Thursday, May 27, 2010

Too Little, Too Late for Gulf's (BP) Oil Crisis?

(Photo from Getty Images)

This posting itself may be too little, too late--but what isn't ineffectual and what hasn't been delayed too long in response to the catastrophic BP-blown-oil-well crisis?

I keep hearing people criticizing not only BP but also the Feds about the lack of constructive crisis management here. Then, too, there are people proclaiming, "Take the boot off the neck of BP!"

Seriously? They must be followers of the Libertarian Pauls (and I truly cannot fathom what makes those people think the way they do).

As I heard James Carville say today on NPR (and this is a man I seriously admire for his strategic vision and informed commentary)--with deep emotion, as he is from Louisiana, which is bearing the brunt of the mess--the only solution is to use all necessary governmental force to get BP to fix this.

Another NPR commentator said BP should be put out of business entirely. I understand the sentiment there, but I don't think that putting all of BP's employees out of work is the correct answer to its leaders' lack of effective crisis management.

Still, though, the oil must be capped. Clean-up has to begin. Offshore drilling should probably cease (how do the proponents of "Drill, baby, drill!" feel right about now? Incredibly stupid, I hope.)

Bobby Jindal (R, Louisiana) was, a while back, pushing hard for increased offshore drilling. Now, he's ranting and raving that President Obama isn't doing enough to help clean up the mess caused by offshore drilling. You can't have it both ways, Bobby: people who wanted oil money can't complain when that oil  comes back to bite them.

I understand the frustration, though. The Gulf of Mexico is a huge (and hugely important) part of our fragile Earth and ecosystem. It must be cleaned and protected. The effect of this gushing, underwater oil well is catastrophic and cannot be overstated. It is tragic.

Clean, renewable energy sources are what we need to focus on next (after this undersea well is capped and the area affected is restored)--but investments must be made in order for us to stop relying on fossil fuels.

People have to stop objecting to helping to save the world because "it costs too much."

As regards the current mess in the Gulf of Mexico, I understand that the oil can't be cleaned up until its flow is stanched; I can also see how this is a very difficult problem to solve, capping a leak that is mile under the sea.  But I still have to ask: why is it taking so long?

There are many brilliant engineering minds out there who could probably find a solution. Let them do it. Step aside, BP, and allow the U.S. to fix the mess now. BP should, of course, pay for it, and I hope it is held accountable, and held to the highest standards of recompense (not to mention penitence).

My mother's family is from Pensacola, Florida--right on the Gulf. Beautiful white beaches, clear green water, dolphins, pelicans...all now destroyed by spilled, toxic oil.

The Gulf of Mexico, the beaches, the wildlife, the fisheries, the people who live near there--none of it will ever be the same. But let's at least learn from our mistakes, and not let this crisis go unaddressed, and let's put precautions in place (forcing oil/energy companies to do so) in order to ensure that it never (I hope) happens again.

In every disaster, there lies opportunity for change.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Big Issues in PA, and Elsewhere

I wrote this back in mid-May, long after I'd stopped teaching (before any crazies jump on me for trying to "indoctrinate" young minds with my Democratic demonics). I took it down for a while because I didn't want to feed the trolls. But now my platform is bigger and more influential. So here goes again.

Ah, the upcomiong PA Senate battle between Joe Sestak (Democrat) and Pat Toomey (Republican)! Should be an interesting race, and you can probably guess for whom I'll be voting. But is there actually any debate as to who cares more about Pennsylvanians and will work to help make things better? I think not.

To enlighten yourself on the specifics, here's a good read:

Let me now just break down the race even further. I'll do it by the big issues:

To regulate financial instituations or not to regulate?
Why is anyone even asking this question? Clearly, de-regulation did not work and, in fact, led in large part to the recent (massive and still ongoing) recession.  Trickle-down economics has never actually worked in any measurable fashion. Tax cuts didn't and don't work; if they did, we'd all be sitting a lot prettier than we are right now. We've tried it the conservative, pro-business way for decades; now it's time to give it up, already, free marketers. What's needed are politicians who will work to protect the little guy's money, not the financial monopolies or the richest one percent. How does keeping the majority impoverished and financially sort of helpless benefit America?

Gun control
Who could be against controlling guns? Honestly? I could argue that hardly anyone has a true need to hunt, but I won't even bother. Why do Americans still really need the "right to bear arms?" Isn't this an antiquated Constitutional remnant from the days when citizens actually had to worry about an evil dictatorship pushing them around? I don't want to bear any arms, and I definitely don't want my neighbor to have guns. Guns are for killing; that is their only purpose. Voting against gun control is like playing Russian roulette with your family. You wouldn't let your child hold a gun to his or her temple, would you? So why would you vote for less control over these weapons of personal destruction?

Smshortion: The Elephant in the Room
I find it interesting that voters who are deeply concerned about eradicating abortion could be, at the same time (perhaps they don't even realize it), voting pro-gun, pro-war and anti-environment and in opposition to helping save lives through expanded and lower-cost health care.

I understand that abortion is a touchy issue, and I actually don't like it, either, but I think that other issues need to be considered, also. Voting for the "pro-life" candidate could also mean voting against gun control, voting against public health care, and voting for a politician who helped drag us into unjust wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of children (and adults). This absolutely negates the fact that these same politicians somehow aligned themselves with anti-abortion forces.

Seriously. Think about it: what good is done by voting for the anti-abortion candidate if he or she is for killing in so many other forms?

"Single issue" voting is a huge, huge problem. You can't be pro-gun, pro-war, pro-unchecked pollution, and opposed to healthcare reform and still be truly, honestly pro-life. The world just doesn't work that way, and to think it does is called hypocrisy (not to mention ignorance of all the facts). There are many Catholic Democrats (and some nuns I've met) who completely agree with me on this.

The Environment
What is each candidate pledging to do to help curb pollution and rehabilitate our battered environment? If we're talking about the pro-big-business candidate, the answer is: "Nothing useful." It's very difficult to be on the side of manufacturing and big business and also manage to effect any meaningful environmental reforms or protections. (Consider Rand Paul's recent statement claiming that Pres. Obama is being--paraphrasing--mean to BP, and to criticize that big oil company is "un-American!")

I am not saying that people/businesses should not be allowed to make money; what I am saying is that businesses should be allowed to be as profitable as they can be, but just not at the expense of our environment or our childrens' future. Do business a little differently, but do business. It IS possible; just try it. With a few tweaks and precautions, it can be done. It's too expensive (in terms of future cost) NOT to conduct business in a green manner. Again, voting to help the environment and save the Earth for humanity is the only true "pro-life" stance.

Health Care
This is one of my pet subjects. Thousands of people in PA alone lose their health care coverage each day. (I am one of them.) COBRA costs more than I can make now; health care costs have been going up 20% a year. That is not sustainable; it is not affordable; it is unconscionable, and no, we do not in the U.S. have "the world's best healthcare." We have the world's most expensive healthcare. Politicians need to help fix this problem.

Is your candidate doing anything to help? How can families survive without lower cost options for healthcare?

More later, perhaps. That's all for today...must write my book.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Another Female Role Model: Marcy Kaptur, Ohio Rep

Last night, my husband and I were watching Michael Moore's latest documentary, "Capitalism: A Love Story."

I realize we're late in watching it; lately, I have little time for viewing of the tube. We always try to eventually see Moore's work, however. I've loved his depressing-yet-witty style ever since "Roger and Me," way back in 1989.

I think Moore is a role model--in terms of how he has always tried to shed light on injustice and make the world (or America) a better place.

He is also a good example of someone who does work that he enjoys--the people's journalism--while also expanding social awareness and making a good living.

This documentary was more depressing than most. Watching people's houses get foreclosed, families living in the back of trucks, and everywhere Moore's camera went, more fleecing of the middle-class (and lower-middle class) by the big banking corporations and the richest one percent.

Watching this documentary, although I too get very nervous about money and how bad things could get at any minute, I was proud of myself for never succumbing to "finding a man from the Market" as seemed to be the direction certain people wanted to push me.

I've had two personal rules since college: no dating frat boys; no financier boyfriends.

I have always been wary of both.

"Capitalism: a Love Story" told me much that I already knew or suspected, but it also opened my eyes to another (female) hero among us:

Marcy Kaptur, Democrat, and Congressional representative from Ohio.

Kaptur had quite a bit of face time in "Capitalism." And she wasn't the butt of a joke; she made sense; she spoke out; and she is trying to help Americans.

I won't quote her directly, but I will paraphrase: Kaptur spoke out about big money corrupting and misleading Congress at the expense of the average American. She is a woman who is paying attention and who isn't afraid to speak her mind...because she cares and wants to use her job to make a difference.

That's a good woman, right there. A woman who is working tirelessly to expose injustice, to help pass laws that make life better and easier for the middle class.

I can absolutely respect the work she is doing, and I think more people should know about that work.

So here goes: my little Marcy Kaptur promotion. Google her; find out more for yourself. Watch Moore's "Capitalism" and see her in celluloid action.

Her official web site is here:

Let me know if you know of any other women I should blog about. I am always interested in promoting female role models. I don't think there are enough of them--or, at least, enough that we see everyday.

What makes a woman impressive, in my book? Women who aren't afraid to speak up; women who are fighting the good fight for other people--those women deserve to be lauded, admired, emulated.

Thank you, Marcy Kaptur.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

May 12: Day of Reckoning (AP English Language)

Ready for your AP English Language & Composition exam?

  • This exam is mostly about writing, so kids need to be deft writers by this point, and drilling on writing won't help right now at this late date. (They need to have been doing this all year.)  What students CAN think about in these last few days is quick strategical plans for writing in response to excerpts of literature (nonfiction--speeches, essays, etc.), and writing synthesis essays, after reading a variety of excerpts and other short pieces (viewing photos, cartoons, bar graphs, etc.)

  • Of paramount importance--never forget this!--is ANSWERING THE PROMPT.  If, for example, the prompt mentions satire, the student MUST address satire--otherwise, essay grade is a fail, no matter how well written it might be. The prompt gives the student clues as to what the essay readers will be grading, so be sure that your answer/essay reflects EXACTLY what you were asked to do. Read the prompt carefully. Read it again. Plan a response and be sure it addresses the prompt.

  • Students need to remember that INVESTING TIME IN PLANNING ESSAYS is time that is always well spent. Given the timed writing on this exam, students have a tendency to want to dive right in and get writing, but to do things this way can lead to essays that begin weakly and only become strong arguments by the end. Students are rewarded for essays that come together in the second half, but seriously: why not try to write an essay that's good the whole way through? The essay readers will like you more and you will never get a top score for an essay that begins weakly.

  • FIRST LINES and CONCLUSIONS are key. I cannot repeat this enough. Essays are read VERY quickly; essay readers have to read hundreds of essays a day, and thousands in a week. They have very specific rubrics and they are just looking for a few key areas, so if students can make their words jump off the page by writing creatively in the openings and closing (with some impressive vocab, literary terms and interesting phrasing sprinkled throughout), this can go a long way towards earning a better score

  •  Review LITERARY TERMS. Knowing what litotes and chiasmus are may not come up much for use on essays (or, it might--and if in the excerpt writers used these writerly tools, students will be rewarded for noticing), but it could very well come up on the multiple-choice section!

  • As with any standardized test, students should answer what they can on M/C sections and not waste too much time on any one question. Better to skip a few than to run out of time and miss completing an entire section.  BE CAREFUL when skipping (I always tell my students to draw a line through the skipped question answer-bubble-row on the answer sheet; this way, they won't mess up the entire form. Go back and erase the line later, obviously).

  • Make sure students are comfortable with both pre-20th century writing and contemporary work. There will undoubtedly be some of each on this exam.

  • Remind students not to confuse AP Eng Lang with APUSH (history). Essays on this exam are not DBQs and require a different style of writing and thinking. AP Eng Lang is more about the creative craft of word spinning. Yes, students need to know how to articulately argue a point; they need, however, to be sure to stick to the excerpt they are given and not run off on related-knowledge tangents.

  • Wide reading only helps students on this exam--but AMERICAN LITERATURE NOVEL READING is not what I am talking about. Yes, students need to read the great books, but this exam is about SHORT pieces of writing of the type seen in news magazines. That's why I assign news magazines. That's why we have been  using anthologies of short prose. If a student responds to an essay prompt by writing about HUCK FINN--guess what? Fail. Never confuse AP Eng LANGUAGE with AP Eng LITERATURE.

  • Reading student essays from past exams (oh, the abysmal handwriting--it's hard to take, but that in itself is a good lesson for students) can really help. Reading, peer grading and discussing actual earned scores helps students to understand how the exam actually works. People like me, people who've trained to teach AP in specialized workshops, own large packets of these essays, and we've been drilled in grading by specialized rubrics. Sharing these essays is precisely what I would have been doing in the past month or so. It takes MUCHO XEROXING, but it's worth the paper and toner! I hope my replacement thought to do this, though I doubt it. Also, I am the only one who knows where the old exam essays are. Ah, well--peer grading and studying rubrics helps, too. Good writing is good writing, though--and if students can write well in the first place, they should be set.

Let's recap: Answer the Prompt and review your writing to be sure that you have done so. Have strategies for writing each style of essay. Invest time in outlining before writing. Equip yourself with an arsenal of literary terms and impressive vocabulary. Remember this exam is not a history exam; it is an exam that is testing you on your rhetorical skills and whether or not you can recognize and write about the rhetorical skills of famous (nonfiction) writers. Thinking like an AP essay grader can help students anticipate how they should write for the optimum grade (review the rubrics I handed out at the start of the year. Commit them to memory! You will be expected to satisfy these different rubrics).

Last minute reading should be Newsweek essays, I think. Students learn by osmosis, and they will absorb good writing skills by reading good writing. I like the Newsweek section essays because they do everything I ask students to do on the AP Eng Lang exam essays--grab attention, form a coherent, strong argument, transition smoothly, use examples, impress with vocabulary and interesting phrasing and end with a thoughtful idea.

GET TO SLEEP EARLY the night before; eat a protein-filled breakfast (scrambled eggs?). Also, drink orange juice for your blood sugar and take a multivitamin (I am a total health nut, and I believe in vitamins) the morning of.

I don't care if you're not hungry--just eat two eggs, please. My own kids love the soy "sausage" patties. They are small and protein-packed...much more so than eggs. You might try one of those; they are actually very good.

NO GOING OUT WITH FRIENDS AT ALL on the evenings of May 10 or 11. Sorry. Your parents should lock you inside all week, if possible (especially if you have other APs looming). You can do it: the school year is practically over.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Female Role Model: Elizabeth Warren

I have recently been reading about Elizabeth Warren--I saw articles on her in Newsweek and in Time--and wow, I was impressed.

This, my friends, is what a female role model looks like. Smart, accomplished, interested in improving the world and in helping other people.  She also professed to not being able to keep her mouth shut--especially when she sees what's wrong (hey--just like me!).

She is not--please pay attention here--a shopping mom without a purpose, consumed with consumerism and with the minutiae of life. No, she is trying to leave the world a better place, and she is using her life to make a serious difference.

So who is Elizabeth Warren? A Harvard professor, and now head of the Congressional Oversight Committee, which tracks how bailout funds are being used.  She works with President Obama, and she is from the Midwest, and she is purported to believe that if you genuinely want to fix the economy, then you need to help the middle class.

Go, Elizabeth Warren!

According to Julia Baird's essay in the 3/22/10 Newsweek ("Voice of the Middle Class: Why Wall Street Hates Elizabeth Warren"), Warren found that "...more than half of all people who declare bankruptcy cite medical reasons."

I could have guessed that, but I'm glad she did the study. I hope more people listen to her. (

Warren went on to find (as Baird noted), "...bankruptcies shot up not because families were consuming excessively but because basic costs--housing, health, education--have soared since the 1970s."

Again, we are women on the same page; I have been thinking about exactly the same issues, and bemoaning the fact that the world--particularly the U.S.--grows increasingly expensive, and if we want to help young people and leave the world a better place, we need to make sure they can afford to live in the world we are leaving them.

Warren was quoted, "That's why I am there, in Washington. Because of my grandchildren."

I like the way she thinks; more people need to think like Elizabeth Warren...or just think about the future generations (rather than simply themselves) at all.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

To Teach in a Private School or Not To Teach in One? That is the Question

Teaching in a private school is usually glorious and joyous (if poorly compensated) work. Except when it’s not.

If or when it goes badly—if parents get mad at a teacher, usually because of some whiny accusation by their child—then, unless the school is set up to prevent such chaos, all hell can break loose very quickly.

Remember The Crucible? The Salem witch trials? Yeah, it can be sort of like that.

There isn’t any actual public execution, but there’s a metaphorical one. And everyone in the community stands around mutely, just watching the gory (and, no one says this but everyone thinks it), unjust scene transpire.

How long will she take to die? they wonder. Will there be a lot of yelling and blood? (Yelling and blood are always especially entertaining.)

Will she go quietly, with dignity, or kicking and screaming? Should we help her, or just stand here and watch and take pictures and video with our cell phones?

Why don’t some private school teachers speak up when one of their own is targeted by parents or treated unfairly by school administrators?

It’s probably because those other private school teachers don’t want to be the next ones tied to the stake, put in the stocks. Teachers may be utterly vulnerable employees in private schools. They might have year-to-year contracts that can broken at any time, for any reason. They definitely have no tenure, no unions, no rights. (And where is the due process? It only exists at the most progressive schools, but aspiring teachers should be aware of this.)

Administrators may take the paying parents’ word for everything that happens in a private school. They might do this even when they know it’s the wrong thing to do. Even when they realize that a poor, sweet teacher is going to take a fall for no good reason at all—merely pettiness.

Don’t like a teacher’s politics? Take a walk through the faculty parking lot and make note of which cars bear political stickers of the party you can’t stand. Send a letter to the principal and demand that he “take care of it now,” lest you take your money elsewhere.

(Threats work even better if you’re a donor and/or know people on the Board. Then, you can essentially do whatever you want! Unless, of course, the private school includes current teachers on the board, and not so many current parents of students.)

Parents can also say whatever they want to teachers in private schools. There is no such thing as Free Speech in a private school—unless it’s the parent’s speech you’re talking about.

Parents could tell a private school teacher terrible things, with zero repercussions. They could recite a litany of abusive epithets and make threatening gestures. Use your imagination; I am sure it has already been done.

Teachers in private schools? They’re often sitting ducks and no one has their backs. One wrong word and those dumb old ladies (or dumb, young, generally-unmarried ladies) are goners.

Serves them right for taking such flimsy, unprotected, low-paying jobs, now doesn’t it?

Who in her (or, less frequently, his) right mind would take a job at a private school?

Only the desperate-for-teaching-years. Also, people who had good experiences themselves in private schools when they were young and still think of these academies as bastions of tranquility, ivory towers full of intellectual freedom.

How deluded they are!

That was me seven years ago.

I never expected to teach, never had any desire (or so I thought) to become a teacher. My parents were both teachers--college professor and reading specialist, respectively--and I have always been a think-for-myself free spirit.

Teaching found me. Other people kept offering me teaching jobs after I earned my M.F.A. in writing from the University of Iowa. Finally, I said yes.

And then I saw it. I realized the magical moments that come with teaching—when you connect with students, when they get it, when you see the admiration and inspiration in their eyes.

Having one of the students I was told not to expect to hear from at all write a brilliant essay, in pitch-perfect voice, was a big deal. It made me cry.

Taking my class from trying to regurgitate author facts (what they’d done in lower grades, I suppose) to actually analyzing diction and connotation in poetry, to thinking deeply and profoundly about literary themes (why we, as people in a civilized society, ought to read works of art and talk about them) was all pretty heartening.

I love to learn, and nothing keeps you sharp like teaching. That is, if you work at it, as I always have. If you assiduously read and re-read books, plan, research, take notes, craft effective lectures and lessons, attend workshops, then you are learning all the time when you teach.

You won’t just learn more about the subject(s) you teach; you will learn more about life. How can you differentiate to reach learners at wildly varying levels? How can you make education fun? How do you show your students why reading is so important? Once you know all of that, you know so much more.

Daily interaction with students also teaches you tremendously valuable lessons about how to get along with other people, how to help them, and how to be a good role model.


“Ms. Collins,” kids have said to me, “You’re so cool.”

“I am absolutely not cool,” I said. “I have never been cool.”

“No, that’s part of what makes you so cool,” my students insisted. “Plus, you keep it real. That means a lot. We can trust you.”

I keep it real? If that’s true, I just don’t know how to do otherwise. I am not equipped to sugarcoat things, to be fake, or to lie.


Most days and years that I taught were incredible. They went by fast; they were exhausting but fun.  Almost nothing brought me more joy than talking and joking around with my students.

I have pictures to prove it. I am—rather uncharacteristically for shy, quiet me—broadly smiling.


I know that some people say contemptuously, “Those who can’t do, teach.”

Hmmm. I say, “Those who did do should teach.”

I have worked in book publishing, journalism, public relations, communications, and college and high school. I have traveled a large part of the world. I have two young children. I am a writer in my spare time. I have written two novels and many essays and short stories (and yes, I am published). I have won important writing prizes. I have taken my students’ newspaper to ridiculously great heights. I have helped countless students write brilliant, hysterically funny and heartbreaking essays to gain admission to good colleges.

Kids adore me as a teacher (as I adore them). I generally get rave reviews from my students. Or, at least, I did.

Until some people deliberately set out to destroy me.

What happened (I no longer work at that school, though I haven't been destroyed, I am pleased to report) is my story, and I own it. If I choose to or need to tell it in its excruciating (but fascinating, in a horrifying way) entirety, I will.

Which leads me to this: there was a big sign in my classroom that I loved (it remains at school with all the rest of my things--my books, my files, my intellectual property. I need it all back): You Are the Author of Your Own Life Story. 

Yes, you are. And so am I.  Good thing I'm also a writer. You know the story I have is going to be good.