Underperforming … the Story of My Life

Best of the Web Today pointed us to this article from The Boston Globe, which reported that administrators, principals, and teachers in Massachusetts are agonizing over the impact to morale of labeling schools “underperforming” or “chronically underperforming” that generate poor test results.

We can only hope that those administrators, principals, and teachers agonize half as much over why their schools turn out so many graduates (and non-graduates) who read poorly, figure poorly, and reason poorly compared to the numbers of graduates they turn out who read, figure, and reason well. Inasmuch as (to give them the benefit of the doubt) they presumably are doing their best, they have a point: hanging a label promotes more shame than improvement, because the label itself doesn’t explain how to improve.

Who among us hasn’t experienced the difficulty of doing one’s best without knowing exactly what to do or how to do it? We might label ourselves as “underperforming” or worse, but if we’re serious about what we’re trying to do we will find someone to teach us what to do and how to do it well. If we’re not serious, we should look for something else to do.

My writing career is like that. Some things I do pretty well, others not so well at all. So I seek out people who, hopefully, will help me overcome my weaknesses; which is why, in six weeks, I’ll be in Utah at Dave Wolverton’s writing workshop.

I hope those educators can do the same: admit their weaknesses, and find real experts who can help them overcome those weaknesses. But as long as these things have been going on (far longer than the decade-and-a-half since my book came out), I don’t have a lot of hope.

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Happy Easter

The sun rose this morning while I walked the dog past the Presbyterian church on the corner, where they were having a sunrise service outside. I could hear some of the music, but couldn’t quite make out the song, so I sang “Celebrate Jesus” and had my own personal service as I walked.

Then it was home to breakfast casserole, and soon I’ll be off to church to sing in our Easter cantata.

Whatever you find to do this Easter, I wish you the best: Happy Easter to one and all!

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The Season of My Discontent

Karina Fabian posted an interesting item on her blog about teaching children to appreciate what they have. She wrote, “It seems to me that the more people have, the easier it is to feel dissatisfied.”

I think she’s on to something: it sure seems that the more we have, the more we want. We find it hard to emulate St. Paul’s “I have learned to be content” attitude.

Then again, if everyone were completely content, not much would get done. A lot of ambition and achievement comes from wanting more and being willing to work for it. (It’s that last item that’s the sticking point for most of us; the wanting is easy, the working is not.)

So perhaps, following the 3rd chapter of Ecclesiastes, under the sun there is a time for discontent. It might even be included in the “time to break down, and a time to build up.”

And does anyone besides me hear “Turn, Turn, Turn” in their head when they read that chapter of Ecclesiastes?

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More on Wiretaps, and the War

The House voted, but they didn’t go with the bipartisan Senate version of the intelligence bill. From the Wall Street Journal (emphasis in original), a glimpse of why the House version is almost unbelievably bad:

By requiring prior court approval to gather foreign intelligence from foreign targets on foreign soil, the House measure would also further involve unelected judges in warfighting decisions. By the way, since when do foreign targets have a right to any court review under the U.S. Constitution?

Now the House and Senate get to see if they can come to terms with each other. We can only hope they keep national security in mind while they do so.
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This is a great round-up of Democratic sentiment on the Iraq campaign of the Terror War (some will dismiss it because it was rounded up by President Bush’s former Senior Advisor, Karl Rove):

In September, Mrs. Clinton told Gen. David Petraeus “the reports that you provide to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief.” This week, she said “we’ll be right back at square one” in Iraq by this summer.

In December, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to admit progress, arguing, “The surge hasn’t accomplished its goals.” He said a month earlier there was “no progress being made in Iraq” and “it is not getting better, it is getting worse.”

Asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Feb. 9 if she was worried that the gains of the last year might be lost, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shot back: “There haven’t been gains . . . This is a failure.” Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee told the Associated Press the same month that the surge “has failed.”

It indeed seems as if “Democrats appear to have an ideological investment in things going badly in Iraq.”

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Gotta Love Those Speeches

As a speechwriter, I look at speeches by prominent people from time to time, as well as the reporting about speeches. I probably don’t do it as often as I should. Then again, I don’t do a lot of things as often as I should; and some things I shouldn’t do, I do more often than I should.*

Anyway, some comments on recent speechifying.

1. Why can’t people be bothered to look up Bible quotes?

Tuesday Senator Obama gave a speech in which he attempted to … well, we’re not sure what he was trying to do, but his prepared text seemed to talk a lot about race. Others will dissect the delivered speech in more detail than we will, but this quote in the prepared text stuck out: “Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us.” Notwithstanding that it wasn’t presented as a direct quote, that’s not what Scripture says. (To be extra-inclusive, the text continues: “Let us be our sister’s keeper.” That’s not in Scripture either.) There are Scriptural references to bearing one another’s burdens that might point in that direction, but in the main that reference was just incorrect.

I remember hearing President Clinton give a speech in which he smashed two of the Beatitudes together; i.e., he joined the first half of one verse with the second half of another. It’s hard to tell if these kinds of thing are poetic license, laziness, ignorance, or a mild form of disrespect.

2. Historical ignorance, or ignoring history?

Senator Obama’s speech started with the opening of the Preamble: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” The text continued,

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

Notwithstanding that many if not most of the delegates had been born in the colonies rather than having crossed the ocean to become colonists, this passage and the entire speech missed the key historical point that the Constitution did not “launch” our democratic experiment — it re-launched it. The “more perfect union” was specifically intended to be “more perfect” than the previous attempt; i.e., “more perfect” than the Articles of Confederation.

3. Words are important, as are the thoughts and actions behind them.

From an excellent commentary, “The Obama Bargain,” by Shelby Steele in The Wall Street Journal (emphasis in original),

… nothing could be more dangerous to Mr. Obama’s political aspirations than the revelation that he, the son of a white woman, sat Sunday after Sunday — for 20 years — in an Afrocentric, black nationalist church in which his own mother, not to mention other whites, could never feel comfortable. His pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is a challenger who goes far past Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in his anti-American outrage (“God damn America”).

How does one “transcend” race in this church? The fact is that Barack Obama has fellow-traveled with a hate-filled, anti-American black nationalism all his adult life, failing to stand and challenge an ideology that would have no place for his own mother. And what portent of presidential judgment is it to have exposed his two daughters for their entire lives to what is, at the very least, a subtext of anti-white vitriol?

So, what Senator Obama said in his long — very long — speech may have been noteworthy, but it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of looking beyond the words.

4. Eyewitnesses to history are just like eyewitnesses to any event: they see things differently.

Yesterday, on the 5th anniversary of the coalition’s invasion of Iraq, President Bush gave a speech at the Pentagon. He said “removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision,” that the success of recent operations marks “a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror,” and that “The costs are necessary when we consider the cost of a strategic victory for our enemies in Iraq.”

The same day, Senator Obama, front-runner for the Democratic nomination, gave a speech in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He said, “Here is the stark reality: there is a security gap in this country — a gap between the rhetoric of those who claim to be tough on national security, and the reality of growing insecurity caused by their decisions.” From those words, and his previous statements on the war, it seems clear why Senator Obama gave his talk near, but not at, Fort Bragg.

Senator Clinton, also in the running for the Democratic nomination, gave remarks to supporters and said, “We cannot win their civil war. There is no military solution.” Her remarks also wouldn’t go over well at a military base — which is probably the point.

In contrast, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain gave a statement that “Americans should be proud that they led the way in removing a vicious, predatory dictator and opening the possibility of a free and stable Iraq.”

It shouldn’t surprise us that folks looking at events from different ends of the political spectrum will see them in different ways. Be that as it may, it’s easy to tell, between the leading contenders for the Presidency, who has victory in mind.

Which leads finally to this: Presidential candidates who have no military experience need to understand a few things about the military.

1. We’re very dedicated to the well-being of the country, so much so that we put it ahead of our own (and often our families’).
2. We believe we’ve been fighting on the side of truth and justice; you’re welcome to believe otherwise, but don’t try to convince us we’ve been wrong and then say you’re the best person to lead us.
3. We don’t like to lose.

In other words, Senator Obama saying “I will end this war” (as quoted in this story) will never be as compelling to a military audience as saying, “We will do whatever it takes to win this war.”

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*For the uncertain, that’s a deliberate paraphrase of St. Paul. More an allusion than a quote, it works with or without attribution.

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Public Arts Report

Today I attended my first meeting of Cary’s Public Arts Advisory Board, and was very impressed.

The artists responsible for conceptualizing the downtown area “streetscape” presented their 90% design review, and they’ve done a fantastic job. The project will be done in stages over the next few years, and its exciting that I’ll get to see it develop “from the inside” — or at least a lot further inside than I would’ve been otherwise.

I’m very pleased to have been selected to serve on the board, and look forward to the next meeting.

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Long Day on the Road

Drove to Asheville today, for a meeting of the Advisory Council of NC State’s Minerals Research Laboratory. The MRL has a long history of innovations in mining and helping companies evaluate and improve their mineral-related exploits, so it was good to see some of their operation and meet some of the key folks.

In addition, I got to chat for awhile this morning with another Industrial Extension Service writer, and then to chat this afternoon with one of my buddies from Orson Scott Card’s 2004 Literary Boot Camp. So it was a full and productive day all around.

What wasn’t so good, however, was turning around and driving back this afternoon. A little over 8 hours of driving for a little over 4 hours of meetings made for a very long day. But I’m home now, so all is well.

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At Least I Wrote Something Today …

… even if it wasn’t much. 😮

Originally I thought that tonight I’d finish the novel chapter I’m working on, but I didn’t make it. I got caught up in one scene, and think I may have overwritten it (by which I mean — at the moment — put in too many extraneous details). But I’ll save that evaluation for another day, because I’m tired and I have a long day of travel and meetings tomorrow.

Which, of course, means I won’t finish the chapter tomorrow, either. 😡

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The Paramount Importance of Defense

Some who know me may think I’m referring to the Clemson Tigers in their quest for a first-ever Atlantic Coast Conference title, but no. (The Tigers haven’t been to the ACC finals longer than I’ve been alive, so it was great to see them get that far; and though it would’ve been terrific to see them win, it just wasn’t to be. And not because of their defense.)

No, this post refers to a new Anti-Candidate position posted in the “General Interest” forum area today, the Anti-Candidate Position on Defense:

National defense is the paramount responsibility of the government, the key thing that people cannot do for themselves.

Contrary to the best intentions of diplomats and the most pleasant dreams of optimists, the world remains a dangerous place. So we agree with Sun Tzu — Master Sun — that, in the opening words of The Art of War, “War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.”

There’s more, of course, and there’s also the overall Anti-Campaign thread.

As one friend wrote us yesterday, “We’ve got quite a candidate/potential candidate field for this election. It’s a shame the United States public doesn’t have anyone it can truly trust and for which to vote. Another barren election-scape….” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we have the Anti-Campaign.

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News You Won't See on TV

Read a fantastic article earlier this week on the state of journalism, and how what we see on television (and, so far as I can tell, what we hear on the radio and read in the paper) is often “trivia framed as Truth.”

The article is Journalist-Bites-Reality! by Steve Salerno, and it includes these encouraging facts — indisputable facts — that no television, radio, or newspaper report will tell you outright:

– The current employment rate is 95.3 percent.
– Out of 300 million Americans, roughly 299.999954 million were not murdered today.
– Day after day, some 35,000 commercial flights traverse our skies without incident.
– The vast majority of college students who got drunk last weekend did not rape anyone, or kill themselves or anyone else in a DUI or hazing incident. On Monday, they got up and went to class, bleary-eyed but otherwise okay.

In news, however, everything is a crisis. (I wrote about this phenomenon a few years ago in my Ornery American essay, “The Redemption of the Vietnam War?”) And, thinking along those lines, this excerpt particularly speaks to the phenomenon of concentrating on relatively rare negative incidents to cast aspersions on large, difficult, complex endeavors:

For all its cinema-verité panache, embedded reporting, as exemplified in Iraq and in Nightline’s recent series on “the forgotten war” in Afghanistan, shows only what’s going on in the immediate vicinity of the embedded journalist. It’s not all that useful for yielding an overarching sense of the progress of a war, and might easily be counterproductive: To interpret such field reporting as a valid microcosm is the equivalent of standing in a spot where it’s raining and assuming it’s raining everywhere.

I think, for the sake of my sense of well-being, I will start inverting all the statistics — and maybe some of the stories — I encounter in news reports.

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