Friday, August 29, 2014

Words, Words, Wordles

A lot of fake outrage and high-sounding language has been flying around here in OK after the USDOE chose NOT to extend our NCLB waiver. Mary Fallin blames Obama…of course she does. She wants to remind the reddest state in the Union that she is the Republican. Um, Mary…believe us. We know.

Jason Nelson, a co-author of HB3399 that fast-tracked our repeal of CCSS without adequate plans in place to make the transition a smooth one, seems unimpressed by the loss of funds to the state.

Barresi continues to push for speed-writing the Standards. It appears as if she wants to control the direction, even in her position as lame duck.

OSSBA has shared concern, Joe Dorman has made a statement, as has Joy Hofmeister. I can find no statement from John Cox on his Facebook page or his campaign page.

I was reminded of the song from My Fair Lady, "Show Me." It begins with, "Words, words, words. I'm so sick of words." I'm sick of the words that hide intent and values. But I know how to unpack these statements and get to the real message...intended or unintended.

One of my favorite tools for looking at written language, and the message that may hide from us if we’re not careful is wordle… allows you to paste in text and it analyzes the frequency of words used, and creates a word cloud. The bigger the word, the more times it was used. I have had students ‘wordle’ their papers and analyze the word cloud, asking themselves if their intended message became clear.  I often wordle political speeches and see the hidden agenda. An interesting follow-up strategy is to take those larger, more frequently-used words, and use them to create a theme or summary statement. Those are the words that reflect the speaker’s true values.

So, for your reading and analyzing pleasure, wordles of yesterday’s responses to our waiver loss.

What do we see? “Oklahoma” and “Washington”. Two places she has lived and worked. “Parents” and “Obama” are clear…and look there on the lower left: “politicized”. Oh, yes, Governor Fallin. This situation is politicized. Starting with the lack of a plan to certify our PASS standards as ‘college and career ready,’ whatever that phrase really means. Including your coy game of ‘Will she? Won’t she?’ sign HB3399. Up to your defiant nose-thumbing at the very rules you once chose to abide by. Rules that hadn’t changed.  In fact, the only thing that did change is YOUR position on CCSS…as Chair of the National Governors’ Association, you seemed all for CCSS…then you weren’t. Now, you blame everyone but yourself for the mess you created. Love that “outraged” and “outrageous” both appear here.

Looking at this one is interesting…no wild political words jump out…Is she being reasonable in her last months? “Schools” and “Oklahoma” and “student” and “focus” and “reforms.” Nothing new…but I love the fact that “transparency” and “rigor” are both smaller. I see the word, “now”, which has been the Superintendent’s mantra since losing the primary election.

OSSBA weighed in with a statement:

“Change” and “waiver” and “schools.” “Child” and “federal” and “provide.” This is the first wordle to highlight the word “child”, and I’m grateful it’s the school superintendents who speak about our children, who are being “Left” “Behind.” I think I like what this one would communicate.

Joy Hofmeister communicated her concern on FaceBook:

“Standards” and “children” and “administration” and ‘teachers” and “students.” She manages to hit most of the stakeholders in this statement…”however” she blames it on “federal” “overreach”. “Confidence” and “waste” are there as well. What kind of theme statement could we compose here?

My man Joe Dorman shared his statement:

“Waiver” and “Fallin” jump out at us…so does “state” and “Oklahoma” and “education” and “standards.” I like the little nod to my home state, “Indiana”, which did get the waiver extension yesterday. Dorman rightly reminds us we have our current governor to thank for the mess we’re in. Right there, in the middle of the image is “preventable.” For sure. Preventable.

One last wordle…even though I don’t have the whole text of Jason Nelson’s statement at his press conference, I do have excerpts.

  Look at the inadvertent arrangement of “one” “big” “loss’! Oh, I agree. I think it’s also telling that he focused on “funding” and “money” and “spend”. And he pronounces it a “non-event.” Tell that to the schools that are now at risk of being labeled failing, and are now facing the horrible consequences that are the centerpiece of NCLB. A friend, a teacher at one of those schools, asked frantically last night, “What will happen to our school?” Silence. Crickets. Nothing.

The funding side of the waiver is huge, NOT the non-event Mr. Nelson asserts. But the other consequences to our schools, nearly all of which will be deemed to be failing schools, those will be incalculable.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Finding Our Voices; Finding Our Stories.

In storytelling, there is a ‘Rule of Three’ that we seem to follow instinctively…there seems to be great magic in threes: 3 bears, three wishes, three questions, three tasks. Think about it…three Musketeers, three spirits who guide Scrooge to his redemption. We superstitiously wait for the third piece of bad luck, or the third death.

I recently received three message that combine to convince me that we can build on the successes of last year’s Legislative Session, and we can amplify our influence on policy makers next year. We have a magic opportunity.

When I went to the Capitol to talk to lawmakers and to watch the House vote to override Governor Fallin’s veto of HB2625, I watched passionate moms and dads trying to bring their children to life in front of these Legislators. Moms pulled out folders of academic awards. I saw certificates, ribbons. Dads brought report cards to prove their children were smart and hard working. Many moms whipped out their cell phones and showed pictures of their children as they described their frustration with the idea of basing a child’s future on one standardized test. It was moving to watch and listen to these parents as they conjured up their kiddos in the Capitol.

Later, in the Gallery, read for the debate and vote, I sat next to a mom who sat up straighter as Rep. Jason Nelson spoke about meeting a mother who described her son’s struggles. “That’s me!” she whispered, and we all smiled. Then, Nelson continued to make his own point from her story, and she deflated. “That is not what I said! I didn’t say that!” Because she told him her story, it floated in the air, and he chose to listen and reinterpret her story as he pleased. In the air, it became his story to manipulate and rework. She was horrified and I knew we needed to make certain this kind of betrayal of our stories never happens again.

We need to make our stories our own. We need to interpret them and free them from another’s manipulation or misunderstanding. In my mind, that meant we must write them. Write them, print them, share them. Not only with Legislators, but with the media, as letters to the editors. As guest blogs. We must control our stories by committing them to print. That way, we can point back to our words and explain, “You need to look again. Here is my point.”

But how to do this?

Later in the summer I listened to Terry Tempest Williams’ memoir, When Women Were Birds. It was an audible Daily Deal, and I was intrigued. I ended up buying a paperback also…listening to Williams read her own words, I was convinced she wrote this book in verse. Williams inherited her mother’s journal after her mother’s death. After enough time had passed, she opened a journal, and found it blank. Journal after journal. Blank. This led Williams to find examples of her mother’s written voice, and to search for her own.  “In a voiced community we all flourish.”

One incident in the book resonated. Williams is a passionate naturalist and member of the Wilderness Society. She loved the outdoors and she loved the sanctuary of Red Rock Wilderness in Utah. When the wilderness was threatened by legislation to allow development she realized she had a tool: her voice. She and fellow writers created an anthology, Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness. They encouraged each other to write, in their own voice…they compiled Testimony into a chap book, and they went to Washington with copies for every member of Congress. They were determined to use their voices and words to protect the beauty and power of their wilderness. A bill passed the House to protect the wilderness, and words from Testimony were read aloud in the debate in the Senate. Words were READ…not interpreted, not manipulated, not mistaken.  Testimony is now part of the Congressional Record.  “Afterward, President Clinton held up a copy of Testimony and said, ‘This little book made a difference.’” What began as a desperate, quixotic gambl ebecame a force too powerful to be ignored.

I wanted this example to be our inspiration. Written words have power, they have permanence. I wanted us to find our voice as Williams did.

The third bit of magic in my thinking was another book. Soon after reading Williams’ book, I read Wired for Story, by Lisa Cron. A writer friend had recommended it to aspiring novelists as a vital lesson on how and why to construct stories. I was not the audience for this book, since I do not want to write fiction, but the lessons and observations could easily be adapted for parents and grandparents and teachers, determined to invite lawmakers into their own realities. Cron uses cognitive research to convince her readers that everything in life begins and ends with a story worth telling. I found so many lines that could help others focus on the essence of their stories, ways to inspire empathy and understanding of our lives.

·          Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically, but literally.
·          In other words, we’re wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world.
·          Even more exciting, it turns out that a powerful story can have a hand in rewiring the reader’s brain--helping instill empathy, for instance—which is why writers are, and have always been, among the most powerful people in the world.
·          From the very first sentence, the reader must want to know what happens next.
·          Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them.
·          Thus story…is an internal journey, not an external one
·          We are looking for a reason to care, so for a story to grab us, not only must something be happening, but also there also be a consequence we can anticipate
·          Whose story is it? What’s happening here? What is at stake?
·          A story must have the ability to engender a sense of urgency from the first sentence.
·          Your first job is to zero in on the point your story is making.
·          A story is designed, from beginning to end, to answer a single, overarching question
·          The more passionate you are about making your point, the more you have to trust your story to convey it
·          Feel first. Think second. That’s the magic of story

It would seem to me that there is a line that could inspire each of us to tell our particular, personal story…a line that resonates in recognition. I believe this is where we can start to write and own our stories.

They are our stories; we must own them. We must control them. We must share them…but on our terms, not as political points for others. Never again should a mother, with her voice trembling, give her story to a policy maker who, because he does not see the words, feels free to twist the meaning, the lesson.

Yes, we continue to tell our stories, but as we do, and as we share those ribbons and certificates and report cards and pictures, we will also share our written words. We will flood them with proof of the damage their policies have done. We will continue to offer suggestions and volunteer to shape policies.

We will do that with words we control. We will do this with our voices and our carefully-crafted stories.

So, those are my magic three…the observation, the lesson on finding voice, and the lesson on finding story.

We can begin now – we can work together and we can have our stories ready to share.

We will fight with voice and story.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Billie Letts, WHERE THE HEART IS, and My Mom.

Billie Letts has passed away, and with her, more stories of good Oklahoma folks. She was an English teacher at Southeastern State, and her first book, Where the Heart Is, became an Oprah book. Her life was forever changed by that book, and by Oprah's decision to feature it. The world is a better place.

I first learned of Letts and her book when two of my students at Central Mid High in Norman brought it to me and pretty much demanded I read it. Well, that was endorsement enough, and I did. Later, at Molly Griffis’ store, Levite of Apache, I met Letts at a book signing. I told her the story of how I’d learned about Heart…and her eyes filled with tears. My girls were HER students too…and to think she’d touched young people with whom she’d spend her life, touched her and me. She was still teaching.

That first time I met her, I bought two book for her to sign…one for me and one for my mother, the woman who taught me the book is always better than the movie.  The woman who knew Dill from To Kill A Mockingbird was Truman Capote. The woman who taught me to be slightly disdainful of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who obviously stole much of his material from his mercurial, talented, flawed wife Zelda. The woman who introduced me to the Arthurian Legends, and traveled for half a day in England to reach Beatrix Potter’s home so she could write to me about the visit. The woman who told me how, when I was an infant, she would nurse me on one side, and hold a book with her other arm…then shift me and her book. 

I am a reader because my mother, who barely finished high school, was a reader. 

I’ve read all Letts' books…stories with sharp edges about good people…good Oklahoma people. People who create their own families, who watch out for each other, who support and care for each other. I read and loved all of her books. Honk and Holler Opening Soon's last scene still makes me smile.  I loved the adoption story in Shoot the Moon, as an adoptive mother, and I read the dark Made in the U.S.A. wondering how she would bring her characters back to Oklahoma...and she did!

Mom kept the book until she and my dad moved from my childhood home in northwest Indiana to a nursing home in southern Indiana. They had to weed their books from two towering floor-to-ceiling built-in shelves in our family room, to one shelf in their new room. So, Heart was donated.

More years passed. Mom and Dad both passed away and were buried next to each other in Dad’s home, Sullivan, IN. My sister and I came to terms with being the oldest generation in our family, and life went on.

Then, five years or so ago, I got a strange email from my sister, who lived in northeast Indiana. She had gone to a garage sale in a small town in northeast Indiana. She found a box of books. She picked up one of the books, a paperback with an Oprah Book label. She turned it over. Where the Heart Is. For fifty cents she thought she’d pick it up. When opening the book, she realized the book was autographed by the author…”To Mary – a special gift from Claudia and best wishes from me – Billie Letts.” She was shocked. Here, years after Mom’s passing, even more years after she parted with the book, even more years after I gave Mom the book, there it was. In my sister’s hands. OUR book.

She snapped it up and sent it to me. Now, most fittingly, Where the Heart Is, is home. Home in my bookshelf. Home in my house.  Home.

Billie Letts was always that English teacher from Durant, even when she got to meet celebrities and had the opportunity to move on. Her roots were here, and it showed in her work.

I wish Billie Letts and Mom could have met and visited about books and families and heartaches and life. They had so much in common.

So, now, the book she autographed for my mother, from me is home. It traveled from Norman to Merrillville, IN. Then through mysterious journeys to the opposite border of the state, then, back to me. I never told Letts that story, but I know she would have appreciated it.

Our world is sadder today, with the passing of Billie Letts…but she showed us time and again, love and support will be there for us when we need it. My heart goes out to her family and fans.