Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Fractured Fairy Tale*

You know that old folk tale, where a man asks for advice from the village elder because his house is too small...

And the elder tells the man, bring six chickens into your home to live with you and your family.
The man does this, but it makes the problem worse and so he goes back to the elder, who tells him, now bring 3 pigs into your home as well...

And this repeats a few times, each time the elder telling the man to add other animals to the menagerie: some sheep, a cow, maybe a horse, whatever is around.

At some point the home becomes totally unbearable, and the elder then says, throw out the horse.

The man does this and reports how much better things are; then each animal is removed in turn, leaving the house ultimately the same as it was in the beginning, but with the people in it much more satisfied with their lot since it feels so much roomier and liveable now.

Well, US President Bush has just thrown out the horse.

A news item conveniently leaked – today – September 11 - by “anonymous administration officials” states that Bush plans to announce that he will reduce the troop levels in Iraq.

To the level they were at before the “surge”, 130,000.

By next summer.


Bush will place more conditions on reductions than his general did, insisting
that conditions on the ground must warrant cuts and that now-unforeseen events
could change the plan.

Doesn’t that house just feel bigger already.

*Yes it's a Rocky & Bullwinkle reference. What can I say, I'm old.

Monday, September 10, 2007


Tomorrow morning, September 11, 2007, the MSNBC network plans to rerun the original NBC coverage of THE September 11, six years ago. CNN did the same thing last year but only online if I remember correctly.

Why? What is the point?

The usual answer to why media does anything is, ratings. Perhaps people will watch but again I have to ask, why?

Why put yourself through it?

Commemorate the day, of course.
Read the names of the 3000 dead slowly, one by one.
Assess the progress of rebuilding the Pentagon (done?) and Ground Zero (not done).
Assess what was heroic and what wasn't, that day and the days following.
Reflect upon the state of the US and the world and how we got from that day to this one.

Remember, of course. But relive? What on earth for?

Those newscasts have immense historical value; they should be viewed by future generations, but not necessarily by those who viewed them in 2001. There is no need to see it all again - it is permanently etched into our collective consciousness.
Will we learn anything from these reruns? Or will we just reinforce the fears that were born that day - the fears that enabled the US to be led down its current destructive path.

MSNBC calls it "living history". I call it self-serving sensationalism.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Facts and Arguments on Role Models

It has long been a contention of mine that schools ought to prepare students for the real world. School society should, in an age-appropriate fashion, mirror adult societies such as the workplace.

For instance: nobody in a workplace is going to sit down with a bully and ask them nicely to stop it. Bullying exists, will always exist, and while teaching children not to do it is an admirable goal, it is also vital to teach children how to deal with it. Otherwise, they will leave their bully-proof school without the means to handle such an interaction on the outside.

Conversely, what is unethical in a school context must also be unethical in society as a whole, and teachers and other role models have a responsibility to acknowledge mistakes when they are made, and rectify them as much as possible.

This all has to do with a recent column in the Canadian newspaper, the Globe and Mail, brought to my attention by a listserv discussion. Each weekday the paper runs a personal essay in a column called Facts & Arguments. I first heard of it several years ago in a writing seminar, when the seminar leader seemed impressed that one of my fellow classmates had already been published there. “It’s hard to get into that one,” she said.

A little more digging in google shows that the column has hosted numerous award-winning essays and has quite a prestigious reputation.

But it’s probably just as well that I never got around to submitting an essay there, because now I’d be considering removing it from my resume had it been accepted, and would be really really peeved if it hadn’t.

The essay in question is The English Assignment by Sharon Melnicer, herself a well-established author and artist. It revolves around a purported school writing assignment that Melnicer, a former teacher, claims was done by her students in 1997.

It is well-written, entertaining and thought-provoking – but somehow familiar? That would be because the central part of this essay, the work that the students supposedly submitted, has been floating around the internet for at least ten years according to the relevant entry at Snopes.com.

(Update: the Snopes page now includes Melnicer's claim to have written the original piece.)

Hundreds of other instances of the story turn up in google searches for distinctive keywords.

Of course the letters to the editor started rushing in; I later learned that the response I received was the stock response sent to everyone and since it has already been posted online I don’t feel the least bit uncomfortable about reproducing it here:

Dear Pauline Brock,
Thank you for your e-mail re the essay of Sept. 4.
The essay writer, Sharon Melnicer, tells me she first presented this article at a province-wide workshop for Manitoba English teachers in 1997. She says she had found the idea ( 'Writing a Tandem Story') as explained in the essay, in a professional journal . The first part of a sample tandem story (the "Outer Space" theme) as well as the teacher's instructions for students were provided in the article. Ms. Melnicer says she tried it out with Grade XI and XlI students, as her essay describes, then wrote up what happened and presented it at the workshop. Copies of that paper were distributed to the 50 or so participants who attended. Nothing further happened regarding publication of the piece until she picked it up again after retiring, did some revisions, and submitted it to F&A.
Ms. Melnicer says she knows plagiarism is a serious offence, and not one she would commit. I have no reason to doubt her.

Moira Dann
Okay, I suppose someone had to have written the original story and while I have my doubts, I have no proof.


What on earth was the editor thinking when she decided to use the story? If it’s not a real example of plagiarism it’s doing a darn good imitation of one, and is certainly not worth the potential aggravation!

Obviously there was no fact checking going on, or somebody did a really sloppy job.
The Globe and Mail is a major national Canadian paper. If I can’t be assured of the originality of their essay page, what can I be assured of?

I replied to the editor saying that if I had been aware that they accepted recycled stories that I had a few hundred of my own lying around to send in, and that I was disappointed in the Globe and in the column; to her credit she did bother to answer that email as well but only to say she was sorry that I was disappointed and that she had acted in good faith.

I am sure she did act in good faith however that is not the point. The point is she, or someone, should not have published the essay without some kind of disclaimer, and the paper should now publish some sort of clarification, if not outright apology.

Which brings me to the extra special bit of irony in all this:
Sharon Melnicer had used the example of the student writing assignment to illustrate a point, which was:

Every good teacher - every effective leader, for that matter - knows that it is from our mistakes we all learn. It follows, then, that failure is something to celebrate; it is the very soil in which learning grows and knowledge blooms.

Nice – and something that the editors at the Globe should take to heart. So far no correction, apology, or explanation has appeared, and it seems as if they are hoping the whole thing will just go away.

What on earth does it say when a former teacher puts herself in the position of appearing to plagiarize and the editor who lets it slip by makes excuses and doesn’t address the issue? How can a society that permits this expect better from its students? Schools rightly make a very big deal about plagiarism and must have the backing of those in real life or the lesson will surely fail.

If you can’t trust the integrity of your teachers... and your editors... who can you trust?