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Spelling 2013: From A to Zed

10 Jul

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Many students have sought fame and glory  in the world of competitive spelling.  I, however,  hold the distinction of misspelling the word “curriculum”  six times in my application for a doctoral program in Curriculum and Instruction.  Kindly  Dr. Clark  said with a remarkably straight face  told me that it would probably be a good idea if I learned how to spell the word, if I intended to get a doctoral degree in it. Thus was the world before spell checkers.

Thanks to comic books I was a pretty good reader, but I seemed to have a touch of dysgraphia,  as my handwriting and my spelling always left much to be desired. Oh,  I could learned to spell hard words in areas that interested me,   like “Mr. Mxyzptlk”  (Superman’s impish adversary from the 5th dimension),  but I’ve always had a devil of time remembering  even common words that have complex vowel combinations or doubled constants.

Spelling always made me  kind of anxious, so I was surprised  when my wife Diane and I found ourselves attending the 20th Annual Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee. It was held last Saturday morning at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. The contest, which is sponsored by the Ford Motor Company, took place in the swanky PNC Club, a luxury stadium suite with a glassed-in view of the playing field.

We were there because our oldest granddaughter Tori was one of the sixty-five contestants participating this year. This was Tori’s second appearance at the event. She represented Kenton County and had won the county championship by beating out a number of other school champions, including her younger sister.  The Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee is sometimes referred to as the Kentucky State Spelling Championship, but it includes students from Indiana as well. In fact, the second place finisher this year was a girl from Lawrence County, Indiana.

The rote learning of spelling is an old tradition in American elementary schools and the spelling bee competition  has evolved into a popular  nation  institution.  Nonstandard spelling is routinely taken as indicating a lack of intelligence, illiteracy,  or lower socioeconomic status.  Hoosier U.S. Vice-president Dan Quayle’s misspelling of potato at a 1992 spelling bee  in Trenton, New Jersey, was widely taken as a  strong verification of  his  alleged  lack of intellectual chops.

Of course, many folks (mostly poor spellers)  take an opposite view,  such as President Andrew Jackson,  who once said,  “It’s a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word.”

Back in 1978 spelling reform advocate Abraham Citron,  from  Wayne State University,   vehemently  attacked  our   system of spelling,   as well as tradition educational methods  saying    “At the portals of education we have laid, not a highway, but a labyrinth.” He described spelling as “difficult, irrational, deceptive, inconsistent, clumsy, frustrating and wasteful”.  He called it   “one of the basic sources of academic discouragement and failure”.

Godfrey Dewey, a Chairman of the national Phonemic Spelling Council, found that Americans use 561 different spellings for  the 41 separate  sounds that make up our spoken language.   The 26 letters of our alphabet are pronounced in 92 different  ways. English spelling rules are so irregular,  rote memory is the educational strategy of choice.  If mathematics was organized in  the same  haphazard manner,  our society would have  screeched to a halt long ago.

Citron who  founded  Better Education thru Simplified Spelling  argued for   creating a more rational  spelling . While major spelling reforms did not ocuurr,  many school systems banished spelling textbooks  and deemphasized the spelling curriculum for many years.  Last year, however,  Boston Globe writer Linda Matchan  reported that spelling is  making a dramatic comeback nationally,  with an  increased interest in  spelling clubs, as well as the reissue  of spelling books and the reestablishment of weekly spelling tests in many  schools.    Matchan  also notes the  growing popularity of  spelling bees with fabulous prizes,  like the legendary  Scripps National Spelling Bee,  which  is now broadcasted  live  on ESPN.

When it comes to prizes,  the Kentucky Derby Festival Spelling Bee is no   piker, with a first prize  that includes a $10,000  savings bond The top five places not only receive cash,  but a number of other awards  as well. Emily Keaton  an  8th grader from Pikesville Kentucky, who has won  this year’s Kentucky Derby Bee, making it four years in a row, walked away with a total of over $43,000.

Spelling bees  have  been featured in popular  movies such as “Akeelah and the Bee” and  “Spellbound”  as well as  the 2006 Broadway musical,  “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”.  As spelling has become especially  “hot”,  Florida reading and spelling consultant  Richard Gentry  says,  “Researchers want to understand how we learn it, teachers want to know how best to teach it, and kids want to know how to   win competitions.” Spelling success also meets a need for an indicator of intellectual rigor that many parents find appealing. Spelling, along with activities such as academic teams and chess clubs,   increasingly offer an alternative for  children who aren’t  athletically  inclined  but still want to compete.

Educational psychologists have found that “deliberate practice”, which consists of  memorizing words while alone,  which is the  most difficult   and least enjoyable type of spelling preparation,  seems to lead to the  most success in competition.  Also related  to winning  is a little known (non-cognitive) personality factor that psychologists call “grit” . It mostly consists of passion and commitment to the task at hand. 

Brian Palmer, a writer for the online magazine Slate, investigated what happened to  National Spelling bee winners later in life. He found that many of them entered careers related to understanding the human mind.  Many became   psychiatrists, psychologists,  and neurosurgeons.  Others went on to work with words as writers and journalists.  One was even a Pulitzer  Prize winner. A few continued to participate  in competitions in other areas,  such  as television games shows like Jeopardy or  the international poker circuit.

Our granddaughter Tori, survived the brutal second round and finished  up in 7th place with another year to compete.  Emily Keaton is on to future successes and all eyes are now on her younger brother, to see if he has his sister’s spelling magic.

There are also spelling bees for people over the age of 50.  One of these is the AARP National Spelling Bee that  was established  in 1996 by   AARP members in Cheyenne, WY.  Their goal was  to create   a fun way to compete with each other,  while   keeping their minds sharp. This spelling bee is held annually in Cheyenne and you can find details on how to enter at the AARP.org website. You  can even win $1000 if you take first place, but you will have to beat 67 year-old attorney  Michael Petrina Jr., who has won twice—last time  spelling the word “Rhizoctonia.”  I’d consider  entering myself,   but I’d probably  get the word “curriculum”.

 

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Doodle All the Day Long

16 Sep

                                                                                                                                                     

  At a   business meeting the other day, my attention began to wander as I sat there doodling. I don’t know if it was the topic, or all the antihistamines I was taking, but the meeting room gradually melted away and there I was in a boat with a refreshing breeze in my face. I heard my name in the distance, and suddenly I was yanked back, as if a bungee cord was attached to the boat. Evidently I was being asked to make some sort of decision. Everyone was looking at me so earnestly that I was too embarrassed to admit that I had no idea what they were talking about. My notes were no help. They were the minutes from the last meeting with all of the “o’s” and “e’s” filled in and some poorly drawn palm trees in the margin. Hoping that I hadn’t been asked to past the bowl of pretzels, I said that I would have to consider the issue and get back to everyone. They all nodded and seemed satisfied.

                 Daydreaming and doodling are closely related phenomena. Doodling, which has been found in early Mesopotamian clay tablets, has been called the world’s most common and ignored art form. Anthropologists once theorized that certain strange stone-age cave paintings must have been created by early humans, while under the influence of indigenous drugs or possibly primitive music. However, one researcher examined the classroom doodles of college students and found artistic elements identical to the Paleolithic productions. This should come as no surprise to any parent of a college student. Doodling is technically the spontaneous production of drawings or markings, when one’s mind is preoccupied with something else. Doodling most often takes place in meetings, classrooms, while on the phone, and on napkins in restaurants. English psychologist Jackie Andrade from the University of Plymouth found that doodling actually improves memory and attention on certain tasks. People who doodled while listening to a dull phone message remembered 29% more than people who did not doodle. Everyone in England, however, isn’t convinced of its benefits, as a convicted rapist was released from prison when it was discovered that a juror was doodling sketches of the judge during the trial. The case has been appealed on the grounds that the juror was not paying enough attention to the evidence.

               When our brains lacks sufficient stimulation, they may manufacture their own content, like doodles and daydreams. For many people doodling provides just enough activity during boring tasks to prevent escape into full-fledged daydreams. Because doodling is largely unconscious, many believe it can provide insight into personality functioning. After the 2005 World Economic Forum, a reporter was snooping around the seat occupied by British Prime Minister Tony Blair and found papers with elaborate doodles of triangles, rectangles, circles, and words in boxes. The reporter had these drawings analyzed by a graphologist and newspapers throughout Britain gleefully reported that the doodles revealed that Blair was “struggling to concentrate” and “not a natural leader”. One journalist went so far as to call the prime minister “a closet vicar with a death wish”. But Blair had the last laugh when it was revealed that the doodles were actually made by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who had inadvertently left them at Blair’s seat. David Greenberg a professor of history at Rutgers recently published a book on presidential doodles, showing that even the father of our country wasn’t above decorating his notebook with checkerboard designs. And the tradition continues today. A doodle by Barrack Obama recently sold for $2,500 on e-Bay.

                  Like the Rorschach test, there is little agreement about the specific meaning of doodles. For example, some authorities believe crosshatching and repeated patterns suggest a methodical approach to tasks, while others see it as an indicator of obsessive compulsive behavior. A house with smoke coming from the chimney means a welcoming fire for some experts, while for others it may signify sexual problems. While doodling represents a minor retreat from reality, daydreams are fully developed visual fantasies experienced while we’re awake. Research by University of Minnesota psychology professor, Eric Klinger, revealed that most daydreams are actually about ordinary events. They help remind us of everyday tasks. Less than 5% of daydreams involved sexual thoughts and violent daydreams are quite uncommon. Klinger’s research showed that over 75% of people with “boring jobs”, such as lifeguards and truck drivers, frequently use daydreams to ease the tedium of their workday. Daydreaming has often been judged as a non-productive pastime.

                    When I was growing up some psychologists even cautioned parents that persistent daydreaming could lead to a break with reality and even psychosis. But daydreaming has also been associated with major creative break-throughs in many disciplines. For example, in 1862, German chemist Friedrich Kekulé discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule in a daydream about a snake seizing its own tail. Walt Disney was well know for his frequent day dreaming and even today the Disney Corporation recognizes outstanding young people with its “Dreamers and Doers Awards”. Star athletes have long employed visualization as an effective training technique. For many practicing in imagination is as good or even better than real life and visualization is essentially the same state of mind as daydreaming. Of course day dreaming can be detrimental when a task demands our full attention. A Wisconsin survey found that daydreaming was second only to fatigue as the cause of auto accidents.

                     I once found that doodling can also be hazardous. I had just started a job and my new boss was briefing me about the employees I supervised. As he gave me the rundown, I idly doodled on the back of a stack of papers. He cautioned me about one of the women, describing her as “not a team player”. Later that day I met with all the employees and passed out a memo about supervision times. It went very well, but an hour later I got a phone call from the woman my boss warned me about. She demanded to know what the doodles on the back of her memo meant. She said she recognized palm trees, but she wanted to know why her name was written in what looked to be a traffic caution sign and why it was next to a box that contained the underlined words “Not a team player?”

 

It Just Slippered My Mind

9 Jun

                    The other day when I got out of the car going into  Barnes & Noble’s   I was appalled  to see that I was wearing a slipper on one  foot and a shoe on the other. I immediately thought of the All in the Family episode in which Archie Bunker told the   story of how he was so poor as a child that he had to wear one old boot and one worn shoe to school.   All the other kids teased him–  calling him Shoebooty.  There I was– Slipshoey.

                    For me just thinking about something has become the  equivalent of doing it. When I think about something I plan to do,  it seems as if I already did it and my thoughts get stored like a real memory. 

                  Evidently I was distracted while changing shoes.  I was only glad that  none of our   children were around to witness this, since it would have been conclusive proof that I had completely  lost my mind, as they have long suspected.  Wearing one slipper in public would be the final nail in  the coffin of my credibility.

                  When they were little they would ask me all sorts of  questions and considered me the fount of all knowledge and wisdom.   Now they regard me as completely clueless and  ignore any of  my advice,  while completely subscribing to any claptrap they find on the internet or hear from one of their peers. Even when they think I might actually  know something, they say,  “Just leave your expertise at the door.” I know this arrogance of youth  helps them establish  an independent  identity, but they still seem a little too eager to abandon me on some ice floe.

              When I noticed the two different shoes, I considered staying  in  the car, but I really wanted to look at   books, so I told my wife, Diane that  I was going to pretend that I had a sprained ankle.  I limped around Barnes & Nobles, taking pains to never look  at my shoes and  occasionally giving a subtle grimace.  I am fairly proficient at limping. I learned to do this convincingly at  high school football practice, just in case our coach was in one of his frequent  foul moods and was looking for someone to take a an extra lap.  

           Having one dark brown slipper and one light brown shoe was like wearing two different colored socks.  When comedian Steven Wright was asked why his socks didn’t match,   he said they did,  because  he went by  thickness instead of color.   

            Such faux pas  are  pretty common for me.  Like the time in high school I discovered the macho green beret I was wearing came from my sister’s old Girl Scout uniform or a few years ago  when I went to an important meeting wearing my sweater inside out. I may not be  Einstein, but I  do occasionally dress like him.

             Regarding embarrassing shoe mishaps, back in the days when we were young and poor,  we attended a church where you had to kneel  at the altar railing during communion. In this position  the rest of the congregation  could get a good gander at the bottom  of your shoes. It seemed like  this  would always happen on the Sundays when I was wearing my only pair of dress shoes— ones  that had a noticeable hole. Evidently all was not well with my sole. I would be anxious during the whole service and  tried, without  success,  to edge out a couple of old ladies,  so I could get to the side railing to decrease my potential audience.

            I suppose I do need to pay more attention to things.  Just the other day I  lost my wallet, again. This usually happens just as we are about to go out the door. Then I wish I was able to call my wallet,  like I do my cell phone,   when I misplace it. After the usual five minute of  hysteria, I finally found it–  in the washing machine. Our kitchen table is still cluttered  with ID cards, dollar bills, scraps of paper, and unreadable debit card receipts that are drying out.  

                Diane (Miss Perfect) is always warning me to check my pockets. I graciously  do not mention the numerous occasions she has left her purse somewhere,  or the time  it was mailed back to us in a bright red and white three-piece box, from a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant  inSpringfield,Illinois. Everything was intact. Miss Perfect certainly lives a charmed existence at times.

             I’ve been thinking  about the Barnes and Noble fiasco and maybe I should just give up and wear some of those bright yellow Crocks®  all the time.