Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Text Structures

“What is it that can awaken a mind to the meaning of a text?  When is the moment that the heart is moved by its beauty?”
The Book of Rhino

According to Webster’s dictionary, text is the main body of matter in a manuscript, book, newspaper, etc., as distinguished from notes, appendixes, headings, or illustrations.  There are five basic expository text structures:  description, sequence, comparison, cause and effect, problem and solution.  Recognizing a particular text structure in a piece of writing always enhances my appreciation of the text.

The author describes a topic by listing characteristics, features, and examples.  Cue words are:  for example, characteristics are.
Sample passage
Trees are the largest of all plants.  Trees can be divided into six main groups:  broadleaf, needleleaf, palm, cyad, ferns, and gingko.  Although the trees differ with respect to whether or not they have flowers, fruits, or cones, they all try to get along.  The exceptions are the palm and the cyad.  They are the Montagues and the Capulets of the tree world.

The author lists items or events in numerical or chronological order.  Cue words are:  first, second, third, next, then, finally.
Sample passage
Most trees begin life as a seed.  First the female part of the tree comes in contact with male pollen, fertilizing the seed.  Then the seeds are scattered by the wind, or by birds, or by a friendly squirrel.  Unfriendly squirrels can’t be bothered.  (The trees take note of this and exact a terrible revenge.)  The young tree that develops from the seed is called a seedling until it reaches a height of six feet or more.  At this point, it is granted sapling status and can legally buy mulch.  It finally achieves full treehood when it is as tall as the other trees in the community.

The author explains how two or more things are alike and/or how they are different.  Cue words are:  different, in contrast, alike, same as, on the other hand
Sample passage
A tree differs from other plants in that trees grow at least 15 to 20 feet and have one woody stem, which is called a trunk.  Plants, on the other hand, have a soft, juicy stem.  Trees and plants are alike in that they both have leaves, but trees consider their leaves far superior to those of plants.  Naturally, some plants chafe under their supposed inferiority and try to compensate.  Seaweeds, for example, grow their stems 200 feet tall, but they cannot stand out of water, much to their chagrin–and the secret amusement of trees.

Cause and Effect
The author lists one or causes and the resulting effect or effects.  Cue words are:  reasons why, if…then, as a result, therefore, because
Sample passage
There are several reasons why people love trees.  Their leaves provide shade from the sun and the fruit of some trees can be used for food.  Trees help conserve soil and preserve the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen gases in the atmosphere. Their trunks are harvested for lumber and paper.  For thousands of years, trees have played hide-and-seek with children and have been something to lean on when you’re having “that sort of day.”  As a result, trees have been praised in poetry, worshipped in dance, and appeased with an occasional human sacrifice.

Problem and Solution
The author state a problem and lists one or more solutions.  Cue words are:  problem is, dilemma is, puzzle is solved, question…answer.
Sample passage
Trees require enormous amounts of water.  A large apple tree in full leaf may absorb as much as 95 gallons of water every day.  This is not an issue when a tree is among other trees in a forest or field.  But in suburban areas, this is a real dilemma.  Without a nearby source of water, a tree will send its roots far and wide searching for it, invading swimming pools and septic tanks, if necessary.  Humans do not like this; a root invasion in a septic tank is no joke.  The solution is to provide each tree with its own swimming pool or septic tank so it doesn’t have to drink from yours.

This particular text is a description; I hope you found it interesting.  Do you know of other expository text structures besides the one listed?  If you do, please share in the comment section. I would like to know because I’m always curious.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Freeman Dyson ~ Social Compacts

Freeman Dyson (b. 1923) was born at Crowthorne in Berkshire, England, the son of George Dyson, an English composer and Mildred Atkey Dyson, a lawyer.  After World War II Dyson earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Trinity College, Cambridge.  Although he never got a PhD, he is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.  Freeman Dyson is the author of seven books, among them Disturbing the Universe, Weapons and Hope, Origins of Life, and From Eros to Gaia.

When Freeman Dyson was nine years old, he wrote a story, “Sir Philip Robert’s Erolunar Collision.”  It was inspired by the story From Earth to Moon and a Trip Round It by Jules Verne and the discovery that in 1931 a minor planet named Eros was going to come close to the Earth in its orbit. 

In Dyson’s story, Sir Philip is the director of the British South-African Astronomical Society who discovers that the planet Eros is on a collision course with Earth’s moon.  He shares his discovery with his fellow scientists who do not panic; instead, they cheer.  They realize that they have a problem, but it is not that the impact will shatter the moon.  No, their problem is how to get to the moon to observe the collision.  Science at any cost! 
In the end, Sir Philip and his colleagues decide to send up a manned projectile by means of a columbiad–a large-caliber, muzzle-loading cannon.

One of the things I love about this story is the title–it’s so pragmatically descriptive.  It reminds me of a drawing my son made in preschool titled “Earth Eagle with Hot Lava Wings”and Julian Lennon’s drawing titled “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” The other thing I love about this story is that the conflict–a collision between two satellites–is a fitting metaphor for competing social compacts.

“Will Eros really go right through our satellite?” said Major Forbes.
“Yes,” said Sir Philip, “Its speed, and its small weight and resistance, will bring it through our satellite, it will be a picture, suddenly rising white-hot from the Moon’s internal fires, followed by a stream of liquid lava.”

Think of it!  Eros is happily hurtling through space, unencumbered by any thought of meeting resistance.  Like the god for whom it is named, it is all motion and heat.  The goddess Moon, on the other hand, follows her elliptical path in calm assurance that she will always do so.  Neither Eros nor the Moon has the slightest awareness of the other’s existence.  And why should they?  They are each obeying the strictures of their own social compacts, their own orbits.  It is just happenstance that their paths collide at a given time on a given day.

Isn’t that how conflict begins?  Whenever two or more social compacts compete for the same space at the same time, there is bound to be a collision.  In polite society, most of the damage is not seen on the outside.  People are trained to hide it with tight smiles and cold handshakes, but the lava still burns inside.  Some authors are masters at creating these kinds of conflicts; Edith Wharton and Anthony Trollope come to mind.

I think of this type of conflict on a continuum.  On one end is the Erolunar Collision with its advance warning, its huge blast, and its flowing lava.  On the other end is the unseen, non-violent, unremarkable conflict.  Its lava flows just as hot, but no one notices it. 

What about you?  Can you think of literary examples of two social compacts colliding?  Where are they on the continuum?  I would like to know.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Elephant Has Left the Building

Carl was tired.  More than that, he was sick and tired, tired of being ignored and treated like he was invisible.  No matter where he went, no one looked at him, spoke to him, or even acknowledged his existence.

They don’t even know my name, he thought. 

“It’s Carl!” he shouted to the afternoon sun.  A nearby seagull was startled into flight at the sound of his voice.

“Ha!” said Carl.  “That got your attention.”

Maybe that’s the problem.  Only a birdbrain is be savvy enough to notice me; and here I am surrounded by mammal brains and reptilian brains.  Well, not anymore.  I’ve had enough.

Carl was leaving.  He realized there was no room in other people’s lives for someone like him.  Once he left, people would just have to ignore someone else.  He was going to make a new life for himself.  He would no longer be the elephant in the room.  He was going to be Carl, The Elephant by the Sea.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Purpose of School

“I write about my own experiences because I do not know so much about anyone else’s.” Freeman Dyson Disturbing the Universe

“He obviously thought the whole thing rather above my head, and he said that if I had the cheek to make verses about Eรคrendil in the house of Elrond, it was my affair.”  Bilbo Baggins

            There is a video on TedTalk in which a businessman, not a teacher, criticizes public school education in America.  He states that it could be improved by changing certain practices.  I found him annoying, but the audience loved him.  I think it’s because outsiders’ ideas are considered fresh and new simply because they come from an outsider.  However, just because something is fresh and new does not make it valuable–take manure, for example.
            When I talk about our public school education, I do so from a position of experience.  I am not an outsider.  I taught mathematics at a large urban high school for over twenty years and have been in hundreds of classrooms observing the teaching and learning process.  My education, experience, and expertise has confirmed what a wise woman once told me my first year of teaching:  Students mold a class into their own image and train their teachers to fit the mold.  It is the unacknowledged social compact between teachers and students.
            Most teachers and students are unaware of this social compact, but, thanks to Sylvia Ybarra, I was not.  Once she told me about this phenomenon, I found it interesting to observe the students busily working at molding me.  This particular social compact worked for me because (1) I taught as I pleased and (2) the students learned as they pleased.  It worked because my students and I had the same idea about what is the purpose of school.  We all thought that school was for socializing and having fun.  The curriculum was merely the vehicle by which to accomplish this dual purpose.
            Yes, my students trained me.  When my lessons were fun, interesting, and promoted social interaction, my students rewarded me with smiles, good humor, and cooperative learning.  When a lesson was dull and boring, they disengaged.  I was grateful for that because it trained me not to bore people.
            My students also trained me to be a good storyteller.  In my first year of teaching, I learned that they liked stories.  So I turned math lessons into stories.  Sometimes the stories required actions and physical models that called on students to actively participate.  Watching freshmen crawl on the floor pulling beads on a string, pretending they were in a wagon train is truly an edifying sight.
            Thanks to my students, I learned that there is a song for everything.  “Chain, chain, chain” for the Chain Rule in Calculus, “Girls Just Wanna Have Functions” in Algebra, and the classic “Logarithms” in Trigonometry.  Every year, to celebrate May first, I sang “Ce Moi de Mai”, a French song, which had nothing to do with math but everything to do with spring.
            I also learned that no joke should be left untold–even if I was the only one laughing.  Actually my students laughed, too.
            “Ms. Hart, we are not laughing with you; we are laughing at you.”
            This, of course, produced another laugh.

            “What about academics?” I can hear someone ask.  “Doesn’t the curriculum matter?”  Of course, it does.  I was a responsible teacher.  I taught all the standards, I assigned homework, I gave tests, and I graded student work.  In my class, the students solved math problems–thousands of them.  As a result, they exited my class with more math knowledge and proficiency than when they entered.  It was a value-added system.  They left with a better understanding of real world phenomena, which is the ultimate goal of high school mathematics.  But they also added to their knowledge of human relationships and social phenomena.

            So whenever I hear an outsider talk about what is wrong with public school education and what should be done to fix it, I am willing to listen.  But if their ideas do not support the purpose of school–to socialize and have fun–then I ignore them.  They are just too fresh and new.

(P.S.  I have a new post on WordPress )