Today is the 30th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, the day when the space shuttle exploded and NASA lost seven astronauts: Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. Their sacrifice is memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery.

For the people of my generation, the Challenger tragedy was our equivalent of the Kennedy assassination. Because a schoolteacher, McAuliffe, was on board, many schools had chosen to show the launch live to their students over television. The launch took place around 11:30 AM EST, and seventy-three seconds into the flight, the shuttle exploded. People were confused at first, but it soon became clear that NASA was experiencing what they euphemistically refer to as an LOCV: loss of crew and vehicle.

I didn't see the explosion live, but I still remember that day vividly. My own story is as follows. I was in 11th grade at the time at Hunter College High School. One of our school's Chemistry teachers, Francine Salzman, had applied for the Teacher-in-Space program but not been accepted. So we were all keenly aware of the meaning of the launch.

The school's lunch period took place from 11:10 AM to 12 noon, if I remember correctly, and after eating lunch I went to hang out in the school library with friends. I was sitting in the front area of the library when my friend Christina Sormani walked in and asked if I had heard the news about the shuttle. I said no, and she told me that it had blown up during the launch. I protested that she was kidding, and she assured me that she wasn't.

I realized she was serious and I started to cry. I cried so much that Tina thought I personally knew one of the astronauts. I didn't, of course; at the time, like all of us, the only one I could actually name was McAuliffe. But I was crying for them nevertheless, and for the dashed hopes and dreams of an entire human race that yearns to go to the stars. I knew that this would cause a major setback in our space program; and I could only hope that it wouldn't crush it entirely.

That afternoon, when we got home, there was an ironic coda. My father had been applying to the Journalist-in-Space program, and on that very day we received the postcard from NASA indicating that all his applications materials were in. And years later, in 2003, McAuliffe and my father were my own inspirations as I applied unsuccessfully to be an Educator Astronaut.

[Copied over from Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mabfan/posts/10101583702080131 ]

Okay folks. This is about to get somewhat personal, but I feel I owe it to Robin Williams to note this.

I saw Dead Poets Society when it first came out, when I was still in college. At the time, I knew that part of my eventual career path would take me into teaching. I had had many teachers I loved (and yes, I was very lucky for it) and I did what I could to learn from them how to be a teacher.

But I also studied the character of John Keating, the teacher that Williams played in Dead Poets Society. And I tell all my former students now: I tried to model a lot of how I interacted with you guys on him. It's a lot harder to do it with Physics and Mathematics than with Poetry, but I tried to show you how much a part of the world those things were too. I tried to share my passion for Science with you, so that even if you didn't like Science, you could appreciate the passion. So that you could go out and find that passion of your own.
I also tried to show you all what the world was like. That it's filled with glory, and wonder, and hope, and dreams, along with all the gloom that comes along with being human.

Most of all, though, I tried to let you know that you all mattered.

One of my most precious possessions is a letter from one of my former students, who apparently felt suicidal at times in high school. She was one of many students I engaged with as a teacher, and I had no idea -- absolutely none -- what she was going through at the time. Some students you can tell are dealing with a tough time and you do what you can to help them through it. But others appear happy and cheerful, and you have no idea what's bubbling under inside. I'm privileged to have learned years later from a few of those students how much I helped them without even realizing it.

And as for the letter I mentioned... It's a letter in which this former student of mine basically told me that I kept her from killing herself in high school. I was gobsmacked when I received it some time after she had graduated. Not to make this about me, but in a way it was validation of everything I had been trying to accomplish. I made many sacrifices in my life during the time I was teaching, but apparently I had managed to save a life, without even realizing it. It meant that I mattered too.

And you matter too, folks. You all do. That was the message that Williams's character was trying to get across in Dead Poets Society, and that was the message I was trying to get across to you. And when I see one of you post about an achievement in your life, or when I think of those of you who came to help me out when my kids were born, I feel like I succeeded in some small way.

Robin Williams mattered too. I'd like to think that he knows that again.

And I thank you all. Let us take his legacy, our legacy, and make the best of ourselves that we can.

[Tom Schulman's words, spoken by Robin Williams as John Keating: "They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? - - Carpe - - hear it? - - Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary."]
Today is the anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, the day when the space shuttle exploded and NASA lost seven astronauts: Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. Their sacrifice is memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery.

For the people of my generation, the Challenger tragedy was our equivalent of the Kennedy assassination. Because a schoolteacher, McAuliffe, was on board, many schools had chosen to show the launch live to their students over television. The launch took place around 11:30 AM EST, and seventy-three seconds into the flight, the shuttle exploded. People were confused at first, but it soon became clear that NASA was experiencing what they euphemistically refer to as an LOCV: loss of crew and vehicle.

I didn't see the explosion live, but I still remember that day vividly. My own story is as follows. I was in 11th grade at the time at Hunter College High School. One of our school's Chemistry teachers, Francine Salzman, had applied for the Teacher-in-Space program but not been accepted. So we were all keenly aware of the meaning of the launch.

The school's lunch period took place from 11:10 AM to 12noon, if I remember correctly, and after eating lunch I went to hang out in the school library with friends. I was sitting in the front area of the library when my friend Christina Sormani walked in and asked if I had heard the news about the shuttle. I said no, and she told me that it had blown up during the launch. I protested that she was kidding, and she assured me that she wasn't.

I realized she was serious and I started to cry. I cried so much that Tina thought I personally knew one of the astronauts. I didn't, of course; at the time, like all of us, the only one I could actually name was McAuliffe. But I was crying for them nevertheless, and for the dashed hopes and dreams of an entire human race that yearns to go to the stars. I knew that this would cause a major setback in our space program; and I could only hope that it wouldn't crush it entirely.

That afternoon, when we got home, there was an ironic coda. My father had been applying to the Journalist-in-Space program, and on that very day we received the postcard from NASA indicating that all his applications materials were in. And years later, in 2003, McAuliffe and my father were my own inspirations as I applied unsuccessfully to be an Educator Astronaut.
Today is the 25th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, the day when the space shuttle exploded and NASA lost seven astronauts: Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. Their sacrifice is memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery.

For the people of my generation, the Challenger tragedy was our equivalent of the Kennedy assassination. Because a schoolteacher, McAuliffe, was on board, many schools had chosen to show the launch live to their students over television. The launch took place around 11:30 AM EST, and seventy-three seconds into the flight, the shuttle exploded. People were confused at first, but it soon became clear that NASA was experiencing what they euphemistically refer to as an LOCV: loss of crew and vehicle.

I didn't see the explosion live, but I still remember that day vividly. My own story is as follows. I was in 11th grade at the time at Hunter College High School. One of our school's Chemistry teachers, Francine Salzman, had applied for the Teacher-in-Space program but not been accepted. So we were all keenly aware of the meaning of the launch.

The school's lunch period took place from 11:10 AM to 12noon, if I remember correctly, and after eating lunch I went to hang out in the school library with friends. I was sitting in the front area of the library when my friend Christina Sormani walked in and asked if I had heard the news about the shuttle. I said no, and she told me that it had blown up during the launch. I protested that she was kidding, and she assured me that she wasn't.

I realized she was serious and I started to cry. I cried so much that Tina thought I personally knew one of the astronauts. I didn't, of course; at the time, like all of us, the only one I could actually name was McAuliffe. But I was crying for them nevertheless, and for the dashed hopes and dreams of an entire human race that yearns to go to the stars. I knew that this would cause a major setback in our space program; and I could only hope that it wouldn't crush it entirely.

That afternoon, when we got home, there was an ironic coda. My father had been applying to the Journalist-in-Space program, and on that very day we received the postcard from NASA indicating that all his applications materials were in. And years later, in 2003, McAuliffe and my father were my own inspirations as I applied unsuccessfully to be an Educator Astronaut.
Today is the 24th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, the day when the space shuttle exploded and NASA lost seven astronauts: Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. Their sacrifice is memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery.

For the people of my generation, the Challenger tragedy was our equivalent of the Kennedy assassination. Because a schoolteacher, McAuliffe, was on board, many schools had chosen to show the launch live to their students over television. The launch took place around 11:30 AM EST, and seventy-three seconds into the flight, the shuttle exploded. People were confused at first, but it soon became clear that NASA was experiencing what they euphemistically refer to as an LOCV: loss of crew and vehicle.

I didn't see the explosion live, but I still remember that day vividly. My own story is as follows. I was in 11th grade at the time at Hunter College High School. One of our school's Chemistry teachers, Francine Salzman, had applied for the Teacher-in-Space program but not been accepted. So we were all keenly aware of the meaning of the launch.

The school's lunch period took place from 11:10 AM to 12noon, if I remember correctly, and after eating lunch I went to hang out in the school library with friends. I was sitting in the front area of the library when my friend Christina Sormani walked in and asked if I had heard the news about the shuttle. I said no, and she told me that it had blown up during the launch. I protested that she was kidding, and she assured me that she wasn't.

I realized she was serious and I started to cry. I cried so much that Tina thought I personally knew one of the astronauts. I didn't, of course; at the time, like all of us, the only one I could actually name was McAuliffe. But I was crying for them nevertheless, and for the dashed hopes and dreams of an entire human race that yearns to go to the stars. I knew that this would cause a major setback in our space program; and I could only hope that it wouldn't crush it entirely.

That afternoon, when we got home, there was an ironic coda. My father had been applying to the Journalist-in-Space program, and on that very day we received the postcard from NASA indicating that all his applications materials were in. And years later, in 2003, McAuliffe and my father were my own inspirations as I applied unsuccessfully to be an Educator Astronaut.
Ten years ago today, I was still working as a teacher at the Cambridge School of Weston. Around 3 pm or so (EDT), I got into my car to drive home, and as usual, the radio was tuned to WBZ news radio 1030 on the AM dial.

What I heard as I was pulling out of the school shocked me. There had been school shootings before; indeed, the threat of school shootings had formed the basis of my first published story just four years before. But the reports coming out of Colorado felt unprecedented in their scope. The idea that two kids had managed to acquire enough weaponry to kill thirteen of their classmates and teachers, and to place the entire community under siege – it just seemed unreal.

It especially hit home for me. The early reports coming out of Littleton implied that the two killers had been picked-upon outcasts getting their revenge, and like many of us, I knew what it felt like to be an outcast in school. Furthermore, as a teacher I tended to advise kids who felt like outcasts themselves, and so I couldn't help but wonder if someone close to me might – no, the very idea was unthinkable. It had to be.

I don't recall much of the afternoon once I got home. Nomi tells me that she came home from work to find me glued to the television set, trying to eke out every possible detail from the evening news. Like the rest of us, I was trying to make sense out of the horrific event, and getting nowhere.

(In all seriousness, over the next month I looked into the possibility of getting a gun license that would allow me to carry secretly at a school, for protection. I soon gave up the idea, but that should tell you how much the tragedy affected me from over a thousand miles away.)

Ten years later, Columbine has faded for many of us slightly, as Virginia Tech has now supplanted it in both intensity and currency. But for some of us, it will probably remain as fresh a tragedy as it was on that day in 1999.
Last month, I posted about the passing of one of my former colleagues at the Cambridge School of Weston, Robin Wood. As I said then, Robin was the theater teacher, and an inspiration to everyone around her.

Nomi discovered that the Boston Globe ran an obituary for Robin today, under the title Robin Wood, 64; spread her love of theater to varied audiences. It's a nice profile of who she was, and it mentions her dedication to education by noting that she taught up until the week before she died.

If you want to know better why I was moved to mark her passing, go read the obituary.
Sean P. Fodera, the New York Regional Coordinator of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as Planet, visited his son's classroom to discuss Pluto and blogs about it in My Presentation on Pluto's Planetary Status:


I briefly explained the history of how planets get discovered, and how improving technology has made it easier to find objects in space. They were amazed that anyone could have spotted Pluto from Earth with 1930s telescope technology, or that comparing fuzzy photos could work for detecting the far-off planet....

I discussed the controversy over Pluto's demotion, explaining how the new definition of planet is not accurate, and how less than 5% of the IAU actually voted on the matter. The students had trouble understanding the voting part of it, since they all seem to assume that if something is voted on, it must be fair. So, I presented an example. "Let's say that when your teacher and I went to this school, it was decided that every year the 6th grade class would get to go to the circus. Now, years later, someone decides to take a vote about whether to keep going on the circus trip. Instead of all 50 of you voting, only three of you vote. One votes 'yes', and two vote 'no'. 'No' wins, but it's not exactly a fair vote, is it? That's what happened to Pluto." Eyes lit up, and lot of heads started shaking.


Go read!
Yesterday evening, just before going to bed, I learned from a former student of mine that one of my former colleagues had just died.

I taught at the Cambridge School of Weston for six years. I worked with many dedicated and wonderful teachers, and Robin was one of the most dedicated of them all. She was the spark behind the most inspirational and vital school theatre program that I had ever seen.

There are two things I would like to share about Robin.

First of all, CSW is one of the only high schools I know of that has a program in American Sign Language. Not only is there an ASL teacher who teaches at the school, but every year a group of students and community members form the Pocket Players, who perform in both English and ASL at a variety of locations in the Boston area. Robin was instrumental in getting ASL and an appreciation of Deaf culture incorporated into CSW's programs.

Secondly, when I was at the school Robin was the faculty advisor for SALSA, which stood for Students Advocating Life without Substance Abuse. The students in the group made the commitment to avoid alcohol and drugs, and they went around teaching younger students about the dangers that can happen with substance abuse. The group needed other faculty to support them who had made the same commitment to avoiding alcohol and drugs, and I was glad to become a part of it.

I know that many, many other people were more influenced by Robin than I was, and have more reason to mourn than I. But I did feel compelled to share. May her family, friends, and generations of students know peace.

In Memory of Robin BR Wood 1944-2009
Today is the 23rd anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, the day when the space shuttle exploded and NASA lost seven astronauts: Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. Their sacrifice is memorialized at Arlington National Cemetary.

For the people of my generation, the Challenger tragedy was our equivalent of the Kennedy assassination. Because a schoolteacher, McAuliffe, was on board, many schools had chosen to show the launch live to their students over television. The launch took place around 11:30 AM EST, and seventy-three seconds into the flight, the shuttle exploded. People were confused at first, but it soon became clear that NASA was experiencing what they euphemistically refer to as an LOCV: loss of crew and vehicle.

I didn't see the explosion live, but I still remember that day vividly. My own story is as follows. I was in 11th grade at the time at Hunter College High School. One of our school's Chemistry teachers, Francine Salzman, had applied for the Teacher-in-Space program but not been accepted. So we were all keenly aware of the meaning of the launch.

The school's lunch period took place from 11:10 AM to 12noon, if I remember correctly, and after eating lunch I went to hang out in the school library with friends. I was sitting in the front area of the library when my friend Christina Sormani walked in and asked if I had heard the news about the shuttle. I said no, and she told me that it had blown up during the launch. I protested that she was kidding, and she assured me that she wasn't.

I realized she was serious and I started to cry. I cried so much that Tina thought I personally knew one of the astronauts. I didn't, of course; at the time, like all of us, the only one I could actually name was McAuliffe. But I was crying for them nevertheless, and for the dashed hopes and dreams of an entire human race that yearns to go to the stars. I knew that this would cause a major setback in our space program; and I could only hope that it wouldn't crush it entirely.

That afternoon, when we got home, there was an ironic coda. My father had been applying to the Journalist-in-Space program, and on that very day we received the postcard from NASA indicating that all his applications materials were in. And years later, in 2003, McAuliffe and my father were my own inspirations as I applied unsuccessfully to be an Educator Astronaut.
Yesterday, the New York Times ran a fascinating article, "A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash" by Amy Harmon, about David Campbell, a Florida science teacher. Campbell, who teaches Biology 1 in a Florida high school, is dealing with the difficulties of teaching evolution in a district where many of the students come from creationist families.

As many of you know, I'm both a scientific rationalist and a person of faith, and I've been fascinated (and, I should add, horrified) by the attempts to block evolution from public schools that we've seen in the United States over the past few years. I blogged about the final ruling in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case a few years ago, and I've recently been reading every book I can find about the case and the debate.

I used to be a science teacher, and now I edit science textbooks. What makes Campbell's problem interesting to me is that I, thankfully, never had to deal with the issues he deals with. It's true that my teaching career was limited to private schools and religious schools, but no matter where I taught, I had complete freedom to teach science the way I wanted to teach science.

Campbell is not as lucky. Oh, he does get to teach evolution exactly as he wants, and he even helped author the Florida science standards on evolution. But one of his colleagues explicitly states that she thinks God steps in to create life forms that appear wholly different from each other – and she essentially teaches that to her students, although she doesn't mention God. Campbell also deals with students who want to reject evolution in favor of creationism, which leads to a fascinating discussion in which Campbell points out why and how the question "Is there a God?" is not a scientific one.

As I read the article, I thought more about what I had learned reading about the Dover case. In particular, I found myself annoyed again at the way the creationists in Dover – the ones who wear their religion on their sleeve – broke the commandment against bearing false witness against their neighbors when giving testimony in their deposition and the courts. Campbell is a churchgoer, and yet he, like many other religious folk, has no problem reconciling evolution and faith in God, and it annoys me when creationists refuse to accept the idea that someone could both accept the fact of evolution and be a religious person.

In the end, though, I am heartened by one thing. One of the books I read on the Dover case noted that in the wake of the Kitzmiller case, the high school's science department had revised their biology curriculum. The way they saw it, Dover, PA, became the safest community in the entire country in which to teach evolution, and so they made evolution the cornerstone and major thread of their biology class. Now students start with evolution, and throughout the school year, everything they study in biology hearkens back to evolution. I'm glad to see that Florida basically decided to do the same thing, and I'm hoping that as the school year begins, more and more school science departments will be courageous when it comes to teaching evolution.
For all the letters on the subject, see Letters - What Do Graduates Owe the World?, about the article “Big Paycheck or Service? Students Are Put to Test” (news article, June 23)::


To the Editor:

As a Harvard graduate, I am fascinated by the school’s recent focus on trying to get recent graduates to consider low-paying public service jobs instead of high-paying financial services jobs. What about Harvard’s reliance on alumni donations?

Two years after I graduated, I became a teacher. Many years, I was unable to make a contribution to Harvard. Never did Harvard send a letter thanking me for my public service; I received letters of thanks only when I was able to contribute.

If Harvard truly wants its graduates to take low-paying jobs in order to serve the public good, it will need to account for the fact that those alumni will be making a choice to support society as a whole over supporting Harvard.

Perhaps naming a building after one of them would be a good start.

Michael A. Burstein
Brookline, Mass., June 23, 2008
I came across this story in the news yesterday: Country star Gretchen Wilson, at 34, finishes high school. The crux of the story is that Wilson, a wealthy award-winning singer-songwriter who had dropped out of school in ninth grade, has passed the GED exam and will be getting her high school diploma next week.

The money quote that she gave to the Tennessean in their story on Wilson, which the AP article cites, explains that Wilson got her GED to be a model for her 7-year-old daughter. Wilson says, "...I certainly don't want her to think you can be this successful without an education."

While I laud Wilson for both her attitude and her actions, and I agree that everyone should get an education, I find her comment a bit ironic. Because the simple fact is that Wilson became as successful as she did without an education. Later on in the Tennessean's article, she even says that she doesn't think she would be where she is today if she had stayed in school:


"I don't think I'd be where I'm at today if I had stayed in school," she says. "What I mean to say is I think I would have never followed the path that I followed. I may have been in the music business, but I don't think I would have been an artist. I don't think I'd have been pushy enough. I kind of had to get out there and start fighting and clawing my way through the world, and that started really early and I think that's a lot of what it took for me to finally get that record deal."


So I'm thinking that maybe the example she should present to her daughter is a different one – not that a person needs an education to be successful, but that a person ought to have an education to be complete.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of teaching the students in this year's Odyssey: Tthe Fantasy Writing Workshop, which is being held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. Last year, Jeanne Cavelos, the director and principal instructor of the workshop, asked me if I would serve as the summer's first guest lecturer, and I accepted with delight. Even though I left full-time teaching a while ago, I still enjoy the thrill of working with a group of students in a classroom. It's even better when the students are there by choice, dedicated to improving their skills in a field that obviously means a lot to them.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of a summer science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, it's fairly easy to describe. Students from all over the world gather for six weeks in one location to write stories, critique stories, and learn about writing. I attended Clarion in 1994, and I usually recommend any of the Clarions or Odyssey to anyone who has the time and is serious about their writing. Odyssey does have one major difference from Clarion, which is the advantage of having one principal instructor present throughout the whole summer. Although Clarion does have directors present the whole summer, usually they fill a more administrative capacity. Jeanne serves as the head administrator, but also as a writer/editor/instructor herself. But like Clarion, Odyssey does bring in other writers and editors to serve as guest lecturers. Later this summer, the students will learn from Rodman Philbrick, Michael A. Arnzen, Elizabeth Hand, John Clute, and George Scithers, and the Special Writer-in-Residence will be Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

As for my own day at Odyssey...

I arrived a little before 9 AM and spent the first hour and a half presenting what I've come to think of as my workshop on "Idea-Building: Character, Context, and Plot." (Actually, I spent the first few minutes apologizing for having to switch my appearance from Friday to Sunday.) Generally, this discussion involves any one of three parts: trying to define the genre of science fiction and fantasy, playing the idea-building game, and exploring the concept of the plot skeleton. It's a good workshop to present near the beginning of a program like Odyssey, as it generally helps the students start to focus on the tools they actually need to turn a cool idea they have into something resembling a story.

During the morning session, I also worked in some discussion of professionalism in writing, and I explained how I came to write "Kaddish for the Last Survivor," which the students had read in advance of my appearance.

Over lunch, the students asked me questions. They were a little apologetic about it, since they felt it made it difficult for me to eat. I let them know that my official schedule for the day specified that I would be answering questions over lunch, so that made them feel better.

The afternoon began with actual workshopping of three stories. Now, I'm going to be honest here, even though I know that the students may very well come check out my blog to see what I have to say. (And if you are out there, please say hi!) The stories we critiqued were about what one would expect from the students just starting out in their first week of the workshop. None of them were atrocious -- there, now they can all breathe a sigh of relief -- but they did suffer from many of the beginners' mistakes that most of us struggled with as we became writers.

On the other hand, the level of critique was quite high. As I joked after the first critique, Jeanne may not yet have a group of professional level writers in the class yet, but she does have a good group of editors. Many of the students saw the same flaws in the stories that either Jeanne or I noticed, and it's obvious to me that any one of her students this year has the potential to eventually produce publishable material. Overall, I was most impressed with the brightness and enthusiasm of this group of students. I hope they manage to keep it up over the course of the summer.

On a personal note, I was amused to see how much of my own teaching was influenced by the teachers I had at Clarion thirteen years ago. I kept sharing pieces of advice mentioned by my own instructors: James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel, Ellen Kusher, Delia Sherman, Claire Eddy, Howard Waldrop, Kate Wilhelm, and Damon Knight. In particular, I shared a few of Howard's bon mots, such as this gem: "You can make a reader go 'Huh?' anywhere in a story but not on page nine. And you can never make a reader go 'Huh? What?' A 'What?' is a non- realization of the preceding 'Huh?'" (For more on my own Clarion experience, see my essay The Clarion Call.)

The day ended with my meeting individually with four of the students, to deliver private critiques of their stories. Again, none of the stories were yet at a publishable level, but they all had something in them that could be turned into a publishable story, once the students pick up the skills they need.

I wish them all the best of luck, and hope they'll remember to share with me news of their eventual success.
Today's New York Times has two more interesting sections about schools and teaching.

Firstly, there's the four letters they chose to publish in response to Tom Moore's op-ed piece under the title Heroic Teachers, On Screen and Off. The writers make some interesting points about the issues raised, and I've linked to the letters in case anyone wants to read them.

But secondly, there's an article on the question of middle schools, and that's what I want to focus on today.

The article, "Taking Middle Schoolers Out of the Middle" by Elissa Gootman, discusses the "national effort to rethink middle school." There are two basic philosophies when it comes to middle school, both of which are based on the assumption that middle school (meaning a school for grades 6-8)ought to be eliminated. One philosophy, expounded by Paul Vallas, the chief executive of the Philadelphia school system, is that students in grades 6-8 are better served if they are part of an overall K-8 school. His idea is that students in these grades need the stability and consistency of being in a comfortable, familiar environment.

Not too surprisingly, the other philosophy is that students in grades 6-8 are better served by being part of a high school environment, in which they can look to the older students as role models and begin to gain exposure to the concepts of varsity sports and applying to college. As it is, there aren't as many 6-12 school as there are K-8 schools, and most of those were created less to tackle the problem of middle school students and more to have extra time to work with students at a high school level.

I read this article with interest, as I've been trying to figure out where I stand on this question. My own experience is somewhat relevant. As a student, I never attended a middle school, per se. I attended two different 1-6 elementary schools, one from first to third grade and then the other from fourth to sixth grade. Then, from grades 7-12, I attended Hunter College High School, an exam school in Manhattan, meaning that overall I had what some might consider two possibly traumatic transitions over my own schooling. I left behind one peer group when I moved into fourth grade, and I left behind another peer group when I entered seventh grade. So not only did I have to deal with new schools, but I also had to deal with making a whole new set of friends.

Furthermore, I've taught in a variety of different schools. I taught at one K-12 school where K-6 was all in one building and 7-12 was in another; I taught at a 9-12 school, where students from different feeder schools mixed together; and I taught in a 6-8 middle school that was part of an overall K-8 school. And what I found is that while students had many different issues dealing with school, most of these issues didn't seem to be based upon specific transition difficulties.

In short, I'm not sure how much it matters. It's true that when I taught middle school, we had an overall philosophy of using the middle school years to help students transition, so that when they graduated they would be ready for the high school experience. And I like to think that we succeeded. But my guess is that such an experience could also be provided just as easily to a group of middle schoolers in a 6-12 school, or even to a group in a 6-8 school. To be honest, I never thought of middle school as an independent concept until I was teaching in one, as my own school experience caused me to see the natural divisions as 1-6 and 7-12.

In conclusion, well, I have no conclusion. I'd be curious to hear about other people's experiences and what they think on the issue.
This weekend begins the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, and fortunately for us, we're spending the first two days with Nomi's parents. I say "fortunately" because we have had almost no time this week to prepare for the holiday ourselves. If we had had to build a sukkah, we'd have gone nuts.

Actually, we have no place to build a sukkah of our own; as always, we will be relying on the kindness of friends, families, and synagogues to take meals in a sukkah this year. But this post isn't about Sukkot; it's about the last three evenings that kept us occupied and up late.

Tuesday night, after work, I had an instructors summit at Grub Street, Boston's independent creative writing center. Although I'm not actually teaching a class or a workshop this semester, I still attended. Grub Street has been doing a lot of good work recently for the city of Boston, such as the Memoir Project (memoir writing workshops for senior citizens) and YAWP (a monthly teen writing workshop for Boston-area high school students). I wanted to find out more about them, as well as meet with my fellow instructors. But that meant not getting home until very late Tuesday night.

On Wednesday evening, Nomi and I met up after work and went to the Cingular Wireless store in Coolidge Corner, Brookline. We've had the same older-style cell phones for about four or five years, and I had been feeling the bug for a newer model. Cingular obliged, with a letter informing us that the new network would soon no longer support our old phones, but hey, here's a rebate deal for some new ones. So we went to the store and bought these spiffy new Nokia models and an updated contract. We can now take photos and access the Internet with our phones! Here's a picture of Nomi I took with my camera phone:



Nomi By Cameraphone




Now I just have to hope I run into Superman lifting a car, and I'm all set.

The only problem, though, was that the sales associate (a very nice guy) couldn't get the system to accept our upgrade properly. He had to call Cingular customer service, and they kept him on hold as much as they do the rest of us. So once more, we had a late night. In the end, though, we got the service we wanted, and we've been having fun text messaging each other.

Last night, of course, was the Sixteenth First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. Although we did not manage to get together a delegation from the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet, we did attend the ceremony. This was our third time attending an Igs, and I saw fewer familiar faces in the crowd than I have in previous years. The ceremony, as usual, was very funny, even if they attempted to put the kibosh on paper airplane throwing. The 2006 Ig Nobel winners list has been posted at the official site. The winning "research" included investigations into why woodpeckers don't get headaches; the finickiness of dung beetles; the invention of a high-pitch tone to repel teenagers; a calculation of the number of photographs you need to take of a group of people to ensure at least one photograph where no one has their eyes closed; the report "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly"; reports on how to terminate hiccups through "digital rectal massage"; an explanation of why spaghetti breaks into more than two pieces when bent; a report on ultrasonic velocity in cheddar cheese; and the discovery that the female malaria mosquito is attracted equally to the smells of Limberger cheese and human feet.

(If you're interested in learning more about the Prizes, this Saturday as usual you can attend the The Ig Informal Lectures at MIT. Nomi and I won't be there, of course, but we hear they're always good.)

Anyway, because it was our third late night in a row, we didn't stick around, but we headed home to do what packing we could for the weekend. (I'm still not done.)

So that's been the week. To top it all off, I had some Library Trustee business I needed to deal with by email, an interview of a horror writer to arrange, and Guilder to frame for it. I'm swamped.

Plans for the weekend include sleeping.

Copyright © Michael Burstein; photo copyright © Michael Burstein
Last week, Harvard University announced that it was eliminating its Early Action application program. I took a more than passing interest in this announcement, because years ago I myself applied for and was accepted under Harvard's Early Action program. And although I was glad to have that decision out of the way so early, I still recall wondering how fair the early application process was in general. Because I remember being told that applying early increased your chances of acceptance, and it seemed unfair for students who needed more time to make their final decision on colleges.

A little background. Back in the 1980s, there were two different early application programs in existence: Early Action and Early Decision. Under Early Action, students could get their application materials in by the beginning of November and have a decision from the college, usually an acceptance or a deferral, by mid-December. (In rare cases, a student might be rejected outright.) Early Decision worked almost exactly the same way, except that a student applying via Early Decision had to agree to a firm commitment to attend that school in the fall. Under Early Action, a student could send applications to other institutions, but under Early Decision, a student was expected to end the application process. In either case, though, a student could only apply to one institution via their early application program.

(Of course, any sort of early acceptance was usually predicated on the student maintaining a reasonable record throughout the rest of senior year. But most people tended not to notice that fine print in the acceptance package.)

Each college that offered an early admission program decided for itself which kind to offer. In my case, the two colleges I was most interested in were Harvard and Columbia. And Columbia only offered Early Decision, not Early Action. Had they offered Early Action, I might have applied early there instead, and perhaps my life might have taken a different turn. But that's a subject for another time.

For now, I have to say that I'm glad that Harvard has chosen to eliminate its Early Action program, and I have a feeling that this will lead to many other institutions revising their own application procedures. Because the fact is that for better or worse, Harvard University carries a tremendous amount of influence in the world of high school admissions. Let me give an example.

Back in the mid-1990s, when I was starting to work full-time as a high-school teacher, Harvard published a booklet about their admissions process. Being a science teacher, I was particularly interested in what Harvard had to say about science courses. I was gratified to see that Harvard's admissions office felt very strongly about science -- so strongly, in fact, that they expected all applicants to have at least three years of science, and those three years had to include Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

Now, I attended an exam school, Hunter College High School in New York City, and I still remember that the only high school science course that was required was Biology in 9th grade. Chemistry was offered in 10th grade as an elective, as was Physics in 11th grade. Now, it is true that the school strongly recommended that all 10th graders take Chemistry and that most 11th graders take Physics. But not everyone did; if you could explain to your college counselor why those courses weren't necessary for what you wanted to accomplish, you could enroll in any of the other electives being offered. I knew students who chose instead to study another foreign language or to take creative writing, and none of them had difficulty getting into college with their transcript.

But in the 1990s, as soon as Harvard announced that it expected three years of science, many high schools took this as a cue to require a full course of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics for all their students. Never mind the fact that most students weren't planning on applying to Harvard College, let alone attending it; if Harvard said that three years of science were required for its applicants, then all students would be required to take three years of science, no matter what.

I had, and still have, mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, being a science booster, I feel very strongly that all students should have an excellent science education. Citizens need to understand the importance of science and technology to function productively in our modern world. But on the other hand, not everyone is interested in science, and, to be frank, not everyone can handle a Physics course. I remember one student I taught who had essentially found herself required to take Physics under "bait and switch"; the school hadn't required the course when she entered in 9th grade, and she was distraught when the rules changed on her by 11th grade and she found herself forced to study Physics. She hated the course, did badly in it, and would have been far better served by a survey course on Science and Society than on trying to solve momentum equations.

But instead, a decision by the admissions office at Harvard College -- an institution to which she never would have applied -- ended up with her being required to study Physics.

Based on this history, I reiterate my belief that Harvard's decision will lead to other institutions abandoning their Early Admission or Early Decision programs. And I think that in the end, high school seniors will be much better off for it.

Copyright © Michael Burstein
Looking back at my journal over the last few weeks, I see that CowParade and the controversy over Pluto's status have been dominating my life. Yesterday [livejournal.com profile] gnomi and I actually had a convergence of the two.

Planets first. Yesterday, as anyone reading my blog would know, the IAU voted to demote Pluto to a "dwarf planet." Normally, I'd be blogging about this sort of thing in more detail, but since I set up [livejournal.com profile] savepluto that's where most of that blogging is happening. For those of you who are wondering, yes, we are serious about the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet, but as I noted in [livejournal.com profile] savepluto last night, we expected that everything would end with the vote. Instead, after the vote finished, we started to receive more emails of support than we had before, and requests for media interviews. We were also asked if we would be selling merchandise to support Pluto.

I have no idea if any of the media interviews will really lead to anything, but in the meantime, Nomi set up a Cafe Press store called Planet Pluto. If anyone wants to buy a T-shirt or a mug with our official logo, you can do so there. I'm getting a mug for myself.

As for how the IAU vote will affect things at work, [livejournal.com profile] saxikath talks about that a bit under Miscellany. The upshot is that no, textbook companies aren't about to make a ton of money from updating our books. But on a personal level, I have to admit that this is the sort of thing that makes my job more fun. We get to play with the textbooks and make some interesting edits. As [livejournal.com profile] saxikath says. this is a "teachable moment" for science educators everywhere.

Now to the cows. Earlier this week, Nomi and I photographed the last three CowParade cows that we were missing, so we now have visited, seen, and photographed all 117 official cows plus the one stealth cow designed by Nan Freeman in front of the Bank of America building. Yesterday was the book launch for CowParade Boston: The Cows Have Landed at the Borders in Downtown Crossing, and Nomi and I went during lunch so we could meet some of the artists and get them to sign a copy of the book. We met Howie Green again, and told all the artists how delighted we were by their work. I also told one of the CowParade officials that along with auctioning off the cow statues, it would be nice if they could also auction off a place for people to keep their new purchase.

So for now, that's my personal life. Be back here on Sunday when I when I anticipate announcing that I've lost two more Hugo Awards.
1. This Thursday evening, I am running a seminar at Grub Street on World-Building:


Other worlds. Parallel dimensions. Mythic realms. The future. In this three-hour seminar, award-winning science fiction writer Michael A. Burstein takes you through the basics of creating on paper the fictional world that is so vivid and detailed in your head. Whether you want to set your story on the sand dunes of Mars, or in the world of Faerie, or even in the world of today, you’ll learn how to create a world that draws in readers, hangs together, and is as memorable as your favorite fictional places. This seminar will look at world-building through the lens of science fiction, but it is open to and relevant for all writers.


If you're interested in more information, click on the link above.

2. The blog Meme Therapy routinely asks science fiction writers and other such types to answer a speculative question, a feature they call Brain Parade. I'm one of the writers who responded in Brain Parade: The Aliens are Coming.
The very nice woman from NSTAR named Robin got back to me today, as soon as she had the information about Monday night's power loss. Apparently a transformer fuse blew, because the circuit our building is on had the highest load demand that they've ever recorded (for that circuit).

I'm very glad that she got back to me, but I have to say that I am disappointed in NSTAR. Let me say from the outset that I could very well have my facts wrong, but from what I understand, NSTAR hasn't done the upgrade they've really needed to do on our transmission lines over the past few years. Basically, it's a large capital expenditure to upgrade everything, so instead of fixing it all at once they've simply patched it as problems arose. Needless to say, this results in a system that in the long run, costs more money to fix.

It reminds me of an experience I had once at a school where I was teaching science with old textbooks. I wanted to buy a brand new set of books, but I couldn't because we didn't have the budget for it. Every year, however, I'd have to replace a bunch of the old books because students lost them, and so I had to buy replacement books that I knew were out-of-date. So instead of spending a whole lot of money at once to get new books, I spent that same amount of money over a few years replacing out-of-date books.

If anyone from NSTAR is out there reading this and can correct my understanding of the situation, I'd be happy to hear from you.

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