Thursday, April 24, 2008

In The Eye of the Be-reader

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Today I was mandated to give my class the HLAT (Highest Level of Achievement), a "standardized" measure of their writing performance and achievement relative to grade level. The students were given a written prompt and asked to write for 45 minutes in response to this prompt.

Then, my colleagues and I had the daunting task of rating these compositions for a variety of attributes that determined the student's performance on the writing. We were also asked to rank students on a rating scale of achievement, from limited to adequate to proficient to achievement.

As I assessed these compositions, some of them I found to be easy to categorize; they either blew me out of the water with their depth of content or incredible writing style, or they were so poorly composed that they absolutely underwhelmed me. Then there were the writings that fell into the middle - were they proficient or adequate? I had exemplars before me to compare them to, as well as a thorough description of the qualities that belonged to each of the two categories. Armed with these resources, it was still a challenging task to try to determine where some of the writings fit - particularly those that sort of fell in the middle between the two levels of achievement.

The process reminded me of my own experiences in high school English. My AP English 10 and 30 teacher was a European lady who seemed to derive great pleasure from my writing; it appeared that she appreciated my excesses in figurative speech, the general flow of my sentences, and the opinionated uniqueness of my written "voice." Some of my work even made its way into this teacher's "exemplars" file, which I discovered from my sister during her stint in English 10. My teacher's name was Mrs. Fraser, and God bless her, she always gave me an exemplary mark (perhaps even when I didn't deserve it), and that did a lot to bolster my confidence in my writing abilities.

Contrast those years with my experience in English 20 AP; my teacher was a fiery redhead whom everyone speculated to be a witch. Wiccan practices or no, this woman hated my compositions. She thought I was too wordy and redundant, and that it was her duty as my teacher to instruct me in the ways of concise writing by giving me embarrassingly low grades until such time that I learned to shorten my essays. I didn't do very well that year; I also had little confidence in my compositional abilities; had I lost my superpowers as a creative writer?

And now I find myself the teacher, with the power to shatter confidence or to build it in my own students. Though the HLAT assessments of proficient versus adequate seem inconsequential to me and to most educators accessing their files, I imagine that these results will weigh far more heavily in the hearts and minds of my still-impressionable young students. Will the mark of an 8-2 (adequate) cause them to question their writing talents? Will an 8-3 mark encourage these kids to keep expressing themselves confidently and freely in print? And will the students who receive an 8-1, those whose compositions are deemed limited relative to grade level expectations, simply throw their hands in the air and give up on the craft of writing altogether?

Though I realize I may be over-thinking the issue, it still troubles me to the core that original written compositions are subject to the interpretation of imperfect teachers with biases of their own. Despite having rubrics and rating scales and other criteria to help guide our marking, the truth is that at the end of the day, we are still fallible human beings whose preferences will taint the objectivity of our scoring. Perhaps we should simply avoid marking creative compositions on a holistic scale. Maybe we do need to reduce our measures further, examining just the grammar or the mechanics, the format or the strength of arguments, rather than judge an entire piece based on some general rubric that does little to help students figure out how they can truly improve the way that they express themselves on paper.

In any case, I am not a fan of the HLAT, and even less a fan of marking these. :(



Monday, April 21, 2008

Still With Vampires on the Brain - A Twilight Movie Casting Commentary

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Now that I have almost finished reading the 3 books in the Twilight series for a second time, I'm starting to warm up to the idea of the movie, scheduled for release in December.

Initially, I was pretty choked that a movie was already being released. I would have wanted the series to have finished first, so that I could have established a strong image of what these characters (especially Edward and Bella) looked like in my own mind's eye before being fed images from some commercial production. Being such a visual person, my tendency is to quickly replace my mentally-conjured images with those I've seen with my eyes. When I read the last two Harry Potter books, for instance, my concept of what Ron and Harry and Hermione looked like were all but replaced with the faces of the young actors who played these characters in the movies.

During my online all-things-Twilight search, between the time when I read the first book and the last two, I came across the casting photos for the movie. I discovered that Robert Pattinson (Cedric Diggory in the HP movies) and Kristen Stewart had been cast in the lead roles, and saw pictures of the other actors playing members of the vampire family.

When I returned to the book series to finish inhaling them, guess which images had begun to creep into my brain to replace my own conceptions of the Edward and Bella characters?
It didn't take long for those images to burn into my brain and usurp my own visions of what these characters looked like; I hadn't even gazed at the images for any length of time before they became ingrained in my mind. And admittedly, I wasn't so thrilled with that idea. In my mind's eye, I vaguely recalled that my Edward was taller, more chiseled, more muscular, and more brooding - like Hayden Christensen. My Bella was also a little more plain, and not nearly as pretty as the actress that portrays her now. The Jasper of my mind's eye was also taller and bigger - almost superhero-ish in stature.

And so, somewhat upset with my own nosy online snooping and also with the movie's casting, I had decided I was not going to get worked up about the movie. In fact, I might not even go see it.

Yeah, right. :) That attitude was short-lived. I just saw the Summit productions' teaser clip for the movie, and I have to admit that I was pretty giddy afterwards. In spite of my reservations about the casting, and how they didn't quite match up with my own mental images of the characters, I have to grudgingly admit that the movie was not cast in ignorance; the director Catherine Hardwicke did a pretty bang-on job of staying true to the characters in the actors that she had chosen, after all. And this, before even seeing the movie! The teaser clip was just that effective, I guess. :)

So now, despite my initial internal campaign for a different Edward, I have been reformed. I'm completely open to the idea of Robert Pattinson playing the part, and in fact I'm quite convinced that he will do a fine job of it. He is even starting to look a little bit hot, IMHO. Ditto with the actress portraying Bella, and the guy playing Jasper.

Poor Hubbs will have to take me to the movie, after all. :)








Friday, April 18, 2008

I Wish I Knew a Vampire

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A sexy vampire, like members of the stone-cold, statuesque, beautiful Cullen family of the Twilight books.

Welcome to my latest obsession (and I do not use that word lightly, even given my general tendency to be a little bit obsessive-compulsive). Since Monday, I have read all three of these 600+ page books.

It started innocently enough; I was walking past the bookstore in the mall and
the large display of the Stephenie Meyer books caught my eye. I purchased the first book in the series after a small conversation with myself; I figured that I should be aware of what my students have been reading, so this was as good a time as any to pick up the book. I got home, cracked open the book right before bedtime (thinking I would read a few chapters a night), and was up until 1:00 a.m., too engrossed to put the book down. I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m., got up on its first ring, and picked up the novel where I had left off, refusing to put it down until I was finished. Did I mention that I taught that day? :) Bleary-eyed and hungry for the next book, I headed to class. My obsession had begun.

Fast forward a couple of days, a return trip to the bookstore, and many hours spent reading (and in some cases, re-reading) the books, and here I am, as ravenous for the next book as a newborn vampire is for human blood.

My obsession has also expanded beyond the realm of the books themselves in this brief five-day period; I have since read countless articles about the book, the movie (yes, there is a movie coming out in December based on the first book), the author, and even the cast of actors hired to play the characters in the novel. My mind is still completely engrossed with the story, and with the two main characters (Bella and Edward).

To summarize the book (without giving anything away), the series is essentially about a teenage girl who moves to a small town to live with her dad, and falls in love with a very handsome "vegetarian" vampire who has a supernatural thirst for her blood in particular. He is also undeniably attracted to her, and they fall in love. However, there are complications for this couple in a world where other dangerous creatures vie for her love, her lover, her blood, and her soul. (Ugh...that sounded cheesy, but that was the only cryptic way I could write this so that I don't ruin the books for you).

Suffice to say, I feel like an idiot. At 30-something, I should know better than to be as fanatical about a fictional series as a teenage fan-girl. Did I mention that these books are written for teens? As well, these books aren't exactly high literature; they are riveting to read, but by no means are they crafted pieces of masterful writing. The descriptions are overly self-indulgent, and sometimes repetitive; the dialogue is sometimes as cheesy as a Harlequin romance. Is it any surprise, then, that the rational, adult part of my brain attempts to speak reason to the not-so-rational, obsessively juvenile side of my brain? I can't say that the adult side is gaining any ground, though. What is it about this angst-ridden, vampire love story plot line that has me so entranced?

I have a few theories. How about vicarious reliving of the adolescent experience? Possibly. As I approach my hormonal "peak," I can't help but wonder if Stephenie Meyer (who is only a few years older than I am) didn't write this out of her own horny frustration. :)

Read the books for yourself and tell me what you think. I haven't had this major a reaction since I read the Harry Potter books (not that I would compare the two series - Rowling is quite a masterful writer and she crafts her sentences flawlessly, and her books would take the prize over these ones on any day of the week), and I anticipate that the movies will be as frustrating and satisfying as the books. I fully anticipate swooning like a schoolgirl when I see this on the big screen; goodness knows I already swooned when I read the books' love scenes!

Off I go to stalk the Net for more on the Twilight books now...




Saturday, April 05, 2008

Blech

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I have a crusty ol' eye infection in both of my eyes. They are swollen, red, and oozing disgusting liquids. My throat is sore and my voice is hoarse.

I am falling apart!

Friday, April 04, 2008

Highlights from the Mouse House

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We have returned from the happiest place on Earth, and I'm not too happy about that. I could easily have stayed for another couple of days, but alas - it was not meant to be!

Highlights of the trip:


- Hubbs and I got to sit with each other all the way there and back on our flights
- getting to go on the "Soarin' Over California" ride...twice
- riding on the Sun Wheel swinging ferris wheel with Hubbs (who was a trooper in spite of his fear of heights)
- getting gifted with a free set of "FasPass" tickets after riding the Snow White ride (as part of their "Year of a Million Dreams" giveaways)
- dining on delicious food and wine served by Marc at the Vineyard Room in California Adventure
- Hubbs and I buying hoodies at Disneyland on our first day
there (his was a Hurley sweatshirt, mine was a Tinkerbell one)
- finding large bags of Fiery Habernero Doritos to take back with us (yum! one bag is nearly finished)
- experiencing the "Bug's Life" 3D show with all of its "surprises"
- enjoying the Electric Parade together; it was pretty romantic
- being surprised by how much we enjoyed ToonTown
- the clean bathrooms all over the park! Toilet covers and auto-flushing, even!
- seeing near-nightly fireworks from our hotel and on-site at Disne
y
- riding on the Indiana Jones ride...twice...with my Hubbs
- not being scared while going to the House of Terror (Unive
rsal Studios) and the Haunted Mansion (Disneyland)
- sleeping in a comfortable King-sized bed at the hotel
- buying my handsome hubby a new pair of Oakley shades that look amazing on him!
- finding a store (Ted Baker London) that sold Hubbs' style of shirts :)
- enjoying dinner on the patio under a heat lamp in Downtown Disney
- meeting Mickey!!!


Alas, there were also low-lights to the trip - things we wished were better. These would include:

- the excessive cost of traveling to Universal Studios
- the let-down experience of being at Universal Studios (which wasn't nearly as fun as Disney)
- my throwing my back out after a couple of days
- the abundant portions - we wasted a lot of food :(
- the inconsistency of our shuttle's arrival times; it was never reliable
- the overcast weather (what happened to *sunny* California?!?)
- our canceled return flight (Delta Airlines suck!) that we weren't notified about and that caused us to have to reroute to the Twin Cities instead of flying through Salt Lake City; we arrived nearly 2 hours later than we had originally planned
- the fireworks show at Disney being called off early due to high winds (that we didn't notice at all from the ground)
- missing Fantasmic! shows due to my digestive difficulties

However, overall the experience was indeed "magical" and I'm so glad to have shared it with Hubbs, B.C. (before children). We completely expect the experience to be very, very different once we return with little people, so we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves this time round!