I collect bits of writing that strike me, & thought I might begin sharing as I come across them.

I’m especially keen on the last paragraph below, which captures exactly the emotion I always had, but never put into words, stepping onto rides at the state fair:

Last month at the Ohio State Fair, 24 people boarded a ride called the Fireball. In the middle of one of its pendulum swings, a cluster of seats broke off and flew horribly through the air, passengers still inside. Someone put a video on YouTube. When news stations broadcast it later, they cut off the video before the inevitable crash, but viewers could still see the helplessness of flailing limbs, and people upside down where they shouldn’t be. One person died, an 18-year-old bound for the Marines. Seven others were injured.

A week later, while officials were still mining the cause — “excessive corrosion,” the eventual report said — thousands of people stood in line at carnivals around the country for all-you-can-ride wristbands.


The horror of “excessive corrosion” is that it was apparently an internal problem. The Fireball ride had been manufactured in the Netherlands 18 years ago. It had been inspected at least three times since it was assembled in Columbus, officials said. Nobody could see that the internal beam was rusted out and useless until it snapped off.

It made the news because it was awful, and because it was awful in exactly the ways we have always feared. A thing the height of a four-story building should not be able to be assembled and disassembled overnight. There shouldn’t be so much rattling when you climb into it. It shouldn’t sound as if there’s something loose inside.

‘It’s fun to be scared’: Life and mortality at the carnival By Monica Hesse August 14, 2017 | Washington Post

Yes! Yes! Yes!

A thing 4 stories high should not rattle.

At all.

Also, while we’re on the subject: creaking and groaning. A thing 4-stories high shouldn’t creak and groan.

That it should not sound as if it’s got loose parts rolling around inside goes without saying, though when a writer says it this well, I make an exception.

Mastery learning in NYC (!)

I had a synchronicity event this weekend.

We moved house a year ago, and most of my books are still in boxes.

In case you’re wondering, my books are still in boxes because, basically, nobody buys books any more, so nobody wants to see a lot of books when they’re looking for a house. We found this out when we hired a professional stager to pretty-up our house for the market. (That’s our old living room, I see!)

Having gotten hooked on living in a designed space, we hired our stager and her partner to design the new house, too. (Karen and Heather are fantastic, btw, if you happen to be in the market for a stager/designer team. Here’s my review of Karen’s work.)

Anyway, long story short, we now have pricey, staged bookshelves inside the living spaces of our new house, and actual books in boxes downstairs, in the basement. Also in the garage. We live in strange times.

So last week I started working with two new students and, while looking for my books on sentence combining, I happened onto my collection of books on mastery teaching, the subject of years of strife with our former school district. (We wanted mastery teaching, the district didn’t.) My mastery-teaching books, I decided, were going to live upstairs with the humans.

One day later, the Times was out with a report that mastery teaching has come to New York City, of all places.

Few middle schoolers are as clued in to their mathematical strengths and weakness as Moheeb Kaied. Now a seventh grader at Brooklyn’s Middle School 442, he can easily rattle off his computational profile.

“Let’s see,” he said one morning this spring. “I can find the area and perimeter of a polygon. I can solve mathematical and real-world problems using a coordinate plane. I still need to get better at dividing multiple-digit numbers, which means I should probably practice that more.”

Moheeb is part of a new program that is challenging the way teachers and students think about academic accomplishments, and his school is one of hundreds that have done away with traditional letter grades inside their classrooms. At M.S. 442, students are encouraged to focus instead on mastering a set of grade-level skills, like writing a scientific hypothesis or identifying themes in a story, moving to the next set of skills when they have demonstrated that they are ready. In these schools, there is no such thing as a C or a D for a lazily written term paper. There is no failing. The only goal is to learn the material, sooner or later.

For struggling students, there is ample time to practice until they get it. For those who grasp concepts quickly, there is the opportunity to swiftly move ahead. The strategy looks different from classroom to classroom, as does the material that students must master. But in general, students work at their own pace through worksheets, online lessons and in small group discussions with teachers. They get frequent updates on skills they have learned and those they need to acquire.

Mastery-based learning, also known as proficiency-based or competency-based learning, is taking hold across the country. Vermont and Maine have passed laws requiring school districts to phase in the system. New Hampshire is adopting it, too, and piloting a statewide method of assessment that would replace most standardized tests. Ten school districts in Illinois, including Chicago’s, are testing the approach. In 2015, the Idaho State Legislature approved 19 incubator programs to explore the practice.

A New Kind of Classroom: No Grades, No Failing, No Hurry

As happy as I am to see this development, I’m a bit leery, too.

My model for mastery teaching is the precision teaching at Morningside Academy, where students make two years’ progress in one year’s time, as measured by the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

At Morningside (I attended their Summer School Institute a few years ago), students don’t learn to solve mathematical and real-world problems using a coordinate plane before they know how to divide multiple-digit numbers. Students don’t determine their own learning goals at all, or assign themselves practice. Every Morningside student follows the same coherent, field-tested curriculum, which works because topics are logically sequenced and practice regimens are effective and efficient.

Still, this sounds promising:

At Moheeb’s middle school, the approach has been transformative. In the 2013-14 school year, 7 percent of its students read at grade level, and 5 percent met the state’s math standards. Two years later, 29 percent were proficient in English, and 26 percent proficient in math, pulling the school close to the city average.

This year, all the eighth graders at the school who took the algebra Regents exam and 85 percent who took the earth science exam were marked proficient. The scores signified a high point for M.S. 442, teachers said.At Moheeb’s middle school, the approach has been transformative. In the 2013-14 school year, 7 percent of its students read at grade level, and 5 percent met the state’s math standards. Two years later, 29 percent were proficient in English, and 26 percent proficient in math, pulling the school close to the city average.

This year, all the eighth graders at the school who took the algebra Regents exam and 85 percent who took the earth science exam were marked proficient. The scores signified a high point for M.S. 442, teachers said.

We will see.

So it’s all been a big mistake (off-topic)

My 6-month-old iPhone is on the fritz.

That means a trip to the Genius Bar, which I can’t do without first making an appointment with the Genius Bar, which naturally I can’t do by simply ringing someone up on the telephone and asking them to book me in, but instead requires my jumping through multiple hoops on the Apple website and culminates in a quest to identify my latest iTune/iCloud/Apple password and enter it exactly right lest Apple make me change it yet again

I’ve now lived through so many protracted “You’ve been locked out” episodes with Apple that I maintain a complete history of my password transactions with the company, which I consult each time trouble rears its head, hoping not to fall into the same trap(s) again. I run a case ticket on myself, in shortThat’s how bad it is.

A typical entry:

10/19/2016 [worked on 1/15/2017, too] Apple is requiring a whole long security thing for its latest update on iPhone: password (not sure they called it that) is Xxxxxxxx  (use cap on Xxxxxx) | 4-digit Security Code for “card on file with Apple or iTunes store” is xxxx (because it’s for my Amex card, not for iCloud Keychain, apparently)

Every word of that narrative makes sense to me, in case you’re wondering.

Turns out it’s all been a big mistake:

Back in 2003, as a midlevel manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Bill Burr was the author of “NIST Special Publication 800-63. Appendix A.” The 8-page primer advised people to protect their accounts by inventing awkward new words rife with obscure characters, capital letters and numbers—and to change them regularly.

The document became a sort of Hammurabi Code of passwords, the go-to guide for federal agencies, universities and large companies looking for a set of password-setting rules to follow.

The problem is the advice ended up largely incorrect, Mr. Burr says. Change your password every 90 days? Most people make minor changes that are easy to guess, he laments. Changing Pa55word!1 to Pa55word!2 doesn’t keep the hackers at bay.

Also off the mark: demanding a letter, number, uppercase letter and special character such as an exclamation point or question mark—a finger-twisting requirement.

“Much of what I did I now regret,” said Mr. Burr, 72 years old, who is now retired.


In a widely circulated piece, cartoonist Randall Munroe calculated it would take 550 years to crack the password “correct horse battery staple,” all written as one word. The password Tr0ub4dor&3— a typical example of password using Mr. Burr’s old rules—could be cracked in three days, according to Mr. Munroe’s calculations, which have been verified by computer-security specialists.

Collectively, humans spend the equivalent of more than 1,300 years each day typing passwords, according to Cormac Herley, a principal researcher at Microsoft Corp. His company once followed the Burr code for passwords, but no more.

I’m wondering how long it will take Apple to get the message.

I’m also wondering about my employer.

I return to the classroom in 3 weeks, and as excited as I am to be back, I’m not looking forward to renewing acquaintance with the every-3-month password-change policy, accompanied as it used to be by a sequence of inscrutable steps for accomplishing the task.

As I recall, clicking on the tab that said “Change Password” did the exact opposite of changing your password.

Help desk

Here’s a question a friend just asked re: the following–

I live with my father in the summer, when I’m on vacation from school.

Why does that comma make sense?

The handbook rule (speaking of main and subordinate clauses) is that we use commas  when the subordinate clause introduces the main clause, but not when the subordinate clause follows the main clause:

I wake up early because I like to walk the dogs before I go to work.

Because I like to walk the dogs before I go to work, I wake up early.

The “I live with my father” sentence seems to break that rule, but it ‘sounds right,’ so the question is why is that.

Why does the comma after summer sound right?

My guess is that “when I’m on vacation from school” is functioning as a kind of nonrestrictive modifier–a parenthetical–but I’m no linguist … so we will await word from Katharine, who is.

UPDATE: Katharine says it’s nonrestrictive!

It’s a lot of fun having a friend who’s a linguist.

How to score a 790 on SAT verbal…

Re: teaching grammar to raise scores on SAT/ACT language tests, Jean writes:

….I should think there are not many students who can identify a clause. I couldn’t, until I put my two kids through Rod & Staff English, where they tell you all about clauses every year. (I put my kids through R&S because I had never been taught any grammar except nouns, verbs, and adjectives. It seems to have paid off; my 17yo got a 790 on the SAT verbal.)

Jean smoked me out!

I was tempted, in my earlier post, to say that until I started teaching freshman composition a few years ago, I couldn’t identify clauses, either.

But I thought better of it.


Funny thing is, when I returned to teaching I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I’d been taught the difference between simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences as a child; I remembered it well. But I had no idea that I’d never actually understood it.

So there I was, staring down students’ mangled sentences, not having much idea what was actually wrong with them, and thinking I knew what a complex sentence was when I didn’t.

That was then.

How to score a 34 on ACT English

A while back, I mentioned my ACT student, the one who was scoring at the 85th percentile on English when we began work and had reached the 98th percentile just one month later.

Not long after she took the June ACT, we had good news: her practice scores held! On English, she scored 34 (out of 36).

From the 85th percentile to the 98th in 1 month.

Her June reading score, on the other hand, wasn’t as high as I think it should be. On practice tests, she was scoring 32; on the real thing, she scored 30 (89th percentile, presumably). I’m hoping she’ll reach 32 in September.

That said, her weakest reading score put her at the 66th percentile, so technically her reading gain was higher than her gain on writing.

Eureka moment

“M” made most of her gains in the second two weeks of our work together.

I’ve become a pretty effective classroom teacher, I think, at least judging by my students’ results on exit exams. But I’ve been teaching the 5-paragraph essay, not ACT/SAT reading and language, and I have a semester to work with my college students, not 4 weeks. So with M., I was feeling my way.

Two weeks in, we were pretty much exactly where we were on Day One–and this with a highly intelligent, focused, and disciplined student. A lot of teens don’t do test-prep homework, and they can be scattered when it comes to keeping appointments. But M. did all her homework and showed up, and still we weren’t getting anywhere.

I was worried.

Then, pretty much from one day to the next, everything turned around.

On the reading front, I figured out Debbie Stier’s approach, which she developed while tutoring her daughter, and began using it religiously with M. (Debbie had actually explained her technique to me going in, but I hadn’t understood the essential feature.)

That was a game changer. M’s scores on practice sections jumped up and stayed up.

On English, I had a eureka moment: sentence slots!

Sentence slots, clauses, phrases!

I needed to stop teaching commas and start teaching grammar.

That was the breakthrough.

As soon as I began filling M. in on subjects and finite verbs, I discovered that she had no idea what a clause was. She didn’t know what phrases were, either, and had once inserted a comma in between a preposition and its object. (That’s another issue–punctuating-by-pause–that I’ll get to in another post.)

She’s a native speaker; her spoken grammar is perfect.

But nobody uses punctuation when they talk, and to use punctuation properly you have to know where clauses begin and end.

You have to know where phrases and sentence slots begin and end, too.

I’ll close with a terrific paragraph from Ed Vavra’s KISS site:

My interest in the teaching of grammar began in the 1970’s, when I was a graduate assistant at Cornell University. I taught Freshman Composition in the context of Russian literature. . . . My students were having problems with the use of semicolons, and time, and time again, I tried to explain that a semicolon is used to separate two main clauses with contrasting ideas — “He went swimming; she did the dishes.” The lessons never took, and it was not until after a semester was over, and I was discussing the problem with a student from one of my classes that I learned what the problem was. “We can’t,” she told me, “identify clauses.”

re: diminishing expectations…

I’ve just read Katharine’s A diminishing infection of casual speech by edited prose?. (For what it’s worth, my answer is yes).

Reminds me of a change I’ve seen.

I never took a college writing course myself, but I was sufficiently alert to understand that the Big Flaw in student writing, in those days, was overuse of big words and passive voice.

Later on, in graduate school, my friend Val told me that her most mortifying experience as an undergraduate had been using a thesaurus to look up and replace every word in a paper with a bigger, more important word, then having her professor tell her that using a thesaurus to look up and replace every word with a bigger one was a terrible way to write. She was crushed.

When I returned to teaching freshman writing a few years ago, I found that contemporary textbooks were just as concerned with big word-mongering and excessive passive voice as they had been in my day. Any composition handbook worth its salt seemed to include a lengthy section on editing your paper to make it sound more like a human wrote it.

So I expected to address the issue with my students …. and then it never came up. No one in my classes was using passive voice, and no one was looking up big words in the thesaurus. Just the opposite. My students erred on the side of being too colloquial and still do.

I don’t know why.

Too much memoir writing in K-12?

Too little reading of sophisticated literary prose?

It’s a mystery to me because I can’t imagine that either Val or I had read much literary prose when we went to college….yet somehow we knew that college professors used big words and passive voice, so we figured we should, too.

Why was that?

And why are things different today?