Thursday, April 29, 2010

My Beer Essay from

Because more postings = more chance of being read, I am taking the liberty here of sharing my most recent essay from The Nervous Breakdown (shameless plug--a great site full of up-and-coming and established writers...writing on all manner of subjects).

If you like beer, or even if you don't know if you like beer, have a read:

Also, be sure to visit:

Beer, My Dear? Love, Measured in Pints

29 April 2010

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Our relationship is marked by beer. Like a long line of bottles in varying shades of brown, green, and amber, the seasons of our love correspond with the tastes and textures and names of beers.

Together, over 14 years, my husband Doug and I have run the gamut—from obscure, handcrafted beers to expensive English delicacies to gourmet homebrew to cheap domestics, and now, finally, to our favorites—the comfort beers we’ve settled on, the brands and varieties we always know we can bring home and the other person will appreciate.

At first, there was barley wine. Intoxicating, rich with perfume, it was a new taste for me, one I hadn’t even known I was ready for. On our first date, at the very outset of what would be a steady, satisfying, several-years-long courtship, Doug and I sat on stools in a restaurant called The Meeting Place and chose from a menu of hundreds of beers.

I scanned the long lists of bottles and drafts, imports and domestics, and felt nearly overwhelmed by all the choices in front of me. Would I pick correctly? Would I, first of all, enjoy what I chose? Would I impress Doug with my selection, or would I feel stupid and regret this?

Flustered, I went for what sounded both quaint and exotic: barley wine. Two small, potent bottles later, I was weak in the knees. (Photo: Dogfish Head Brewery's Olde School Barley Wine)
We moved on, together, to double bock, the perfect tonic for the stirrings of early spring lust. The rest, as they say, can be left to the imagination.

That first spring and summer, our love blossomed like lilacs, refreshingly sweet, and we spent every weekend together. I’d take the train out from New York City to meet him in what now seemed to be the country—suburban New Jersey—where Doug lived and worked as a carpenter.
Friday night always began with a careful selection of beer. If we were going out for Mexican food, the choice was obvious: Dos Equis with fresh-cut wedges of lime. Otherwise, I left it up to Doug. He knew his beers.

Having just moved back east from the Pacific Northwest, he introduced me first to all his Seattle and Portland-area favorites: Red Hook ESB, a sweetish, yet astringent amber; and the Rogue Ales—especially Dead Guy Ale, a German-style Maibock, malty and rich.

From there, we moved down the coast to Northern California, finding a new favorite: Red Seal, a copper-red pale ale, generously hopped. (Pint glass here filled with--you guessed it--Red Seal Ale)

We discovered wheat beers together, which to me are especially delicious with their light-as-air foam, their fruity (yet buttery) tingle on the tongue. I developed a special fondness for the delicate, coriander-tinged flavor of Texas’ Celis White (it is, sadly, no longer brewed).

Dinners out in the city usually meant Indian food and—for me—a nice bottle of Belgian raspberry lambic bought at the little bodega on the corner of First Avenue and East Sixth Street.

Doug gamely tried the lambic, but he prefers bitter brews with bite and soon dismissed my newfound confection as “a girl drink,” or “champagne.” He opted, instead, to go native, drinking Indian beer such as Kingfishers with Indian food; and Sing Ha with Thai dishes; or else he stuck with his perennial favorite: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

A trip to Colorado meant an opportunity to eat and drink at the distinctive Boulder breweries—the Walnut Brewery and Oasis, among them. We sampled the goods everywhere we went, trying little glasses of perhaps 10 different beers, and we left the brewpubs carrying 12-packs of our favorites, seasonal specialties such as apricot ale, things we couldn’t buy at home. We drank some of the beer while camping in the Tetons and lugged the rest back East with us on the plane.

The next step in our relationship was living together, and as soon as we’d found an apartment with huge windows, glossy wood floors and an adequate kitchen, we bought a homebrew kit.

Doug and I started out nervously, like new parents, carefully sterilizing everything, conscientiously stirring a bubbling cauldron that contained the makings of a batch of honey-colored, wheaty lager.
We bought new bottles for this baby—lavishly thick, 22-ounce green ones with hip, metal swing tops. In our eagerness to sample our creation, however, we didn’t leave this beer to age quite long enough.

Our first homebrew we declared a disaster—too sweet and flat. We forgot about a case of it, and moved on to something more ambitious (my idea, I admit): a double-chocolate porter.

This beer we did not touch for required months of fermentation. When we did taste it, the beer was rich and thick, bittersweet, and it poured with an impressive head.

We (dumbly) shared the porter with our friends and our stock was soon depleted. Oh, well, we thought. We still had the corner store on Indian Row, and our local beer emporium, which was finding new beers all the time—continually challenging our tastes—to sustain us.

At this beer emporium, Doug discovered an English beer—available only around the holidays—called Samuel Smith’s Winter Welcome. It comes in large, clear pint bottles, the copper-brown ale just beckoning to be quaffed. (Photo: the big, bad WW--not sure what year this bottle is from.)

The taste of Winter Welcome is both rich and clean, nutty-sweet yet dry. Doug also likes the labels; each year the painted illustration changes (think goose or chalet, horse-drawn carriage and so on), giving him good enough reason to not recycle the bottles. Winter Welcome is Doug’s favorite beer of all. He told his best friend, Mike, about it, sharing a bottle to explain its magical taste.

This could have been a mistake. Now Mike buys out the beer store’s supply of Winter Welcome each Christmas, and the only way Doug can even get any of his favorite beer is to stop by Mike’s house.

As the years went by, our relationship strengthened, and the beer drinking picked up speed, as well. I bought Doug books on beer. He read them carefully, dog-earing pages, scribbling notes in the margins, determined to seek out the few gourmet beers he hadn’t yet tasted (ones from small craft breweries housed in defunct Midwestern fire stations, or remote corners of Alsace-Lorraine).

But then, suddenly (the change shocked me), Doug was no longer very interested in microbrews. He wanted reliability, he said—and a more palatable price tag. At this point, we were engaged and living out in the wilds of Eastern Long Island, in a small cottage near the beach.

We were far from a decent grocery store, let alone one with any impressive selection of beer. Doug reverted to drinking Rolling Rock and Bud, and occasionally (when he felt like splurging) his old standby: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

When I asked him what was going on, Doug said it was simply a new phase of his life: he was settling down. At first I worried, but then I came to see his point. Doug had played the field and now he knew what he liked, so what was the point of continuing the game?

Doug and I got married and took a very long honeymoon in Belize. While there, we savored the crisp, new taste of Belize’s own beer: Belikin. This is a beer we still haven’t been able to find in the states (though I think it may be available somewhere in Texas).

A by-product of our honeymoon, we soon discovered, was a baby. I, of course, drank no more beer as soon as I realized I was pregnant. We packed up house and moved to Iowa so I could attend grad school after the baby’s birth.

Away from family and friends and plowing through our savings to furnish our apartment and stock up for our child, Doug stuck to drinking inexpensive, domestic beers. When the time came for our daughter’s birth, I reminded Doug to pack a special bottle of champagne that my cousin’s husband—a wine dealer—had given us. He did so, and for his own nerves, tucked into a cooler two cans of beer.

I was appalled to find, the next day in the hospital, two (untouched) cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Why on earth had Doug chosen such a pedestrian beer?

He said he didn’t know why, or it was simply a strange combination of desperation, flightiness, and worry. Doug had reportedly reached for the first beer he saw in the supermarket. He was very nervous about becoming a father, and he hesitated to celebrate just in case (he’s a pessimist) something should go terribly wrong.

But everything had gone fine. We had a beautiful, nine-pound daughter.

Doug toasted her with Pabst (I am still appalled), and promised we’d drink the champagne at home.
All these years later, we still, of course, find ourselves going through phases of life, as well as phases of beer. We appreciate beer, and just as people enjoy different music on different occasions, so it goes with beer.

We need to get another beer-making kit and try that again (now that our kids are big enough to keep themselves occupied for a few hours). This past Christmas, I intended to brew beer as gifts, but I just got too busy.

Think we’ll try it again this year, though. Boiling up a batch of beer during what is sure to be a hot summer will nevertheless be worth it in the winter. (Especially since walking down to the basement for more beer is much easier than visiting the annoying Pennsylvania state liquor stores…the beer drinking lately has waned just because it’s such a pain to buy beer where we live now. You can’t even leave a PA store with three six-packs. No, you have to leave the third and come back for it separately…. I can’t even imagine the purpose of such an insipid law.)

The hardest part of homebrewing this time will be agreeing on what type of beer to make. We’ve done it all, had them all. But we still recall the taste of that forgotten first batch of homebrew—the one we opened too early, dismissed too quickly.

When Doug and I stumbled upon some dusty, untouched bottles a couple of years later, we ventured to try that first beer again. Its taste was now mellow, delicious—redolent, somehow, of fresh-mown hay and clover.

Like our love, it had only grown richer with age.

Elizabeth CollinsElizabeth Collins is a writer and high school English teacher, whose blog ( attracts an international following to its mix of memoir, personal and political essays, and quirky observations. Collins, a graduate of the University of Iowa's MFA program in English/Writing, won the Columbia University Nonfiction Prize in 2001, as well as other writing awards. Her essays and short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines, including The Massachusetts Review, Natural Bridge and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. Collins currently writes YA novels--and her latest, also entitled Pretty Freaky, is about a foreign adoptee's quest to help her adopted American boyfriend find his birthmother. Collins herself is adopted.

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 Comment by Matt
2010-04-28 15:52:45
Damn. Now I’m thirsty.
Red Seal is a good damn beer. And Sierra Nevada-espeically its seasonals-is nothing to laugh at.
PBR gets a bum rap, especially now that it’s become the hipster brew of choice. But I find it far more drinkable than the Budweisers, Millers, and Coors of the world.
Southern California has seen a lot of microbreweries pop up in the last 15 years or so, many of which are producing some wonderful beers. If it’s at all available, I suggest you try some of Stone Brewery’s wonderful concoctions, especially their Arrogant Bastard Ale.

 Comment by Elizabeth Collins
2010-04-28 23:59:34
Thanks for reading, Matt.
You can tell that I am no longer hip because I assumed PBR was just so un-hip.
I think I’ve had Arrogant Bastard (who could resist the name? But then again, I may be thinking of Fat Bastard wine, which I have had and will respectfully recuse myself from commenting on). But I will certainly look for it again. Thanks for the recommendation–always useful.

 Comment by Greg Olear
2010-04-29 06:56:24
Always great to have a post from you, Liz, and this one is fantastic. Romantic and touching, but the only thing sappy was some of the lesser microbrews.
By the time I made it to The Meeting Place (I’m assuming it’s the one I’m thinking of) it was no longer The Meeting Place. Why they’d change such a good name I’ll never know. Main Streets sounds like a Springsteen album, not a bar.
Wine was invented by the Greeks, but the Egyptians invented beer. One of the pharaohs had the recipe carved on the wall of his pyramid, so that the secret would survive. But after Prague, it’s hard for me to really enjoy American beer, or beer imported here (Joyce said the sea air kills the flavor during the export)…Prague beer ruined me.

 Comment by Irene Zion
2010-04-29 07:54:27
Elizabeth, It is so good to hear your words again. it has been too long.
Doug is right about the lambics, they are just nasty.
I myself like a stout, the darker the better.
Victor just the other day had an Arrogant Bastard! I have a picture of it, if you want it.
I like how you told the story of your romance through beer.

 Comment by Elizabeth Collins
2010-04-29 10:16:31
Thanks, Greg and Irene…I still like a lambic (sorry). Not multiple lambics, because that would be cloying, but just one every once in a while is refreshing.
Irene, I would love a pic of the Arrogant Bastard.
When I make some more beer (it will undoubtedly be dark beer, because I make that best), I can send you both some.

 Comment by Elizabeth Collins
2010-04-29 11:52:41
I should mention that my new favorite beer is Dogfish Head’s Raison D’Etre.
Very rich, sort of heavy (you want more than one but it’s hard to deal with). The unusual wine-y flavor comes from raisins. It’s incredible.

 Comment by Joe Daly
2010-04-29 12:18:50
>>When I asked him what was going on, Doug said it was simply a new phase of his life: he was settling down. At first I worried, but then I came to see his point. Doug had played the field and now he knew what he liked, so what was the point of continuing the game?<<
This totally made me smile. I really enjoyed this. Such well-crafted parallels and great emotional punch. Thanks!

 Comment by Elizabeth Collins
2010-04-29 12:42:18
Thanks for your very kind comment, Joe.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Another "Positive Spirit for the Society"

One of my favorite songs--always seem to find it/hear it when I need it.

I truly believe that Bob Marley was a mystic, and luckily for us, his work lives on to help all of us.

"Every little thing is gonna be alright...this is my message to you."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Why Teaching Has Made Me Happy

I have had reasons to be unhappy lately. I have been the victim of gross (politically-motivated) injustice and downright cruelty perpetrated by some very mean people, but, for the most part, I remain happy.

For the past five years, teaching high school (I taught college before and will likely soon teach college again) has kept me unbelievably busy, but it has also kept me happy. Interacting with my students has always been a joy, and being of service to young people is one of the things that I do best.

I am not so egotistical as to believe that I can change every student's life, but I know I have changed at least a few.

Speaking of change--I know from experience that even those people who steadfastly believe one thing can grow and learn and and come to change their minds. I have seen it happen. I have no doubt that someday it will happen again.

(I would be more specific, but you know, I don't want to embarrass anyone.)

The point I want to make today is that helping others gets us out of our own heads and into our hearts.

It is harder to be unhappy when you know that you are useful, that you have been of help.

So--ask yourself: did I hurt someone today, or did I help? How can I, also, take my own hurt and transform it by helping someone else?

Life has ups and downs and is ever-changing, but what's inherently good about this is that even bad times will not last forever. Good things wash in every day with the tide.

As for me--I have a new book project (trust me, you will not want to miss it!) that has me incredibly excited.

I am open for college application essay tutoring business--and not to be a snob, but there's no one who does this as well as I do, and that's just a fact. I also love doing it, so that helps!

When I figure out how to make a video, I will post one here for my students (my 10-year-old is a whiz at this but she has little patience for showing me, I think).

Be well!


Friday, April 16, 2010

The End is the Beginning--A Good Paradox

I was driving to the gym this morning and listening to a radio show on which the radio personalities, in my opinion, talk too much and every cast member likes listening to her or his own vapid voice yakking on about typically insipid things such as the best nail polish or whether or not accepting drinks from strange guys at a bar means you "owe" them.

(I should name the show, but since I just kind of dissed it, I don't know if that's smart.)

Anyway, today, this radio gang had a guest: Kelly Cutrone --of, I believe, the reality show, "Kell on Earth,"--who has written a book about how to launch your career, make it in business/work and find your passion. It's entitled, If You Have to Cry, Go Outside.

Good title. Apparently the book is selling very well, but I have not read it and I probably won't because I am nearly 40 and I don't think I need work advice at this point. Oh, hell, maybe I do...

Kelly Cutrone was taking calls and I was sort of floored by the people who were calling: several young women, all recent college grads. All English majors. All hoping to be writers--communications, PR, screenwriting, etc.

What is up with that? On the one hand, I always get psyched when a student tells she plans to major in English. On the other--yikes; why aren't these girls employed in paid and/or meaningful-to-their-intended-future-career positions (they worked as unpaid interns, nannies, etc.)?

I don't think it was their choice of major. Rather, I think maybe it's that breaking into writing is really, really hard.

I remember graduating from Sarah Lawrence and hoping to jump right into it.

No one will give you a chance.

There are years of dues paying in front of these ladies. Years.

You just have to accept that, and be willing to start wherever you can.

Do the best job you can at whatever job you can get. Prove yourself; be a good, helpful person; never stop learning or growing. Eventually, someday, someone will notice and give you a chance.

Sure, there are some wunderkinds who get writing jobs early on. They might start off interning for a magazine and then, a few years later, get promoted to staff writer, get a column. But let's be honest: there may be two of them in the entire nation.

Everyone thinks s/he can write; that's just a fact. Every job, practically, requires "excellent writing skills."

I don't see that many great writers, though (I mean, in regular lines of work). When I do, I know it's something special.

Writing is a glamour job, however. It is more fun than most other things (though it's also very hard. It can be tedious and lonely, for sure). Everyone seems to want to do it--and so, the pay is usually not great.

In writing, I think the general public is dazzled by the few shining examples of Success. But most writers  just sort of barely make it. Those who hang in there and persist, who build up a body of work, who try to get better all the time, who don't abandon their art...maybe someday they'll be secure.

There are no guarantees, however. And what's worst about writing is that talent doesn't necessarily mean that you'll make it. I could go on about this now and cite examples from my years in book publishing, but I won't.

I need to explain the title of this blog post. "The End is the Beginning." What does that mean?

For me (and for what I was thinking about fifteen minutes ago when I started typing this), I think it applies to getting out of school and wondering what you'll do next. There, indeed, "the end is the beginnning."

Yet, this paradoxical idea of intertwined beginnings and ends can apply to nearly everything, I think. We can't move on to the next big thing until we let go of what is familiar and safe and take a risk.

Every day has the potential for a new beginning. Every minute, in fact.

I don't mean to sound all life-coachy (life coaches generally annoy me; they are, to my mind, akin to the bots that spew inspirational quotes 24/7 on Twitter).

What I started thinking about this morning was how change is scary but also inspirational. As Kelly Cutrone was saying on that radio show, we have to let go of what we think we should do, and maybe what our parents told us we should do, and pursue our own dreams. Aggressively.

So, make your mark. Don't be afraid to speak up and get noticed. Because, indeed, The End is also (always!) the Beginning.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Managing Your Time; Planning Your Best Life (Even as a Student)

One of the educators I follow on Twitter (@Aaron_Eyler) just posted a very interesting blog article:

In this piece, he makes the point that students don't blow off studying because they're lazy and irresponsible; they choose not to study (if, for example, there's a fun event they'd rather attend, or a show they want to watch) because they've been psychologically conditioned--by way of experience--to realize that they will get more out of brief joy than self-denial.

Also, perhaps, they will be angrier with themselves for missing a good time than they might be for getting a bad homework or quiz grade.


Our adult society is all about self-discipline, and beating ourselves up about everything--what we eat, how we waste our time, why we are self-defeating.

I do it, too, even though I know better. I waste time. I get distracted by e-mail. I do not accomplish as much as I'd like to on any given day.

I manage to get the important things done, however. I almost always exercise for at least an hour. I try not to eat junk (I don't even like junk, so that helps--but I do appreciate the occasional chocolate chip cookie).  I read to my kids every day.

I hardly ever sleep as long as I need to, though. Sometimes I even forget to eat. I have piles of bills to mail in. I have huge writing projects that need to be finished.  There's an e-mail sent by a former colleague (about a writing project) that I have yet to respond to, and it's been over a month--but I've been slow because I was sick.

So what is MY problem? I think it's actually prioritizing.

My priorities are my kids, my health and my work. I would add my husband, but he's pretty independent and a big boy--still, if he needs something, I will do it.  Don't forget my dogs; I love my dogs.

I try to blog often to build up a body of recent work, to keep my mind sharp, to sort out my thoughts (students: note my frequent use of polysyndeton). That can take an hour or more on the days I do it. Class/lesson prep typically takes a few hours a day.

I read as much as possible, too. I mostly read while at the gym, or when I am going online to check my mail. I also read before bed (which keeps me from sleeping).

All those things--my family, keeping fit, reading, writing, learning, are my idea of Good Times.

I do not watch TV much at all. Nothing makes me more restless than plopping on the couch and seeing how stupid most shows are.

The point is: I try not to waste time, and yet I still waste it. Wasting time is inevitable, to some extent, I think.

If students are learning by experience that they won't regret not studying as much as adults may warn them they'll regret it, what I do think they'll eventually learn to regret is wasting time.

Students may be concerned about missing opportunities. But we should realize that parties are experiences for them. They do learn things at parties, actually. They learn socialization, for one thing. They might learn not to drink.

I am not saying we should let our kids run off to crazy, unsupervised parties and allow them to skip their homework.  What I am saying is that it's understandable that they want to do that. It's human nature.

Eventually, people will realize that they may have missed opportunities to learn as much as they could have. That book they pretended to read? Maybe when they're older they'll wish they had read it. I bet they will.

Perhaps reframing the argument for "Why You Should Study" in terms of self-protection is what we need to do.

I exercise because I know from experience that I will feel awful (and my leg will hurt even more) if I don't. I eat well because I know it's important to my health and I will get sick otherwise. I read to my kids because I want them to be smart, accomplished, thoughtful people who can make connections to literature and thus better understand life. (I have seen what happens when parents don't read to their kids; it's a big problem.)

I spend time preparing to teach because I can't imagine how stressful it would be not to have anything prepared.

Kids should study because if they don't, they will learn from experience that Falling Behind is a terrible feeling, that not getting into the college of their choice can be absolutely devastating, and that once you fall behind it's very hard--nearly impossible--to ever catch up. At that point (after it's too late, or nearly too late), they will have been psychologically primed to realize its importance.

We can tell students what to do, or we can let them learn it for themselves (as I think they need to).

Of course, it's only natural to want to share the knowledge (so please study!) and prevent people from suffering they way we ourselves might have suffered, but you can't change people. You can only try to  guide them, gently.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Utterly Jaded Writer Blown Away by YA Novel

I read many books for work and pleasure. Most of them I enjoy and put down, when I'm finished, with a pleasant little sigh--as in, "Hmm. That was nice."

But sometimes--sadly not that often as of late--I practically want to jump up and down because a book is so great.

That's how I felt when I finally finished The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (no relation!).  I say "finally" because I read it in a marathon sitting--I stayed up virtually all night, reading.

I closed the book at 4 a.m. and immediately said to my husband, "You have to read this!"  I thought frantically about who I could get to read this book. Everyone has to read this book.

One of my creative writing students told me I had to read it. Was she ever right.

It's not that The Hunger Games contains some profound message about humanity--though, come to think of it, it very well might--but it's so well crafted and plotted, with the roundest, most memorable characters I can recall in ages.  Even the most minor, peripheral characters come vividly to life on the page.

The Hunger Games is one of those novels you can see perfectly in your mind.  Every novelist hopes his or her novel will get made into a film (for the movie rights money, basically), but The Hunger Games (like Harry Potter) simply MUST make it to the big screen.

As a former actress, I read the main character's, Katniss Everdeen's, part with longing. What young actor would not kill (pardon the pun) to play this amazing, complex role? And what a role model Katniss is for young women! Talk about an inspirational strong young woman (yes, I realize she does not actually exist).

The Hunger Games (and I am heading out to the bookstore right now to pick up the sequel, Catching Fire--I guess the benefit to my being slow to read The Hunger Games is that the sequel is already out. No waiting!) is a futuristic story about dystopia, but not in the typical abject-horror way.

It is also a national bestseller, which I think is why I was slow to read it. Having worked in publishing, I understand what usually makes a bestseller: marketing money. Many of the books on bestseller lists are not our finest examples of literature. Yes, some are wonderful, all are generally entertaining, but Pulitzer-Prize winning examples of fine writing? Generally, they are not (and not that I would personally mind having written a bestseller. This is not a dig at bestselling authors).

Anyway--the dystopia depicted in The Hunger Games is a bit more subtle, a bit harder to gauge in terms of black and white, good and evil. This futuristic, totalitarian dystopia actually seems far more realistic, less fantastic.

I've written before on this blog about dystopia. It really captures my imagination, as it does most people's. (Another of my favorite, most-recommended books is Cormac McCarthy's The Road.)

Incorporating bits of reality television and survivalism within its larger tale of a young woman who is trying to provide for her family in difficult times--while coping with first glimmers of love and mourning the death of her beloved father--The Hunger Games teaches us what it means to take charge and do the best one can--to sacrifice oneself, if need be, for the good of others.

It is also filled with action, which will certainly help it appeal to any young reader with attention issues, I expect. It contains warnings about governmental control that bring to mind Brave New World and 1984 (two classic novels I always tell my teenage students to read).

Getting teenagers to read is a big part of who I am, actually. I believe in the importance of the YA genre because I know its purpose (and I write YA) is noble: be entertaining while also inspiring.

The YA novelist needs to write something catchy enough to make even reluctant readers want to, need to, read. If it is powerful enough, it can last--just like J.D. Salinger's work. If it is sophisticated enough, witty, prescient or just well crafted, it can crossover to adult readers, too.

We all remember the books that really captured our hearts and imaginations.

I can't wait to share The Hunger Games with my daughters. I am putting the book away carefully--until next week or so, when I know I'll have to read it again.

Wow. Wow. Yes, The Hunger Games is just that good.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

What's Good About Standardized Tests: Free Toys and Candy

My daughter is taking the PSSAs this week (and next). Those are the all-important Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.

You know, the ones that will make or break a school--thanks to NCLB's data-driven, ever-rising standards that fail to take into account ESL students, Special Ed or, um, anything relevant that might reasonably skew the stats.

My daughter is very bright, so I know she will help the school's scores. But, as I told her: the test isn't about the kids; it's about the school.

The school needs the kids to get in the upper echelon (or at least mid-range) of scores. It needs fewer kids each year to do poorly. Again, pay no mind to the quite-possible-fact that a recent influx of immigrants may have just moved here en masse. That's tough luck; no government bureaucrat will be paying attention to that.

(Side note: I certainly don't mind immigrants. My own relatives were 20th-century immigrants from Denmark and Ireland and Quebec. My point is only that NCLB is black and white and cruelly simplistic. It doesn't allow for the ever-changing, all-important gray areas of life.)

Schools in my town are desperate to have kids score well on the PSSAs. Apparently, the middle school is in dire straits due to the fact that it's a regional feeder school, with a wildly diverse student population. Instead of going up in scores, it has--abominations!--stayed the same or even dipped slightly from year to  year.

This means (irony of ironies) that, thanks to NCLB's punitive set-up, the school gets less money to work with and it is threatened with closure.

The truth is, however, that student populations are especially pesky when they're semi-urban and diverse. You just never know where those kids came from, now do you? You just can't rely on diverse groups of people to be on the same page, can you? So, you might think that NCLB standards would take this into account.

But no. That would make too much sense.

In the beleaguered, threatened middle school, there are drawings for iPods (my daughter and I agree that an iPhone would be more of an incentive) if students do well on the PSSAs. There isn't really much chance of actually winning the equipment (out of all the kids who score well, their names go into a bowl and ONE is picked), but it's exciting for the kids.

It's also depressing for the people who are thinking about how clearly desperate those teachers and administrators must be. Their jobs may actually be tied to the school's scores--and any teacher will tell you that's just crazy.

Teachers can no more control how students will do on one or two days of testing than they can predict the stock market or when the next tsunami will strike. Yes, teachers can try their best to prepare students, but that leads to other issues, such as Teaching to the Test and cutting of "non-essential" programs.

While it's not quite as thrilling as electronics, in the elementary schools there is FREE CANDY on test days.  My daughter was particularly psyched about this.

She didn't notice--until I pointed it out--that the candy is brain-enhancing gum and peppermints. Studies show people think better when they're sucking on mints or chewing it's chomp time when the test booklets are handed out, and "spit it out into this box" when the booklets are collected.

Again, all I can think about is that the schools are really freaking out about PSSAs.

So here's to you, Pennsylvania. I wish you the best in getting through this next week of testing (only the third or so full week this year, huh?).

I hope Costco doesn't run out of Peppermint Lifesavers...or maybe we can send the extras to Arne Duncan and the team that's trying to revise NCLB.  Maybe some candy will help them all think better.

Friday, April 2, 2010

We're Washing Our Hands of NCLB--and Hoping for Positive Change

Today, Diane Ravitch (one of the original staunch supporters of "No Child Left Behind" or NCLB--now apparently remorseful for applauding the start of the epic, could-be film, "The Ruining of American Ed," and promoting a book about it) has an article in The Washington Post.  

See link:

It is refreshing (in a depressing way) to read that, as Ravitch claims now, the utopian ideals of NCLB actually led to a worsening of many facets of the educational system.  Specifically, Ravitch sees that NCLB's expectations were, as she puts it, "unrealistic;" that standards were actually lowered instead of raised (in order to meet NCLB's ever-rising "adequate yearly progress" requirements); and that "choice is no panacea."

While clearly attempting to atone for believing in NCLB's misguided ideas (which she bought wholesale, as did so many others; was it the name of the program? I have to admit: that was a pretty sweet name, from a marketing perspective), and washing her hands of its terrible effect, Ravitch is now trying to stay in the reform-of-educational-policy game.

She writes now: "To begin with, let's agree that a good education encompasses far more than just basic skills. A good education involves learning history, geography, civics, the arts, science, literature and foreign language. Schools should be expected to teach these subjects even if students are not tested on them."

Sounds great. In retrospect.
(I hate to be negative--but is this comment too little, too late?)

My primary problem with NCLB is how it has led to the cutting of anything other than basic skills test-drilling. Art, music, gym, library time and anything else deemed an "extra" has been cut to the bone to make room for the ultra-high-stakes testing kids must endure several times a year.

My own kids get double doses of reading and math, and art and gym only once a week (and my eldest will likely become a professional artist. Yes, I would be happy to send her to art school...)

Ravitch continues, "Everyone agrees that good education requires good teachers."

Well, did the NCLB designers understand  what makes a good teacher? 

According to NCLB standards, English teachers must show that they know their math, and vice versa.  They don't need to be particularly smart or have earned impressive grades in their teaching subjects; they just need to have basic subject-area courses on their transcripts.

What's even stranger: NCLB puts low-level, pedestrian undergraduate college courses (I would qualify those as from "any old college" but I don't mean to be elitist) in pedagogy--that most teachers never honestly use--far above real-life expertise in a specific subject.

In fact, NCLB ironically bars experts in their fields from teaching school if they didn't take math courses (even total joke math courses) as an undergrad...even if they teach art...however many years ago that was.

As one of my writer friends said to me last night, "First thing I’d change about the education system is make it easier for smart, talented, well-educated people to, you know, actually teach kids."

Well said.

The Obama administration has been trying to morph NCLB into its own potentially-problematic "Race to the Top."  From my engagement with teacher groups on Facebook (see "Teachers' Letters to Obama"), I am witnessing the fact that teachers are still concerned that government interference in educational policy will continue to cause problems for teachers who actually want to teach.

As for students who need to learn so many varied life skills, we saw pretty quickly that NCLB--however well-intentioned--was precisely the wrong prescription. 

Can we fix the problems in educational policy before it's too late? 

We've endured nearly eight years of bad times in American education. What will the next eight be like?