Sunday, September 21, 2014

Monster in the Closet

Image by Justin Gurbisz
When monsters fill the door and darken us,
A hero must then come to save our minds
In armor, with a sword, now him discuss:
A brave and fearless man the child finds.

Well lit sword to strike a darkened foe,
An iron shield to block each charring swipe,
A steed so noble, giving charging blow
But armor weapons horses fail. Dark stripe.

A lone and dying knight that blocks the beast
From children's beds. Then comes a shining light.
She throws a bolt to kill. The lady priest
Defeats the thing. Her dogs then chase the fright.

Now children sleep as sweetened dreams do dance
Through peaceful heads in this so quiet manse.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Back to the Beginning

On Basilisk Station by David Weber
Honor Harrington Book 1
Having made him look a fool, she's been exiled to Basilisk Station in disgrace and set up for ruin by a superior who hates her. 
Her demoralized crew blames her for their ship's humiliating posting to an out-of-the-way picket station. 
The aborigines of the system's only habitable planet are smoking homicide-inducing hallucinogens. 
Parliament isn't sure it wants to keep the place; the major local industry is smuggling; the merchant cartels want her head; the star-conquering, so-called "Republic" of Haven is Up To Something; and Honor Harrington has a single, over-age light cruiser with an armament that doesn't work to police the entire star system. 
But the people out to get her have made one mistake. They've made her mad.
Since finishing the young adult Star Kingdom novels, I decided to go back and try the Honor Harrington novels. I'm glad I did.

The first one is On Basilisk Station. Basilisk Station is a remote outpost that no one wants to get stationed on. It is considered a dumping post for persons not quite bad enough to be kicked out, but not good enough for a regular post either. Honor and her ship, the Fearless are sent there, not because of their own screw up, but because someone is trying to cover up their own screw up and they want Honor as far away as possible.

Because of the same actions, her crew isn't really a crew, but simply a collection of individuals that are angry with Honor, depressed with where their sent, and generally not acting as a group.

The problem with getting sent to this remote outpost is that the person in charge of Basilisk Station doesn't like Honor either and sets up Honor to be stabbed in the back.

So starts the heart of the book in which Honor must overcome all of this to create a solid crew out of a disparate discouraged group of people in a backwater hole that now needs protecting against someone. Honor doesn't know whom it is, but the reader learns from the outset (or nearly so) that it is the Haven Empire.

Some of the lessons in this book include the fact that Welfare states must continue to expand and conquer in order to keep people living the lifestyle that they have become accustomed to. The point is small, and the paragraph or two about it felt really out of place. However, they fit so well with what some of the political groups have been trying to do for decades that it bears watching. On the other hand, Honor's own kingdom isn't perfect either. The wealthy have political power and because of political infighting things are at a standstill.

Having finished it once I want to continue through the series and finish it. Once I have I want to go back and read them again to get more of the political side of things and see some of the political commentary. Usually, when I read things the first time through I get more of the surface plot and characterizations than I do anything else.

However, I certainly agree that the book deserves a read through at least once. As I was reading it, I felt that this was the sci-fi version of some of Tamora Pierce's characters. Alanna and Kel immediately spring to mind, Kel even more than Alanna sometimes. Ender is another one that I thought of on occasion, but at least Honor got into this knowing what she was getting into in the first place. This is because all three of these characters have the strong cohesive leadership skills needed to take charge of large groups of people. Try Alanna: The First Adventure to start Tortall if you prefer fantasy and females. Ender's Game is a great place to start if you like space operas that have a lot of social commentary in them.

If it's the general idea of the space opera you like, try anything from the Star Wars extended universe (most of which is now getting thrown out of canon). However, Nor Crystal Tears by Alan Dean Foster kicks off the Thranx series which is another great space opera that crosses centuries and several different planets and main characters.

Now that I gave in and actually read one of Weber's books I find myself regretting that I didn't do so earlier.

On Basilisk Station is available for free through the Baen Free Library, but who knows for how long. Check it out while you can.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Good, The Bad and The Civilization

Treecat Wars by David Weber and Jane Lindskold
Two young settlers on a pioneer planet seek to stop a war and to save the intelligent alien treecats from exploitation by unscrupulous humans.
The fires are out, but the trouble’s just beginning for the treecats... 
On pioneer planet Sphinx, ruined lands and the approach of winter force the now Landless Clan to seek new territory. They have one big problem—there’s nowhere to go. Worse, their efforts to find a new home awaken the enmity of the closest treecat clan—a stronger group who’s not giving up a single branch without a fight. 
Stephanie Harrington, the treecats’ greatest advocate, is off to Manticore for extensive training—and up to her ears in challenges there. That leaves only Stephanie’s best friends, Jessica and Anders, to save the treecats from themselves. And now a group of xenoanthropologists is once again after the great secret of the treecats—that they are intelligent, empathic telepaths—and their agenda will lead to nothing less that treecat exploitation. 
Finally, Jessica and Anders face problems of their own, including their growing attraction to one another. It is an attraction that seems a betrayal of Stephanie Harrington, the best friend either of them have ever had.
Treecat Wars picks up right where Fire Season leaves off with very little gap. This book continues the themes of "How do we deal with the new civilization?" as well as "We have to come together to survive." It adds in consequences for ones actions and even consequences for events which were out of the character's control. This second is often forgotten. Finally, it includes the lesson "Everything has a downside, and emotional wounds can be overcome." This last is mostly from the perspective of the humans.

The fire has left the human settlements alone, but a clan of Treecats has lost their home. They are on the verge of starving, but the debate still rages about whether to involve the humans in their search for a new home. In a nearby Treecat settlement, the forest fire has caused mental and emotional chaos to rampage through their clan, making them unwilling to allow a scout to go through their territory, to look for unclaimed territory elsewhere. They don't know if they want help from the humans either. Things slowly spiral out of control.

Meanwhile, what the proven sapience (although Weber keeps using the word sentience) means for the colony on Sphinx and those who have invested in it, comes to a head on the central colony, Manticore. The group with the most invested continues to try to show treecats to be frightful monsters, but their actions often show them to be more civilized than humanity (at least in my opinion).

Between the two contrasting views, it shows both the best of what a civilization can create as well as the worst of it. It, too, is a great continuation to the series, and I hope that Weber and Lindskold go on to publish more in the same series.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Father's Sonnet I

My father means a lot to me still. E'en
Though death has claim on him now, I do love
My father still. Though years he's gone not seen
At times he still to me does give a shove.

A shove to try much harder, succeed well.
But I cannot quite always hear his voice.
It fades beneath the death bell's knell,
But when found I am burdened with a choice.

That choice then lets my father's voice through clear.
So I can choose which path is best for me.
Opaque it starts then slowly fades to sheer,
So I can travel over cold be ocean sea.

My father lives on. My life part of his
Slow legacy. Though claimed by death's quick wiz.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Theory vs. Reality

Image from Atom Smasher
When taking classes for teaching certificates, not only from WCACP, I have found that educational theories are often presented individually and clinically. Sometimes they are presented with ideas for class activities, and other times they are presented without such ideas. It does not matter which way theories are presented. This is because when a new teacher enters the classroom he or she has to crumple up the neat little theories, cut them apart, and patchwork them together to create a cohesive classroom that will work with a variety of students (nothing will work with all students), and a variety of types of information.

The earliest learning theories were to teach students lists of names and dates by rote. For years students sat in a classroom and learned the list of presidents in order, as well as the fifty states (or less) alphabetically, and the periodic table in order of the elemental weights. It worked for simple data. Then Skinner came along and suggested Behaviorism. Behaviorism led to Constructivism, students creating constructs and schema to learn information. Along the way, Bandura developed Observation while Comenius wrote about Pansophism. Which says that one must engage not only the learning part of a student, but the emotional and spiritual parts. Dewey wrote about learning by doing while Gagne wrote about Conditions of learning. Rodgers focused on Experiential learning. The most recent theory being that of Multiple Intelligences by Gardner. Somewhere along the line "Zone of Proximal Development" fits in. See? I learned all the different theories.

However, I have experienced teaching in the classroom, and it is nothing like the theories say. Chaos reigns and when a teacher focuses on the students, she must piece together what works for the students in order to get them learning.

Over the years, I have used (or had used on me) several of the learning theories mentioned above.

Rote memorization is still a necessary evil. Though computers make life easier, and accessing data that will not be used on a regular basis is an everyday occurrence, some facts must still be memorized for regular use. Among these are some basic math figures, such as the multiplication tables. Calculators are everywhere, but the basic multiplication tables are still quicker if memorized. Once the theory of multiplication is understood, students must continue to practice until they have all the basics memorized. This is done through repetition. It is to be noted here that repetition does not have to be boring as along as a variety of activities is carried out to utilize repetition.

Behaviorism and conditioning are both still in use. However, they are usually in conjunction with physical training. When presented with some situations being conditioned to duck, block, or counter strike, is the best way to respond. If you have to stop and think about it, you may be dead.

For many subjects, it is best to teach by allowing students to observe the teacher doing it first. Demonstrate your thought process to the students, or demonstrate how to do the experiment. Then the students should learn by doing, or experiential learning. They should complete the same, or a similar task, that uses the same skills. This is most prevalent in areas where repetitious processes may be used. This would include things like math, where one repeats the process of balancing algebraic equations; or science, where one repeats steps in an experiment, or balancing chemical equations.

Other skills work better when confronted with a Zone of Proximal Development. These are skills that students are beginning to understand, but which they still need help to understand what is going on. This might be researching skills. Presentation skills might fall under this umbrella, and so might many of the writing skills. However, the idea of a "Zone of Proximal Development" always seemed to be tackling the process backwards. One could use it to identify and evaluate the skills that a student possesses, but my understanding is that it would be done in retrospect.

Finally, but most importantly, the students must be taken into account. Emotional distractions, as well as their emotional development, can affect a student's focus. Physical well being and development can affect a student's skill set. So all of this must be taken into consideration when creating lesson plans. The way I taught kindergartners is not the way that I would teach the middle school students. The kindergartners have a different skill set. Their motor functions and logic skills are lower while their emotions are volatile, but they rebound faster. However, kindergartners learn more organically and naturally. Middle school students have better motor skills and logic skills. Meaning they can actually be taught rather than learning from exposure. However, their emotions, while as volatile as a kindergarten student's, are not nearly as easily put back together.

The ways in which students learn and display what they have learned must also be taken into consideration. Some students learn by listening, others learn by seeing charts or text, some learn by doing. Some students speak well, some can create presentations and displays, others write reports. These are the various multiple intelligences. These help teachers understand how their students learn, and to plan lessons that utilize all eight intelligences presented.

Thus, in my classroom, I use a little bit of rote and repetition to help students remember how to form a particular type of construction. For example, adding -s/-es when the subject is he/she/it. However, because of multiple intelligences, some of these repetitions might be written, others spoken, drawn or acted out. I also use observation in conjunction with learning by doing/experiential learning in my classroom. I will give students a sentence starter, and allow them to finish off the sentence. Usually, I will give an example or two before I turn the students loose to practice on their own. Here, too, I will use a variety of input and output formats to encourage the various multiple intelligences. Students create posters and then present them to the class in conjunction with worksheet pages about famous inventors.
Students will always create chaos because they are individuals put together by an outside force. Teachers must create order out of that chaos, and one theory of teaching is never going to cover all students or all aspects of a particular subject. So they must piece-together a plan out of all the theories created and put together a patchwork quilt theory of learning. This is what I will continue to do, in addition to incorporating new theories and practices, that I learn and that any administration I work for wants added in.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Fiery Continuation

Fire Season by David Weber and Jane Lindskold
Fire in the forest–and a cry for help from a trapped and desperate alien mother! Unfortunately, this is one cry no human can hear. Stephanie Harrington, precocious fourteen-year-old Provisional Forest Ranger on the planet Sphinx, knows something is wrong from the uneasy emotion that is flooding into her from her treecat friend, Climbs Quickly. But though Stephanie’s alien comrade shares a tight bond with his two-legs, whom he knows as Death Fang’s Bane, he cannot communicate directly to her the anguished call from one of his people.
Still, their strong and direct bond of feeling may be enough. Stephanie and fellow ranger Karl Zivonik respond to Climbs Quickly’s rising waves of distress. Fire season on the frontier world of Sphinx has begun. But there are those who want to use the natural cycle of the planet for personal gain –and to get rid of the obstacle that stands in the way of acquiring even greater land and power on Spinx: the native treecats. 
Now it’s up to Stephanie, Climbs Quickly along with their friends, family, and allies to prevent disaster and injustice from befalling a treecat clan. But in the process Stephanie must be certain to preserve the greatest secret all. It is the knowledge that the treecats of Sphinx are not merely pets or servants, but are highly intelligent in their own right. That they are a species fully deserving of rights, respect, and freedom. And keeping the secret that will allow the treecats time to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with humankind.
It all begins with the friendship of a girl and her treecat.
While this book easily could have been too preachy about the preservation of nature based on the general ideas, it came off rather well done as a "We have to come together if we want to survive." That was the message that I got out of it.

One group is a group of xeno-anthropologists and xeno-archaeologists who go out into the wilderness as a "team" and end up stranded there. Thus creating a civilization vs. nature set up. Can the group survive being stranded? Can they come together despite previous divisiveness? I'm not going to tell you the answer, you'll just have to read the series for yourself.

Man vs. Nature is also the heart of the other group prominently featured in the book. This would be the local rangers fighting wild fires and attempting to protect the stone age hunter-gatherer society that is the Treecats. Now, it does say, though only once, that forest fires and brush fires are necessary for the prosperity and health of the wilderness. However, the fires depicted in the book are not the type of fires which they are talking about.

What started in the first book with the two species slowly beginning to come into contact with one another is continued. We see both species arguing over whether or not further contact should occur. The humans of course are split between the concept of "we need to protect their culture and let them progress on their own" which is the prime directive and the idea that the wild fires and the actions of man are threatening the treecats' habitats and lives. On the other side, we have the treecats who are arguing about whether or not they should contact man because men are dangerous, just remember some of the incidents that happened "in the previous book." However, some are for it because not all humans are bad, and they have some technology that we can use, just look at some of the things that happened "in the previous book." However, both ends of this debate are too big for the book to complete. Indeed, it started in the first book, and shows signs of continuing into the third book. This of course is Man vs. Man.

Man vs. Self in this book is depicted a little differently than it is in most books. It tends to be either a central theme of the story with most of the interaction in the character's own head, as the main character debates one action or another; or it is sidelined almost completely in favor of external conflict. Because of treecat abilities, the conflict within any character attached to a treecat, or in the vicinity of a treecat, when it is has the point of view, become visible from a third person perspective. I'm not going to tell you why, but readers of science fiction are sure to pick up on exactly why this is.

Overall, the book is a great continuation of that which started in A Beautiful Friendship. It continues to discuss themes that were approached in the first novel, and it adds new dimensions and arguments to both sides. I certainly would not recommend starting with this book, start with A Beautiful Friendship and continue reading.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Three Lessons from Speech Tests and Busy Work

Image by Kozumel
In Korea, I was required to give individual speaking tests to every student. This is not an uncommon requirement in ESL classes. It also pops up a lot in speech classes. No matter how you decide to give the speech tests, you have to devise a method for making sure that the rest of the student body (those either waiting to take the test, or those who have already taken it) busy.

There are two ways to give speech tests. The first is that each student gets up and speaks in front of every student. I was all in favor of doing it this way, and then having the students take notes on what each student talked about. This would show that students had been listening. It would also improve their listening and note taking skills.

However, the Korean teachers did not like this plan. They wanted the speaking tests to be private. Or as private as possible. This was something that I had to accept and bend on. Giving the tests in private is the second method of giving speech tests. However, this means that you have to come up with something that is not busy work for students to do during the speaking tests.

That is something that is very difficult to do. This is because the classroom must be working silently so that the teacher and the student can focus on the test. However, most worksheets are nothing but busy work. So, I had to get creative.

I knew that the English reading teacher (a Korean) taught several extra reading passages over the term. Those passages were then used to make a lot of the test questions. She always makes more material than she uses for these passages, and the students always need more time with the passages because they do not get a lot of time to focus on them. The teacher is required to focus on the textbook reading passages, which don't provide as many test questions. I went to her, and I asked her for some extra solo activities to go with each reading passage. She gave me one for each passage, which I then handed out in packets for students to work on when they were not taking the test.

Although some were worksheets, some were writing activities, and some were more artistic, they were not busy work. The reading teacher then collected and graded them so that she had more grades to add into the averages of the students' scores. This helped me because it kept the classes quiet while I was giving tests. It also helped the reading teacher because it gave her more material to work with when assessing students. It helped the students because it gave them a chance to focus on what would be several key passages of the semester exam that they had not gotten a chance to focus on before.

From these events, which repeated every semester. I learned a lot about collaboration between coworkers. The reading teacher and I had to work together to create this. In addition, when she had a free class she would come over and help my students with the packets. If I was running behind on conducting speech tests, then I could go to her classroom during a free period and give speaking tests to those students who should already have taken the test.

I also learned the difference between busy-work to keep the students quiet, and busy work that would prove useful to students on the test. Several questions for the test were taken straight from the worksheets. Students who had been diligent with the packets noticed and did markedly better on the tests. Students who tried to pass the whole thing off as nothing did not do as well on the tests.

The final lesson that I learned from this experience is that any situation may be turned into a learning experience. I would have happily done the speaking tests another way, and when first confronted with the scenario that I would have to do deal with I was not happy with it. However, I learned to turn such events to the students' advantage. The students spent more time with material that would appear on the test.