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Learning

I’ve been messing around with LaTeX for some time now, but I was faced with a new challenge yesterday when I had to typeset a book of poetic conversation between two different authors. One poet’s work needed to be set on the left page and the other’s on the right. The solution seemed to be the eledpar package, which is an extension of the eledmac package. Eledmac allows users to create critical editions of a text, and eledpar allows for the creation of parallel texts, either in columns on a single page or on facing pages, just what I needed.

The initial document set-up wasn’t too difficult, and I soon had the text appearing where I wanted it, but then I ran into difficulty with the poetry itself.  For previous books I have been using specific packages to help me set poetry, whereas eledmac provides its own functions for setting poetry that are based on edstanza, some of which seem to conflict with the poetry packages I use.  The result was that I spent a fair bit of frustration time yesterday afternoon.

While I was engaged with that problem, my eldest son was at the other computer on Kahn Academy’s site working on some programming problems of his own.  He is learning to program in processing.js, which both fascinates and frustrates him in equal measure, much as LaTeX fascinates and frustrates me.

“Dad,” he said at one point, “the problem is that you can’t even make one mistake,” which hits on the frustration of programming exactly, even if it isn’t strictly true.  After all, the editor that he uses is pretty good at guessing where his errors are and telling him what he needs to do to fix his code, and ShareLaTeX, the online editor that I use, can compile anything but the most egregious errors.  His point, however, is absolutely accurate.  The frustration of programming, especially for someone like me, who is used to manipulating language with a fair degree of creativity and flexibility, is that one wrong line of code can break the whole thing.

If I miss a period in a short story, it will print just the same.  My reader might not even notice.  If I miss a comma, there could be some discussion about whether it needs to be included at all.  If I cut a sentence or even a paragraph more or less, everything will likely still read properly.  If I miss a single operand in my code, however, it may not compile, and if I’m not sure how to fix my error, it won’t be as easy as putting in a period.  I may need to go hunting through a manual or harass someone who knows better or post a question on Stack Exchange.  It could take me all afternoon, and the answer will probably be something depressingly simple.

My son’s problem was of exactly that kind.  He had forgotten to change his fill colour, so his new shape had blended into the background image and seemed not to have been rendered at all.  It took only a few seconds to fix, and then he said, “The good thing about computers is that you know if it’s right,” and this is true too.  The reward of programming is having it work and knowing that you got it right.

No matter how many times I revise a short story, I’m never quite sure I’ve got it right (in fact, with that sort of writing, I’m convinced that there’s no such thing as getting right), but I always know when the code compiles the way it should, and there is a unique satisfaction in this.  It’s not a satisfaction sufficient to make me program more seriously, but it was sufficient, at least at that moment, for me to share it with my son, a connection that I never expected, and I am starting to see why some people become addicted.

 

Marlon chose to go to school this year rather than to learn at home, so this morning was the first time that I have ever gone through the first day of school routine.  He was very excited, coming into our bed at 6:30, rolling around endlessly, asking the time at thirty second intervals.  All this I expected, because he has always been interested by the idea of school, and he has always been so social, and because he likes anything that makes him feel bigger and older and more gtrown up.

When we arrived at the school, however, Ethan surprised me by asking if he too could go to school this year, which was much less expected, since he has always boasted to his friends about how little time he has to spend doing school compared to them, and since he generally avoids situations with large numbers of people.  He seemed sincerely interested though, so we got the paperwork, and his first day of school will be tomorrow.

I must confess that all this is a little difficult for me, not because my kids will be gone for a large part of every day, which actually inspires in me some hopes of getting some things done around the house, but because I have so much idealogically invested in the idea of home learning.  We had always told them that they could go to public school if they chose, because I never wanted them to feel as though we had robbed them of that experience, and we had always suspected that Marlon would choose school, at least for a time, but to have both my school-aged children make this choice on consecutive days has produced some complicated emotions in me, as I come to grips with the fact that my children have chosen to learn in a way that I seriously distrust.

We will continue to learn at home of course, just by living the way we do, by pulling the kids out of school for special trips and occasions, and by encouraging them to pursue their interests, but I am still mourning the ideal of learning that I have been nurturing for something like a decade.  I know that my kids may return to homeschooling at some point, and I also know that they will be fine if they choose to remain in the public school system.  Still, it is hard to let them go.

As some of you already know,  I am working with a few people on a co-operative publishing venture that I am not yet quite prepared to announce officially, and so I am having to learn a few things as I go, which is always an amazing and terrifying experience, especially since I am trying to do things as open source as I can.  Here are a few of the things I have learned:

1.  In Canada, ISBN numbers are granted free of charge through Library and Archives Canada, with the requirement that the publisher send a copy of each publication to be catalogued in the national archive.

2. You can create ISBN barcodes very easily using an online barcode generator, like the one provided through www.terryburton.co.uk/.

3. The Gimp is an effective image editor for creating book covers and dust jackets, though the learning curve, especially for someone like me who has never really used this kind of software before, can be pretty steep.  I must confess that it took me several days of playing with the thing to get a real sense of composing an image in layers, and I get the feeling that I am only just scratching the surface of what the program can do, though I am very pleased with what I have managed to create so far.

4.  Inkscape is my latest self-education project.  The program is used to produce vector images, which can scale to any size and retain their image quality.  I am using it to design some logos and whatnot, but I have only just begun, so I am currently hacking my way through a test project and getting to know the user manual.

5.  I have already mentioned sharelatex.com, but I have also been using scribtex.com as I continue my education in writing LaTeX.  Along the way, I have also found stackexchange.com to be an invaluable resource when the answers I am looking for are somewhat less than intuitive.

6. I have learned that though there are print on demand publishers in every design and flavour, very few of them allow authors merely to submit print-ready files without purchasing a publishing package.  There is lulu.com, of course, and it is an acceptable option as far as it goes.  There is also Amazon’s createspace.com, which offers similar services, with greater default distribution but less choice in terms of book sizes and bindings.  The best option seems to be lightningsource.com, though they really only deal with publishers, so you will have to create yourself as a publisher in order to deal with them, and you will need to set up credit with them in some way as well, even if only through a credit card.

In short, I have learned that some parts of learning to self-publish high quality books are far easier than I had imagined, some are far harder than they should be, and most of them require a certain amount of trial and error, though I think I may now finally be exhausting the trails and errors and getting to the point where I can produce books with some proficiency.  Of course, I might still be wrong.  I have been before.

We have a tendency in our expert-driven culture to make the failures of our educational system (and they are many), the responsibility of a whole set of professionals.  We accuse teachers, and administrators, and politicians, and curriculum writers, and educational experts and countless others of creating a system where there is low teacher accountability,  poor educational funding, large class sizes, student bullying, and insufficient special education resources, just to mention the issues that I have heard raised by people I know in the past week.  Yet, at no point do we consider the possibility that the most pressing problem in education is perhaps the idea that learning is, in the end, the responsibility of the learner.

Let me be clear.  I am not suggesting that our students are at fault for the difficulties of our educational system.  What I am suggesting is that the biggest problem of the educational system is that it has created a culture of education that removes the student’s responsibility to learn and replaces it with the teacher’s responsibility to educate.  I am suggesting that we have created an educational system that in many ways actively discourages students from taking responsibility for their learning and then is frustrated by their seeming inability to learn.

The root problem is that we have grossly misunderstood the role of the teacher , assuming that it involves taking responsibility for the students’ education rather than in encouraging them to take responsibility for their own learning.  We have made it a greater priority to have an expert cover all of the material than to have a learner actually be motivated to learn.

This is not to say that teachers are unnecessary, but it is to drastically reconceive the teacher’s role.  The teacher who encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning will be far more concerned about modeling the act of learning than about conveying information.  This kind of teacher will show students that learning occurs as much through failure as through success, as much through questioning as by answering, as much by passion as by discipline.  This kind of teacher will model an attitude and a posture toward learning that is not confined by the educational institution, with its classes and courses and marks and diplomas.  This kind of teacher will provide an example of learning that is questioning and critical and open to a variety of voices in the learning conversation.

I have written about these and other marks of the effective teacher before, of course, and I will not belabour them now, but the key to all of them is a reconsideration of where the responsibility for our educational problems actually lies, not with a failure to provide the right courses and curricula and resources, but with a failure to return to our students their responsibility to learn.

I have been learning a little about LaTeX recently.

For those of you who are unfamiliar (as I was only a few months ago), LaTeX is a program that uses mark-up language (something like html) and a document preparation system to produce documents through the TeX typesetting program. It is used, mostly in academia, to produce publication-quality documents, and is particularly useful when building bibliographies, using graphics, and representing mathematical or scientific symbols.

When I went about trying to self-publish Lindy, my friend Dave used LaTeX to help me mark-up the manuscript and prepare it in a form that www.lulu.com would accept, but then I needed to make some revisions, and then I wanted to typeset a short story for someone, and then I started putting the Island Pieces together into a more formal shape, so I figured that I had better learn how to work with LaTeX myself rather than pestering Dave every time I needed something. Unfortunately, this has traditionally meant downloading the entire program and a whole set of additional packages,  setting them up, and doing the sort of computer work that generally ends up making me deeply frustrated with the world and everything in it.

However, as of quite recently, there is another option. ShareLaTeX, which describes itself as LaTeX in the cloud, provides a dedicated .tex editor and typesets to .pdf without having to download any part of LaTeX at all. The site is in its infancy, and it has not been without its growing pains, but the hassle that it saves more than makes up for it, and the creator of the site has been very good with responding to issues as they arise. To this point the service is free, and it will always be free to have a limited number of active projects, but eventually there will be a cost for larger numbers of projects.  I recommend the site to anyone who is interested in experimenting with what LaTeX can actually do.

Even without having to setup the program myself, however, the learning curve for marking up the text in a .tex file was fairly steep for me.  There are bits about LaTeX that make absolute sense, and other bits that make sense once you know them, but some bits remain counterintuitive even once you have used them, especially if you approach learning like I do, by throwing yourself into a project and just troubleshooting your way through it, rather than sitting down to read through a manual.

It took me some time, for example, to discover how to insert blank pages between the table of contents and the first chapter of a book in memoir class.  The newpage and clearpage commands did not seem to produce what I wanted, even when followed by thispagestyle{empty}, which were the standard suggestions for this problem.  Eventually I stumbled upon the cleartorecto and cleartoverso commands, which seem to have done the trick, though nobody else seems to use them in this way.  All of which is to say that learning to markup text for LaTeX has been an interesting experience for me, and though I am fairly certain that I will never make a career of it, I am pleased to be a little more self-sufficient in this respect.

My children have been leaning about their city and its environs as part of their homeschooling, so today we sat down with google maps to help them locate where they are in relation to the world. My hope was that that they would get a better sense of scale, of how big our city is in comparison with our county, our province, our country, our continent, and our world. We started at the broadest level and narrowed our scope, step by step, until we were at our street. Then I clicked on the street view to let them see their own house.

Up until that final click, they were interested and, I think, grasping the idea of scale that was the purpose of the exercize for me, but after that final click, they were beyond excited. The possibility of seeing an image of what had, until then, only been a map, of moving between map and image with a click, suddenly made everything real to them. From then on, nothing would do but that we had to follow along the streets on the map to find the houses of their friends, their church, their favourite stores, their parks, everything they could think of, to see it on the map. It was as if the idea of scale became concrete for them all at once, as if they could finally understand that the lines on the paper represented, not only the idea of things, but the actual places that they knew.

It was amazing, one of those moments that makes homeschooling my kids so wonderful.

I hate what passes for children’s verse these days.   Not only does it lack anything that might approach the poetic, preferring instead to take awkward prose and make it even more awkward by forcing it into artless rhymes, but it has no sense whatsoever of rhythm or metre.

Now, I am not of the opinion that all children’s poetry needs to be rhymed and metred, not at all.  Just as with any poetry, a regular metre is in no way necessary to good poetry.  The problem is that so much children’s verse, and virtually all of the children’s verse that is published in picture books, clearly attempts to be metred.  It most often takes the form of the ballad stanza (xaxa rhyme scheme with lines alternating between iambic tetrametre and iambic trimetre) or rhyming couplets of iambic pentametre, but whatever the form it takes, it is clearly written with little or no understanding of the metrical principles underlying whatever form has been chosen.  The result is in most cases is a completely unreadable rhythm. Let me give a few examples.

The zipper has two sides.
They both fit in.
Just zzzzzzip all the way–
Right up to your chin.
(Snap! Button! Zip! by Abigail Tabby)

His Drawers were of Rabbit-skins;– so were his Shoes;–
His Stockings were skins,–bit it is not known whose;–
(The Old Man and the Suit by Edward Lear)

Down by the river bank, Crocodile was trying to nap,
when Mungo jumped out of the trees and gave his nose a tap.
“Want to play?” Mungo asked. “I know a good game.”
“Really said Crocodile suspiciously. “What’s its name?”
“Funny faces,” said Mungo. “What do you say?”
“I’m not sure said Crocodile. “I don’t know how to play.”
“Easy,” said Mungo. “All you have to do,
is pull a funny face. Look, I’ll show you.”
And he pulled on one jaw, and pushed on the other.
Then he jammed them both together.
Hey, Croc!” he giggled. That’s a really funny face!”
Help!” choked Crocodile, “How do I get out of this?”
(Lost and Alone by Jillian Harker)

These examples are not the worst of their kind.  I chose them because they were the first that came to hand off my kids’ bookshelf, and I could have given many others, some much worse.  The problem with this kind of verse is not so much technical, though they very often display a serious lack of technical poetic knowledge, and though a little technical knowledge would probably improve them to no end.  The problem is that they have a complete lack of rhythm.  Their authors, for whatever reason, fail to hear the music, the movement, the cadence of the language.  They fail to hear the stresses and accents of the words, fail to hear how they should transition from one to the other in a way that is musical and poetic.  The problem is that they lack all poetic sensibility of any kind and that publishers either fail to recognize this lack or fail to think it important in writing for children.

Of course, not all recent children’s verse fails in this way.  The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and Alex Scheffler is one example of metrically and rhythmically sound verse, as is Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells, and most books by Sandra Boynton, and just about anything by Dr. Seuss .  There are also some children’s books that take great care to maintain a strong sense of rhythm without any formal metre at all, like Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown or Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.  Here are some examples by way of comparison:

Jack was getting sleepy,
Father read with Kate,
Jack needed singing to,
So Nora had to wait.
“I’m leaving!” shouted Nora,
And I’m never coming back!”
And they didn’t hear a sound
But a tralala from Jack.
Father stopped his reading.
Mother stopped her song.
“Mercy!” said her sister,
“Something’s very wrong.”
No Nora in the cellar.
No Nora in the tub.
No Nora in the mailbox
Or hiding in the shrub.
“She’s left us!” moaned her mother
As they sifted through the trash.
“But I’m back again!” said Nora
With a monumental crash.
(Noisy Nora by Rosemary Wells)

We hippos love our belly b’s.
They’re round and cute and funny.
And there’s a place we take them to
When summer days are sunny.
Ah! Look at all the hippos
With a belly button each.
Do you wonder where we are?
It’s Belly Button Beach.
Where tons of hippos stand around
In bathing suits too little
Because they hope you will admire
The buttons on their middle.
(Belly Button Book by Sandra Boynton)

In the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of–
The cow jumping over the moon
And there were three little bears sitting on chairs
And two little kittens
And a pair of mittens
And a little toyhouse
And a young mouse
And a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush
And a Quiet old Lady who was whispering hush.
(Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown)

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind
and another
his mother called him “WILD THING!”
and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”
so he was sent to bed without eating anything.
That very night in Max’s room a forest grew
and grew–
and grew until his ceiling hung with vines
and the walls became the world all around
and an ocean tumbled by with a private boat for Max
And he sailed off through night and day
and in and out of weeks
and almost over a year
to where the wild things are.
(Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak)

These kinds of books, even when they are not formally metred, pay such close attention to the rhythm and the music of their language that the reader never stumbles or labours over a phrase.  The movement of the words draws the reader along and creates a reading experience that is simply not possible when a misplaced syllable or an awkward phrase or a poor rhyme or a jarring metre interrupts the verse.  Unfortunately, these kinds of examples are by far the minority.  In far too many cases children’s verse means only phrases of roughly similar lengths that are arranged awkwardly in order to arrive at forced rhyming words.

As you can likely tell, all of this is more than a little frustrating for me, and I have been enduring it for at least as long as I have been reading books to my kids, but I reached my limit with it this morning.  My two boys and I were walking downtown, picking up my wife’s boots from the repair shop and buying baking supplies from The Flour Barrel, and we decided to stop in at The Bookshelf on the way home.  We do this sometimes, not because we intend to buy anything, since I hardly ever buy new books, but because my kids like to have me read any newly arrived books to them.  Both boys picked three books, and I saw something interesting myself, so we had seven new books to read, which should be a good day any way you look at it.

Unfortunately, five of the seven books were in verse, and all five were so poorly metred that I could hardly read them.  One of them, an ABC’s hockey picture book had to be paraphrased because I could no longer bring myself to read the actual words.  How, I want to know, have we as parents come to accept this trash for our children?  At what point did we stop caring whether the books written for our children were even readable?  How on earth do we expect to encourage our children to read when this is what we put in front of them?  When will we stop sticking random rhymes together and start taking the time and expending the effort to write real poetry for children?

I am so frustrated that I am tempted to try my hand at some children’s verse myself, and I may still be forced to that extremity, but I am first taking the step of removing from our house every children’s book that is not worth reading, whether because of its verse or for any other reason, because I am no longer willing to spend our time reading poorly written books.  Secondly, I am asking you to share with me your favourite children’s books, in verse or otherwise, that meant something to you as a child or as a parent or as teacher or in any other capacity.  There will soon by space on our bookshelves, and I need suggestions to fill them.