Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

Jonathan’s Game

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This week, a three hundred-pound man and a skinny genius collided in my world, united by a common experience, and divided by a single action.

The man was Jonathan Martin, the sort of physical specimen you wouldn’t normally think of as the victim of bullying. Jonathan Martin stands six feet, five inches tall and weighs three hundred and twelve pounds. He’s not only enormous, he’s bright – a starter at Stanford – and relatively wealthy, earning a 2013 salary of $607,466. In short, he’s physically imposing, intelligent, and possessed of considerable – if not NFL star-level – wealth. And this week, he left his team – the Miami Dolphins – because he was being bullied. We’re not talking about some sort of exotic grown-up bullying, either. According to teammates, he was teased, called names, and – I’m not making this up – forced to eat his lunch by himself, because they would actually get up and move if he sat down next to them. Grown men did this. Seriously.

The skinny kid, meanwhile, was Ender Wiggin (portrayed by Asa Butterfield), protagonist of the new movie Ender’s Game1, who’s bullied twice – first on Earth (where he’s fairly sure his response gets him kicked out of the training program), and again in space – SPACE! – where the same cycle of guilt and shame repeats. Watching Butterfield up on the screen brought back the same throat-closing adrenaline rush I experienced when I first read the book back in 1985, a year that found me freshly on the other side of the bullying ‘line,’ having shot up two inches during the year and gained twenty pounds from a full season in the swim team weight room. I was bullied incessantly from the time I entered the fourth grade through the summer of my eighth grade year, and when it dissipated, I was keenly aware of its absence. Not being bullied is something you notice, especially being a smart kid that was a frequent target; one day, they’re looking for you, and the next – it seems – they’re not.  But looking back after the fact, Ender’s Game spoke to me, and I’m sure it’s spoken to bullied kids ever since. It still speaks to me, because of what separates Martin and my current adult self from my own 1974-1984 self (and from Ender): choice.

With, seemingly, at least a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank, Martin could – literally! – afford to make a choice. It might turn out to be an unpopular choice, or one that might end up branding him with many of the same words that kids across the country get branded with – insert your own pejoratives here, I’m not going to dignify them by typing them here – but it was a choice nonetheless. That choice said a lot, too. It said that bullying is in the experience of the bullied, not the intent of the bully himself/herself. Martin, of the Stanford education and the 20 reps at 225 pounds on the bench and the six-figure bank account, simply had no answer for teasing and name-calling and lunch exclusion, but he did have choice. He left. Kids in school bullying situations don’t, and thus begins the cycle I saw up on the screen with Ender Wiggin: the desire to somehow end bullying permanently. I won’t spoiler the movie for those that haven’t read the book, but bullying – and some unseemly steering of his emotional state by authority figures – transforms him into a monstrous entity. Did Martin try to do the same through all those hours in the weight room? Was he trying to permanently outrun bullying by becoming something unbullyable?

It’s easy to look upon Martin’s situation as a reflecting pool of the bullying issue. Some would find his situation laughable, or dismiss his issues as easily discardable; a six hundred-thousand-dollar salary might be interpreted as sufficient to balm the wounds of plenty of names called, or plenty of lunches eaten in isolation. Others would find Martin to be a case study in the lack of hope for bullied kids everywhere; if a starting NFL  offensive lineman can be bullied, what hope is there for skinny junior high kids trying to avoid eye contact with the hulking eighth-grade brutes, dog-eared copiesof Ender’s Game in hand? We all looked forward to being Jonathan Martin someday: frighteningly huge, college-educated, wealthy. Unassailable. What would I have thought of this news when I was in the sixth grade? What does his plight say to those kids today?

What I took out of it is the depressing permanence of the damage bullying causes. It leaves scars that no one can see, and worse, are expected to heal on their own. I’ve taught my kids that school bullying has three timeless and eternal aspects: it exists, it is temporary, and it is best solved in groups.  No amount of school assembly speeches or stern hallway posters are going to eliminate bullies from human existence, but it does pass – at least in the aspect of confinement to the bullying environment, since adults – like Martin – can just pack up and go. It’s also a test of group fortitude, since if even one friend can be counted on to stand up and side with you against a bully – let alone an entire class – bullying can’t survive for long.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Bullies pick loners, the Ender Wiggins of the world, to go after. They don’t have classrooms on their side, or even groups – and sometimes not even a single friend – to side with them. Who are the loners of the junior high hallways? Smart kids. Kids with intensity. Kids with learning disabilities. Combinations of the above. I don’t know that Jonathan Martin wasn’t bullied in the Dolphins training room; maybe he was. Or maybe, the kid within Jonathan Martin, the smart kid who got bullied in those junior high hallways, never got a chance to grow up feeling safe – and thus never got a chance to really grow up at all. Souls don’t necessarily benefit from the strengthening effects of bench presses, and bullying scars don’t necessarily heal in the cold tub.

His certainly didn’t.

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Yes, I’m fully aware of the irony of writing a bullying post involving Ender’s Game when author Orson Scott Card has turned out to be a homophobic monster of an individual, and yes, I’m aware of the backlash against the movie. Here’s what I would say about it: at the time I read the book, Ender’s Game had one of the most powerful messages of compassion, inclusivity, and empathy I had ever read, It moved me deeply to see those qualities present in Ender and his friends, and the book encouraged me to continue along that path in my own life. Clearly, I wasn’t alone in those feelings. If it was Card’s intent to instill in me instead a hatred and suspicion of those different from me, he did a colossally piss-poor job of it, and somehow ended up doing precisely the opposite. In the end, I went to see the movie in large part to close the chapter in my own life that Ender’s Game had been a part of.  I take issue with what Card has become in the years since the publication of the book, and I wonder if he would, himself, not benefit from a careful re-reading of Ender’s Game.

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Killer Bs

I forget, every year, that we’re going to have to go over the concept of grades. A was no different this year; he’s often brought me work with the same eager question that H and E had for the first few months of their own homeschooling: “what do I get?”

I’ve answered him, honestly, as I’ve answered all of them so far: I have no idea. It’s not done yet.

I don’t exist in a world of grades. Most professionals I work with don’t, either. There is one grade – suitable – and the potential for compliments that live above the line of pure actionability. Solutions can be elegant, or quick to the point, or cleverly designed to perform under budget, but those are frosting terms, sprinkle terms, atop the concept of suitable.  The hurdle for workability varies by functional area and by project; some work most definitely needs to correspond to an academic A-plus, and other work simply needs doing at a C level. (No pun intended.) Moreover, picking the wrong execution level is a sin in its own right, so taking an extra week or ten days to do something at an A level that needed C work isn’t just a quality surplus; it’s a different kind of mistake. It’s not only important to be able to trade quality for speed of execution, it’s important to be able to correctly read the circumstances that demand each.

What A provided me wasn’t workable – not yet, anyway (he was close) – so off he went to make it workable. I also informed him that he was on the hook for the work he would have started if what he’d turned in had been workable the first time through. That’s life’s C-minus: you get to do it again, while you’re taking care of everything else that needs doing. The machine neither grinds to a stop while you rework your mistakes, nor does it shrug and move along the next task with this one still undone to spec. But that’s the school system, in which the most dangerous grade possible – a B – somehow lets students move along without ever mastering the concept. (No wonder school districts are slowly beginning to insist on mastery.)

It’s new to him, just as it was new to E and H prior, and there have been teary moments when work piled up, but they slowly, gradually, came to understand how it worked. Then the other questions started coming. What kind of evaluation spec will this assignment be on? What are the evaluation criteria going to be? How long do I have to do it? How long before deadline will you look at work in progress?

Grades, as they are currently constituted, are bullshit, and don’t do a thing to prepare kids for the life that exists for them beyond the walls of academia. Even venerated institutions like our college testing system can’t actually tell a kid whether he or she can write anything meaningful or compelling.  Even graduating from college doesn’t necessarily mean anything anymore, as employers both here and abroad complain that staggering numbers of graduates – half, by consensus – aren’t ready for real-world work. How bad is it? We’re now seriously talking about having a post-graduation test to determine if graduates learned anything.

So we’re starting over with the concept. In here, tests and essays and projects aren’t due by the calendar; they’re due by when our kids feel they’re ready to tackle work at that level with the confidence of skill mastery in hand. They’ve got responsibilities to get that mastery done on a reasonably timely basis, and we’re happy to excuse them from secondary responsibilities that are less important. (I’d rather have my kids spend twice as long on the reasons for the rise of the Maurya Empire than the dates it fell between.) But ultimately, we’re moving in a direction that’s more goal-oriented than grade-oriented, and that goal is ability (as we’ve discussed previously).

We’re also increasingly aware that there’s just more to education than can really be measured by a single number or letter at a single point in time.  As such, we’re much more about concepts like cross-disciplinary application and skill re-acquisition, so we carefully watch their ability to apply what they’ve learned creatively in a variety of learning settings than simply cramming and dumping knowledge sequentially (kind of what this kid is doing). We’re looking, long-term, to see if concepts like the rise of the state show up in critical reading, or whether knowledge of geometry shows up in entrepreneurial work. We’re also watching to see how quickly they can re-learn lost skills; that’s going to be important over time, too.

In the end, I hope I’m readying them for the world they’re going to live in, one in which a series of unsuitable work deliveries (that came oh-so-close) are just greasing the skids toward the inevitable exit interview, and blowing the quality peak off of a midweight project is just costing everyone time for other work. Bs and Cs where As are needed, and As where Bs and Cs will do, are among the many and complex forms of error their world will challenge them with. They’ll need to be ready for both.

The Maddening Transience of Memory

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This week found us comfortably ensconced in the airy confines of the Leprino Family Atrium at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science – homeschooling has its privileges! – as E learned systems of linear equations in two variables for the second time, and I learned them right along with her, for probably the seventeenth time in my life. And E’s upset about this fact. She knew this, just last spring. What happened? The same thing that’s happened to me, I tell her: I forgot. And that’s okay.

It’s not that they don’t make sense to me; they do. And it’s not as if I’m not fairly sure I know how to do them (E was, too); it’s just that I’m not a hundred percent sure, and that forms the basis of what I call ‘the maddening transience of memory.’ I learned systems of two variables first in eighth grade algebra, and then again in geometry, again as review for the SAT, and then for the ACT, then again in Algebra II, and since then, there’s been a double-fistful of times I’ve needed to solve a system of linear equations in two variables. The last time, prior to this one, was two years ago when I was working on modeling the educated and English-speaking population of the Philippines for a client. I’ve learned and re-learned how to solve a system of linear equations in two variables over and over in my life, and to be honest, I don’t consider myself an educational failure for it.

The reality is, we retain what we do, and we slowly discard what we don’t. And that, in turn, is why I’m more focused on making sure my kids know how to quickly re-learn something than permanently know it, because permanence – unfortunately – is kind of a relative thing. If the goal of learning is ability, as we’ve said before, then ability is surely the axle that turns the wheel of learning. Leave the axle alone too long, and rust accumulates.

That’s true of everything. Things I’ve known within the last twelve months that I don’t know right now: the guitar solo to Queensryche’s I Don’t Believe in Love; the muzzle velocity of a magnetic coilgun (writing-related, I assure you); contracting regulations for the Federal A-76 outsourcing program; trends in public-sector budgeting for state employment offices; how to bias a 12AX7 amplifier tube; the part number for our whole-house air filter media replacement; the telephone number of our drywall installer (don’t ask).  The list goes on and on. When I’m in the moment, I know the information, and once I’m done with it, it slowly gathers its hat and coat over the course of a week or so and makes its exit. By the way, every single one of those neurons was refilled with some other item of knowledge, and I’ve probably forgotten that, too. The older I get, the more I realize that some aspects of our brains are just like a quirky hard drive of limited capacity; there are things that will always be remembered (the way my wife looked in the sun of Fiddler’s Green on August 6, 1991) and things that will swiftly come back to me when I need them (how to solve a system of linear equations in two variables) and things that I may have already forgotten I ever knew.

So why, then, do we focus so keenly on testing and comprehension for kids? I buy into the argument that it’s important to know something once so that you can re-learn it quickly, and for that, I’m grateful I received 1980s-level rigor in my algebra testing. I did know this once, and did well on it, but testing is (obviously) no guarantee that something has taken up anything like permanent residency in my head. It’s not even a guarantee that the second, or third, or nth, exposure will cement it permanently. I’ve done about a hundred Z- and two-tailed t-tests in statistics in my life, and almost every time I do one, I have to go double-check to make sure which is which; about half the time, I’m wrong. I just don’t do them often enough that the information lives in a high-confidence neuron for me. It’s a never-ending ‘oh, right’ moment.

When Kathy was in medical school, she bought – and made extensive use of – an HP palmtop computer (back when THOSE were a thing) that she had the most marvelous term for. She called it her ‘peripheral brain,’ and in it she stored everything that was useful to a physician from a reference perspective. She was ultimately still responsible, during her intern and resident years, for coming up with a diagnosis and plan for every patient she saw, but dragging around a hundredweight of medical textbooks isn’t an option for an exhausted intern (or anyone, for that matter). Over time, I saw her use it less and less, and when I asked why, she told me that an increasing proportion of what was stored in her peripheral brain had moved to her ‘primary’ one. But it never left entirely, and to this date, she still uses a service called Up to Date, which keeps physicians informed on recent developments in medicine (because it’s a daunting challenge for any physician to remember what’s already been learned, but next to impossible to stay current with every new piece of research). In a sense, she, too, is forever learning and forgetting information in service of the need to do a good job now.

So, what I’ve come to is a position that I’d call the polar opposite of the current grind of elementary and primary school testing. I’m less concerned with my kids’ ability to permanently learn the date of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, or the formula for the volume of a quadrilateral pyramid, or the five major varieties of Pacific salmon. If one of them ends up being an industrial historian, or a civil engineer specializing in pyramids, or a Pacific marine biologist, those facts will end up taking up permanence in their ‘primary brains,’ and for the rest of us, if we need to know it, there’s Khan Academy or Wikipedia or a hundred other sources of ‘peripheral brain’ capacity.

I don’t care that they know something within an inch of their lives today, because there will come a day when they don’t know it anymore, and they need a sense of calm about that; a lost ability is just a few moments of review away from being recovered. What is important to me is that a concept makes sense to them today and can be grasped; anything grasped once can be grasped again, and that’s why I’m talking E off of a ledge, here in the sun-drenched air of the atrium, opening Khan Academy and starting a video on systems of linear equations. It’s as much for me as it is for her.

Aggressive Acceptance

I’m bookending Kathy’s post this week with a few additional thoughts on homeschooling a 2e child; where she did more of the why and what, I’m going to talk a little about the how of the decision. Specifically, there were three processes that I felt like, if we went back and could do them over again, we might have handled differently. The first was our speed to acknowledgment; the second was our boldness of decision; and the third was the shift in our educational strategy. All three are probably easier to define in their inverse, which is exactly what we did: we were slow to figure out what H was struggling with, tentative in the steps we took initially to work on it, and corrective – rather than pragmatic – in our approach to dyscalculia.

Learning disabilities can be notoriously difficult to spot in gifted kids, simply because there’s so much horsepower on tap that kids can often find a different route to managing tasks that might just be impossible for other children. Both H and A, for example, got the same math facts sheet for every number group – the 6’s started with 6×9, then 6×4, then 6×6, every day – so they just memorized their way through the sheet. (Crafty devils). A  – who runs toward the unmotivated side in reading, although we’re not 100% sure there’s not something else at work with him – could literally memorize, and read back, any book he’d ever had read aloud to him. We finally had to tell teachers to test his reading specifically on books not included in the read-aloud portion of the class. H had so much raw processing power available to her down other channels that she managed to get through a great deal of formal ‘math’ without learning any of it – so by the time we really started seeing cracks appear in her math skills, she’d been struggling with dyscalculia for years. If we’d done more detective work beneath her math grades, and investigated issues like analog clock reading more closely, we might have gotten to it before we did.

Similarly, once we did know what we were contending with, we edged toward a solution rather than making a bold leap. Tutors, manipulatives, pullout sessions with aides – they were band-aids on a gaping wound. We would probably have been better served to pull H out for a year and work intensively with her on building up both mathematical confidence and basic skills. Instead, we took advantage of what’s often served up to parents with 504s – a host of half-measures that mitigate, and manage, a situation that needs more. We were changing tires and oil on a car that needed an engine overhaul – and once we finally stopped frittering around the fringe of H’s disability, and got to work with her full-time last year, we saw real results and demonstrable progress.

Finally, there’s the issue of whether we’re trying to whittle a child into form or prepare her for the world she’s going to live in. I could likely sit with H for the better part of a year just on a concept like long division by hand – but what am I telling her by doing so? Do I believe she should be doing manual long division as a primary mathematical tool in her adult life? (Do I believe anyone should be doing manual long division as a primary mathematical tool, let alone someone with dyscalculia?) The reality is that H will come of age in an era that will feature unprecedented access to arithmetic and financial management tools, and I’d be far better off teaching her to run with a knee brace than insist on a thousand fruitless leg lunges a day. Add to which, by teaching her to use the tools that will be available to her – calculators, spreadsheets, Mathematica, etc – I can leave more room in her day to explore areas in which she has some genuine and often-dazzling mathematical gifts, such as algebra. There is so much focus in the popular press on educating children with learning disabilities to move children stubbornly toward normalcy that it’s possible to lose sight of the advantages of embracing the condition and teaching for a practical future of managing its challenges.

I wouldn’t call any of these a regret, in the long-run view of things; we got H into an environment that’s working fantastically well for her. But for other parents contending with the educational strategy for a 2e child, I’d certainly call them factors I wish I had been – at the same time – more aggressive about and more accepting of.

Taking Life As It Comes

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Dave and I had an infamous (well, to us, anyway) conversation several years ago that began with him telling me, at great length and in vivid detail, about his then-current hopes and aspirations in life.

He then ended by saying, “Kath, I guess what I’m saying is, are you living the life you imagined?”

“Yup.” I replied.

There was a long silence, and then we both howled laughing.

Because, really, the conversation was so typically us. Dave likes to examine everything in detail, with the nuance of a writer, analyst, and anthropologist. I love listening to him dissect situations, and examine alternatives out loud. He worries about the existential nature of life, how we fit into the universe, and why we’re here, in this form.  I, generally, do not worry about these things, and, as such, don’t have much to say. My talkative brothers describe car trips with me as “painful,” since I’m usually quiet.

I have gotten better since we’ve had children, especially since we have kids who are so inquisitive and philosophical. I also talk a lot when I have something I care about, and tend to interrupt people, but I have to confess this is generally because I just want to say what needs to be said and get to the end of the conversation. At home, my kids talk a lot, so I don’t have to. I just need to listen, and I’m pretty good at that particular skill.

While I definitely have my goals in life – and have achieved many of them – I typically take life as it comes.  If I have a certain way I’d like to see things done, then I make sure they are done that way. I round on my own patients, while insisting that nurses and other support staff do what work belongs to them. I don’t make “honey do” lists for Dave; if I want something done, I do it – or arrange to have it done – myself. Dave does the same, and we discuss as we go.

After part-time homeschooling over the last two years, we embarked on full-time homeschooling our three kids this month. This is definitely a “take it as it comes” arrangement: every day brings new joys, challenges, discoveries, and heartbreaks. We make a schedule, then ignore it some days; the kids start projects, then get interested in something else. We try to walk a balance between insisting they complete a course or project, and allowing them to wander among their activities and interests, knowing that once something catches their imagination, they will run without any help from us. The trick is forcing ourselves to wait, and not intervene, while the learning process develops naturally on its own.

I live among intense kids who feel exuberance and despair, and I am part of the balance in their lives. Now that we are together and learning every day, that balance feels even more important. The conversation still goes on in our house, with Dave spinning tales to the kids about the wonder and amazement in the universe, and I listen, engaged in the conversation, adding my own comments here and there.  When the kids ask me if I’m happy, I still answer “Yup,” and then break out a huge smile.

Actually, You Probably Could

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Now that school is back in session, we’re starting to run into our old trad-school friends – at restaurants, in the Target aisles, at the pool in the evening. There are pleasantries exchanged, and they often feel the need to bring up alternating positives and negatives about their own experiences, as if to both reassure themselves and reassure me at the same time. I’m sure we’ll get past all of this in time, and we’ll all agree that we’re doing what we need to be doing. It’s with that thought in mind that I’m finding that the most common denouement to these conversations is a simple statement on their part with respect to homeschooling: “I couldn’t do it.”

Actually, you probably could.

If you felt you needed to.

Seriously. When have you, as a parent, not tried to do what you felt your kid needed? Not wanted; needed. And how often have you, in a split-second, made a judgement call as to whether something was a want or a need? I found myself in the school-supplies aisle at Target this week, and I saw parents make those calls a hundred times over. Yes, you need a binder; no, you don’t need a binder with a built-in iPad holder. Yes, you need a protractor, but I’m sure you could get by with this one instead of that one. Yes, you need a backpack, but…yes, you need a calculator, but…on and on it went. We’re in the business of drawing those invisible lines as parents; where am I serving this kid’s needs, and where am I being wheedled into something unnecessary and indulgent?

I know where that line is in education, and so do you. We all do. If you felt as if homeschooling was a need, instead of an indulgence, you’d do it, and you’d do fine. You’d at least go down swinging, which is all most of us do anyway; some days are wondrous voyages of enlightenment and learning, and other days, we’re fighting through our frustrations just as our kids are fighting through theirs, to get their heads around writing assignments and algebraic formulas and the role of the sickle in early agriculture. Like anything, there are days that we feel like we’re doing it, and there are days we feel like we’re not.

I think that sensation – “I couldn’t do it” – is probably a good and healthy test of your own thought process on homeschooling. This was an option for us for several years, and nothing more, despite a very dear friend and counselor – the inimitable Patty Gatto-Walden – calmly taking Kathy’s hand during a counseling session, looking directly into her eyes, and saying, “you’re homeschooling in three years.” We exchanged a quick glance, one that probably betrayed the shared initial feeling of we can’t do that. And that was true, at the time, because I didn’t know everything I needed to know to perceive homeschooling for my kids as a need, not an indulgence.

But the data piled up, like snow in March here in Colorado, layer upon layer, silent drift upon silent drift, until the same instinct kicked in that makes you start pulling on boots and coats to go and shovel it. EXPLORE scores and WISC-IV data and dyscalculia information and case studies on emotional sensitivity all accumulated until Kath and I began to exchange other glances, ones that suggested that maybe, just maybe, Patty had been right. Were we really going to send a kid off to sixth grade who already tests high mastery of all of middle school and a fat wedge of high school? Were we going to undertake increasingly distant split-grading for another kid who belongs squarely in one grade for writing and reading and squarely in another for math? What about our kid who just doesn’t seem to learn anything in school because the emotional ‘noise’ is too loud? This was looking less like an indulgence with each datapoint.

In the end, Patty was right, of course, and here we are, ready to get going again, and I’m nodding and smiling in response to I couldn’t do that in all of its varieties of delivery.

I couldn’t either, once.

But I can now.

Hurray 4 Sugar Meter

I’m often of a single mind with Sugata Mitra, but when he said last week that spelling and grammar should no longer be taught as individual subjects, I had a sinking feeling that I was suddenly parting ways with a pedagogic ally.

Now, Mitra ‘revised and extended his remarks,’ as they say, on Facebook later, noting that he never said that these subjects shouldn’t be learned; only that they shouldn’t be taught. I’d like to think that his argument is that both should be taught in-line with writing, a concept I can’t say I disagree with. I’ve seen plenty of instances in which separating out a subject creates what I call Performing Seal syndrome, in which a kid can spell wonderfully so long as s/he’s only being asked to spell. Put that same kid in the context of writing a paragraph, however, and suddenly a significant percentage of that spelling skill goes out the window. The same thing can be true of grammar, where a kid might have no problems circling predicate nominatives, but can’t use them correctly in his or her own writing. My personal opinion is that we learn something best by doing it in the context of execution, not abstraction.

I do, however, take issue with the idea of not introducing words, in their fullest possible interpretation, to kids, and Mitra still seems guilty of not wanting to teach words at all. Call that didactic function whatever you want – vocabulary, spelling, etymology, et cetera – but Mitra’s contention that ‘my phone will correct my spelling’ is analogous to saying that ‘McDonald’s always has something for me to eat.’ Sure it does, I suppose, but if you never branched out and tried anything else, you’d still be on an all-McNugget diet. Your phone can, indeed, correct your spelling, but I’d call that something of a dubious victory for accurate spelling. If you can’t spell the common words typically used in text conversations, I don’t hold out much hope that you can spell anything richer or more varied. And, toward that end, your phone (and your word processor) will also – as some Mitra critics have pointed out – only correct the spelling of the word you intended to use, not the word that would work better in place of it. I’m still more than a bit disappointed that Word 2013 doesn’t pop a window open and say, ‘somber seems a bit over the top for the lighthearted subject matter you’re discussing. Have you considered maudlin?’

And yes,by way of full disclosure, I’m a word guy. I’m a proud owner of The Highly Selective Thesaurus for the Extraordinarily Literate and The Superior Person’s Book of Words and a host of other unbelievable snobby-sounding books, but beyond the ivory-tower titles, the truth is that I just love rich, interesting words. I distinctly remember learning the word gloaming; for a solid week, everything I wrote took place at sunset, just because it was such a fantastic word. Fulminant, effervescent, dalliance, cabotage, jentacular, piquant. Had I never been introduced to them, I’d never know when and how to use them, let alone spell them. Diminishing the function of introducing language to children diminishes their ultimate capacity to write effectively and elegantly.

There’s more than just an evolved lexicon lost in that decision, too; there’s the eventual loss of the fascinating story of how we came to speak this bizarre language. The richness of English is the story of its higgledy-piggledy assemblage, rivers of syntax flowing together into a broad, deep, burbling body of water. We don’t have words for shellfish, for example, without the Second Latinate Borrowing, since early Britons apparently wanted nothing to do with musles, oysters, or lopysters (the names of which all came into English from Continental Europe.) Similarly, our amazing wealth of synonyms was a direct result of the Viking Invasions, which mixed Norse and Anglo-Saxon together and provided us options like rear/raise, carve/cut, craft/skill, and hide/skin. To go the other way, and to crush out that wealth of linguistic history, is an act of destruction.

I’m not saying, to Mitra’s point, that SMS-speak isn’t useful, or that it’s not appropriate to ‘dialectize’ English on a smartphone for the sake of expediency. My SMS grammar is ghastly, all split infinitives and dangling participles, and my Oxford comma gets very lazy when texting. That’s more appropriate than you might think; English began its life as a battle language, after all, and I’m fairly sure that good grammar was not a vital part of battlefield communication. So while yes, I concur that afaik is a great SMS response when I don’t want to type out as far as I know, but I’m not going to say afaik (‘ah-fay-ik’?) in conversation or use it in formal writing. There’s a difference between SMS English, spoken (casual) English, spoken (formal) English, written (casual) English, and written (formal) English, and I put those two ‘dialects’ at opposite ends for a reason. My SMS vocabulary is as abbreviated and terse as anyone else’s, but that’s because the one is a subset of the other. I’d much rather know what I know about formal writing and cut it down for SMS purposes than to try and go the other way, a sorry state of affairs I hope Mitra isn’t espousing.

In the end, I suppose I’m still of a mind with Mitra in suggesting that spelling and grammar be learned rather than taught, although I think his SMS argument is a clumsy way to get there. And maybe, just maybe, he got his just desserts in the form of a Facebook commenter who posted ‘Hurray 4 Sugar Meter‘ in response to Mitra’s comments – perhaps as an honest (and errant) comment, his phone attempting to correct his spelling along the way, or perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek poke at Mitra’s comments. (It’s not clear which was intended). Either way, I found it an ironic – and insightful – closure to the conversation.