Saturday, June 16, 2007

I Love Phonemes...

It’s the place where linguistics most clearly intersects with education: the phoneme. Yet most people aren’t even aware of it, can’t tell you what it is. That’s understandable; professionals argue over the precise definition…

More than anything else, a phoneme is an idea. It is a psychological unit inside your head. If you speak English you probably have about 50 of them. Maybe 48, maybe 53 or 54. It depends on where you grew up, on whether you speak the English of Billy Graham (the rural, lowland dialect of the southeast United States), or the New England English of Ted Kennedy, or the English of Paul Hogan (“Crocodile Dundee”).

A phoneme is an idea that people have in their head about how to organize different sounds together into meaningful groups of sounds that we can give a name to. Probably when I say “sounds” you think of names for groups of sounds you already have in your head and you ask yourself something like, “you mean like M and N, or like L and R?” The answer is no, that’s not what I mean.

What I mean is that a phoneme is an idea about how to group all the sounds together that you call “L” – different sounds that together make up “L” in your mind. Most people look at you when you say that and their response is something like, “What do you mean? L is L.” And I have to say, “Not really.”

Think about it for a moment. When you say “like” you take the tip of your tongue and press it fairly hard against the back of your two top front teeth and you spread your tongue out like it was a hammock inside your mouth. When you say “full” your tongue may not touch your front teeth at all; instead of spreading it out, you bunch it up in a ball in the back of your mouth and maybe the tip of it rests gently on the bony ridge you have behind your top teeth. You make a different sound at the beginning of “like” than at the end of “pull,” but you call both of them “L” if you speak English, because English speakers group them together as one phoneme.

Doesn’t everybody do that? No. In Russian those two sounds each get their own letters. You can put the “L” in “pull” at the beginning of Russian words and the “L” in “like” at the end of Russian words.

The phoneme is why when you say “wanna” other people hear “want to” and why when you say “fry-n chicken” other people hear “frying chicken.”

And if your kindergarten teacher doesn’t manage to make you aware of the phonemes in your head, you’re mostly just confused when you look at letters. And reading becomes a difficult task indeed!

I’m sure we’ll talk more about the phoneme…

Places I've Been... Singapore

At 8:30 on a tropical morning in 1989, I stood waiting at a small corner shop while an Indian man prepared my breakfast.

The shop was opened up in such a way that its front walls seemed to have been removed; the fresh air fill the shaded room. The white tile floor was smooth and cool as I waited in cheap sandals.

rotiI watched as the Indian man repetitively stretched dough into wide thin sheets, folded the dough back up into something the size of a pancake, and then smacked it flat with his fist or the palm of his hand. It was mechanical. The old Indian man was so expressionless that he looked as though his body was uninhabited as he went through the motions of making my breakfast. His eyes were blood shot enough that I guessed that he had yet to sleep in his 50 or so years of life...

Eventually the roti (pronounced row-tea) was placed on a griddle (an old 55 gallon drum which had been adapted for the purpose) and fried. The resulting bread pastry was among my favorite foods in Singapore. I came here three or four times a week for roti prata - the pastry and an accompanying curry made with goat meat and peppers. The spicy dish was thought of locally as breakfast and impossible to get after about noon.

Some of the best Indian food came on a banana leaf and you ate it with your fingers...I paid the smiling owner about $2 U.S. and said "nandri" - Tamil for "thank you," the only word I knew in their langauge at that time. I was one of the few white people he'd ever heard say anything in Tamil.

I left and walked the two tree-lined blocks to the building where my flat was, on Balertier Road, while I listened to the morning traffic of Singapore.

Food: Singapore had it. Few spots on earth offer the variety of culinary temptations that can be found in the Lion City. Chinese, Malay, Indian, or European - the huge range of choices are made even more appealing by the fact that eating in Singapore can be extremely inexpensive.

SatayAmericans usually have no idea how Americanized Chinese food in the U.S. has become. For the 2 years I lived in Singapore, char kway teow (fried rice noodles) was perhaps my favorite meal. To my knowledge, it is unobtainable in the U.S. outside of Chinatowns in major U.S. cities. But I still crave the wok fried noodles with bamboo, greens, pork, squid, onions, and small chunks of crisp fried pork fat.

If I ever grew tired of kway teow, the street hawkers and food stalls of Singapore provided a rich array of delicacies at bargain prices. The Malay dishes stand out in my mind: the satay, skewers of marinaided and grilled lamb or chicken, served with a peanut and red pepper sauce; the fragrant rice, brightened up with saffron or other food colorings; and gado-gado, the green bean and cucumber salad with peanut sauce.

Much of Singapore's food industry was focused on either a take-home market or set up around outdoor eating areas where a number of vendors shared a few dozen tables and chairs.

Wonton SoupNot that you couldn't find atmosphere in a restaurant when I was in Singapore. If you wanted pomp and history, the historical district had it. Or there was the luxury of high tea while looking out of a 43rd floor window over the harbor in one of the city's upper crust hotels.

The Chinese restaurants in America that are often just a step above fast food (or a step down from a Ryans) rarely have steamboat on the menu. Steamboat was one of my favorite restaurant meals in Singapore. To the locals, a steamboat meal was a social event. Steamboat is a type of seafood buffet. Usually you are seated at a table for eight. A pot of water boils in the middle of the table; the pot is divided so that each person at the table has a small area where they can deposit fresh prawns (shrimp almost the size of chicken legs), mussels, crabs, etc. For the seafood lovers, it can be a meal beyond compare. The cost? At the time it was about $7-10 U.S.

And Western Food was not neglected in the city. One of the best places to go when I was in Singpoare was a hotel restuarant called Chateaubriand. Their Sunday lunch buffet included champagne, cavier and all the smoked salmon you could eat for under $20 U.S. Italian, Greek, Prime Rib, Kosher, African -- you could find it all if you needed a break for the local flavors. But those local flavors made Singapore worth the trip...

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Why Blog?

Jodi Dean is a political science professor at a college in New York state. I like her answer (at least I like parts of it):
  • She started blogging because she felt responsible to try and articulate some of her ideas and views in cyberspace where they could be accessed by other people (that's what it sounds like she's saying, to me).

  • She kept on blogging because she "enjoyed the intellectual and political company that grew out of a community of blogs."

  • She's going to keep blogging because "Blogging has become an integral part of my practice of thinking and self-reflection."

If I didn't have to work for a living and if time was more elastic I'd probably read more of her blog. But political theory (her blog topic) isn't all that close to my heart at the moment. I'm more interested in the politics of education, educational pedagogy, the experience of teaching, and in Appalachian culture.

What is a blog? The term itself is a shortened form of the word "weblog." Originally it was an online journal. Today it has become any online running commentary that speaks at least occasionally in the first person ("I think..."), no matter how impersonal. You can find blogs about teachers and teaching, blogs about games, blogs in Chinese, blogs about what some guy feeds his dog, blogs in Portuguese, blogs about being 29 in Malaysia, blogs about mobile phones, blogs about cats, blogs about mental illness, and, well, I could go on...

meThey all write for their own reasons. And the genre has become commercial. Three different companies in the last few years have paid me money (sometimes pretty good money) to blog about something. (No one pays me to do this one at the moment.)

Why do I blog? I mentioned hypergraphia in a previous post more as a joke than a real reason. Like Jodi (mentioned above), I blog because it makes me think, helps me think. It's reflective (an approach to professional thought that has gained some credibility in the last few years). It serves as stress relief for me.

Oh yes, and I blog because I'm arrogant enough to think that my opinion (and the way I express it) might change minds.

A.J. Liebling (1904–1963), a journalist with the The New Yorker for almost 30 years, once said something to the effect that freedom of the press belonged to those who owned one (a printing press). The Internet has changed that. Blogging is one of the results...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Last Day of School

On Monday I went back to my school for the last time before summer. I suppose the day could be described with a variety of adjectives...

Hectic: I spent the week of June 4-8 in a workshop away from school. There was a fair amount of stuff I had to do before I could check out for the year. In addition to accomplishing these tasks, I spent about two hours involved in or preparing for a meeting we had scheduled to determine whether a student at the school was eligible for special education services.

Melancholy: That's probably a good word and I suspect that most teachers feel something like that while they're packing up their rooms for the summer. You think back on the good points and the bad points of the year. I suppose it's like looking back at the end of any prolonged task. Maybe it's different if you don't actually enjoy you job. But there was a touch of melancholy to the day.

Relieved: Teaching school is a marathon. At the end of the year teachers are tired. It feels good to know that it's over for a while, at least. It's not like there nothing to do. I have a huge pack of new material from the Orton-Gillingham workshop to become more familiar with. I have a new policy document for special education in West Virginia that I need to read and digest. I have two different tests to prepare for that I hope will extend and improve my certification(s). I have a five day workshop starting July 30 to attend. And I suspect there will be a couple of other professional development events to attend. But knowing that the routine is over for a time, getting up on a weekday and going to Big Daddy's for breakfast with my wife at 10am, not having to worry about the alarm clock and whether the coffee is made and the lunches packed - relief is a good word.

It's nice to be out, for now...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Swans, and Student Writing Journals

Originally published at Suite101

FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act - 20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) and selected other laws on confidentiality make me leery of sharing details about my students. But this story is one I think I can share without giving away any private information...

Note: FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act - 20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99) can be accessed online.

Me... thinking about the next potMy students write. I think about writing a lot as I'm planning assignments. And the question of how to make writing fun is among the toughest issues that I think any elementary school teacher faces.

I went to a workshop a while back at the West Virginia Reading Association's annual conference. The workshop focused on a book called Amelia's Notebook, and on a strategy of journal writing in class. I tried it and my kids thought it was great. "Mr. Cruey, can we have homework in our journals?" I kid you not...

This week in reading we started on a story set in the early 1900's. The story was about how women in America got the right to vote. When social studies came around we talked about the concept of rights and I gave my students some time to write in their journals. They were supposed to write about what rights they felt they had (or should have).

Journal writing is a private experience and it usually takes five minutes to convince a group of 10 and 11 year olds that they really can't use it as social time. Class calmed down and got to work. I have various pieces of elevator music I play to cover distracting noises - everything from Yo-Yo Ma doing Haydn to Van Morrison sax instrumentals.

Ten minutes into the assignment (remember - the assignment about what rights you feel you have) a child raised their hand. I usually motion questions over to my desk where we can discussion whatever it is in hushed, library voices.

"Mr. Cruey," the child asked, "are all swans girl swans."

The child was expressionless. I was confused. How on Earth could this possibly be relevant? But the question seemed sincere...

In the analytical persona that follows me wherever I go, I answered with a Socratic question: "Well, if they were, how would they make baby swans."

The child looked puzzled and I could see wheels turning. It dawned upon me what tenuous ground I might soon be on and I pictured myself ending the discussion with some practical demonstration of how a prophylactic could fit over a cucumber - or something like that - (not that I knew right off where I might acquire either a prophylactic or a cucumber before class ended).

"No," I said hurriedly. "There are boy swans and there are girl swans..."

The child acted enlightened and said nothing, returning to its seat to take up the pen again and write further about the rights (hopefully) he perceived himself as having. And I felt relieved.

Socrates could wait.

I haven't worked up the nerve yet to actually read the journal entry...