Satanic Milton

Let me tell you a story.

Years and years ago, when I was media specialist at East Coweta High School, the assistant principal in charge of curriculum bustled in, needing my assistance.  A mother had come in to complain that her son was being taught Satanic literature in his college-bound senior English lit class, and they wanted my recommendations for an alternative assignment.

I raised my eyebrows and pursed my lips and inquired as to exactly what Satanic literature this woman could possibly be objecting to in the British Lit textbook.  The asst. principal turned to the page and showed me.

Satan being cast down from heaven, from Milton's Paradise LostIt was Paradise Lost, by John Milton.  Right there, opposite the first page of text, was a full-page woodcut illustration of a leather-winged Satan being cast down from Heaven.  There was more: the text contained such damnéd names as Lucifer and Beelzebub. LUCIFER AND BEELZEBUB, KENNETH!

Really?  Really?? I asked the asst. principal.  We’re going to confirm this woman’s crazy, superstitious, ignorant error?

Well, Day-uhl, we have to accommodate parents’ requests, came the reply.

We’re not going to explain to this woman that she’s wrong, that in fact John Milton was a Puritan and wrote Paradise Lost to prove that Christian themes could support epic poetry?  (Leaving aside the fact that Satan is by far the most interesting and dynamic character in the whole piece…)  That her son is in a college prep English class and that he kind of will be expected to know at least something about the poem when he gets to college?

Oh, Day-uhl—as if I were the one who needed to be humored…

So I assigned him “L’Allegro and Il Penseroso“.  Served him right.

update 1/25/2022: This just appeared on Facebook.

Some old writing

I was looking for a file on the laptop that does not seem to exist although I know I wrote it, when I came across a letter I wrote back in 2009. The context is that because of the crappy economy the school system was having to make even more budget cuts, and one of the strategems they were forced to employ was to eliminate the media center clerk position in every school.

Let me note that those employees were not fired; they were mostly shifted to other positions in the school. My beyond-excellent clerk, Robin, became a kindergarten classroom aide and is still there. But my letter explained how—in my media center at least—the reduction in staff would have serious consequences. I post it here because it is well-written and I liked it.

It was not against the law to be a lesbian in Victorian England.

Here’s why: when the Queen was presented with the legislation criminalizing homosexuality, she came to the part about lesbianism. She quite frankly did not believe such creatures existed, and so she struck that part of the law out.

Back when Newnan Crossing hit 1,000 students, I went to the SACS standards to see if I would be joined soon by a second professional media specialist. I was surprised to see that while the standards called for a second professional for high schools at that number, there was no such standard for elementary schools.

It finally dawned on me why: when the standards were written, no one could imagine anyone in their right mind building an elementary school with 1,000 students in it.

But people in their right minds have built elementary schools capable of holding 1,000 students. Your rationale has been that it’s more “cost efficient” to do so. The usual argument is “economy of scale,” which is generally taken as being cheaper to buy toilet paper.

The real economy, of course, is the salaries of those of us who serve the entire student population. Instead of two schools of 450, with two media specialists and two music teachers and two cafeteria staffs, you only have to pay one of each.

And that’s fine until you start actually serving the kids.

My circulation figures are running more than 30,000 checkouts a year. Yesterday, our circulation was nearly 300, and that’s a normal day. That’s 300 books to check out and 300 books to shelve every day, and that is my media clerk’s job. This means that 35% of our school walked in and out of the media center yesterday.

(I will also add that if this were at Elm Street, 35% would be fewer than 150 students, half the number I must serve. Even in good times, I am asked to do two jobs. Now, I’m being asked to do four? Without a lunch break? Once again, “economy of scale.”)

You perhaps imagine the media center as a place where classes arrive on some kind of schedule, do their checkout in a 20-minute slot, then leave, thus giving me time between classes to teach or to shelve. It is not. The media center is a constant flow of individual students arriving to check out books, to take AR tests, to do class research and projects, plus the classes scheduled for checkout and for instruction.

Next year, without a fully staffed media center, this will not be the case. In order to preserve the instructional program, I will shut down the foot traffic. Students will not be able to come to the media center on a needs basis, but only when their teacher has scheduled their class. The reading program will take a huge hit, but it’s all about limited resources—isn’t it?—and in this case the limited resource is my time.

How big a hit will this be? Out of the 300 checkouts yesterday, only 40 of them were from classes who actually signed up to be in there. That means around 200 students (estimating for multiple checkouts) were able to get a book when they needed one simply by getting a pass from their teacher and walking in. Next year, that’s a 1000 students a week who won’t get a book when they need one. How do you think that will impact reading at Newnan Crossing?

The really bad news is that study after study has shown that the single most important factor impacting student achievement that a school system has under its control is an appropriately staffed and funded media center. We lost funding this year, and next year we lose our staffing. I wonder, how much money will you spend on “programs” trying to boost achievement when you’ve gutted the one program that could save you?

As it happens, I was only there for another year and a half before I retired from Coweta County and went to the Dept. of Ed. to be the director of GHP, but believe you me I would have started compiling data in that third year to show exactly how the reading programs had been impacted.

My secret lust

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Grock, King of Clowns, the memoir of Adrien Wettach.  No, I had never heard of him either, but Mike Funt said I should read it, and so I found a used copy on Amazon and ordered it.

Totally delightful read, even though I had no clue as to who this man was or how he managed to retire to a 30-room villa in Italy as a millionaire after 50 years of performing as the most famous clown in the world. We live and learn.

But that has nothing to do with my secret lust.

For this book was a discard from a university library, and tucked away in it were these:

::sigh:: Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?  The only way these could be more arousing would be if they were a complete set.  Still, I mustn’t complain.

Actually, these are two main entry cards, possibly from two different libraries.  Neither is what I would call complete.  The first one has the original title (Nit m-öglich) but no subject headings; the second has the obvious subject Clowns but not the original title.  There is also the difference of opinion as to where to put this book.  The first library puts it under Circuses in the 791’s, although they could have extended the number with the –092 standard subdivision for biographical works, i.e., 791.1092, although –09 would have been sufficient.  The second opts for the Biography section with the 92, the lazy librarian’s shortcut for the actual number, 921.  Either card is correct.

Both use Cutter numbers for the author rather than the first three letters of the author’s last name.  For the regular school library, that’s an unnecessary complication.  (So would be the extension of the Dewey Decimal number I suggested above. The purpose of such detail is to allow books on similar topics to be grouped together on the shelf, and how many books on the circus does a regular library have, after all?)

This just gets me going.  Even among media specialists I was a cataloging freak.  I loved cataloging, from the days when we still typed the cards ourselves (like these two) to online MARC records.  I knew the Dewey Decimal Classification Abridged edition by heart, and when we built the new East Coweta High School I ordered the full edition.  When it arrived I was physically tingly, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

The new library at ECHS was essentially empty, a blank slate, and over the next four years I got to fill it with 15,000 books, most of which I cataloged myself.  Sure, some came with catalog cards, and most books in those days (1988-1992ish) had full Cataloging in Publication records on their copyright pages, but, you guys, CIP was often hugely inaccurate.  The minions at the Library of Congress were often cataloging based on a title page alone, and that created some incredible howlers, DDC-speaking-wise.  I was compelled—compelled, I tell you—to correct them.

I was so in love with cataloging that I actually programmed an Apple ][e to print a full set of catalog cards for any given main entry.  The way it used to work was that, like the above cards, you had a “main entry” for a book. That main entry included titles, subject headings, editors, illustrators, etc., and after you typed that card, you then typed all the other cards.  Originally, subject cards had the subject line typed in red ink, but around the time I arrived we had settled on ALL CAPS instead.  (See here, for example.)

With my program, you typed in all the elements—author, dates, title, subtitle, publisher, subjects—and then the dot matrix printer spit out every card you needed.  It was awesome, and everyone in Coweta County used it until the state automated us in the early 90s.

Let me be clear: I am not one of those who misses the actual card catalog.  What a nightmare to construct and maintain!  What happens when a book is not returned?  Do you pull the catalog cards?  At the time, the main entry cards (plus title cards) were in one piece of furniture, and the subject cards were in another piece of furniture.  You’d be pulling all these cards from everywhere—pulling the metal rod out of the entire drawer, pulling the card, reinserting the rod, etc.—and, what, storing them?  Because then what if the book shows back up when lockers are cleaned out at the end of the year?  Then you have to refile the cards.  Ugh.

But the cataloging itself?  Remember this scene?  That’s how I feel about cataloging.  I was so notorious amongst my fellow media specialists that when new books came without cataloging, others would wait until I had input mine in the online system, then just add their copies to my main entry.  If the books came with electronic cataloging, I would go through and correct entries, add subject headings, and improve call numbers.  I was incorrigible.

I mean, look at this: Catalog card prøn!

Now go here and get your inner Dewey on!

A brilliant idea

I have had a scathingly brilliant idea. I’m sure it’s not original, but it is exciting in many ways.

It occurred to me last night, as my head was hitting the pillow, that Pages (Apple’s word processor) will export files in ePub format. (This is in addition to PDF, .doc, and RTF files.)

You know what this means, of course? I can get students to write their stories or poems or essays, and we can publish them for iBooks on the iPad. We can create class magazines, or a school publication. Individual students who are assiduous enough to write books can see their handiwork distributed.

If they do their work on the iPads, they can “print” to the home computer, and I can prep the files there.

If they do artwork in ArtRage, we can lay it out in Pages and publish it.

If they do a comic strip in Comic Life, we can export it to PDFs and convert that to ePub via Calibre.

Students who are emerging writers can copy their work to SpeakIt and have it read back to them, helping them develop their inner ear.

We can build a library of student work. Students will want to read what others have written. Students will want to write in order to be read.

Turn, turn, kick turn , yes, it will work!


I have to brag about a lesson I started today with a fourth grade class. The teacher has been bringing them in almost weekly for writing lessons: persuasive, response to literature, etc. This week’s lesson was to be about figurative language.

Last week, we had ended one project and I was caught a little off-guard, so I just tap danced. Playing off their dread of poetry, I suggested Shakespeare instead, and I filled them in on the basics. The thing that always gets their attention is the fact that at every moment of every day, this man’s words are being spoken aloud, 400 years after he wrote them. That impresses the children.

So today, when they came in, I announced, “Poetry!” and let them groan, and then announced, “…by Shakespeare!” and they groaned even more.

But I handed out Sonnet 18 and we read it out loud. I explained the structure to them, then they brainstormed all the good things about summer that they might compare their True Love™ to.

Then we dove into the poem and discovered that he’s actually comparing his love to the downsides of summer, that he/she (which we didn’t get into) is better than a summer’s day.

Then I explained what we would be doing next week: we’d use our new iPads to create a Keynote presentation which illustrates the figurative language in another sonnet, #73.

We practiced with #18. I pulled up Google and asked for search terms. At first, they were giving me language straight from the poem, and I was trying to explain why that wouldn’t work. And then, I was inspired. When a kid suggested we search for “eye of heaven,” I said, OK, let’s do that.

Up came this image, which on the not-very-clear projector, looked quite gross, like a slimy bug or something.

“Here’s the point,” I said. “Computers are stupid. They’re literal. You tell them ‘eye of heaven,’ and they look up ‘eye of heaven.’ Humans have brains. You tell them ‘eye of heaven,’ and they think, ‘Oh, the sun!’ See the difference between literal and figurative?”

Light bulbs all over the room.

Can’t wait for next week’s lesson, in which they have to find three images to put into a Keynote presentation. Week after next, actually, we’re on break next week.

By the way, this is what a 21st century media center looks like:

Better living through sound effects

Bereft as I am of any assistance in the media center, I have had to be very resourceful in keeping myself sane. And no, I am not talking about tequila.

One of the problems I encountered last year, when the entire school was tightly scheduled into (and out of) the media center, was that kids would be browsing and searching and suddenly there would be the next class at the door. Pandemonium ensued, as the outgoing class had to be rounded up and checked out and the incoming class moved in. If there were instruction involved, it was even worse.

So, using GarageBand and its built-in resources, I constructed a sound file: timetocheckout.mp3. Then I sent it to to change it into a .wav file, since that’s all that Outlook is willing to entertain.

You should have been there the first week, when this went off. The kids were like stunned rabbits. It was great. Now, of course, they’re like Pavlov’s dogs. As soon as that first blast hits the air, they’re on their feet and lining up.

However, it soon developed that the warning would catch some students unawares, and then there would be a lot of motion away from the circulation desk as they scrambled to find a book, any book, to check out. Mostly of course these kids were the slackers who hadn’t been looking for anything anyway, but it created a chaos where there should have been order.

So I went back to GarageBand and came up with the three-minute warning. Now no one has an excuse to do anything but move towards the circulation desk (or the exit) when the final warning comes on.

This year, while I am no longer on an imposed schedule, I do have two instructional classes every day, for third grade info skills. I often found myself looking up and seeing that we were out of time. (I may not be on a schedule, but everyone else certainly is.)

This time, I went to and downloaded this set of sounds, one Herbert Boland’s “Piano Moods.” From this set of nearly 40 little piano bits, I was able to assemble (in GarageBand) a three-minute, new-agey kind of piece. I built it so that it starts quietly, then builds, then fades away. I cued the deeper base notes to begin when we had one minute left. Now, when the “time fairies” start, we know it’s time to wind up whatever we’re working on and put our paperwork back in the folders. The first few times, it took us longer than three minutes to get all packed up, but now, everyone’s all lined up by the time the final little chimes are pealing.

In my Outlook calendar on my circulation computer, I have the infoskills warning set to repeat on a daily basis, three minutes before that class period is over. The others I have to set every day, based on who’s signed up for what time slots. It’s a little bit of work, but it’s also a nice ritual with which to begin the day, and it keeps us all on track.


The dumbing down of our schools… not

I just spend 30 minutes teaching 2nd graders what a database was, how one works, how they use at least two nearly every day (the online library catalog and the Accelerated Reader™ quiz software), how I built and use one to keep track of AR™ Point Club tags, and we even built one based on a test question they had had.

Yes, that’s right, we’re testing 8-year-olds on what a database is and when to use one.

For the record, they were fascinated by my lecture/demo and a couple even asked how they might build one to keep track of stuff in their lives. I didn’t even have to prompt them on how we might sort the little cards I had them fill out: they were right on it with “last name,” “homeroom,” “birthday,” or even “homeroom THEN last name.”

This has been a message for those who are convinced that schools have gotten worse since they wrestled with Think & Do workbooks when they were in 2nd grade.


No Child Left Behind.


My sister Linda is a media specialist in Gwinnett County, where last year they gave their media centers zero dollars to buy books with, but that’s another story. A couple of weeks ago she forwarded to me a response she had gotten from her congressman, who shall remain nameless in his representation of Georgia’s Seventh District, about supporting H.R. 2864.

H.R. 2864 is an amendment to that most perfect of laws, No Child Left Behind. I know what you’re thinking, what kind of madman would advocate changing a law that has served our children so well? Without NCLB, how would we ever have gotten halfway to having every single one of our children performing at or above grade level? (In case you had forgotten, that’s the goal: in 2014, every single child will perform at grade level. We will achieve this by testing them until their ears bleed.)

But Rep. Paul Grijalva [D-AZ] has had an insane idea: what if we required every school to have a highly qualified library media specialist? I know, it’s crazy talk.

As you know, NCLB requires schools to verify that their classroom teachers are “highly qualified,” i.e., provide documentation of their competence in their subject area. This might mean passing a standardized test for teachers, well, duh!, or even having a degree in the subject. If you teach more than one subject, e.g., earth science and biology, then that means providing evidence of competence in both areas.

The more cynical among you have already spotted that “highly qualified” has nothing to do with “highly competent,” which is not adjudicated by NCLB, praise be to its name.

If you teach in a rural school, which by the DOE’s own calculations means about a third of all American schools, and you have to teach all kinds of things because it’s a little hard to get teachers out in the middle of Montana, don’t worry: you have three years to cough up evidence of competence in your field(s). If not, then you have to be fired. Because if we don’t fire you, there’s no way to get 100% of the students performing at grade level by 2014.

That’s “highly qualified.” As columnist Bob Herbert pointed out in his New York Times op/ed of 10/2/07, all that documentation and certification is not the same as effectiveness. (Of course, then Mr. Herbert weasels out of it with “New forms of identifying good teachers … have to be established before any transformation of American schools can occur.” Yup, that’s what we gotta do, all right, all right. Carry on.)

Why, you might ask, would I want to saddle media specialists with the burden of proof that their colleagues in the classroom have to bear? Allow me to point out that even if the amendment only required schools to have any kind of media specialist in their building, it would be a radical move. There are more than a few states which do not, in fact, require schools to have media specialists at all. So if we have to speak NCLBese to make sure schools have such a critical piece of the puzzle on hand, then so be it.

Back to Rep. X and H.R. 2864. My sister had emailed him, asking for his vote in favor of this amendment. Astonishingly, he responded that “quite frankly” he questioned “the need for a library media specialist in every public school.”

His reasoning? He sees maybe the need at the high school level, because high school students regularly engage in academic research for college. But “a fourth grade student has little need for a highly trained library specialist who can teach advanced research techniques.” What a fourth grader needs is a librarian who can “make reading enjoyable,” and “instilling a love of reading does not require an advanced certification in library media studies.”

Actually, Rep. X (I just know I’m going to slip up and call him John Linder in a moment), instilling a love of reading does in fact require advanced certification in your home state of Georgia. We have to have a master’s degree even to get into a media center in this state. So you’re wrong about that.

What else might you be wrong about? Those who keep harping on how our schools have to produce workers who are expected to maintain our nation’s competitiveness in the world economy, and I believe some might even be found in your party, Rep. X, might be startled to hear you say that we don’t need to teach our elementary students how to find and use information, how to evaluate information, how to solve problems with information.

They would approve highly of the fact that I start teaching second graders how to look up books and find them on the shelf, that in fact by Thanksgiving almost all of them can do it flawlessly, and that by the end of the year I have first graders and kindergarteners who have learned the same skill.

They would really approve of the fact that all of third grade spends the year learning to implement the Big 6 model using a wide variety of information sources, including the internet. These are eight-year-olds, Rep. X., and yet you would have me wait an entire year more before even trying to “instill a love of reading”? Are you talking story time, Rep. X? Honey, please.

And so you can see why, when talk turns to reauthorizing NCLB, all blessings upon it, I just roll my eyes. Look who’s doing the reauthorization. Can we test them until their eyes bleed?

Read Across America Day (Day 211/365)

I spent the whole day in my media center, surrounded by reading caves for Read Across America Day. As you all know, March 2 is Dr. Seuss’s birthday, and this year was the 50th anniversary of The Cat in the Hat.the media center with reading caves

This is my media center with reading caves. Everything you see here was built by teachers and their minions on Thursday afternoon. In the foreground is the circus tent, with the Mulberry St. House behind it. Beyond that you see the houses of the Three Little Pigs, and behind that, the Wardrobe that leads into Narnia. In the very back is a starry night campground.

Right behind the Mulberry House is Hogwarts, and you cannot see the pirate ship behind that. Also invisible, beyond Narnia, is Mr. Tumnus’s cave, and to the right, out of the frame, is a beach and under the sea.

Here are some young Gryffindors reading inside Hogwarts. Gryffindor's commons roomYou can see the portraits in the stairwell. Behind the camera is the Great Hall, and under that is Slytherin’s commons room. I took the opportunity to dress up as Snape and snarl at children all day. A couple of kids actually, and correctly, addressed me as “Professor Snape.” I also identified every redheaded child as a Weasley, although I think only one was old enough to get it.

It was pretty amazing day. Kids would go nuts when they saw the transformation of the media center, and we’d give them five minutes to explore before settling down to read for about fifteen minutes. There was room for two classes at a time, although I think with a little judicious placement we could have handled three at a time.

Mr. Tumnus's caveEveryone’s favorite of the day was Mr. Tumnus’s cave. It was very cozy, and the way they used the actual shelves was quite witty. Believe it or not, that was a conscious design decision on the part of the young ladies who put it together Thursday afternoon.

All in all, a very good day. Everyone’s reaction was so positive that we decided to leave everything up until Monday afternoon. Many wanted to leave it up all week, but it shuts down the media center, as you can imagine, and we just can’t be closed that long.

Goals for the new year (Day 153/365)

A new year. ::sigh:: I wasn’t through with the old one yet.

So what will I accomplish this year? I will

  • shepherd A Visit to William Blake’s Inn to a stage. It would give me great pleasure not to have to be in charge of this, but I know that’s what’s going to happen.
  • get Lacuna jumpstarted, with its own domain and website.
  • make great strides towards starting and finishing A Day in the Moonlight for Mike Funt, who after reading my blog realizes that he’s a selfish bastard.
  • compose at least one movement of my symphony.
  • get the Newnan Crossing 100 Book Club off the ground and functioning.

That should be enough, right?


Here’s something to do for New Year’s Day (and which I will do right after posting this): Go to and email your future self. You write yourself an email and have it sent at a future date which you choose. I did that as I was writing the penguin opera in early 2004, catching up with myself after the deadline for submitting it to the Köln Opera competition. I asked myself whether I had ended up finishing the piece. It was a great feeling to be able to recognize that I had in fact composed a 45-minute children’s opera.

So what I’ll do in a minute is send this post to myself on October 8, a teacher workday, and see how well I’m doing as this year winds down. Expect a post about that.