Monday, May 28, 2012

Defining Affordable

A lot of political rhetoric these days seems to include the word affordable. We're trying to make health care affordable, and create affordable housing. But just what makes something affordable?

Well, in government circles, affordable just means that you can manage the payments, though cheap credit, or longer-term credit, or through government subsidies. Or, it can mean, in effect, not in the least bit affordable by anyone who isn't rich.

Let's take the notion of affordable housing. I've seen some excellent ideas on how to make housing more affordable by actually making housing less expensive: smaller houses (but still very livable), more efficient construction techniques, and even just some good old elbow grease (which is how I've managed to live in a mortgage-free house).

But the government approach to affordable housing is low-interest loans and subsidies. But a low interest loan doesn't make an overpriced house into a reasonably-priced house, and subsidies just shift the burden of the expense to taxpayers (who also have to pay the costs of administering any system that issues and monitors the subsidies).

And the interest goes to banks and the subsidies end up in the pockets of big construction contractors. So who, exactly, is this affordable for?

I remember reading a story (which I have not been able to find the link for) of an architect who specializes in very small, but very comfortable, houses, who was offered the chance to design low-income housing. He was very excited, had great ideas on how to save money on housing, and was ready for the challenge. Until he got the specs, which stated that each house had to be a minimum of 1200 square feet with three bedrooms and two baths. Obviously, no one in that program is looking for any real innovation.

If governments really wanted to make housing more affordable, they would look at the many code requirements and, in some areas, minimum square footage requirements that make a pay-as-you-go home a pipe dream for most people.

When anyone in the government (and especially someone running for office) tells you that he or she is going to make your housing, your health care, or any part of your life more affordable, hold onto your wallet. Because somewhere down the road, in the long run, when all the costs are added up, the government's version of affordable will just give someone the chance to pick your pocket.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Vexing Vocabulary

I have, for some time, been dissatisfied with the content of my fifth-grader's vocabulary lessons. But the latest list just pushed me over the edge.

Before I get into specifics, let's think for a minute about the purpose of vocabulary as an elementary school subject. We teach our children vocabulary to give them a solid foundation of words that they will use in their reading, writing, and conversation. Simple enough, right?

Well, that's why I object to the use of non-root forms as basic vocabulary words. Verbs should be taught in root form, the standard rules of the different tenses and cases learned, and the exceptions to the rules taught as part of the structure of the language. So: shield, falter, depict, flourish, hover, trigger, and consult, not shielding, faltered, depicted, flourished, hovers, triggering, and consulting.

This is an important, but relatively minor objection. Making my blood rise a bit more is the inclusion in this week's vocabulary lesson of the words obelisk and flappers. And yes, flappers is in reference to the defiant ladies who swept the scene following Word War I, not to the part of your toilet that allows the tank to refill after you flush.

It's not that there is anything wrong with these words, it's just that they do not belong in a vocabulary lesson for fifth graders. Sidebars in a history text, sure (in fact, both the history of the flappers and the etymology of the word are fascinating, and one must know the meaning of the word to understand the wonderful song, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?), but what fifth grader will be using them in any of his or her school writing, or indeed in any of the writing that may follow in later life?

But even these two words have not dragged me to the computer to vent my ire. There is just one word in this vocabulary list that represents everything that is wrong with the teaching of vocabulary in today's schools, if the lists I've seen are representative. And that word is—wait for it—


Yes, I can hear you now: "What? Charry? Never heard of it."

No, me neither, and I'm no slouch when it comes to the English language. My mother and stepfather were both newspaper editors. I grew up with word puzzles, discussions about grammar and usage, and jokes about unfortunate newspaper headlines. In my blogs and the books I'm working on, I probably write about five to seven thousand words every week, and it's not even my day job.

So why is my son wasting his time learning a word that no one has ever heard of?

The vocabulary list defines charry as "burned or scorched." I rushed to my Merriam-Webster pocket dictionary. Certainly a word that is taught to fifth graders would be in a 60,000-word dictionary for adults. Nope. How about the 1947 edition? Not there either. How about online? Yep. But don't think that lets the authors of this vocabulary list off the hook.

For one thing, there are two accepted definitions of the word charry that I have been able to find, and neither matches the one in the test. Charry means "Pertaining to charcoal, or partaking of its qualities." This is according to the unabridged 1913 edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. I've also seen some reference to its use by wine connoisseurs and wine makers to describe a burnt taste or odor.

When is any fifth grader ever going to use the word charry? In that report he or she is giving on fine wines? I think I have a problem with that. Even in the realm of the qualities of charcoal, I cannot find reference to this word in any literature within the last century.

And if this fifth grader did end up using the word charry, and started including it in some future writing, having learned it from this lesson, it would be used incorrectly!

Charry is the most egregious example of many faults I've seen in this lists over the course of this school year. It's almost funny. But not really. We owe our children much better than this. We owe them lesson materials by people who actually know the language, who know how to build a working vocabulary, who know the true definitions of the words in their list, and furthermore, how to make it as interesting as it is, indeed, capable of being.

This doesn't take extra money; no one's budget is going to suffer from the decision to provide a better vocabulary lesson. But the reward is better reading, writing, and speaking skills for all our our students. And, really, it is the least we can do.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Twisted Slinky

Child approaches with tangled mass of plastic Slinky knockoff,
Jumbled sculpture of wiry plastic,
Impossible challenge
For busy parent who can't resist entreating eyes.

Twists and turns transform jumble into coil.
But slowly. Ever so, painfully so.
Child has retreated to other interests,
But the parent cannot let the slinky stay unordered.

Finally the slinky is all coil and no jumble,
Placed quietly on the child's bookshelf.
Child is in the land of video game battles,
And does not even notice the perfectly restored slinky's return.

But the parent, today at least,
Has beaten the twisted slinky.