of our present social marasmus. There is no reason to think that this struggle is a lost cause. The only lost cause is one we give up on before we enter the struggle."
Have we given up on the struggle? Have we relegated our control to a few people who may or may not have our best interests in mind? Have we trusted bureaucrats with our tax dollars and our children's educations only to find out later that they've been bought and sold by advocacy groups who have favors to dole out?
We have six months until the next election. Let's make our choices count.
Last summer I was visiting with my grandmother and a couple of aunts and uncles when I learned something I had never heard before in all my 38 years: my great-great-grandfather had a mail-order bride, and it "didn't work out."
This was unexpected news to me. I knew that his first wife had been tragically gored by a bull while her husband was away from home and her three young children had watched from the house. That part of the story had been passed down. But this new part, this mail-order bride part, had been shut up in the closet with who-knows-what-other skeletons.
My great-great-grandfather and his three little kids lived in Wyoming, which is not the most hospitable place in the world, and he needed help. So apparently, he sent off a letter to a service, and a woman arrived some time later. Nobody seems to have known what happened, but she decided not to say, and g-g-grandpa was apparently so upset about her leaving that he ordered his children to not look at her while she drove away. But they loved her, so they watched her anyway, even though they knew they would get in trouble.
That's how my grandmother told the story, and I'm sure it's true as far as she knew it. My grandmother was a very truthful person.
I hadn't thought too much about that story until I listened to the audio-book version of Sarah, Plain and Tall, yesterday. It's a beautiful little story about a usually-not-for-children topic: mail order brides. The father in this story was in a very similar predicament to my g-g-grandfather's. He is a widower with two young children to raise. He gets matched up with a plain and tall woman from Maine, and after writing a few letters back and forth, she arrives.
What I found so beautiful and haunting about Patricia MacLachlan's story were the children's thoughts and feelings and desires. They adore plain and tall Sarah. They fear that she might leave, and because this is children's literature, she stays. Maybe what made it so haunting for me is that I've heard the story about when "it doesn't work out," and the children and lonely man are left on their desolate farm with no one to dry flowers for them so they'll have something beautiful to look at during the winter.
That's what's so amazing about literature. It takes the heart of humanity and reminds us of who we are. I don't like to define fiction as "made-up" or "untrue" because what could be truer than the longing for a mother?
Back in April, I wrote about why it takes so long to get ebooks from the library. Essentially, it's because the Big 6 publishers are charging libraries an arm and a leg ($80) for limited copies of ebooks.
Well, this morning I woke up to an email in my inbox from Smashwords that says they've negotiated a deal with Overdrive (the largest provider of ebooks to libraries) to sell digital copies of Indie-published books to libraries for as little as $4.
Library card holders get access to hundreds of thousands of new titles, libraries satisfy their members and reduce their prices, and Indie authors can reach a vast audience that was previously off-limits to them. When I wrote that post less than six weeks ago, I thought it would be months if not years before a solution was found to the ebook/library problem. I'm sure glad I was wrong--because I'm running out of library ebook selet
The author interviews we've collected over at the Book Pound have become a treasure trove of great advice from successful authors. Some of these authors are self-published and some are traditionally published, but they all offer helpful tips for authors who are just starting out.
I get why it takes so long to get a hardcover copy of Divergent from the library. There are only so many copies, and everybody gets three weeks to read it. Then they return it to a random city branch, and the library has to transport the physical copy to a different branch where the next person on the waiting list has requested to pick it up. That requester gets several days to pick it up before the next three-week check-out begins. Yeah. Got that.
What I've wondered is: why does it take so long to get ebook holds from the library. They're not physical copies, right? They're just collections of bits and bytes that get uploaded and downloaded between servers and e-readers. Should be a snappy process, but it's not. I've waited months to get email notices that say, "The following digital title is now available to borrow and will be held for you for 7 days (168 hours) from the time this email was sent. If you do not borrow this title within 7 days (168 hours), the hold will expire. Thank you!"
First of all, why are there holds in the first place? If 300 people all want to read Amy Chua's new book on their Kindles at the same time, why can't they?
Libraries purchase licensing agreements to e-books through a distributor. The purchasing agreements stipulate either a time frame or a number of uses. For example, the e-book may be loaned out for a year or for 26 uses. After this time period or number of uses, the digital copy disappears from the library's catalog.
This is something new and different because with paper copies of books, the library only has to buy the copy once, and they can continue lending it out until nobody cares about it anymore or the binding has turned to dust, whichever comes first. In most cases, this is many, many years of good hard use for about $12.99.
Digital copies of books, on the other hand, cost much, much more, and they're only good for a short amount of time. For a new bestseller today, publishers are charging libraries $84 per copy, and only one person can use it at a time.
How did this happen?
Traditional publishers have been caught off guard by the sudden rise in demand for e-books. A recent survey showed that roughly 50% of adults have e-readers, and sales of e-books continues to rise unabated. To protect their interests, publishers create these stringent and expensive purchase licensing agreements to keep the money flowing their direction. But I think this tactic is going to backfire.
What is preventing smaller publishers and independent publishers from creating much more attractive licensing agreements with libraries? Nothing except convenience for the libraries. And as we've seen with Amazon's innovations in independent publishing, it won't take much for someone (or perhaps the libraries themselves) to develop a simple way for small and independent publishers to make their e-books available on a vast and inexpensive scale to library readers everywhere.
Once this happens, publishers will not be able to charge $84 for a year's worth of single-use checkouts, and readers everywhere will have easy access to books that educate, entertain, and make life interesting.
So who's going to invent it? Is it you?
In high school and college, whenever a teacher would announce there was going to be a group project, I inwardly groaned and slid down in my seat. Group projects really weren't my thing.
There was the research writing project I ended up doing all by myself because my partner suddenly had severe medical problems. There was dissection lab with the girl who was became obsessed with "getting the brain out" of the fetal pig. There was the college poetry group project that was really more like organized flirting.
So as an adult, I've steered clear of anything resembling a group project until several years ago when I was working at a publishing company and my boss asked if I would be interested co-authoring a book about babysitting co-ops. Co-authoring sounded like it could be perilous. Would there be struggles for control? Would there be missed deadlines or guilt if I failed to live up to expectations? On the other hand, people co-authored books every day. How bad could it be?
I agreed, and I began working with Samantha Nielsen on the project. As it turned out, we worked very well together. We didn't have the same strengths, but that turned out to be a great advantage for our team. The result Babysitting Co-op 101: A Win-Win Childcare Solution, _a well-written resource for parents of young children who need babysitting options and don't have much money to spend on childcare. And along the way, I learned all about the advantage of co-authoring.
3 Seriously Awesome Advantages of Co-Authoring
If you haven't tried co-authoring before, give it a try. You might find that working with another human being on a writing project is just the kick-in-the-pants your writing life has been looking for. And you might just make a great friend and colleague along the way.
This week parents of children in Harlem rallied to announce they were opting out of standardized Common Core testing for their children. In one classroom alone 20 out of 23 children will not be taking the state-mandated tests because their parents have signed opt-out letters.
Is this wise?
Let's take a quick look at the history of standardized testing in America.
In 1975, the College Board decried the decline of SAT scores, and in 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education called for higher standards for both teachers and students. This push prompted President Bush to set national goals for "excellence in education" in 1990.
At that time, Congress tried to mandate standards with the "Goals 2000: Educate America Act" in 1994. In response to the act, states issued grade-level standards followed by "revised standards" and then "improved standards." None of these attempts brought test scores up, and in 2002 the second President Bush signed into law the "No Child Left Behind Act" (NCLB). This act required schools accepting federal funds (virtually all schools in the United States) to provide assessment results.
Did NCLB improve test scores? No. And in the following decade, the SAT has been re-normed and state standards have been revised again, and now we have a new version of the same failed idea: The Common Core State Standards Initiative.
It's nothing new, so why are parents in Harlem holding up signs that say, "More Teaching, More Art, More Gym, and Less Testing"? Because, according to a report by the American Federation of Teachers, kids and teachers spend a staggering 19 full school days absorbed in test prep and testing each year. That's 19 days--roughly "60 to more than 110 hours per year"--in test prep in high-stakes testing grades.
It's no wonder that SAT scores have slipped over the years. Kids don't get nearly as much instructional time as they used to have in school. And financial resources have to be re-allocated to testing when they could be used for materials and programs. Common Core isn't going to address the problem of stealing precious instructional time for ever-increasing testing, and it won't reduce the financial burden imposed on school districts, but it will add to the conundrum: data gathering.
States that accept funds via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) are required to "build statewide longitudinal data systems that can follow individual students from early childhood through K-12 and post-secondary ed and into the workforce." What is all this information going to be used for? Well, that depends on who's in charge and what their standards, ideals, and ethics dictate, but to keep things open, the act says that schools should collect 400 data points, and "it is a comprehensive, non-proprietary inventory. . .that can be used by schools, LEAs, states, vendors, and researchers." It's already being used by vendors.
In other words, your kids are spending at least 19 full school days each year providing marketing data for corporations at taxpayer expense. And that's just one of the questionable uses for Common Core's data mining.
I have to tell you what I thought about when I read the phrase, "that can follow individual students from early childhood through K-12 and post-secondary ed and into the workforce." I thought about the summer I was a foreign exchange student in Czechoslovakia. It was 1992, the summer the country voted to split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Velvet Revolution had turned out the Communist government just 2 1/2 years ago, and although the young people were very optimistic about life and relishing their freedom, the older people seemed unreasonably suspicious and discouraged in my opinion.
One day I was on the bus with my host sister when a transit official stepped on board to make sure everyone had a stamped ticket. The older woman next to me pulled out what looked like a worn-out passport and held it on her lap. She kept it in sight until the transit official finished checking tickets, and then she put it away in her bag.
After we got off the bus I asked my host sister what the passport was all about. "It's not a passport," she said. "It's a record of everything she's ever done. We used to have to carry those around with us. It has everything: school grades, test scores, reports from employers, criminal records. If you ever got fired from a job, it's in there."
"But why does she still carry it around if that old communist government is gone?"
My host-sister shrugged. "She's probably scared they'll come back. You could get in big trouble if you didn't keep it with you at all times."
I'm sure there are good intentions behind the "longitudinal data systems." People move a lot, and having school records all gathered in one electronic place would probably save time for office workers. But efficiency isn't everything. Some things, like freedom, trump efficiency. America's world-famous reputation for providing opportunity for upward mobility depends on people being able to change and improve their lives. I'm not going to lie on a job application, but I'm probably not going to announce that I got a D in Physical Science unless they specifically ask about it. With our new longitudinal data system, however, there it is, screaming "Science Numskull!" for everyone who has access: schools, LEAs, states, vendors, researchers.
So what's a parent to do about Common Core? Well, you can follow the lead of Gretchen Murgenthaler and other NYC parents and opt out. Or you can homeschool. Just think of what you could do with those 19 extra days!
Writing contests can be helpful in many different situations. They can motivate reluctant writers to do their best and meet a deadline. They can help students to pay for college (see the Ayn Rand contest below). They can boost confidence and help a future writer to start a stellar resume. They can give homeschooled students a broader audience for their work.
Whatever the reason, encourage your child to enter one of the following writing contests in 2014. There ought to be a contest for everyone in the following list.
PBS KIDS Writers Contest
Write a story that has a beginning, middle, and end; a central event like a conflict or discover; characters who change or learn a lesson; and illustrations that help tell the tale.
Who Can Enter? Kids in kindergarten, first, second, or third grade
Deadline: Check with your local PBS affiliate
Can You Enter More Than Once? No
Prizes? Tablet computers and MP3 players
18th Annual Signet Classics Student Scholarship Essay Contest
Write an essay on one of six topics for this year's competition book, Beowulf.
Who Can Enter? Students in grades 11 or 12 who live in the USA
Deadline: April 14, 2014
Can You Enter More Than Once? No
Prizes? (5) $1,000 Scholarships and a Signet Classics Library for the winner's school library or public library
7th Annual Junior Authors Short Story Writing Contest
Write a short story in less than 1,000 words. Cut all empty words that do not add to setting, plot, or characterization.
Who Can Enter? Anyone from any country who is between 9 and 21 years old as of June 30, 2014
Cost: Free if you don't want feedback; $15 for the feedback option, which includes a writing workbook
Deadline: June 30, 2014 at midnight
Can You Enter More Than Once? No
Prizes: Amazon gift cards, publication, signed copies of Polly Wants to Be a Writer
Poetic Power.com Essay Contest
Poetic Power sponsors three essay contests each year. Topics are wide open, and word counts are short.
Who Can Enter: Students in Canada and the United States in grades 4-12
Deadlines: February 18, July 15, and October 15, 2014
Can You Enter More Than Once? No
Adventure Write Kids Totem Heads Story Contest
Write a story in 1,500 words or less. Your story should be appropriate for kids, and the first sentence should start with, "So there I was."
Who Can Enter: US Residents under 19 years old
Deadline: December 31, 2014
Can You Enter More Than Once? Yes
Prizes: $50 cash and publication on AdventureWrite.com/kids
Ayn Rand The Fountainhead Essay Contest
Write an essay about the novel The Fountainhead using one of three specified topics. The prizes are huge on this one, and The Fountainhead is one fantastic book.
Who Can Enter? Students worldwide who are in the 11th or 12th grades
Deadline: July 26, 2014
Can You Enter More Than Once? No
Prizes: $10,000 for first prize, $2,000 for second prize, $1,000 for third prize. More than $40,000 in prizes in all.
Teen Ink Magazine Writing Contests
This magazine runs a host of writing contests throughout the year. Check their website for the latest.
The Betty Award
The Betty Award runs both Spring and Fall contests. Write short stories that are less than 1,000 words.
Who Can Enter? All children worlwide ages 8-12
Deadline: May 17, 2014
Can You Enter More Than Once? Yes
Prizes: Cash prizes ranging from $100 to $300
Aside from academic and religious reasons, some parents decide they want to homeschool their children to teach them how to live in a more holistic and thoughtful way. One way you can do this is to integrate volunteer work and community service into your children’s school schedules. The benefits of including volunteer work in your kids’ curriculum are many; here are just a few:
Visiting Nursing Homes
As the population ages, more and more people are living in nursing homes and assisted living centers, and all too often, these people don’t have regular visitors. Coordinate with a local nursing home to arrive at a set time each week. Residents will look forward to visits from your polite children. If your kids play instruments, provide a weekly or monthly concert, giving your kids ample motivation for practicing during the week. Or you could keep things casual by bringing card games, board games, or coloring pages.
Serving As Museum Docents
Some museums and zoos, such as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, have volunteer opportunities for kids who want to give tours or man displays and booths. When kids volunteer at museums and zoos, they get real world work experience and they have contact with people who are experts in their fields. They learn their material well as they teach others about the museum’s or zoo’s offerings. Kids also feel very proud when they can educate their peers about a topic they’re interested in.
Working at a Food Bank
Food banks always need volunteers to sort, organize, and shelve donations. This is especially true during the holidays when they’re inundated with donations from canned food drives. Working at a food bank helps your kids to develop an appreciation for what they have and to be more sensitive to those who have less. In addition, they learn about dependability, good work habits, and courtesy.
Common sense says that if your child is good at math, she should be a math tutor, but think beyond the obvious. Maybe your daughter is having trouble with reading comprehension. Why not set up a regular tutoring session where she works with a younger child on reading skills? She’ll realize that she knows a lot more than she thinks she does, and in her zeal to teach her young pupil, she might just rediscover her own enthusiasm for reading. If at all possible, find pupils for your children who are not members of your family. They tend to take their responsibilities more seriously when they’re not tutoring their siblings. If you know another homeschooling family in your neighborhood, set up a tutoring swap.
Organizing Group Service Projects
Volunteering doesn't have to be something that takes up a regular slot on your homeschool calendar. It can be something you do from time-to-time and can involve other homeschoolers in your co-op or neighborhood. For example, LACES, a homeschool service group in Columbia, Tennessee, volunteered as a group at The People's Table, which is sponsored by a local church. Projects like this build unity among homeschoolers and put many hands to work to serve the community.
Children who learn to volunteer during their growing-up years always find ways to serve their communities as adults. After all, it's been a way of life for them. Helping others becomes second nature when time has been set aside for meaningful service. Homeschoolers are in the unique situation of having great flexibility over their schedules, and this opens many doors for volunteering. While everyone else is at school, your homeschool students can be docents at the museum or tutor five-year-olds with their counting and reading. Volunteering is one more way you can cultivate character in your children and introduce them to people who can genuinely use their help. You're raising kids who will change the world.