Thursday, December 30, 2010

Who's Un-American?

I try to avoid paying attention to the increasingly hateful rhetoric of right wing talk radio and Fox News television personalities. I recognize they are in the business of making money by appealing to people who want to believe they are somehow more American than other Americans and that all the problems we face are caused by people who are not like them. Rush and others have a remarkable ability convince listeners right wing pundits have command of secret, inside knowledge, wisdom or mental agility to interpret events through a lens of conservative, libertarian, or patriotic principals. In their narrative all other media and points of view are biased, left wing, socialist, or just plain wrong. They are creating an alternative view of American history, an alternative view of the world. There is a word for what they are engaged in: propaganda.

It upsets me to hear untruths being presented as facts and to hear respectable, hard working Americans giving service to their country being maligned and nefarious motives being attributed to them. Targets are many and I won’t list them, but the biggest target is the President of the United States, Barack Obama.

There is, apparently, nothing President Obama can do that would meet with their approval. Limbaugh, on Thanksgiving Day expressed shock that Obama had the nerve to make a proclamation on Thanksgiving. Ronald Reagan made one, as did Clinton; before a bill establishing it as a national holiday in 1941, most presidents did. Obama should not have, in Limbaugh’s eyes, proclaimed Thanksgiving Day “a time each year, dating back to our founding, when we lay aside the troubles and disagreements of the day and bow our heads in humble recognition of the providence bestowed upon our Nation.”  Nor does Limbaugh think he should have asked us to “reflect on the compassion and contributions of Native Americans, whose skill in agriculture helped the early colonists survive, and whose rich culture continues to add to our Nation's heritage.” Limbaugh lauds Washington’s proclamation in 1786, since it makes many references to thanking God, but doesn’t reference Native Americans (Reagan’s does). Interestingly, Limbaugh, who complains that Obama “believes America is fatally flawed” and shouldn’t “apologize for America,” doesn’t mention that Washington also recommends citizens ask God “to pardon our national and other transgressions” in his original Thanksgiving Proclamation.

Limbaugh calls the traditional Thanksgiving story in which we acknowledge the help given to the Pilgrims by Native Americans and applaud their joint celebration of the harvest a myth. “Is it possible he (Obama) actually believes it?” Limbaugh asks. “The true story of Thanksgiving,” Limbaugh says, “is socialism failed.”
If Jon Stewart or a Saturday Night Live sketch had made a similarly outrageous statement I’d be rolling on the floor laughing. Comedy uses the absurd for laughs, but people take Rush and others like him seriously. He influences the way people vote, the way members of congress and senators make decisions. Bill O’Reilly recently opined that Fox News is the most powerful news organization in the world. These guys aren’t looking for laughs, they want power, and radio and television are powerful instruments for promoting propaganda.

In talking about Thanksgiving, Limbaugh emphasizes that in the years following the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving feast, they learned that individuals would produce more if given their own plot of land than if working in a common plot. “Only when we turned capitalist did we have plenty. The Indians didn't teach us capitalism,” Rush observes.

But that we should worship unbridled capitalism is not Rush’s main point. He is upset that President Obama gives any credit to Native Americans for their contribution to America (instead of crediting self-reliant white Europeans). Rush mocks Obama’s words, saying the contribution of Native Americans is limited to their casinos and reservations. Rush and others like to scream that Obama hates America or is un-American. What’s un-American is Rush Limbaugh’s suggestion that the President of the United States should not be encouraging the American people to be thankful on Thanksgiving. What’s un-American is Rush Limbaugh’s racism towards Native Americans and other groups and his and others unending attack on the American government when it is in the hands of Democrats. What’s un-American is Republicans who with Rush’s encouragement make their first priority to regain power even if it means slowing the recovery, hurting those who have lost jobs in a severe recession by discontinuing their unemployment compensation, delaying important judicial and other needed government appointments, and putting the nation’s security at risk to do so (not ratifying the nuclear arms treaty). What’s un-American is resorting to propaganda instead of engaging in civil discourse.

In this holiday season, we should give thanks that we have access to many sources of information so we can seek a truly balanced viewpoint of the news of the day.

this essay was published December 18, 2010 in the Charleston Gazette 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Boehner's Tears

John Boehner’s Tears

I watched Boehner tear up in his victory speech and on 60 Minutes last Sunday during his interview with Leslie Stall. Gail Collins wrote a great op-ed on the subject in the NY Times yesterday ( ). I read the readers’ comments which followed, and believe many of them hit the mark perfectly. I agree with those who find his emotionality genuine, yet somewhat juvenile or self-centered. But, I believe others say it better than I can. Here are a few I agree with:

Gloria Endres, Philadelphia
If one did not know Boehner's legislative record, maybe his first display of emotion at "achieving the American dream" might be endearing. His background of scrubbing the floor of his dad's tavern is something almost Lincolnesque. So different from the silver spooned politicians like the Bushes, the Kennedys, or the Heintzes.

But his record does not compute with that biography at all. As Gail and many posters have commented, he has voted against the very class of people from which he emerged. His vote against help for the sickened 9/11 first responders is simply unfathomable…..

Jane, IL
My voice gets wobbly every year at the same spot in The Polar Express. It's because I remember how I once "believed" and it's an emotional moment to know that I'll never get that faith back. And that's what the Republican Party sells, belief in the beautiful story. But then they close the book and pitch it on the fire. It's easy to forget that part.

Philosophy Professor, Kent State, OH
"... beware of men who cry. It's true that men who cry are sensitive to and in touch with feelings, but the only feelings they tend to be sensitive to and in touch with are their own." -- Nora Ephron, quoted in An Uncommon Scold, ed. Abby Adams (Simon & Schuster, 1989), p. 155.

KC Bob, Kansas City, MO
John Boehner cries over his belief in the American Dream. All the while, he and his party have been pushing us into an American Nightmare of a declining middle class with lower pay and shrinking assets; a wealthier elite; and contempt for the poor among us. As this was being done to us, he was raising his wealth to over 5 million dollars while toiling as a "public servant".

Shouldn't we be crying instead?

Beata, Chicago, IL
Yep, the prospect of our incoming Speaker is enough to make this grown woman cry.

I'm crying real, wet, sad tears for my country, especially for the poor children who are denied education sufficient to make their own American dream come true, for the families who are denied the jobs that provide a living wage, for the ill who have no health care when a public option could do it so well, and for the loss of adequate governing we need to recover the American spirit.

I'm also crying "Foul!" Foul values, foul political maneuvering, foul policies that squash the ability of people to build sustainable lives while favoring the already rich. Foul, and reeking with dishonor as they pursue the starving of the beast while wrapping themselves in flags and pretended patriotism. Very foul.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Obama's Compromise Underscores Republican Hypocrisy

I count myself among those disgusted by the demand of Senate Republicans to reward millionaires with an extension of their current historically low tax rates before taking up anything else (START Treaty, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, DREAM Act), yet I refuse to throw Obama and other Democrats who support the compromise tax proposal overboard as some progressive Democrats suggest.

I was angry early in Obama’s administration when Democrats agreed to extend those tax cuts, because that was the time to have the showdown over the false Republican claim that returning tax rates on the wealthy to Clinton era rates would slow the recovery. Of course, had they not extended them then, what do you think the slow recovery would have been blamed on?

To the extent that some of the concessions Obama got from Republicans will put more money in people’s pockets and stimulate growth, such as the cut in Social Security tax and the unemployment compensation extension, the package can be viewed as a back door stimulus that will produce or save jobs. For the past year did it look like there was any chance to get Republicans to support anything stimulative?

And does anyone out there think the next Congress is going to jump right in and start spending up a storm to improve our infrastructure or help struggling states and municipalities, to keep police on the streets and teachers in the classroom, to aid college students or hire more safety inspectors for coal mines and food safety?

It’s hard to celebrate a deficit increase, but it is worth putting it in perspective: the tax cuts for those families earning over $250,000 adds about $140 billion to the deficit over two years. For that, Obama got about $700 billion more for middle income families. Republicans agreed to this despite the deficit increase of nearly a trillion dollars.

To me, the story is not that a Democrat caved to Republican demands to reward the rich before doing any of the nation’s other important business. The story is that Republicans have shown once again that all their talk of concern for deficits is pure posturing. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Jerusalem Thanksgiving and Wedding, part 2

When the Epstein (Extended) Family Singers took the stage to sing our special tribute to Raya and Michael (during the wedding reception--see part 1 for more description of the wedding), we performed flawlessly, singing strongly and confidently in Hebrew of the love of place that brought Raya and Michael together and that Israelis feel for their homeland. And in English we sang as strongly to the version my brother David translated for me and I revised to fit the melody and express the romance of the occasion: “Open my heart; to love the only one; the only one my heart will take me to.”

There is apparently an old Jewish tradition of which I had never heard that after a wedding the couple should be entertained by various groups every night for a week, each time ending with a fifteen minute recitation of 7 wedding blessings. And so, for the rest of the week, various family and friends gathered for dinner at a restaurant, for Thanksgiving dinner, for a Friday evening Sabbath dinner, for a Saturday brunch after attending a Synagogue service in which representatives of each family read from Torah. Each time the couple was toasted, the party broke into song, speeches and appreciations were made, and hugs passed all around as family members who had not known each other well and families who hadn’t know each other at all got closer.

For someone who is not religious and does not believe in a supreme being (or ghosts or the tooth fairy), I could have been extremely bored or even uncomfortable with all the religiosity. At times, I admit I found it hard to acquiesce to the self-imposed and often quirky limitations their religious practice requires: for instance, you can use an electrical device on the Sabbath, but only if it is already turned on or if someone non-Jewish turns it on or off for you). But you would have to be Scrooge not to appreciate the joy their version of Judaism expresses. All the prayers are sung, and not in a monotone chant. It seems that almost every prayer has a unique melody (or more than one from which they choose), and Rina had even written a new melody to one of the common prayers that their synagogue had adopted. Music has always been an important part of my life—since my early twenties I’ve been playing in bands and writing tunes and songs, so I know the power of music to sooth the soul (I use the term soul secularly J).

During my week in Israel, my wife Rita, daughter Hannah, and I found a little time to be tourists, together or on our own. We took a wonderful guided tour of the City of David, the archaeological site a little outside the “Old City” that constituted the walled city of Jerusalem during the time King David. We also walked and shopped inside the Old City, enjoying the narrow alleyways crammed with small shops selling spices, souvenirs, art, glassware, falafels, and packed with tourists and pilgrims of many religions, monks and bearded Jews in black hats.

 I took a self-guided walk along the parapets of the old city and inside the Tower of David Museum, and one morning we took a quick tour through one of many wings of the Israel Museum, all of which reinforced our knowledge of the archaeological historical record and how it squares with Biblical history (remarkably well, though not completely). Hannah also toured an organic farm, Tent of Nations, owned by a Palestinian working for peace. We also were treated to a wonderful meal in the home of Muslim Palestinian neighbors of my brother, who were extremely hospitable, welcoming, and friendly. The food was simple and very tasty.

The weather was unusually good for November in Jerusalem when it usually rains, so though the locals were concerned about drought, we celebrated clear skies, no humidity, and temperatures reaching almost 80F. The city was wonderful to walk in, so we mostly got our exercise that way, though one morning I went for an 30K bike ride with my brother and two friends into a forest in the Judean Hills. Though the trees, planted over the years mostly through contributions from Jewish children in America, were much sparser than the forests of West Virginia, my home, the views were stunningly beautiful.

I felt safe at all times and found everyone, whether Jewish or Arab, to be friendly and helpful, though sometimes aggressive in their sales pitches. There were soldiers and police in evidence and they carried automatic weapons. They appeared vigilant, yet relaxed. We crossed through a few checkpoints, both permanent and informal, but were waved through quickly. Airport security was thorough, though there were no body scans or pat-downs. Instead, an Israeli security officer asked us a few questions about the purpose of our visit. Our interview lasted only a minute, though I overheard another family whose questioner went deeper, “Do you go to synagogue regularly at home?” she asked. The father seemed confused by the question. “Where do you go to pray?”

“Well, we go to church,” and he named it. She switched gears and asked if he had any explosives. After he assured her he didn’t, she put the all-clear sticker on his luggage.

To my Israeli family I say a huge toda (thank you) for your hospitality and love, and Mazel Tov (congratulations) for your joyful, celebratory, and loving approach to life!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Jerusalem Thanksgiving and Wedding, part 1

On November 21st I arrived in Jerusalem for a week-long stay for the wedding of my brother David's daughter, Raya. He has been in Jerusalem since the early 80’s, has raised 4 children, Yonatan (Yoni) 29, Raya 25, Rina 21, and Avital 12 in two marriages. He created and nurtures a small non-profit business employing four who help non-profit organizations with resource development, including grantwriting, staff recruitment, professional and lay training, strategic fundraising planning, and whatever else he can do to help them. 

I had stayed in Jerusalem once before for a week and seen some of the sights (Israel Museum, Old City, Masada, Dead Sea, Tel Aviv). This week, most of my time was spent engaged in the wedding related events scheduled throughout the week. It was a wonderful time with relatives, including nieces and nephews I don’t often see: David’s wife Alisa and her family, Raya’s mother’s family whom I hadn’t seen for years, and the parents and one grandparent of the groom, who came to the wedding from their home in Chile. One theme of the week was how well divorcees and their new families can get along, at least after several years of practice.

The wedding was planned Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, a good time for those of us traveling from America to be able to take time off and a great place to do it. My wife, daughter (early thirties), and I were graciously invited to stay at my brother and sister-in-law’s home. The only child of theirs living there was Avital, recently Bat Mitzvah. The marrying couple, though they share an apartment, was observing the Biblical injunction not to see each other for one week before the wedding. One stayed at the apartment, and the other elsewhere. Yoni works for a tech firm and lives in Tel Aviv, so would spend time staying with various relatives and friends during the week. Rina, finished with her mandatory service in the Israel Defense Force, is managing a Jewish youth program in South Africa.

The wedding was made more complicated and International by the grooms’ family from Chile. Michael (pronounced mee chi el’), the groom, has “made aliyah” and moved to Israel. The week following the wedding he was ordained as a rabbi of the Masorati (Conservative) movement in Israel. His father, Hugo, a soccer trainer and massage therapist, has also decided to move to Israel and so will be staying with his son and new daughter-in-law until he finds his own place. Hugo’s wife, from whom he is separated and her mother have come from Santiago as well. Michael has several Spanish speaking friends living in Israel who attend the wedding. The mix of languages becomes something of a joke after awhile. Most of the Spanish speakers can speak either Hebrew or English, so those two languages are most in evidence.

The mood of the week was one of joy and celebration. The young couple, she 25 and he 30 years of age are energetic, happy, and deeply in love. After David picked me up at the airport Sunday evening in Tel Aviv, he brought me to the home of his ex-wife where we were to have a rehearsal for a song that we would perform during the wedding reception. A few other relatives arrived and everyone seemed to break into song and dance spontaneously. “Lai lai lai lai lai lai lai lai laaaii….” David and his children love to sing together, even performing occasionally as the Epstein Family Singers. Both he and Rina play guitar. She writes songs as well, and everyone harmonizes. 

(r-l) David (playing guitar), Avital, Raya's G-pa, Raya and Michael (on floor), Yoni, other relatives... my daughter at far left foreground

Included in the singing group for the reception would be David, Rina, Avital, David’s ex-wife, Judy, and her husband, Mencher, who plays guitar and ukulele, and me. David nominated “Teach Your Children” or "Over the Rainbow" as songs that would best express the moment, but Menscher thought Dylan’s “Forever Young” would fit the bill better. Rina didn’t seem terribly happy with either, and after half-heartedly singing the first two for the benefit of any who didn’t know them we devolved into an impasse, trying to come up with a perfect song to express complicated ideas like Raya and Michael’s love, Jewishness (Dylan is Jewish), and support of family. Raya started strumming a song and singing in Hebrew. It was a song she’d written, very simple, beautiful and powerful, with words that spoke of love of place, and the Hebrew words used allowed the metaphor to extend to love of God. Rough summary translation: Allow my legs to walk to the place that my heart loves and open my heart to the place that to which my legs have taken me. After one run-through we knew it was the perfect song for us. We decided on arrangement, harmonies, and within an hour had it ready. My brother wrote down the words phonetically for me, since it’s been years since I tried to read Hebrew. Then I asked Rina if she’d mind if for this occasion I tried to come up with an English version that would more directly express the romantic love between Raya and Michael. She said to give it a shot.

The wedding itself was magnificent. I don’t know for sure in what ways it was typical and in what ways it was innovative, but suffice it to say that before the official ceremony even began we’d been eating, drinking, dancing, and singing for almost two hours. The ceremony itself beautifully wove a variety of music and traditions together. Though several rabbis participated in the ceremony in various ways (Raya’s grandfather on her mother’s side is a Rabbi from the U.S.), it was M.C.’d by Yoni, who wore a headset microphone and translated some of the proceedings. Translations and descriptions of the proceedings had been provided in a program for English and Spanish speakers. And the party and dancing afterwards was so exuberant that I am sure Jerusalem is currently experiencing a shortage of Advil.

(this is part 1 of what will be a 2 part post; part 2 coming next week)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Whiskey Before Breakfast

Last weekend for the first time I can remember I had whiskey before breakfast. I’ve played the fiddle tune a thousand or more times, “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” I always assumed it was traditional Appalachian, a variation of Silver Spire, the Irish Reel, but a little Internet searching brought a link that attributes it to a Canadian fiddler, Andy de Jarlis. I think I first heard it from the Red Clay Ramblers, who were from Chapel Hill, NC. Mike Cross, a great solo entertainer from there wrote lyrics to it and recorded it. It’s a great song. The point is, aside from a couple very late nights jamming in the mid ‘70’s when I may have had a nip or two as the sun was rising, I don’t remember ever waking up and having a sip of whiskey before breakfast. I mean, it’s only been the last ten years or so that I developed a taste for bourbon, and the last three that I discovered single malt scotch. For me, one drink in the evening is enough.

But staying with Stephen Stiebel outside Chapel Hill, NC last weekend, I decided it was the right time and place to end this oversight. Stephen is one of the most interesting people I’ve met in the ten years or so I’ve been meeting interesting people in the contra dance world playing with the Contrarians. I realize that some of the other very interesting people, like Warren Doyle, who has hiked the length of the Appalachian Trail more than any other living human; Penelope Weinberger, who has a life sized sculpture of a skeletal “burning man” attached to a propane tank for night time entertainment in her backyard and goes to the Burning Man festival every year; David Wiley, who I think of as “the unofficial mayor of Jonesborough, TN”, a tireless producer and promoter of contradance events in and around Jonesborough; or Harriet Bugel, who has combined her talents as a caterer and love of contra dance to develop a business providing meals and snacks at contra dance weekends might feel slighted, but hey, for all the wonderful things they do, they don’t make really good bourbon like Stephen does. He also built a house a few years ago with a kitchen/living room area big enough for 40 people to contra dance in, and has house concerts and dances there regularly. He runs a successful business building custom windows and doors.

But, did I say he makes really good homemade bourbon? As in, he has a still? It’s all legal. He doesn’t sell it. Mostly he shares it with friends. Contra dancers aren’t known for their heavy drinking, but I saw a few bottles get pretty badly dented the night of the Contrarians house concert and dance. So, here’s to Stephen: may he long enjoy good health, great friends, wonderful music, excellent contra dancing, and an occasional glass of whiskey before breakfast!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Progressives must sometimes vote for the less worse choice

Progressive Democrats like me are disappointed in many of Joe Manchin’s (running for US Senate, WV) positions, but I will be voting for Joe and working to convince him to vote the right way once he’s in the Senate. The nation can’t afford to lose a Democratic seat to another extremist Tea Party supported corporate lackey who will work to turn back the clock on every program Democrats have supported since FDR. We had our chance to have our voices heard in the primary by voting for Ken Hechler, who got 17%, a respectable minority in a right leaning state. But in the general election, every vote is needed on the Democratic side. Don’t do to the nation what voters in Florida did by voting for Nader in 2000. It could have been Gore instead of Bush but for a few thousand votes. A vote for the Mountain Party is not a vote in this election. Support Joe, but send him a letter stating your positions.  Joe may not vote our way on some issues, but Raese will not vote our way on anything. Democrats across the country have to stand together to hold back a tidal wave of backward thinking. Vote.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Republicans Pledge to the Wealthy

Republicans Make Pledge to the Wealthy

The “Pledge to America” signed by Republican House members is a pledge of allegiance to wealthy people and big corporations. The Republican strategy for the last several elections has not changed. No matter what problem America faces their answer lies in lower taxes, less government, deregulation, military spending, a so-called restoration of traditional values. Running a surplus as we did in the Clinton years? Don’t pay down the debt, lower taxes instead. Running a deficit? Cut taxes. Out of a job? No health insurance? You’re on your own.

Cutting taxes is very popular among voters, and when lower and middle income earners get tax relief they spend the money, putting more money into the economy, helping everyone. But Republicans want to reward the wealthy, saying they are job creators. There’s evidence that tax cuts for upper income people get invested, go into second or third homes in far off places, or as has been revealed lately, support political campaigns and lobbyists. Obama wants to continue the Bush era tax cuts for everyone’s earnings up to $200,000 ($250,000 for families). The Republicans pledge to preserve tax cuts for the wealthy, adding trillions of dollars to the deficit over the next ten years.

Republicans pledge smaller government. Here’s what they mean: less help for schools, less regulation of industry, cutting spending on bridges and roads, medical research, and ending seeding innovation in alternative energy. However, they pledge more military spending, more missiles and weapons systems. And they don’t say how they’ll pay for them.

Republicans pledge deregulation. This means letting businesses operate without regard to safety, workers rights, environmental damage, and fraud. Think oil spills, toxic waste dumps, pollution, Enron, toxic assets, coal mine disasters, Bernie Madoff, AIG. We need effective government to protect us from unscrupulous corporations and financial hijinks, and why shouldn’t the wealthy help pay for that?

Republicans want to turn back the clock on cultural shifts of the modern world. Some of their more extreme members and Tea Party favorites claim our founding documents are based on Biblical teachings and did not intend to separate church and state. Amazingly, they haven’t suggested reinstituting slavery or taking back the vote from women or non-property owners despite their pledge to make sure every law has a “constitutional basis”. They want to “defend marriage,” from all the gay people who are so immoral that they no longer seek multiple partners but want to settle down and get married. They want to force women who face difficult choices about ending pregnancy for a variety of reasons from health to rape and incest to economic hardship to fulfill their Biblical role as child bearers.

And they want to repeal health care reform which has just begun to take effect by stopping insurance companies from dropping the insured, from denying coverage for preexisting conditions, and from having annual and lifetime coverage limits. Republican lawmakers want to stop people from being required to carry health insurance, which is required to spread the risk and cost. Instead Republicans want to give tax breaks for health savings accounts. That might work for their wealthy friends who have money to save. What happens when the savings account is emptied? Republican lawmakers fought hard to keep Americans from having access to affordable health care. They fought hard to try to stop reforms of Wall Street that will prevent future bailouts and crises such as caused this Great Recession, threw millions out of work, and caused them to lose their homes. They even fought against tax cuts and loans to small business! They are more interested in gaining seats in Congress than in solving America’s problems.

For many election cycles voters have been urged to ask themselves, “Are you better off today than you were in the last election?” In 2006 and 2008 Americans answered with a resounding, “NO!” giving Democrats the presidency and a comfortable majority in both houses of Congress. But eight years of fiscal irresponsibility, growing deficits due to irresponsible tax cuts and unfunded wars, and deregulation that brought the entire banking, investment, and insurance industries to the verge of total collapse left us in too deep a hole to climb out of in two years.

This year, as you go into the voting booth, ask yourself, “Can we afford to return to the same policies that got us into this mess?” It may not show in employment numbers, but the economy is on the road to recovery and has been slowly growing for over a year. Give Obama two more years with majorities in Congress to keep us on the right track. Elect Democrats to the U.S. House and Senate. If in 2012 you are not better off than you are today, then seek an alternative.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

First Book for a First Grader

Writing an Alphabet Book: fast acting medicine for a first grader
Paul Epstein, co-director, Central West Virginia Writing Project

In September of 2001 some terrible events took place that we will never forget.  But in the midst of those tragedies, I experienced something miraculous I will never forget.  For only the second time in my 15-year teaching career, I helped a child take the first steps toward reading (Epstein, 1992) I had taught many children to multiply and divide, to write with more detail, enthusiasm or organization, to read more critically or carefully, to appreciate history or science (or at least to appreciate what they had to do to pass), but in my years teaching 3rd-6th grade I never had the experience so many primary teachers have had: watching a child take the steps that would move them from a ‘make believe reader’ to a reader. 

Having moved from the intermediate classroom to a position as Title I Reading teacher, I was working one on one with a first grade student who was having difficulty.  If you have not been in an elementary school for many years, you may wonder how a first grader can be having difficulty in the first months of first grade; after all, don’t kids learn to read during the first grade year?  Yes, and no.  These days, kindergarten is not only supposed to prepare students for reading, but send them to first grade already reading their alphabet, knowing the sounds most letters make individually and in combination (phonics), and recognizing several sight words, common words that are recognized instantaneously and may not follow phonics rules.  In first grade, they begin reading, writing, and spelling new words in predictable books from day one.

Jennifer entered first grade not able to identify all of her alphabet (could not identify 6 letters: b, d, g, j, k, u ), had very few letter/sound associations, and recognized only three sight words from the basic sight word list (I, it, in).  Her “reading” of leveled passages indicated that she could often guess at the meaning of words and phrases using picture clues and attending to patterns in language. In assessing her skill level, I found her to be verbal and active, and confirmed what her kindergarten teacher told me, “She likes to have things her own way” (Jennifer was not always compliant, and it frequently required all my skill and some negotiation to keep her engaged in activities).  As a newly certified reading specialist, I was interested in applying some of the techniques in which I’d been trained, but also to apply some “writing to read” strategies I’d been exposed to by kindergarten and first grade teachers working with the Central West Virginia Writing Project.

     Starting out, I knew I would have to work at the letter and word level, making sure that Jennifer could identify all the letters before she could begin to tackle some of the books written for emergent readers.  I decided to start by letting her choose from groups of pictures representing initial consonant sounds I copied from the appendices of Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction, 2nd ed. (Bear,Templeton,). 

Though the pictures were designed to be sorted by students by initial consonant sound, I asked Jennifer to choose a picture from the eight or so representing the letter “B”. She looked carefully at the pictures, taking the sheet from me, and chose one showing a child’s bed.  I let her cut it out and we pasted it into a personalized Alphabet Book (a 3 hole pocket folder with a page for each letter).  I had already labeled the page with a capital and lower case “B”, and now asked her to write the word bed, making the sounds and supplying her with the letters, sometimes writing them to the side for her to copy.  For additional practice in letter and phonemic identification we went through a process I called “say it, spell it, sound it, blend it”, which sounded like this, “bed, bee-ee-dee, buh-eh-duh, beeeeed” all the while pointing at each letter. I had to hold her finger under each letter and insist she track with her eyes—she knew that her memory was more reliable when her eyes were shut or looking off into space, yet I wanted her to “read” the letters and the word rather than memorize.  Jennifer had to mimic me several times before she could accomplish this task.

Next, I asked her to “make up a short story about the bed.”  She needed little prompting to come up with a sentence she found very humorous, “I saw a ghost sleeping in my bed,” which with my assistance she wrote in the lines beneath.  Finally, we “read” the story together a couple times.  At the end of our first session, she picked up her folder (I told her it was a ‘book’ and she was the ‘author’), looked at me excitedly and asked, “Can I take my book back to my room and read it to my teacher?”  Though I knew reading these sentences would be a big jump for a student who as yet could not identify all her letters, I was also aware that in her classroom they would be plowing ahead with reading at a rate that would leave her far behind if she didn’t make extraordinary progress.  Her teacher reported that Jennifer was very proud of her book, and loved the opportunity to display it and read it to the other students (who often had to help her remember what she had written). This became the first book that Jennifer could read, and she proudly took it to class after each session to read to her classmates.

 In each 20-minute daily session for the first two weeks  Jennifer chose pictures for two or three letters, pasted them in the book, and wrote sentences to go with them. She was gaining control of her alphabet and making more and more letter/sound associations.  Since the stories she provided often contained words that she could not have begun to spell correctly, like ghost and elephant, Jennifer was exposed to a wide variety of phonetic structures, rather than only the very regular structures contained in the early stages of most phonics programs.  While I always asked her to attempt to supply a letter to match the sound she heard in the word she was trying to spell, I did not have her write the words using approximate or invented spelling, instead praising her for her effort and providing her with the standard spelling.  This led us into many discussions of how “silly and tricky” the English language is.

After only three weeks, Jennifer could identify all of her letters, had control of most of her consonant sounds, and began to understand the role of vowels in words.  As I moved Jennifer into the reading of leveled books and work with word sorts (Clay,1993, Gillet & Temple, 2000, Bear, et al., 1999), activities around which most of the training I received in remediation of reading difficulties revolved, I continued to work with her on writing in and reading from her journal in response to each book we read or to practice a spelling pattern.  Jennifer always looked forward to the part of the lesson when she had control of what was read and written—when she got to write the story.   The connection between writing and reading has never been clearer in my mind.  I can now say from experience that composition is a powerful tool in reading development for emergent readers.

note: Though Jennifer made great progress during her first grade year, she lagged far behind the others in both reading and math and teachers decided to give her another year in first grade.  At the end of her second year in first grade she is a confident reader and an expressive writer.  While not by any means at the top of her class, she has had a successful year and did not require intervention from a reading specialist.

caption: Jennifer didn’t want to use the picture from the book; she wanted to draw her own Easter egg, and she insisted it was “a” Easter egg, not “an” Easter egg.  With Jennifer, you had to pick your arguments carefully!  This was her story, after all.

Bear, D.R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F.  Words Their Way: Word Study for Phonics, Vocabulary, and Spelling Instruction, 2nd ed. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1999.
Clay, M. An Observation Survey of Early Literacy Achievement.  Portsmouth NH: Heinemann Education, 1993.
Epstein, Paul. Jerry: A Special Education Student Discovers Writing and Reading. Quarterly of the National Writing Project and the Center for the Study of Writing and Literacy; v14 n4 p8-12 Fall 1992.
Gillet, J.W. and Temple, C. Understanding Reading Problems: Assessment and Instruction, 5th ed. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 2000

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Katrina and her Little Sister Rita by Paul Epstein

Katrina and her Little Sister by Paul Epstein
(clicking the link above or the title will take you to myspace to hear the song)
I wrote and recorded this song not long after the disasters that were hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. In such a time of tragedy that destroyed so much -- homes, lives, and ways of life, I felt like one more sad, depressing song was not called for. Instead, I took inspiration from the blues and jazz traditions of New Orleans and wrote something that would celebrate the resiliency and the strength of the region. I gave it a "Poke Salad Annie" feel and dusted off my synth guitar to play the bass and the electric leads. The song was used in a book of stories about Katrina called "Katrina in their Own Words" by the Southeast Louisiana Writing Project. Whenever I sing it for an audience, I get everyone to echo the chorus lines. It's always fun, and great for dancing. Here are the lyrics:

Katrina, and her Little Sister Rita
©Paul Epstein, 2006
Down in Southern Lousianna, the Mississippi coast
You know we like to party, we love to play the host
two ladies came for blackjack
never want ‘em back

I’m talkin’ ‘bout Katrina, And her little sister Rita
They blew in and tore the house down, you don't ever want to meet 'em.
We love our women strong
But they done us wrong

Banshees howlin’ through the gulf, it’s party time again
Rich folks gettin out of town, po’ folk take it on the chin
Blackjack for Katrina
Busted New Orleans

Rita thought she’d go to Texas, they were ready for her there
So she headed for the bayou, where she cleaned the cupboards bare
Katrina’s little sister
Sho’ nuff won’t miss her

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Truth and Hope vs. Lies and Fear

If you listen to politicians and pundits, we are in a slow recovery from an economic catastrophe or we are witnessing the end of our free market economy.  Should we be hopeful or frightened? If we look at facts and dispel untruths the future looks brighter due to President Obama’s policies.

Democrats, led by President Obama have made earnest efforts to solve the nation’s problems, truthfully laying them out and hoping the other side would work with them. Republicans led by Boehner, McConnell and increasingly spurred by extremist voices such as Palin, Beck, and Limbaugh have been scaring Americans with lies and innuendo. They suggest our president is a Muslim (why, he might even be black!), is not a citizen, that health care reform would pull the plug on Grandma and take away their health insurance, that financial reform would lead to more bailouts, and that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA—the ‘stimulus’) has not helped the economy. They stir up fears of immigrants, conflate terrorism with Islam, and stir up anger verging on revolutionary fever against government.

Unfortunately, we are a very impatient people, and apparently for many it is not enough that a depression has been averted, our banking and investment system has been brought back from the brink of total collapse, our auto industry revived, and our economy has been growing, albeit slowly, for over a year.

What are Republicans saying? First they try to scare everybody into believing we’re heading back into recession. Second they say deficits will bury us so we need to cut spending immediately. They say the stimulus didn’t work and the proof is that President Obama “promised” unemployment would not go over 8%. Finally, they want those who earn over $200,000/year to continue to enjoy the lowest tax rates since the 1950’s. 
President Obama never promised the road out of this recession would be easy or quick nor that unemployment would stay below 8% if ARRA was passed. His economic advisors published that prediction in January, 2009, before he took office. Unemployment surpassed that before the bill was passed in February on its way to top 10% before ARRA began having some effect.  Ask all the road workers, bridge builders, auto workers, unemployed receiving extended benefits, and teachers, policemen, firefighters and other state workers whose jobs were saved if stimulus spending works. Go to and look at how it’s being spent:

  •  unemployment benefits
  • health care for unemployed
  • aid for seniors
  • rebuilding infrastructure
  • energy efficiency and weatherization
  • $1,000/family in tax cuts and many tax credits 

The Recovery may not have provided instant prosperity in the midst of world-wide economic turmoil, but it has been working, and is today.

What do the Republicans propose to create jobs? Give those who earn over $200,000 tax cuts, stop spending, and let corporations operate free of regulation. That’s the recipe that got us here, the recipe for the lackluster G.W. Bush years during which the few jobs that were created were low paying jobs, and the path to housing bubbles, toxic assets, and the credit crisis. The Bush tax cuts and two unfunded wars is what turned the Clinton surplus into trillions in debt dropped in the lap of President Obama.

Republicans still cling to the discredited belief that reducing taxes on corporations and the wealthy will create jobs. S&P 500 companies are holding more cash than ever, but are not using it to create jobs. They won’t add to their employment rolls until there is more demand for their products. The Bush tax cuts that put a trillion dollars in the pockets of the rich were in place for eight years of anemic job growth. Why would continuing them create jobs now?

Deficit fears at least have some basis in truth though Republicans weren’t worried about almost five trillion dollars in deficits during the eight years of the Bush presidency. The national debt isn’t keeping the economy from growing faster and it isn’t keeping jobs from being created. It will become an inflationary problem down the road if we don’t get it under control, which is why Obama wants to use the money from discontinuing tax cuts for the rich to pay down the deficit.

Maybe we will have to get used to a slower growing economy, though Warren Buffet thinks we’re poised for a big growth cycle, hopefully one based on productivity. Growth during bubbles creates false wealth for which we later pay a price in bankruptcies, bank failures, and lost savings. Americans must save more and live on their income rather than count on ever expanding housing values or an overheated stock market to give them unlimited credit. 

President Obama has not made wild promises; he laid out his agenda truthfully from the beginning and has faithfully been keeping promises, including winding down the war in Iraq and concentrating on the true masterminds of 9/11 in Afghanistan. We’ve been in a deep economic hole that we are climbing out of. The stimulus package created or saved millions of jobs—not enough to get us completely out of the hole, but enough to begin to grow our economy.  Too many Americans don’t want to hear the truth: that the answers aren’t simple and solutions aren’t quick.

Those congressmen who rub their hands in glee over the slow recovery should be ashamed. That they obstruct legislation they would ordinarily support to create jobs and help small business so their party can benefit from a weakened economy borders on unpatriotic. Lacking a responsible Republican party willing to engage in honest debate, Obama needs a stronger majority of Democrats. 

We are told that the upcoming elections belong to the Republicans because anger and enthusiasm are on their side. It is time to get enthusiastic in defense of our country by proudly supporting Democrats who have taken bold and difficult stands on reforming Wall Street and the health care system, and supporting Obama’s efforts to get the economy back on track. It is time for truth and hope to once more triumph over lies and fear.

(first published by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Sunday, September 19, 2010: )

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Teachers Need Time and Support to Use Technology Effectively

When my mother was in her 80’s, my brother bought her a computer so that she could participate in e-mail exchanges and receive digital pictures of her grandchildren. It was a disaster. Though her mind was sharp, this lifelong learner with a Masters degree could not ‘read’ the screen, and every window that popped up represented a paralyzing choice for her, “If I click wrong, I might fail again.”

We know that humans who do not develop language in childhood may never speak, that young minds need countless hours of exposure to letters, words, phonemes, in order to be ready to learn to read. We have learned that writing, too, is a developmental process. Students, regardless of when they start, tend to go through many stages on the way to becoming competent writers and readers; and learning to read and write for the many challenges and purposes that we face in school, in work, and in the community is a life-long task.  But as a society we agree that we must invest in literacy because reading and writing are critical skills.

In the 21st century, the ability to use computers and other digital technology is a critical skill.  If education is the “great equalizer,” as Horace Mann put it, then it is up to the public schools to provide access, time, and direction for students to learn to use these technologies for the full range of purposes our students will pursue in school, work, and in the community. Such is literacy in the 21st century: writing is a digital activity.

As Governor of West Virginia from 1988-1996, Gaston Caperton instituted a statewide program to place three computers and reliable basic skills software in every classroom. This introduced basic computer skills to students and teachers, and my state’s early embrace of computer technology has been maintained and upgraded by subsequent administrations. For a mountainous rural state, technology offers the possibility of overcoming physical obstacles and bringing the world into isolated classrooms.

In the twenty-three years I have taught in West Virginia elementary schools, many students have benefited tremendously from these computers, but I’ve also seen many computers sitting unused in the backs of classrooms or used for games and activities with limited educational value. Though teachers received some training in using the hardware and software, from what I’ve seen, few integrated these powerful tools into their everyday lessons.  Only recently, as teachers have started receiving an array of ‘in classroom’ equipment like laptops and projectors am I seeing a shift.

But simply providing equipment is not enough.  I have learned through my involvement with the National Writing Project that teachers need to be comfortable with their own writing process before they can be effective teachers of writing. They must also be comfortable and confident users of technology before they can effectively employ technology in their lessons.

I was very fortunate to have had a principal in 2000 who recognized that a teacher enthused about writing and technology with a computer lab would not only ensure that all students in the school were using the computers for reading, writing, and enhancing content learning, but he could also collaborate with other teachers, increasing their knowledge and skills.  Since then, I have found that when my colleagues see the power of computers to motivate students to engage in the writing process, including dreaded revision and editing, and when they get support in using the technology to enhance their classroom objectives, they embrace writing and technology.

The National Writing Project model of sustained professional development led by teachers is the most promising way to influence the nation’s teaching force to embrace both writing and technology in the digital age. In our local writing project workshops, we have led many K-12 teachers in their first use of computers to revise and edit writing, create PowerPoint presentations and digital stories, make blog posts and engage in online discussions. They have reported returning to their classrooms and making better use of computers in their teaching.

Technology spending is necessary and important to increase availability of technology tools and internet infrastructure. But teachers must be at the center of change aimed at preparing students for the 21st Century. The National Writing Project has put extensive time and expertise into developing and researching teacher leadership. Teachers are the Center of Education: Writing, Learning and Leading in the Digital Age should remind those who lead schools, districts, and teacher preparation programs that there are among them teachers who are exploring innovative uses of technology to enhance students’ educational experiences. Teachers must be given time and opportunity to share their most promising practices in their schools and districts through mentorship, coaching, or professional development programs in order to effectively implement a 21st Century curriculum for all students.

first published in April, 2010 by the College Board, also by Charleston Gazette (WV) in July, 2010.