Vandals Ordered to Read

Sure, we’ve all had required reading in school, but have you ever heard of a judge handing down a sentence to read? Well, that’s exactly what happened last year in Loudon County, Virginia.

Last fall in Ashburn, VA (northwest of Washington, D.C.), five teens spray painted swastikas, the words “WHITE POWER”, and vulgar images on the walls of the Ashburn Colored School. Black students attended school there during the era of segregation. The Loudon School for the Gifted currently owns the site, and students from that school have been restoring the historic building.

One of the teens guilty of vandalism left the Loudon School for the Gifted on “unpleasant” terms, and three of them were minorities themselves. None of the teens had a prior record with the law. Considering these facts, Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Alex Rueda decided the boys acted out of teenage naiveté moreso than racial hatred, so she recommended an unusual sentence, one intended to educate the boys about hate speech and the effect of their actions on the community.

When the boys pleaded guilty, they were given a sentence that included reading several books by black, Jewish, and Afghan authors, visiting the Holocaust Museum in D.C., and writing a report on hate speech. Rueda compiled a list of books based on their literary significance and content regarding race, religion, and discrimination.  The list included:

  • Night
  • The Color Purple
  • My Name is Asher Lev
  • The Handmaid’s Tale
  • Black Boy
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns
  • Cry the Beloved Country
  • The Bluest Eye

I love that Rueda focused on making this a learning opportunity for the teens. Since none had previous issues with the law, and their actions didn’t cause physical pain to anyone, it seems appropriate to focus on education over punishment. Exposing the teens to other opinions and experiences hopefully did more to influence their future behavior than community service alone. Especially now, in an era when hateful speech seems more prominent in the media, we need do a better job of understanding the people we share our communities with, and reading books about them is a good place to start.

With books, the teens experienced new ideas and perspectives in a non-threatening way. I hope they wrote papers or discussed the books with someone not only for accountability but also to help them process and absorb the ideas in the novels. Judging from the other terms of the sentence, including a research paper on hate speech, I bet they did. A good follow up might have been to meet with real people from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures for a facilitated discussion. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any follow up news stories on the case; I would love to know how these teens responded to their sentence.

When I first heard about this story, I had concern that reading used for punishment might turn teens off of books. Hopefully, the emphasis was placed on education and understanding and the books were interesting enough to the teens to keep them engaged. Again, the focus on learning is one we can all benefit from. The Washington Post banner that hovered over the news story seemed especially significant; it said, “Democracy dies in darkness.” Hate speech and all of its iterations is a language of darkness. We must always champion understanding and promote the language of light, even if that means utilizing unusual methods to do so.

If you want to learn more about this interesting case, read

The Washington Post

The New York Times

Thanks also to my friend Nan for sharing this story.  🙂

Do you think reading fiction is a useful tool for understanding? Should it be used more often for cases like this?

Thanks for getting nerdy with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When to Use Denounce & Renounce

Heated events like the repeal of DACA and the North Korean missile tests have people throwing around words like “denounce” and “renounce” in the media. But these words aren’t interchangeable, and the Word Nerd wanted to know the meaning of them and a few others (like enounce and pronounce).

Don’t forget to visit Kathy at Bermuda Onion for the WWW meme!

If you, like me, like to learn about the origin and definition of words, visit the Wondrous Words Wednesday meme at Bermuda Onion. There, bloggers share interesting words they’ve learned.

All four words- denounce, renounce, enounce, and pronounce- are verbs that come from the same Latin root, nuntiare to report. The differences in their meanings come from the prefixes.

  • Denounce– to publicly pronounce someone blameworthy or evil; this is usually a very serious action, like when a president denounces the leader of another country
  • Renounce-to give up, refuse, or resign usually by formal declaration; to refuse to follow, obey, or recognize any further; examples: to renounce war,  to renounce the authority of the church, to renounce the throne.  Although definitive, this is usually a quieter, less public action.
  • Enounce– to set forth or state something in definite terms, such as a proposition (Democrats enounce a contrary opinion); to pronounce distinctly (please enounce at the microphone); this might be more familiar as “enounciate”
  • Pronounce– to declare officially or ceremoniously; (pronounce man and wife); to employ the organs of speech to produce (pronounce your name slowly)

    Whew, got all that? I think the difference between denounce and renounce is the most important and the hardest to see. Basically, to denounce is a more serious and public action against someone or something than to renounce.

Thank you to Merriam Webster for the definitions and Dean Close for the suggestions.

Word Nerd Workout

Choose which one of the four- denounce, renounce, enounce, or pronounce- fits best in the following sentences.

1) If the prince decides to _____________ the throne, he will lose his right to be king.

2) The president will ______________ North Korea’s use of nuclear missiles during the speech.

3) The attorney general has reviewed the policy and is expected to ______________ it unconstitutional.

Thanks for getting nerdy with me today!

Why You Must Read Mosquitoland

Mosquitoland by David Arnold

They say a great YA novel has amazing voice, with characters who speak and think in unique and entertaining ways. Mosquitoland by David Arnold is one of those books. I love its protagonist Mary Iris Malone (aka Mim) and her musings on life as much as I love Hazel Lancaster from The Fault in Our Stars.

Premise

As the story opens, Mim is traveling by bus from Mississippi (”Mosquitoland”) to Cleveland. Her mom is sick, she’s not sure with what, and she’s on a mission to help her. But, she might also be running from her dad (”a man who has succumbed to the madness of the world”) and his new wife, who have moved Mim from her childhood home near Cleveland to one they bought in Mosquitoland for the “low, low price of Everything She’d Ever Known”.

Chapter One opens with Mim proclaiming that she is not okay, and she repeats this refrain throughout her journey as she reveals her many idiosyncrasies and curiosities. Her companions on her trip include a kind old woman who smells like cookies, a boisterous boy with mental retardation and a love for his Rubik’s cube, and an attractive young man who becomes the “Africa” to Mim’s “Madagascar”.

What I liked

Mim has an engaging voice. She’s brutally honest about herself and the people she meets, and yet she seasons her commentary with such witty humor that you can’t help but laugh as you wince at her observations.  She uses unusual, almost archaic diction, saying things like, “blimey, [the guy in seat] 17C is good looking” or “’twas always thus”.

Mim is a collection of oddities, and although this makes her feel “not okay”, it makes her relatable to readers who also see themselves as walking freak shows. She is blind in one eye because during a solar eclipse, she stared at the sun when she shouldn’t have. This blindness gives her poor depth perception and provides an apt metaphor for her inability to see the big picture. Sometimes, when she’s by herself, Mim paints lines on her face with her mom’s lipstick, a habit she refers to as “putting on war paint”. It’s a ritual that connects her to her mother and is also a window into her crazy. But, don’t we all have that thing we do when no one else is looking that is probably a little wacko?

Mim is a bit unreliable as a narrator. Sometimes she lapses into her memories and loses touch with reality. She also may or may not be taking Abilitol for the psychosis she may or may not have. Early on, Arnold exposes readers to Mim’s occasional separations from the present; it’s not always clear what is real and what is not, which compels readers to keep turning pages.

Mim makes astute observations of life. For example, when her friend Beck is questioning a decision he made, she says,

I play the What If game all the time. But it’s rigged, is the thing. Impossible to win. Asking What if? can only lead to Maybe Things Could Have Been Different, via Was It My Fault?

Later, in that same chapter, she says,

Sure, I’d love to kiss-hug-marry-hold Beck, but for now, I’m happy just to be with him. Sometimes being with gets overlooked I think.

Wow. You nailed it Mim. (And Mr. Arnold.)

What I didn’t like

Very little. Sometimes the exploits of Mim’s journey felt unrealistic, but this is the story of an emotional journey as well as a physical one, and the emotional accuracy trumps any unlikely plot points.

Recommendation

If you like John Green’s novels, or books that are a clever blend of humor and harsh reality, than you will love Mosquitoland.  This is the best YA book I’ve read in a while.

Notes on content

Some swearing and reference to suicide and sexual assault. No graphic descriptions, although a near sexual assault is appropriately disturbing.

Have you read Mosquitoland or Arnold’s second book Kids of Appetite?  What did you think?  Can you recommend any other YA titles that tell the story of a physical and emotional journey?

Happy reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good News for Printed Books

Printed books

Are you, like me, a reader who enjoys the weight of a printed book in her hands? Do you like to fold down corners and feel the grain of paper under your fingertips? Then I have good news for you!

When e-books first came out, everyone predicted printed books would go the way of cassette tapes and Blockbuster Video Stores. (There I go, aging myself again.) But a story I heard on NPR last week has me hopeful that printed books will be around for a long time. 😉

Good News Numbers

First, some statistics. According to an article on CNN.com, in the first nine months of 2016, e-book sales dropped 18.7% while paperback sales rose 7.5% and hardback sales climbed 4.1% Sales of e-readers reached their peak in 2011 and have been dropping ever since. A Pew Research study found that 65% of Americans had read a printed book in the past year, while only 28% had read a printed book. Experts explain the trend in sales a few ways:

  • Some genres do better in printed form, including children’s books, recipe books, and coloring books (which have been hugely popular in the last few years)
  • People are trying to decrease their screen time, and that includes time with e-readers
  • You can’t give e-books as gifts

Amazon Opens Bookstores

Another good sign for the print book business: Amazon, the online giant that made the “Kindle” a household appliance, has opened up several brick and mortar book stores in the US. The NPR story on this new Amazon venture says the stores are set up to replicate the online book shopping experience Amazon users have come to enjoy. Books are shelved with their covers facing out, so they are easy to see, and are organized in familiar sections like “Most Wished For”. Prices compare to the Amazon site, with discounts for Prime Members.

Wait- even more good news!  Small independent bookstores aren’t threatened by this new Amazon sales approach because they connect with their customers other ways, like community support and author events. The stores that survive often do so because they offer services besides book sales, including cafes/ restaurants, book festivals, and even wine sales. Yet it all comes back to the books and bringing people of all lifestyles together in one place to discover and explore.

Kindle e reader
It’s been a while since I used this baby.

My kids still use their Kindles, especially when we are traveling.  It is convenient for them to load several books on each device so they know they have a good stock for the trip. I have several friends who like to get free/ cheap e-books or check them out from the library.  However, it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything on a screen, and one of my favorite gifts to give is a book.  I’m not sad to hear about the drop in e-book sales one bit!

What is your experience with e-books? Do you and the people around you still use them a lot?

Thanks for getting nerdy with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dying Art of Diagramming Sentences

This post may forever peg me as old, but here goes.

Do you know how to diagram a sentence? I used to. In middle school (well, in the 1980s suburbs of D.C. we called it “junior high”), we broke down many sentences into graphic representations.  We put the subject on the left and the verb on the right (separated by a line) and any prepositional phrases or modifying clauses would hang down at an angle.

The general formula for a sentence diagram.

I have always been a grammar junkie, so my 13-year-old self loved this exercise. Unfortunately, my children have never diagrammed a sentence. It seems that the practice is disappearing, like many other word nerd related activities such as learning cursive and communicating via hand written letters.  Before it dies completely, let me review the dying art of diagramming.

The History of Sentence Diagramming

The idea of diagramming sentences started way back in 1877 with two professors at Brooklyn Polytech Institute. Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg published a book called Higher Lessons in English in which they claimed students would write better if they could see the underlying structure of sentences.

The Reed-Kellogg method for diagramming sentences was popular in American education until the 1960s when new research questioned its value. By 1985, the National Council of English Teachers asserted that grammar drills, like diagramming sentences, were not helpful for teaching writing and could even hinder students’ ability to improve.

As a result, most students today don’t learn how to diagram sentences, which makes me  sad. Critics of the practice say that diagramming a sentence complicates the learning process. Students forced to focus on the details of word and line placement in the diagram lose sight of the language and the writing. I guess I can understand how this extra layer of work detracts from learning grammar and improving writing skills.

However, I am a visual learner, and seeing the different parts of speech and how they relate to each other within a sentence fascinates me. I think diagrams could still be an effective tool to help students understand complex construction and parts of speech.

The website PopChartLab sells a chart of 25 opening lines from popular works of literature diagrammed according to the Reed-Kellogg system. Here’s my favorite:

sentence diagram Pride and Prejudice
From Pop Chart Lab

Whoa.  Even with all of my junior high practice, I’m not sure I could have done that one!

Despite the fact that diagramming sentences has fallen out of favor in education, there are many resources on the web to help you learn the skill. Check out:

With help from these sites, I figured out how to diagram this basic sentence:

Josh walks the dogs in the morning.  

Thank you to this NPR article for the details on diagramming history.

Have you ever had to diagram a sentence? How could the exercise benefit or harm the writing process?

Did anyone else notice that the founder of sentence diagramming had a very academic name? Brainerd Kellogg? Brain – nerd? Wow!

Thanks for getting nerdy with me! (and Brainerd)

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Word for Summer: Adventure

Adventure. The word comes from the Latin advenire, “to arrive at, reach, arise, develop”, which evolved into the Middle English aventure, meaning “fortune, chance, occurrence, risk, enterprise, wonder.” The modern definition is “an exciting or remarkable experience”.  Have you done anything remarkable this summer? I have.

On a July afternoon, three families traveled to Indian Lake in the Adirondacks in search of adventure. We rented canoes (five of them… we were a big crew) and paddled across the lake seeking cliffs to jump off. The lake was wide, and the sun beat down on my legs.  Sometimes I dunked my hands in the cool water to splash myself and bring relief to my pink skin.  When we reached the opposite side of the lake, we puttered around some islands, consulted people passing by in a pontoon boat, and finally found the cliffs we were looking for:  huge chunks of rock, at least twenty feet tall, begging for swimmers to climb them. We pulled up to what little shore we could find, our metal canoes scraping against the rocks, and tied the boats to the biggest tree trunks in sight. Can I just say that it’s hard to gracefully exit a wobbling canoe? I don’t think I succeeded.

The kids scrambled into the woods, up steep paths covered in pine needles. Before I could summon up the courage to jump from a five foot rock, most of the teens and all the dads had jumped from a 20 foot cliff, shouting “Kachow” or lines from the Lego Batman Movie. (My children are mildly obsessed with this film.) I’m not much of a risk taker. I like structure, and I hate heights.  So I stood there, contemplating the jump, my heart pounding a little faster each time someone hurled himself off the cliff above me. I didn’t want to over think it. I wanted to do something bold. But, did I mention I don’t like heights?

Finally, I decided not wimp out and plunged into the lake from the top of the small rock.  The water was colder than I expected, the kind of cold that sucks the breath out of your lungs. But I did it. I climbed out of the lake with a smile on my face and ventured up to the high spot on the cliff so I could dry in the sun. Then daughter looked at me and said, “Mom, you should jump from here with me.”

Oh dear.

This is the daughter who finished her push ups before me in Cross Fit class and silently mouthed “I beat you.” The one who is reserved and independent, but that day, she wanted to do something with me. “If I can do it, you can,” she said.

I peeked over the edge of the tall cliff we stood on. It was a long way down to the water.  But she wanted me to go with her.

“It’ll be okay, Mom,” daughter said. “You get that tickle in your stomach at first, and then it’s fun. We should shout something, like ‘gingersnap cookies’.”

“I’m never going to get out ‘gingersnap cookies’,” I said.

“It’s farther down than you think, you’ll have plenty of time,” daughter replied. “Ooops. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.”

I stared at the trees across the lake, knowing I had to take this leap, for me, for daughter, for the sake of adventure. I didn’t let myself think about the height.  “Let’s go,” I said.  My heart beat hard against the sides of my throat, but I ignored it.

Indian Lake
The view of Indian Lake from the cliffs. Sorry for the poor quality. We were focused on our adventure, not photography.

Husband counted us down… “One, two, three!”  Off that rock we jumped, falling down through the air longer than I expected. I tried to yell “Gingersnap cookies” but I only got to “Ging-” before I succumbed to a full throttle scream. My body hit the lake feet first, and I sunk down into the cold, dark water.  When I got my head together, I kicked to the surface and let out a satisfied hoot.  I had done it.

I got out, again smiling, and climbed up through the trees to the top of the cliff to warm myself in the sun.  Husband looked at me and said, “Now you have to go with me.”

Oh dear.

But I did.

I was the only Mom who jumped off of the high cliff that day, and I did it twice. Sometimes, it’s good to do something that scares you.

Which brings me back to my original question. Have you taken a risk yet this summer or done something remarkable? Hurry up… August will be over soon.

Happy adventure!