Back in the dark ages, when I took the SAT, the total score you could achieve was a 1600--you could get up to an 800 in math and verbal respectively. The verbal section was composed of analogies (which I sort of loved, but were admittedly very difficult and fairly subjective), and there wasn't really a grammar section. In fact, the way that colleges learned about students' writing skills was by requiring an SAT II subject test that included an essay and grammar multiple choice. I like standardized testing, which may make me a disturbed individual, but it has always made good sense to me--working within a set a rules on well circumscribed content. I appreciated some of the changes made in 2005 because I think that writing (composition and structure) should be an integral part of this kind of standardized assessment. I could even tolerate the sentence completions that had replaced my beloved analogies; in a lot of ways, I felt they were just a dumbed down version of the analogies, but they definitely tested contextual reasoning and vocabulary. For many students (when I was younger, my classmates, and now my tutoring clients), studying for the Sats was the first time that they were required to master a substantial list of words (often thousands of them). Although this was no doubt nerve-wracking and a major annoyance, it unquestionably refined young people's use of language and made a huge difference in how they wrote and spoke. I thought the critical reading sections on both of the earlier versions could be difficult, and often a bit arbitrary, but they definitely offered an opportunity to evaluate how people reason about and interpret what they read. Perhaps as significant as the mastery of vocabulary required by the analogies/sentence completions, the new 2005 test required an essay--I thought this was a great idea, although I would have liked to see a more sophisticated scoring rubric. As far as I could tell, if the 2005 test was still too standardized to provide an accurate index of a student's actual intellect, the preparation it entailed gave all students a terrific opportunity to gain mastery over the english language and become familiar with the vagaries of grammar and punctuation (finally, because many schools don't teach this comprehensively). All this being said, I am meaningfully disappointed in the content and structure of the newest incarnation of the SAT. The reading section, which is meant to be more evidence-based and relevant has dropped the vocabulary-related questions, which means that students no longer have to master those thousands of words that set them up to be better thinkers and learners. The critical reading passages have paired questions; in these cases, if you get the first of the pair wrong, it is virtually impossible to get the second one right. They have also added charts and graphs to this section, which few students have confronted in such a context (in high school, it's the kind of thing they see in science or math) and won't until more technical college classes. In my limited experience tutoring for the new SAT (they just administered it for the first time in March 2016), these charts create major anxiety, and even if the related questions are not that hard, virtually all of my students convince themselves that they don't understand the meaning of the charts and graphs. I guess there is an advantage to refining and focusing some of the reading questions, but this is now a painfully hit-or-miss section. And finally, they have made the essay optional, and the score you get on it isn't even integrated into the overall score. And the scoring...with all of the sub-scores, and the sub-scores across other sub-scores--it would take a rocket scientist to fully grasp the mechanics of the new scoring system. I have heard that the College Board made these changes in order to compete with the increasingly successful ACT, but should that really be a priority? I still miss my analogies...
Okay, I recognize that the title of this post makes me sound a little pathetic. But you know what? I am more than willing to own that. There is no companion so constant as a book, so unrelentingly available and compelling. If my passionate love for books compels your pity (that i am a bit of a nerd), well, then the unremitting ecstasy so many people find playing videogames or utilizing the (admittedly awesome) powers of the ever-present Iphone. There is a real sense of power and self-sufficiency in knowing that no matter what happens, no matter what line i get stuck in, how late my plane is delayed, how long a car ride is, how bored i can get--books fix all of that. to all of you skeptics, and self-identified slow or bad readers, you are cheating yourself. If you feel that you read too slowly, there is an easy fix for that: just read more. As an atrocious athlete who has always envied people with innate abilities, I take great comfort in knowing that you can become an expert at reading just by doing it. It is one of the only skills that can be cultivated this way. Pick up a good book and get started. If there is anyone out there who doesn't know what to read, just drop me a note on this site, and I'll give you a few suggestions...
I'm not weird about telling people how old I am; I was born in 1982, which makes me 32, going on 33. While there are certainly many classics of literature that stand the test of time and that should be read again and again by young high school students, there are also other texts that beg to be removed from the curriculum because they are so difficult and painful to get through that their only accomplishment is to make students dread English. I have a great deal to say about this, but I am reluctant to mention books by name. But it is high time that the reading curriculum undergo an overhaul that integrates required personal reading, that allows students to pick from a list of contemporary (and perhaps less literary) books. Let them learn how to enjoy the eact of reading before forcing them to understand the implications of literary profundity.
God bless Half Price Books.Texas has more than twice as many Half Price Books stores as any other state (there are a bunch in other states like Illinois and Ohio). I have spent so much time hunting around for used bookstores in every city i've traveled and then suddenly my pursuit became a joyfully easy one. need those old, pulpy noir novels, those retro caper novels and straight up classic suspense-- many of the best are out of print. i need my Jim Thompson, John D. MacDonald, Donald Westlake, Dashiell Hammett, Margaret Millar, James M. Cain, Charles Williams, Elmore Leonard. And not just the series novels or the ones that have been made into movies--the ones that don't make it back on the shelves after that first try. And the amazing thing about Austin is that suddenly, I don't have to hunt around for used books. I have five luscious branches to choose from in the city alone. I do always still look for those tiny, unlikely places (and pledge deep devotion to Recycled Reads, 5335 Burnet Rd, where all hardcover books are 2$ and softcovers are 1$) but most of my needs can be satisfied by those five branches. Let us celebrate the phenomenon of the of the chain-used bookstore. I cannot commend this institution strongly enough.
My personal tastes are rather unusual. I am fascinated by crime, and so I read mysteries voraciously, stay up on news about unusual or serious crimes, and I do research in my field. I have never met someone who cannot name at least one thing that interests them. Identify and articulate what interests you and plow into it full steam. If you are interested in natural disasters, find a tornado to probe. If you want to know more about climate change, find some sources that will inform you. But find something that turns you on, because that subject will bring out the best and brightest part of you. As a tutor, no subject is off-limits and I often find myself doing research to learn about other people's interests. If you have an interest that you don't want to share with your peers or anyone else, give me a shout, and I will find you books and information to bring you up to speed. You can be an expert in anything you want.
Lately, I have had a hard time getting past that difficult hurdle of actually finding clients who need the kind of help that I can provide. My website, though lovingly tended and expanded, is not as effective advertising tool as I had hoped; I have eagerly turned to other methods of showcasing my availability and skill-set. Among these methods, my association with Thumbtack.com has proven to be particularly valuable and productive. I have a link on my Thumbtack profile that leads you here; and I am proud to announce that you can now get there from here.
Tutoring can be a challenging enterprise, but it should never be an unpleasant one, either for the tutor or her student. When I first started working with younger clients (I worked more with college and grad students when I was starting out as a tutor in Austin), I tried to maintain professional distance, both in terms of how I acted during the actual sessions and also in terms of how much it mattered to me whether the tutoring was helping and generally enriching a student's academic life. I am reluctant to call myself a failure in either sense, but I will happily acknowledge that these early goals almost invariably fell away as I realized the value of cultivating a productive rapport with each student, and that once this rapport developed, it was impossible to maintain a truly objective stance about a student's achievements and feelings about school and everything else. I have been lucky; I have been hired to work with some truly spectacular human beings (less of a rarity among high-schoolers than I once thought), and I have usually ended up learning as much from them (about what I am doing right or wrong; how to communicate with students and parents without alienating either; and about how to offer up my enthusiasm for a subject without clubbing a student over the head with it) as they have--hopefully--learned from me. I always warn parents during that first phone call (before a preliminary session) that I will probably end up falling in love with their kid, so if they are looking for someone who will be able to keep that professional distance, they may be disappointed in my approach. But high school students (and middle schoolers, typically) respond more dramatically to teachers and tutors who seem to care about them--not just care about them as human beings, but care about what they think, about what they find interesting/compelling, about whether they are anxious about a particular assignment or bored to tears. The less my students see me as an immoveable robot, who will follow a lesson plan, without regard for what they say they can do on a given day, or need in a given week, the more I get to see what they are really capable of accomplishing. And I often find that such students will scale astonishing heights when they believe I actually care if they reach their goals, and when they are assured I will applaud them along the way.
On my "Tutoring Services" page, I have included a link to a study published by the National Endowment for the Arts, which provides statistical evidence for the claim that there is a direct correlation between academic achievement and pleasure reading; that link takes you to the full NEA report, called "To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence" but you can also link to a summary of that report from here.
So, how can we get kids to read? This question has an almost embarrassingly simple answer...Give them books that they want to read. If they won't deal with books when you first start encouraging them to read, take care to remember that there are many other ways to absorb words, even if you don't personally approve of them. Use what your kids already like; personally, I think it is a mistake to stigmatize comics, graphic novels, and magazines. Whatever gets them reading can't be all bad, even if you (if all of us)have been conditioned to view those kinds of materials as trash.
Another thing to consider is how much merit there is in trying to censor the books (or even the movies and TV shows your kids watch). As someone who studies violent and upsetting topics, I would be hard-pressed to find something related to my field that isn't graphically violent and or profoundly disturbing. I am not in the habit of paying homage to the philosophy of Cher, the heroine of "Clueless", but her argument against censorship is a valid one: until human beings can stop being violent and cruel to one another, such horrors will always be available for on any news program. In my next entry, I will try to offer some lists of books for different age groups, based on particular interests.
One of the most interesting things I have learned recently, acting as both student and teacher of history, is that we are taught substantially different kinds of history as we get older. A good example of this is the contrast between the moral simplicity of the Civil War as it is taught to high schoolers, and the relative moral complexity of the Civil War as college students discover it; even more interesting, I think, is that this tends to be true, no matter what part of the country you are from.
By this, I mean that whether you learn about it as a "War of Northern Aggression" or a conflict between the immoral slaveholding Confederacy and the righteous abolitionist Union, you will ultimately find that neither conception follows from the historical data. Ultimately, the centrality of the battle for state sovereignty, along with the near-universal racism of most northerners, will force students of the war to recognize the moral subtleties and primacy of practical concerns and/or political expediency. Such nuances seem (at least to me) to be withheld from younger students learning about the war.
Unfortunately, not all students have the opportunity to take the kind of advanced history courses that reveal the moral and political ambiguities of the war. The Civil War is merely one example of a period/event that we learn to see in black and white, and it is a good one because 150+ years have failed to sufficiently corrode the time-honored convictions (held by North and South alike) that undermined Reconstruction and rewrote fact into a fanciful romantic reunion that sealed up the tortured seeds of the war to rot beneath our feet, so that we are only reminded of them occasionally, when the scent of putrefaction slithers up into the rarefied air of our liberal modern world.
We can only unmask the fictions of history (as it has been told to us) through probing and conscientious investigation of the historical record, and this kind of study requires not only intellectual curiosity, but also a flexible mind, capable of integrating even the most unexpected or unwelcome information into an ever-changing narrative of a past that can never even aspire to reflect "reality."
Being a good writer is more than merely knowing how to put words on a page. It is more than mastering grammar, mechanics, and usage. It is also possible to struggle enormously with academic writing assignments,while being a truly gifted creative fiction or non-fiction writer. Find yourself in your thesaurus...once you find a thesaurus that works for you. As for actual texts, I prefer Roget's International Thesaurus; online, I regularly use thesaurus.com, freethesaurus.net, and more recently, I have loved using the somewhat unconventional Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus (visualthesaurus.com). Given enough time, confidence, and the right resources, anyone can learn to express themselves with articulate eloquence. Learn how to enjoy and play with words, and you will find that the writing process can be transformed from a chore to a favorite hobby.