Spelling and Grammar

I am entering this debate about the emphasis on teaching of spelling and grammar because I think I have had what may possibly be  a unique exposure to the problem.

My credentials are as follows:

1. I am a very poor speller, despite being, from early childhood, an extensive reader and writer and having made many long term efforts by myself to improve. (I have also had help and threats from many others including teachers.)  I regard my grammar, on the other hand, as impeccable.  The ability to spell and the ability to use useful grammar must be regarded as separate issues.
2. I was teaching in primary schools when the emphasis became more focussed on teaching children the art of stringing words together coherently, rather than primarily on details such as grammar and spelling.
3. I am 76 now so have heard these same arguments for and against over and over, time and time again.
4. I have had now the privilege of experiencing how IT can help in these areas.

I would characterise myself as having been a good student as a child. I had a real thirst for knowledge. I loved putting my thoughts onto paper. I know from experience as a student and as a teacher that being too strict on grammar and spelling inhibits children from being adventurous. For example substituting the word “light” for “chandelier” because use of the second word would probably have entailed the loss of half a point, and certainly a red underline on pristine prose if it were wrongly spelt, is a common type of reaction to any emphasis on mistakes.

And that red underline is such a stab through the heart!

When I was teaching I was thrilled at the introduction of ways around this problem. The focus became on what was being said and how easily understood it was and whether it passed on a clear message to the reader. I still think communication skills are at the heart of all teaching and should so remain.

Instead of having a big ( or a number of big) red marks on pristine prose we could, after those changes, redirect a child to his or her personal dictionary and enter the correct spelling there.  As teachers we could talk about the purpose of punctuation and how it could help the flow of information or emphasise what was being said. Grammar used to be one of the special extension activities some children could choose to do in my classroom when they had completed their set work. Some of them just loved it, as I did.

Yet I am so against the grammar nazis. If the meaning is clear who cares about a misused or absent apostrophe!

I remember some of the arguments with parents about the non-correction of errors regarding use of the subjunctive tense. I admit to still using it myself – an ingrained habit. But does it help in understanding? Not one bit. If we are going to emphasise grammar we must pick our marks carefully knowing the beauty of the English language is that it keeps evolving. We must not stand in the way of this healthy evolution.

The use of IT has made some wonderful differences. For a poor speller the auto correct or predictive spelling is a wonderful help. I also like the option of “replace” if one is uncertain of a word. This ability to have an instant correction has made quite a considerable improvement to my spelling late in life. It gives reenforcement very quickly, which is at the heart of learning.

As our little grandchildren type a misspelled word into their search engine  and respond with excitement to the correctly spelled word and its results, they are learning. (And no, Spellcheck, there was NO apostrophe in “its” even though it was possessive.)

On the other hand both IT and our relaxation on rules has given a method of communication to those who did not have the opportunity or perhaps even the capacities, when they were children, to learn in the way many of us did. I have lovely Facebook friendships with some people I have known over the years here or in other countries. The fact that their knowledge of spelling or grammar is not ideal makes no difference at all to the meanings, to the lovely captions on their pictures of grandchildren, great grandchildren or other family members. Despite misspelling or a grammatical misuse I understand and appreciate their messages, as I hope they do mine.

This is the type of learning that was meant when the very formal attitude to grammar and spelling was removed. Yet grammar and spelling have been still taught but only as an emphasis to  enhancing the understanding and production of written work, not as an end in themselves.

The outcome has been, in my opinion, that more people are game, than ever before when grammar and spelling were strictly policed, to have a go at putting their written words into circulation. And some of these people will never be perfectly correct. But in the old days they would have stopped communicating by the written word at all. If we are all now writing then there will be some written work that is less perfect than it would have been in “the olden days”. We do not want the authors of these less precisely written words to be as  discouraged as they used to be by the emphasis on grammar and spelling. Their ideas can often be just as good, if not often better, than some that are perfectly correctly put (and perhaps are dull). We do not want them to think that their ideas are necessarily lesser than the ideas of people who have skill in the arts of spelling and grammar. And we certainly do not want those that happen to be good at grammar and or spelling to lose the concept that ideas are the essential ingredient of written expression, not merely the way they are expressed.

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Blackouts, Modernity and Climate Change

I’d scream loudly if someone were to take away my iPad. I love my smart phone. I think the idea that adults or children will suffer from using technology freely is as nonsensical as Socrates was when he thought reading and writing would ruin our brains.

Although I am old I am not against things modern.

But I am against the concept that we are loosing “entitlements” as a human race if we temporarily have to go without some comforts we have accepted as a norm in our developed society for only about the last fifty years.

Malcolm Turnbull’s statement that we have a “right to secure energy” in response to the populaces’ screams and outcries at the couple of blackouts we have recently, had to be a signal of a lack of resilience growing in our society. A society without resilience is a society doomed.

I was privileged to be a child of the Snowy Scheme. Before my father and his fellow workers and designers were moved from Sydney to actually start work in Cooma, we suffered from blackouts in Sydney almost every night in winter. My father used to point out that was why we needed the Scheme. We were exposed to the vision that energy is best produced from natural elements of which this country abounds, rather than coal. Of course everyone had the odd grizzle at the blackouts from time to time,  but we got used to having less in the small freezer part of the fridge and then eating it at the next opportunity after a blackout. We got used to doing homework by candlelight. We went to bed early and got up at sunrise. We survived well without air conditioning.

When I moved to Cooma I was surprised at the cold winters but soon got used to the different temperatures. We were “whimps” if we wore the gloves so lovingly provided by our mothers when we cycled down Two Mile Hill to get to school. We just carefully peeled our hands off the handle bars on arrival.

It sometimes was very cold on sports afternoons. Unfortunately our hockey field abutted the local cemetery. Out of politeness, if there were a funeral taking place or commenced on a sports afternoon, we had to stand still, at attention, while the celebrant said his piece before we could play again (quietly). Our sports uniform skirts were very short and it was very cold on our bare legs. No air conditioning.

There was no air conditioning in cars.

We did enjoy the open fires in our houses, however.

But then the family moved to Broken Hill on another project. (Dad was a scientist who liked holes in the ground. As an aside he taught my sister and I how to build dry stone walls too! Under the auspices of the University he worked for  in the 60s he was engaged on a project to have a property there, in those arid conditions, self sustained by only solar and wind power.)
It was quite hot in Broken Hill. I remember during one heatwave reading in the local newspaper the information that, during periods of heat, the suicide rate tripled when the temperature had not gone below a minimum of 40 degrees for over ten days – and that included nights. A compelling statistic. Advice was given about how to keep as cool as possible.

The consequence of my exposure to these extremes of temperature is that I put on more clothes in the cold, take most of them off and wipe myself down with wet washers periodically in the heat and otherwise get on with things. I have opted not to have air conditioning.

I do enjoy going into an air conditioned or heated space in extreme conditions. But I think on the eastern seaboard, where I now live, it is an indulgence to have air conditioning in every house. It should be kept for those with special needs. With shops abounding in most areas why do most of us have the need for large freezers? If one decides to have one, the risk must be accepted that in times of need it is not a power priority.

I have seen people leave fans on in an unoccupied room. We were taught in science that fans work on the principle of the “wet bulb thermometer”. There has got to be a sweaty person in the room who will notice a temperature difference!

Do we really want to save the planet?

If so we need to build a society with greater resilience, greater co-operation. Each one of us does not need to live at a temperature of a steady 22 degrees, which I have been told by many is the ideal temperature. We need to accept some days will be hotter or colder than others.

On days when power is getting low, how about rostering suburbs or other sections of the community to turn off air conditioning or stoves for set periods of time? How about we stagger our dinner hour or, in periods of very extreme temperature, organise some cold (or tepid!) meals?

Obviously hospitals should be exempt from restrictions and should be kept powered at all times and other such exemptions spring to mind. But businesses? They can take turns to cut their profits in extreme weather conditions. After all climate change will effect them most of all. An overheated planet may be able to support a few resilient species including a few humans but it will no longer be supporting big businesses.

But above all keep our children resilient. Let them be exposed to both hot and cold. Tell them, as our mothers’ did us, that they cannot huddle up to a heater bare armed – first they must put on a jumper, if they are still cold another piece of warm clothing goes on top. After that a heater might be considered. As for heat – a couple of runs under the sprinkler is great for them and the garden simultaneously. In water restriction time just a rub down with a wet cloth.

Not only should we be limiting emissions to try to stop climate change and do this by wanting a focus on non polluting energy production and by requiring others to stop overuse of resources, but it also means not over indulging ourselves personally. Building natural resilience to our weather conditions needs to be an essential if humanity is to survive.

Luckily an iPhone does not draw a lot of energy to recharge.

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The Age of Apathy is Over? Methinks Not.

“The Age of Apathy Is Over”, announces Clementine Ford in the Sydney Morning Herald on 24th January 2017. And she heralds more of the same of old, more and bigger mass marches, more inane signs with good ones sprinkled here and there.

I am old now and I am over the marches. I have “marched” much of my life, as a feminist, as a protestor against the Vietnam war, as a person who believes we should solve conflicts by means other than by warfare and as someone who feels the environment should be better protected. But we have got almost nowhere. OK, we privileged, non-theist females who think we should have a right to independent thought and should also look after those who women who meet barriers in life, may have got somewhere from marching.

I used to think that just “doing” was the best way. At University I got collegial by marching and was convinced that, with group solidarity, we would get somewhere. And, with marching included, we did get somewhere with feminism. But this, I now surmise, is partly because women are 50% of the population. We also had the opportunity to discuss the issue with the men we met in our lives. We have got nowhere on many other issues where we usually have little space to interact with those with different viewpoints. And we have not got very far regarding women and men from other backgrounds that we do not meet in day to day life.

In the twilight of my life I have gone back to the “doing” option which of course involves  much “talking”.

But I think we also need something different. We need changes within from childhood. We need totally different thought patterns. We should not really use militaristic type techniques for non-militaristic purposes. And when I say “within” I do not mean minor changes within existing governments. I mean major changes in the populaces’ thinking. And we now have the means with modern technology. And those means are being badly used. We have to start with the children and their parents.

We have to get away from our childish “goodies” and “baddies” feeling. At the risk of alienating almost my entire extended family I will say we must stop making films like “Star Wars”. Whilst so ever we retain, and pass on to our children even in fun, a concept like “the dark side”, which is nothing like us and is pure evil, we will get no where.

We have to discuss whole belief systems which are as important or in some cases much more important than religions are to very many people. But for many, if it is not religion, it is not regarded as a belief system, more of an axiom. And discussion of some issues is regarded as not right and too personal. And yes, we must discuss religion too, in the sense that I really respect people’s rights to practice their own religion but only to the extent it does not impinge on others’ lives.

When I discuss my protests about Anzac Day with one of my lovely, independent daughters-in-law, she rightly points out to me that many people want to remember, with thanks, those relatives who died in wars. And I agree that a civilised society might acknowledge the need for various religious services to honour the dead and the secular laying of wreaths on memorials. But reenact a war march? She disagrees with me and says that the marches can bring loving memories. She does not see them, as I do, as warlike.

Enact a women’s march on a brand new President? How belligerent is that? Chain oneself to tree felling machinery ? What a physical encroachment just to get a bit of publicity. Glue oneself to Parliament House? All these I see as aggressive acts not directly leading to dialogue.

I respect all those aims but think that may not be the way in days of mass communication. We do not achieve freedom from aggression or exclusion by aggressive acts. As we teach our little children to grow to adults, we already teach them fighting is no way to end a dispute between one another. It is no secret that most human beings need a great deal of “indoctrination” to make them able to fight and to kill other human beings. It is no secret that many ex soldiers struggle in post war peacetime. I want their attitude recognised as universally sound.

I would like this country to be like Switzerland and others, neutral, having a negligible army which does not fight in other countries, but with volunteers from households prepared to resist an invasion. We do not need well trained, psychologically altered “cannon fodder”. And we are an island so are well suited to a neutral role.

We do not have to be puppets of countries with adversarial systems and induced adversarial natures. We do not have to be adversarial in our many internal differences. I would rather sit down ( off air) and have a long philosophical discussion with the Alan Jones’ of this world. I do not wish to fight them with weapons and numbers. I want to change their views. How would peace marches help this?

Climate changes? How can we help here? I can remember my father, a Scientist, trying to set up an experimental, energy self-sufficient project in the early 1960s. How long do we still need to convince the average man that we cannot use energy as cheaply and as frequently as we used to and that every one of us has to make sacrifices? We cannot do this by marching on our government. We can only do it by communication, and most of this has to be personal – as when I just, in 36 degree heat, explained to my grandson why I do not have air conditioning. (My tolerance to heat and cold may have been hardened by growing up in Cooma and Broken Hill.)

I admire Clementine Ford. She is a fervent communicator. I wish her the best of luck. I very much hope she and others continue the good work. But I am sorry that she may be disappointed that the age of apathy is not over by a long shot. The number of tweets I read complaining about personal discomforts makes me think people may have become more inward looking than ever. They probably won’t even watch a march on TV or computer. I’m afraid I didn’t.

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Open Letter to Centrelink

I spent most of my long working life assuming that, like my parents, my superannuation would mean I would not be reliant on Centrelink in my retirement. Unexpected events intervened and in my old age I find myself a very grateful pensioner.

I now find that my only calculation has to be whether the very small, decreasing amount of super I managed to save after those life events, and which I draw on monthly in combination with my pension, will last me until I die! But this is a calculation which relies so much on guesswork that I do not feel I have to report it to Centrelink weekly!

However, shortly after my retirement years ago, which was itself some years after the date at which I could have retired and drawn a pension, I attempted to do some very occasional contract work for my former employee.

This was a form filling nightmare, much of the basis for Centrelink calculations remaining, to this day, a mystery to me. Despite the fact that I have several university degrees and one of them is a Law Masters, I decided against doing any more work because of the complicated nature of these assessments that made the prospect of a regular income on which to rely for day to day needs quite impossible. Thus today’s taxpayers have lost out because I decided not to do a little more work which would have, in the long run, saved the government a bit of money.

In those days, when one could, I preferred to wait and talk in person to an invariably pleasant and clear, human being.

Recently I have witnessed the fear of a widowed relative who following guidelines writes to Centrelink on a very regular fortnightly basis to disclose every single thing that has happened to her financially, following the lead of her late husband who regularly informed Centrelink of any change and who also reported no change. Even before this latest round of Centrelink scares she was terrified of gaol or some other stern punishment if she missed writing a letter. She tried, for some hours with some inexpert help from me, to get connected to Centrelink via the internet but she was refused the link due to internet traffic. We now know why.

It is distressing enough for some of us older people to have to rely on the government and current taxpayers in our old age. Like most folks in this situation I am extremely grateful for this pension. Thank you. But it is worse when we cannot make contact easily and are fearful.

Please simplify your system. It is many years since even the lawyers in our community made a concerted effort to use plain English wherever possible. Time for Centrelink to use Plain English and Common Sense and be properly funded so they can have sufficient staff to talk to clients in person, on the phone and on line on a prompt and clear basis.

In the long run this will save both taxpayer money and client distress.

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Women in Black – addendum

Listening to the accolades received by the play “Ladies in Black” about women who worked at David Jones based on the book “Women in Black” by Madeleine St John, has brought me to a confession about a past sin. This has haunted me over many years.

In 1960, as a young law student, I shoplifted a writing pad from David Jones stationary department in their basement floor.

I have never, before or since, done anything like that.

I blame two women in black.

Many years later, I confessed this to my family and have a ten year old granddaughter who periodically says “Grandma, remember when you shoplifted?” Last night I confessed to a wider group. (Yes there were some therapists present!)

Now is the time to go public!

I was, at the time, a student. Every weekday morning I caught a bus from Sydney University to the Law School, then in Philip Street, for an early morning lecture. If we got out of the bus a section earlier, outside Market St David Jones, and walked the rest of the way, we saved a princely threepence, very important in those poverty stricken student days. But, serendipity, one day I needed a new writing pad too. If I really hurried I could get one from DJs, its doors just opened, and still make my lecture. I rushed through, picked up a pad, got out the right money, two shillings and six pence and held the money and pad out to a conveniently close woman in black standing behind a till.

Despite my standing there with both hands extended with the pad in one and the money in another she pointedly ignored me and continued talking to the similarly clad woman standing next to her. Their quite audible conversation was about their recent weekend. I tried to hand my goods to the other woman and was also suitably ignored as she fed her friend her very boring weekend titbits. Eventually I said, “excuse me” in the politest way I could muster. No reaction. Of course why would such superior women in such a superior shop pay any attention to a young obviously impecunious student?

After a wait, long enough to make me aware that unless I left the shop I would be late to my lecture, I knew I would have to act. This would not have mattered too much except that, as one of only a handful of women law students at the time, it was very obvious who we were and embarrassing if we entered a full lecture room running late. It sometimes drew a comment.

What could I do? I looked around fruitlessly for another woman in black but saw no one. At last I saw a Security Guard at the door. I approached him with my money in one hand and the writing pad in the other. He made no comment but stood there immobile, unblinking, when I offered him the two shillings and six pence. I thought at the time he was just not prepared to break rules to help me in this dilemma (but in retrospect he may have been somewhat sympathetic as I departed the shop with pad and money).

Since then I have purchased many an item from David Jones but was much happier to so once it could be done by phone with no contact with the aforesaid women in black. My sister in law is a great lover of the store and I have occasionally lunched there with her. My daughter worked there very happily as a student twenty seven years later.

Sometimes I think I could assuage my conscience by just giving two shillings and six pence to David Jones (if I could find such coins). But no, I say to myself, I am entitled to that as damages for pain and suffering directly attributable to those women in black and their highly evident attitudes of vast superiority and distain.

One of those to whom I made the disclosure last night said, “But Anne you wear a lot of black”. Another replied on my behalf “She’s still channelling those women in black.”

As I write that I am aware I am wearing black. Oh the damage that can be done by women in black!

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Socrates, Trump and Jedis

There is some evidence that Socrates, one of the greatest thinkers of all time judging from the information we have been given by such as Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle, was not happy with democracy. But he did drink his hemlock after being adjudged he was a danger to the democratic Athenian state.

The reason he is reported as using for his unhappiness with the democratic principle, is that it meant that people who were quite ignorant or who had not thought deeply about right, wrong and other issues could be our leaders.

Of course he was not a believer in religion – he thought of morality as an inner search for good by each of us as individual human beings. However he did openly celebrate some of the pagan religious ceremonies common in his time, one assumes with both the view of respecting other’s opinions and for the protection of not standing out. Nevertheless it was his godlessness that brought him face to face with the hemlock. I know how he felt!

It is hard not to think that the sort of democracy we are experiencing at the moment in the west does not reflect his views as to its very dangers and shortfalls. But do these shortfalls always arise from the possible ignorance of the elected leaders? Could it not more reflect on the leaders’ and its majorities’ long term ties with religions of one sort or another?

I think this is one of the main reasons that Donald Trump has been freely elected in a democratic US society. For many in the old Holy Roman Empire and its more recent off shoots and “dominions”, good and right have been axiomatically accepted as reflecting Christian viewpoints. Whilst the proponents of these viewpoints may not themselves be strong supporters of a particular sect which might, in itself, require the believer to do some self examination, nevertheless the external representations of these views is without further thought, accepted.

Other religious viewpoints are seen as a threat. Differences in people are viewed as a threat.

And you Jedi worshippers, as not revealed by the Australian Census, watch out.

For many years I, as a non theist, have contended that I am, in a democratic society, entitled to a secular government. I require that elected members should take their oath of allegiance as a personal promise, not as an oath. I think I am entitled to send my children to a secular, government school which does not enforce religious teaching. I think that religious institutions should pay the full rate of taxation with normal exemptions for charitable works. And this would apply to you Jedis in particular!

I respect the rights of each individual to believe in the tenets of any faith which he or she follows, whilst obeying the laws of the country in which they reside. I believe that non theists such as myself have a right to respectfully express our opinions also.

But whilst so ever democratic governments do more than merely protect the rights of believers of all faiths (and non believers) equally, there will always be room for disasters like hemlock or a Trump. If the democratic government of the day takes a stand on issues that are religious ones only, such as John Howard did on marriage equality, such as some government members do on questions such as abortions, such as our government does on some refugees, then we leave room for the idea of democracy to become seriously abused.

And you Jedis beware. I am not yet ready to be forced to say that I am at one with all Martians! I would have to think about that, at some depth, after I had had time to use Socratic methods to debate views with one or two of them.

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Children and Censorship

We have two different, but important questions here.

The first one is, do I as an individual believe in any Censorship? It is the answer to this which is pivotal to any discussion because often the responses to this provide a great deal of the answer to the question of children and censorship.

Personally I do not think that any human being other than myself has a right to decide what I should see or read or hear . Perhaps other community members might have a right to say I must read or watch or listen to such material in private so that it does not impinge on their rights not to see or hear it. I respect this opinion.

Having been alive when books such as “Lolita” and “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” were not allowed into the country and had to be smuggled in even by academics studying literature, where films showing two people in a double bed had to have one foot on the floor, I think censorship can be dangerous even in a democratic country. Wheresoever the political masters have any control of the way people think we cannot be said to be free. And it can lead to a society where we do not have freedom because we do not know of the alternatives.

But the other reason is because I am conceited enough to think I am smart enough to make my own decisions and better than some others can. This can lead into dangerous waters. If I think that I can make these decisions a lot better than some other adults, should I be the one to decide for them?

Of course not. Every adult who is capable under the law of looking after themselves must have a right to consume what information they wish.

Now we get into murky water where children are concerned.

How much and to what age are we to make these sort of moral decisions on their behalf? And should this be individual parents or society as a whole.

As a one time teacher, as a parent and as a child psychologist, I have grappled with this issue for many years. I have known children under twelve who could make better choices than some adults. I have known many teenagers who in other times and other cultures would be making decisions on behalf of others and who already make very complicated decisions in their lives or the workplace.

We already have a lot of control over our own children. I have heard and have some sympathy with the argument that we should not have private schools in this country. One basis for their support is that it provides a freedom of choice for the children. But it is not a choice of the children but is more like one type of censorship for children by their parents. It is a separation of them from wider society and thus the parents making decisions for the child on issues such as religion and lifestyle. It does not allow them to experience a more general view of society, just one the parents have selected.

All parents select a great deal in the nature of the exposure their children have to the world. In the early years this is inevitable. And as they grow older most get more exposure through peer group, sports, other interests and books and the media. In case they are fearful we tend to guard them from stories of incidents, including natural disasters, which might scare them. But as they grow older we realise they need to be ever more, but gently, exposed to what is reality.

Should we do this using guidelines? Every child is very different. Can we guard them against danger when they do not know what danger is?

The three things I personally think I would wish to protect children from would be violence, religious exploitation and unwanted and/or unnatural sexual exploitation.

How can we protect them from these by their not knowing about them? We cannot. And once they have been exposed to these concepts by our answering their questions at the level of their understanding (as we do for most learning), once they have been exposed to our particular views and some alternative ones, and once they demonstrate some understanding of the concepts, do we still have a right to any censorship?

Do we not allow them to investigate on their own as they do other areas of life?

Morally, if we do not believe in censorship, I do not think we can impose it on children.

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