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THANGSTGIVING & The Holidays – It’s Not Just The Pie That’s Crusty

By Diane Flynn Keith,

(Diane is a featured speaker at our 2015 Homeschool Conference in Westlake Village, CA. Don’t miss this humorous, insightful homeschool mom.)

For many of you, the Thanksgiving feast, with its traditional marshmallow sweet potato casserole was the first of many sticky situations that will last throughout the holiday season. You’ll be served a smorgasbord of confrontational relatives who subject you to snide comments and questions that may include:

• Insisting that your kids will not be well-socialized (even though they are in the next room happily playing and interacting with their cousins).

• Testing your kids to see what they know.  For example, your father-in-law channels Alex Trebek as he asks, “What’s the third digit of pi?” or “What’s the capital of Serbia?” or “When did colonial Governor William Bradford issue the first Thanksgiving Proclamation?”

• Accusations that you’re over-protective and admonitions to enroll your children in school where bullies (possibly armed with assault rifles) can “toughen them up for the real world.”

• Comparisons of your 8-year-old emerging reader to your brother-in-law’s child who spontaneously read at 2. Or pointing out with some disdain that your 11-year-old daughter still plays with dolls for goodness sake, while your sister’s more mature and popular middle-school daughter can do a great impersonation of Britney Spears as she sings all the lyrics to Womanizer.

• Asking your children, “Don’t you want to go to school?” Or commenting, “Gee, your grandpa and I really think you should go to school.”  Or, as one 7-year-old boy I know was told by a 70-year-old relative, “Homeschooling is for poo-poo heads.”

• Carrying on about the weird homeschoolers they’ve met – implying your kids will turn out weird, too.

All of the above situations can be especially challenging when you have to “make nice” with snarky relatives to preserve some civility at holiday gatherings. Other than too much eggnog, who knows what possesses family members to ask intrusive questions and dish out unsubstantiated opinions? Nevertheless, you are expected to politely eat it, as evidenced by the following stories.

Pass The Turkeys Please

A homeschool mom (S.C. of Central Florida) recounted her family’s experience…

I have been homeschooling my three children for seven years. My in-laws live within ten miles and we see them frequently. My parents live 600 miles away and we see them on holidays.

When we announced that we would homeschool our then pre-K daughter, we were met with resistance. My in-laws were concerned about socialization and suggested local preschools. My parents grimaced, but kept their comments to themselves.

As first grade approached, my in-laws offered to pay half of the tuition at a private school. We declined. My parents were disappointed that we were homeschooling and their questions came more frequently. “What about learning to get along with her peers?” “What about field trips?” “What about science?” “Cousin Jenny is learning about the California missions, have you taught that yet?” “How long are you going to homeschool?”

Our third, fourth and fifth year of homeschooling were the same – we received tuition offers and critical comments. They questioned us about testing and evaluations.

Holidays are the hardest. My dad is the most vocal and hurtful. He will ask about testing, socialization, and mentions certain topics and says, “They should know that.” He always asks, “How long will you
homeschool?” He never leaves without saying, “I just don’t think they are getting the education that they need!” Most of the comments he makes are in front of my kids.

Another homeschool mom, who asked to be identified only as “ST”, to avoid stirring up any more trouble in her family, wrote:

My aunt and uncle are the worst . . . they’ve asked all the typical questions at holiday gatherings. I should preface what follows with the disclaimer that I am rather sarcastic and my son shares my sense of humor. I do not condone rudeness, disrespect or sassing — but there are times when sarcasm is truly the best way to handle their questions.

They have done the quizzing thing . . .“What can you tell me about George Washington?” To which my son has replied, “How much time do you have? Do you want his early life or just the years that he was President?” Or they will say, “Your mom tells me that you’ve already started learning Algebra. If I told you that 3x + 4 = 7, can you tell me what x equals?” My son’s answer was, “Yes.” When further pushed to produce the answer, he explained that the question that was asked was could he do it, not would he do it. (Oh, he makes a mama proud!)

They have asked my son if he is afraid that he’ll be behind if he goes back to public school. His answer was, “I talked to a junior in high school last week who is learning the same thing in history that I am. I’m not afraid of being behind, I’m afraid they’ll never catch up!”

My aunt has made comments to me such as, “I don’t know how you do it. When my kids were that age I couldn’t wait for them to go to school. How do you handle being with him all day, every day?” With the most serious, deadpan look I could muster I simply stated, “I love him.”

My aunt and uncle have asked, more times than I can count, about gaps in my son’s education. I have my response memorized! “Every education has gaps in it. If at the end of the day, I have taught my son how to learn and to love learning he’ll take care of the rest.”

Do you have relatives who are real turkeys too? If so, the following suggestions for dealing with people who would rather smash homeschooling than potatoes may prove helpful.

Squash Objections with Kindness

Joyce offered this advice: “When relatives do have concerns and ask questions, I try to take them seriously and let them know what we do to address those same concerns. Sometimes they actually make valid points and offer suggestions I can use. No matter how it comes out, I try to remember that their concerns are rooted in love and hope for my son’s well-being. So as long as they are respectful, I am respectful back.”

Debbie, who homeschools in southern California, wrote, “My sister-in-law is a life-long public school teacher, so when we visited her for the holidays, we just didn’t talk about homeschooling at all. We avoided the subject and kept the peace. It worked for us.”

Carolyn, a homeschool mom in Ohio, turned her skeptic parents into allies. She asked her mom to teach her kids how to paint with watercolors – her mom’s favorite pastime. She cleverly asked her dad, a mechanic, to teach her children how to maintain the family car. When they saw how eager the children were to learn, they offered to help with other “subjects” like gardening, music, and math. Their family looks forward to holiday gatherings now.

Add Some Gravy

Pour on the charm. Don’t forget that most people would rather talk about themselves and their own children than listen to you talk about yours. Use that to your advantage. If a relative asks about homeschooling, give a quick, pleasant reply and ask them, “How are your kids doing? What are they up to?” Change the subject. Instead of talking about education, ask if they’ve seen any good movies or television programs – or find out if they’ve read a good book lately.

Ladle on active, reflective, and assertive listening techniques to promote or minimize communication. Just spoon on simple responses such as:

• Oh, I see…

• That’s interesting…

• Good point…

• You may be right …

• I hadn’t thought about that…

These phrases will keep polite conversation flowing minimally (even if it is one-sided) while helping to avoid arguments.

Remember that while you cannot control other people, you can control your reaction to people, what they say, and circumstances. You are responsible for your own feelings and behavior and the results you ultimately get.


More Stuffing?

Fran Wisniewski, a homeschool mom of three and list moderator for the Natural Learner Yahoo Group, said, “The best advice I can give to other homeschooling families who must deal with difficult relatives during the holidays is to read, read, read!” Stuff your brain with information to reinforce your position and gain confidence. Here are some resources that will help:

Suggested Books:

• Deschooling Gently by Tammy Takahashi

• Homeschooling: A Family’s Journey by Gregory and Martine Millman

• Learning All the Time by John Holt

• Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto

The Homeschooling Almanac 2000-2001 by Mary & Michael Leppert

Have Some Dessert

Homeschool mom, Ariana, passed along some ideas for celebrating holidays that are sure to sweeten the pie. Instead of worrying about confrontations over homeschooling, simply focus on making everyone feel special and a part of the celebration.  Here’s how…

Holiday Helpers

At Thanksgiving or other holiday celebrations, get everyone involved (even the kids) by writing a specific task on a place card or index card and placing one on each plate. Tell each person to find
his/her plate and do their assigned task. Examples could be, carve the turkey, clear the dishes, bring out dessert, etc.

Leaves of Gratitude

Cut leaves out of autumn-colored construction paper and make one for each guest. Ask each person to write down or draw a picture of what they are grateful for on a paper leaf, and place it in a basket on the dinner table. Take turns reading them during dessert. Then, as an after-dinner activity, place them in a scrapbook. Do this each year. Everyone will enjoy looking back through the scrapbook and reading their comments.

Tablecloth of Thanks & Wishes

Place a light-colored cotton tablecloth on the table and give everyone a “Sharpie” permanent marker (they come in a variety of colors). Have them write down something that they are thankful for or a special wish for the New Year on the tablecloth. Children can draw a picture. Date each message. Use this tablecloth annually. Everyone will enjoy reading the messages year after year.

Don’t Forget the Leftovers

There are many positive and helpful articles about homeschooling available on the Internet for free. Read them yourself to boost your confidence and relieve anxiety. Select a few and print them out for family members. Put them in a doggie bag with the leftovers. It will give them something to chew on the next day. You’ll find terrific articles archived at these suggested websites:

• The Link Homeschooling Magazine

• Homefires ~ The Journal Of Homeschooling

• Home Education Magazine

• Learn in Freedom/ Articles

• Best Homeschooling

   • The Way Home E-newsletter (sign-up at

Decline the Invitation And Make Your Own Holiday Magic

There will always be families for whom holiday gatherings are simply not an option. Read these comments on the topic posted to a homeschool support group discussion list:

“When my kiddos were younger, we had a time when we just didn’t go to family events that were going to prove to have added stress due to these kinds of confrontations. Did it hurt feelings? Yep. But, having my kiddos have good memories was more important than subjecting them to the kind of destructive behavior that can occur at these events.”

“We have a long standing rule that goes like this: If a family member is cruel, destructive, bossy, exceptionally rude, vulgar, aggressive, or is just wanting to pick a fight, we don’t subject the kids or ourselves to that family member. We do not go to homes where we know the environment is hostile. I don’t want those to be our family Thanksgiving memories.”

I suspect that it’s not just homeschooling that is a bone of contention in these families. Anything that is perceived as threatening, different, or “not the way we do things” would probably catch flack. Homeschooling is just an easy target.

There are so many dynamics that produce supportive results in families — including individual confidence, attitude, self-esteem, comfort with the unconventional, fearlessness, gratefulness, and understanding, that each and every one of us (including our family members) have the right to determine their own unique purpose and live a life that supports it.

A family member who possesses such qualities and understands those concepts will always be supportive of others. A family member who does not, may be in such pain (often unrealized) about his/her own life and circumstances that they simply are unable to support anyone else who may be on the path to living an extraordinary life. And homeschooling can certainly result in an extraordinary life for you and your children.

We have, to some extent, been socially conditioned to believe that we cannot have what we want and achieve our dreams. Oh, we pay lip service to telling people that they can live their dreams — but watch what happens when they try. We criticize, speculate, judge, condemn, and come up with a thousand reasons for why they can’t or shouldn’t. We beat them down with our objections and “logic” and when that doesn’t work — we resort to insults, cynicism, sarcasm and disparaging, hurtful remarks. And what’s really crazy is some of us do that to the people we claim to love the most – our family!

Anytime you take the path less-traveled, you’ll meet some resistance, as many homeschoolers will attest. The best thing to do is ignore it (and the people who dish it out) and follow your heart. That takes great courage of conviction and absolute dedication to the belief that what you’re doing is in your best interests — especially when it is plain as day that following your path doesn’t harm anyone else, and actually helps others. I could make the case that homeschooling does exactly that.

Of course, telling you to persevere in the face of detractors is easy. Doing it, and risking being shunned and criticized — and accepting the possibility of having the love and approval of a family member withheld from you or your children as a penalty for your non-conformity — is much harder to do.

I think some people are able, through quiet determination, dignity and resolve, to get through rough patches with relatives — with great results. Their relatives come to see that homeschooling is not the pariah they imagined, and may even become advocates.

Others get sucked into the drama created by the nay-sayers to no one’s benefit — especially not the children’s.

Rather than endure another “festive” gathering that dishes up a plate filled with spite, doubt, bitterness, fear and disapproval, take the “angst” out of “Thangstgiving” and refuse to participate. It’s okay to decline invitations to dysfunctional family gatherings to create healthy, loving holiday memories among like-minded, supportive friends that your family will cherish forever.

Here’s to a happy holiday season! D.F.K.

Copyright 2008 and 2014, Diane Flynn Keith, All Rights Reserved.


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John Taylor Gatto’s The Empty Child, Part 3

by Cathy Duffy

[Ed. Note: John Taylor Gatto’s book, The Empty Child: A Schoolteacher’s Intuition about the Problem of Modern Schooling, published by Simon & Schuster in 1999, was another powerful milestone by one of the foremost thinkers and social commentators in the alternative education world. Below, is an article by one of the field’s most formidable product reviewers, Cathy Duffy, that introduced this excellent book.]

Scientific behaviorism, the brain child of B.F. Skinner came on the scene at just the right time for such purposes. Schools learned to play their new role as purveyors of “mental health.” Desired responses could be programmed into children by the use of rewards and punishments.

Gatto tells us about Edward Thorndike, who might be considered the founder of educational psychology: “According to Thorndike, the aim of a teacher is to ‘produce and prevent certain responses,’ the purpose of education was to promote ‘adjustment.’ In [Thorndike’s book] he urged the deconstruction of emphasis on ‘intellectual resources’ for the young, advice that was largely taken by school people over the years.”

Gatto admits to being a past student and purveyor of behaviorism —you’ll find a story or two in the chapter titled, “The Empty Child” —which clearly taught him some unintended lessons about real people and the ways they act.

After demolishing educational theories that assume that man is little more than an animal, Gatto turns to the alternative: The spiritual side of man. His chapter titled “Absolute Absolutism” is a significant investigation into the nature of man, free will, and ultimate purpose. A key paragraph will give you an idea of where this leads: “The ancient religious question of free will marks the real difference between schooling and education. Education is conceived in Western history as a road to knowing yourself and through that knowledge arriving at a further understanding of community, relationships, jeopardy, living nature, and inanimate matter. But none of those things has any particular meaning until you see what they lead up to, finally being in full command of the spectacular gift of free will: a force completely beyond the power of science to understand. With the tool of free will, anyone can forge a personal purpose.”

Gatto labels the godless, behavioristic schools as “psychopathic.” The language sounds a little strong until you consider the events of the past eight years or so, beginning at Columbine High School in Colorado: A perfect example of psychopathic behavior. Having witnessed years of social pathology in schools —some of which he shares in vignettes about different students  — Gatto speaks with the authority of experience when he lists eight pathological results of modern schooling (which I list in greatly abbreviated form):

1) “children indifferent to the adult world of values and accomplishment,”

2) “children with almost no curiosity” and short spans of attention,

3) “children with a poor sense of the future . . . who live in a continuous present,”

4) “children with no sense of the past,”

5) “children who lack compassion,”

6) children who can’t stand intimacy or frankness and masquerade behind fabricated personalities,

7) materialistic children,

8) “dependent children who grow up to be whining, terrified, dependent adults. . . ”

Gatto describes the results of pathological schooling as a “conspiracy against ourselves.” In one of the most significant insights of this book, Gatto charges those who believe that the system is “fixable” with being part of the conspiracy: “Before you can reach a point of effectiveness in defending your children or your principles against the assault of blind social machinery, you have to stop conspiring against yourself by attempting to negotiate with a set of abstract principles and rules which by its nature cannot respond. Under all its disguises that is what institutional schooling is, an abstraction which has escaped its handlers. Nobody can reform it. First you have to realize that the values you cherish are the stuff of madness to a system. In systems-logic the schools we have are already the schools the system needs. The only way they could be improved is to have kids eat, sleep, live and die there.”

Gatto opens his chapter on “The Politics of Schooling with a quote from Elwood Cubberly: “Each year the child is coming to belong more to the State and less and less to the parent.” He then proceeds to demonstrate how this came about. He identifies three categories of “players in the school game”: government agencies, active special interests (e.g., Carnegie and Ford Foundations, Businessmen’s Roundtable), and the knowledge industry (e.g., teacher-training colleges, researchers, testing organizations).

For all these players, schooling is an excuse to raid the public pocketbook to push their own agendas. They do this through the political process. Such efforts have resulted in conscious, carefully-orchestrated manipulation of society. Manipulation and control actually prove that schools have been successful in achieving the goals for which they were designed in spite of opinions among the general population to the contrary. As Gatto says, “The system isn’t broken so no amount of repair will fix it.”

Gatto’s stories about Benson and Walden, small towns in Vermont, serve as living proof that schooling exists to support agendas other than those of parents and local communities. He tells about the forced elimination of one-room schools that were both efficient and effective, in favor of a more expensive, centralized school in Walden.

In Benson, taxpayers revolted over outrageous costs of education in their new modern school; they weren’t pleased with supporting at least 18 full-time staff to teach 137 children. Political manipulation and dishonesty were used to create schools in both instances, which probably has something to do with the fact that Vermont’s per capita cost for education (in 1995) was well above average for even government schools at $6,500.

At the end of this chapter Gatto says, “As schooling encroaches further and further into family and personal life, monopolizing the development of mind and character, children must become human resources at the disposal of whatever form of governance is dominant at the moment. That in turn confers a huge advantage on the leadership of the moment, allowing it to successfully reproduce itself and foreclose the strength of its competitors.” I suspect that if you have any lingering doubts about the folly of allowing government to be involved in schooling, you will have abandoned them by the time you finish this chapter.

Homeschoolers have already answered the question posed in the chapter titled, “What is an Education?” Gatto uses many illustrations from the Amish to applaud real education that supports one’s own view of life and its purpose. The next chapter is a continuation on this theme, addressing the role of teachers. Gatto says, “Teachers are agents…they sell ritual procedures and memorization as ‘Science’ to kids who will never know any better. A different kind of teacher would set out to help kids design original experiments, test hypotheses, predict from theory, search for truth. Imagine millions of children unleashed to follow the road to discovery in millions of uniquely personal ways, a breathtaking image. Of course, any teacher who really did that would be hunted down like a wild animal and shot.”

He goes on to describe real teachers as teachers who teach “who they are,” helping children to learn important things about themselves and about life.

Gatto continues with encouragement to “break out of the trap.” Dropping out of school might actually be a good thing. If Gatto is correct, schools are purposely keeping young people in suspended immaturity to keep them out of the job market and complete their indoctrination.

He addresses fears about “earning a living” with stories of people he knows who defy all classical stereotypes —young people and adults who found better ways to learn what they needed to know than what schools told them.

Gatto quotes Bertrand Russell (from his book Authority and the Individual) to make a point that summarizes a key theme of this entire book. “. . . [P]resent tendencies toward centralization may well prove too strong to be resisted ‘until they have led to disaster.’ Perhaps, said Russell, ‘the whole system must break down, with all the inevitable results of anarchy and poverty, before human beings can again acquire that degree of personal freedom without which life loses its savor. I hope that this is not the case, but it certainly will be the case unless the danger is realized and unless vigorous measures are taken to combat it.”

Gatto ends with a list of 13 radical suggestions for changing the direction of schooling and a challenge: We can follow the lead of the English General Braddock to a “regression to a royal destiny we escaped three lifetimes ago” by rejecting freedom and choosing the authoritarian security and control of the State. Or we can follow the example of George Washington who rejected the lure of Empire and control, choosing freedom and self-responsibility.

He relates stories of true community —the old lady who wasn’t afraid to scold young John for shooting a bird with his BB rifle, and earned his respect in the process. Learning moral values was the result of “rubbing shoulders with men and women who cared about things other than what money bought….” He says, “They talked to me. Have you noticed nobody talks to children in schools?” Impersonal, instrumental commands take the place of real interaction between adults and children in schools.

Gatto’s own classically dysfunctional family, the uncertainty and occasional unheralded uprootings that he experienced, surprisingly, serve as evidence of the importance of true community in helping children develop a moral base. Gatto strenuously challenges the impersonal, government-directed “village” as a substitute for real-life communities.

Gatto learned some of his most important life lessons in the real world. Because of that, he rebelled against the artificiality and rigid control of the school system in favor of trying to teach kids as individuals.

Gatto’s ideas about schooling are sometimes ambivalent. A year spent at Xavier Academy, a Jesuit boarding school, revealed the contrast between the “watery brain diet of government schooling” and education that assumes children have the dignity, free will, and power to choose right over wrong. Gatto writes, “Materialistic schooling, which is all public schooling even at its best can ever hope to be, operates as if personality changes are ultimately caused externally, by applications of theory and by a skillful balancing of rewards and punishments. The idea individuals have free will which supersedes any social programming is anathema to the very concept of forced schooling.” At the same time, Gatto recognizes the harshness in some of his experiences at Xavier Academy, especially for a seven and eight-year old boy. Weighing the “good and the bad” he says, “Had it not been for Xavier I might have passed my years as a kind of freethinker by default, vaguely aware an overwhelming percentage of the entire human race did and said things about a God I couldn’t fathom. How can I reconcile that the worst year of my life left behind a dimension I should certainly have been poorer to have missed?”


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The Top 10 Methods for Successful Writing

by Jonna Lilly, B.A., M.A.

Assume for a moment that your teacher tells you to write a 300-word essay, due next Monday. What do you do? Cringe? Smile? Laugh? Cry? For most students, writing engenders extreme emotions; some love it, while others hate it. If you are in the latter category, you will soon learn some highly-successful secrets to help your writing. Who knows? You might learn to enjoy the writing process or at least not dislike it as much!


10. Know your audience

Before one can even begin the process of writing, it is imperative to know who will be reading your work. Why? To ensure that your message effectively reaches its intended recipients, you must decide first whom your audience is. There are two basic audiences: General reading public and specialists.


As the name suggests, “the general reading public” is comprised of nearly everyone who can read and write. Your 80-year-old grandmother is a member of the general reading public, but so is a corporate executive at IBM. Because there is such a wide disparity in the group, everything from the educational age level to knowledge-of-the-world level, it is best to write in a simple style, with no flowery words or phrases, basic sentence structure (subject + verb), general vocabulary, and general topics.


On the other hand, writing for specialists is completely different. This group is composed of people who have specialties in specific areas of knowledge. For example, an accountant for American Airlines would have specialized knowledge; so would a botanist at the local university.


How does writing for specialists differ from writing for members of the general reading public? Instead of a simple writing style, a more complex style would be more appropriate, including a complex sentence structure (dependent clauses, either before or after the subject + verb). In addition, jargon becomes important when writing for this group. Jargon is merely the specialized vocabulary used by members of the group; members of other groups may not be privy to this information. When writing for a group of specialists, it is important that you be a specialist in that particular field. Why? Otherwise, you might lose credibility with the group, by not showing you have adequate knowledge and/or by not using the appropriate jargon.


9. Understand the purpose for your writing

There are three basic purposes for writing: To inform, to persuade, and to entertain.

Informing your audience simply means you have information to share with them about a particular topic, including El Nino, the new Ford Prius or jaunts to Beijing.


When writing to persuade, the focus is different. Instead of merely sharing information with the audience, now you will attempt to present a particular slant on an issue, hoping to win the audience to your point of view. For example, you might write about the need to give members of the Armed Forces a 10% pay raise. Or, you could discuss why the television show “The Voice” is better than shows of a similar genre.


Remember, also, that writing to inform and persuade can, and often do, overlap. If you choose to write about why you are pro-President Obama, in the course of explaining why you feel the way you do, you would certainly include information about him, such as his leadership skills or his relaxed personality.


Finally, writing to entertain, includes pieces by humorists, like Dave Barry. Articles about leading entertainers, such as those found in People, would also be included under this heading.


Most business-related writing would fall under the first two headings; very rarely would writing to entertain be needed in the business world.


8. Develop your thoughts well

Once you know your audience and purpose, you can start developing ideas for your readers. Your topic sentences, what each paragraph is about, will need sufficient detail in order to explain your message adequately.


A simple technique to ensure that your readers understand your message is to include ample reasons, examples, names, numbers, and senses. Reasons explain why something is the way it is. For instance, in order for medicine to work effectively, it must be taken at regular intervals, either throughout the day or on a once-daily basis. Examples illustrate ideas. For instance, if you are writing about vegetables containing beta-carotene, you could use as an example, the sweet potato, which has high concentrations of beta-carotene. Using proper names, also known as proper nouns, will also better explain ideas. Say, for instance, you are writing about basketball. Mentioning a specific player, like Michael Jordan, would make your writing more concrete. Numbers are self-explanatory; however, implications of numbers would also be appropriate (e.g., several, many, some). Finally, use senses in your writing. Sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell can make your writing spring to life. For example, if you write about how to bake chocolate-chip cookies, it would be natural to include several senses in your writing.


7. Read, read, read

One of the best ways to become a better writer is simply to become a better reader. How? by reading something – anything — on a regular basis. Do you like keeping up with current events? Try reading your local newspaper or a website like USA Today. What about science fiction? Magazines? Novels? History? It really doesn’t matter what you read. The important idea to remember here is: Just read. Notice the authors’ sentence structure, vocabulary, jargon, and grammar. Are they writing for the general reading public or for specialists? If there is a word you don’t know, grab your dictionary and look it up. Once you discover a particular writing style you like, decide why you like it and then try to emulate it. Experiment with different writing styles, depending on your audience and purpose.


6. Write only about what you know (and like)

From teaching various English classes, I can tell you categorically that the students who have the least writing difficulties choose topics which they know and like. Think about it: If you are interested in space exploration, but choose instead to write about the life-cycle of a butterfly, your lack of interest will cause the writing process to seem much more mundane, not to mention long and tiresome! Don’t misunderstand, though. Even student writers who write about topics they like, find themselves confronting a problem or two in their writing. Their positive mindsets about their topics make resolving the problems that much easier.


5. Increase your vocabulary as much as possible

When you come across an unfamiliar word, look up its definition in the dictionary. To make the word truly yours, keep a “new vocabulary journal.” Write the word and its definition in a notebook and refer to it on a daily basis. Plan to incorporate several new words from your notebook in each essay you write.


Another way to increase your vocabulary is to take the “Word Power” quiz in each month’s issue of Reader’s Digest. Or, purchase a book on vocabulary building, such as 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, by Wilfred Funk.


Students willing to invest minutes per week will reap many benefits from an increased vocabulary. Not only will they appear more educated than their counterparts; they will also notice that their appetite for new words will increase. These new words can be used verbally, as well as in writing. Think about how an advanced vocabulary will increase the chances of impressing a potential boss, when job-hunting time arrives


4. Don’t procrastinate

If an essay is due in two weeks, don’t wait until the night before it is due to start working on it. Sounds logical, right? Then, why do so many students procrastinate? Some are just lazy, perhaps. Others have good intentions, which somehow go awry. I would submit that the majority of students who procrastinate simply do not like writing, because they don’t know how to write well.


With the suggestions listed here, you should not be in this category. Once you know how to write well, writing will not be viewed as a “chore” anymore. Instead, you can approach it from the perspective that you have a skill you can use to better your lifestyle. One of my proudest moments as a teacher occurred when a student in one of my business writing classes told me about her promotion and raise, given to her as a result of a research paper she had written in my class. She succeeded in doing well on the paper (she received an “A”), but she also profited monetarily. Her self-esteem skyrocketed, needless to say!


3. Practice, practice, practice

Use your newfound writing skills in other classes, besides English. Why not write a paragraph on how you solved a geometry problem? Or, take a few moments to write about your latest science chapter, perhaps to summarize it. But, don’t stop there. Write a letter to your grandmother, instead of sending her a Hallmark card. When emailing your friends, include a new word you’ve learned recently. Keep a daily journal, similar to a diary, detailing whatever you wish. Students I know who have started keeping a journal often write for just five minutes per day. However, they usually will write longer, perhaps 15-20 minutes per day, after just a couple of weeks. Why? They find they enjoy the outlet the journal provides. They can complain to the journal about their troubles, rejoice about their successes, and share everything in-between! In short, use your skills often to sharpen them even more.


2. Enlist some support

Once you have finished writing your essay, let someone else read it. Does it make sense? Are there paragraphs that need more development? Can the reader pinpoint your main ideas? Is your sentence structure appropriate for the audience? What about vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, and jargon?


If your reader encounters few problems, congratulations! On the other hand, if the reader has difficulty, this is a perfect opportunity for you. Why? You have valuable information for future writing projects. You now know where your weaknesses lie and will be better able to address those next time.


1. Resolve to work on one problem per week

As we said earlier, by enlisting support, it is easy to pinpoint problem areas. What we can’t see clearly ourselves, simply because we are too close to the work, others can see much more easily. Once we have that information, it is imperative to use it to improve. If you see that paragraph development is a problem, resolve to work on that area for one week. Will you see improvements immediately? Perhaps not, but the main idea is to attempt to resolve the problem, rather than to ignore it and hope it will disappear. Over time, your writing is sure to improve.


By following these ten simple ideas, writing an essay will no longer seem as bothersome. Next time you’re assigned an essay, you can be confident, knowing your writing will be successful!


© Jonna R. Lilly, 2002, 2014

Jonna R. Lilly holds a Master of Arts in English from Indiana University. She has taught at numerous colleges and universities, served as an editor for a professional public speaker, and written for various national publications, and for Internet websites. She is currently on the faculty of Sullivan University —


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John Taylor Gatto’s The Empty Child Part 2

by Cathy Duffy

[Ed. Note: John Taylor Gatto’s book, The Empty Child: A Schoolteacher’s Intuition about the Problem of Modern Schooling, published by Simon & Schuster in 1999, was another powerful milestone by one of the foremost thinkers and social commentators in the alternative education world. Below, is the continuation of an article by one of the field’s most formidable product reviewers, Cathy Duffy, that introduced this excellent book.]

I’ll resume my review with Gatto’s “visit” to Chautauqua, a grand example of elitist manipulation.

“Chautauqua” should be part of our common vocabulary, but most of us likely never heard of the place. Chautauqua was the scene of a nineteenth century utopian experiment. “. . . Chautauqua did a great deal to homogenize the U.S. as a nation. It brought to the attention of America, an impressive number of new ideas and concepts, always from a management perspective . . . even a partial list of developments credited to Chautauqua is impressive evidence of the influence of this early mass communication device. . .

For instance, we have Chautauqua to thank in some part for the graduated income tax, for slum clearance as a business opportunity, juvenile courts, the school lunch program, free textbooks, a ‘balanced diet,’ physical fitness, the Camp-Fire Girls, the Boy Scout movement, pure food laws, and much, much more.”

Chautauqua created a new orthodoxy among societal “shapers.” They could perfect society by scientific management. However, it would require detaching people from human, emotional ways of dealing with things. Schooling was a form of “social machinery” to shape utopian citizens.

According to Gatto, many of the reformers were childless men who saw no problem with asserting the State’s role as primary parent of all children. Families have become “conditional entities” —they remain together as long as they fulfill State views on family nurturing. Destruction of families can be viewed as a positive development seen through utopian eyes.

Gatto uncovers evidence for purposeful emasculation of young men. Massachusetts schools in the mid-1800s purposely worked to replace male teachers with female, primarily by paying women higher wages than men! They believed that young men “need the softening and refining influence which woman alone can give. . . ” in their influential role as school teachers.

Another interesting sidenote to utopian attempts to shape society has to do with children’s literature. Gatto says, “Through children’s books, older generations announce their values, declare their aspirations, and make bids to socialize the young. . . In the 30-year period from 1890 to 1920, the children’s book industry became a creator, not a reflector of values.” Individualism and personal needs came to replace “God-consciousness” as themes in children’s stories.

Utopian goals have been realized to a large extent in America. “Like a black hole it grew, although no human being flourishes under such a regime or rests easily inside the logic of hundreds of systems inter-meshing into one master system, all demanding obedience from their human parts. This is a religious vision, Ezekiel’s wheels within wheels, a nightmare come to life.”

Gatto decries utopian ideas as a small group of elitists’ desire to control humanity. School is a major part of the control mechanism. “What should make you suspicious about School is its relentless compulsion. Why should this rich brawling, utterly successful nation ever have needed to resort to compulsion to realize a social ordering of people into school classes —unless advocates of force-schooling were driven by philosophical beliefs not commonly shared?”

Utopianism is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Much of it traces its roots back through history, with European history (being) a rich source of utopian ideas. Gatto uncovers a major (if not the major) underlying rationale for controlled societies: The use of coal power, mechanization, and the need for people to work the factories. “Enthusiasm for schooling is closely correlated with a nation’s intensity in mechanical industry, and that closely correlated with its natural heritage of coal.” Coal-based industries required families to leave their farms and reorganize their lives around the needs of the factory rather than the family. ////

Gatto shows how “coal power” birthed what he calls “administrative utopias” to control people’s lives. The need became pressing in the 1800s and early 1900s with the huge influxes of immigrants, particularly the Irish and Italian Catholics. Industry needed cheap labor, but cities were overwhelmed with so many people of different cultures and religious beliefs. Protestants joined with Horace Mann and other utopians to protect their culture, not realizing that secular schools would eventually turn on them and undermine their own worldviews.

Digging deeper, Gatto discovered that inferior schools are actually essential to the industrialized society of the utopians: “. . . scientifically efficient schooling. . . does build national wealth and it does lead to endless scientific advances. . . The truth is that America’s unprecedented global power and spectacular material wealth is a direct product of a third-rate educational system, upon whose inefficiency in developing intellect and character it depends. If we educated better we could not sustain the corporate utopia we have made. Schools build national wealth by tearing down personal sovereignty, morality and family life. It’s a trade-off.”

Poorly-educated workers are less likely to challenge the powers that be. Gatto summarizes the government position as stated in the U.S. Bureau of Education’s Circular of Information, published in April 1872: “. . . ‘inculcating knowledge’ teaches workers to be able to ‘perceive and calculate their grievances,’ thus making them ‘more redoubtable foes’ in labor struggles.” The Circular goes on to say, “We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes.”

Also, children needed to be removed from and restrained from the workplace because mechanization reduced the number of laborers needed. Jobs needed to be reserved for adults, so school became a place to occupy children.

Here is where Gatto’s handling of the subject matter really shines. While discussing the horrific results of industrialization and schooling, he does not characterize those who managed such societal changes as evil, corrupt people, but as true believers who saw no other way to accomplish what they viewed as bringing about the best for society. While disagreeing with their motivation and understanding of human nature, he credits them with an earnestness to “do good.” Yet, there is a certain flavor of inevitability. Gatto summarizes, “. . . why school after Coal had to become the way it did: To prevent overproduction of brains and character, to create a mass population in harmony with the capacities of mass production, to protect the war-making power and wealth-making power from labor disruption, and to diffuse the revolutionary potential of science upon which the whole edifice was built.”

Remember the movie, Cheaper by the Dozen? Mr. Gilbreth, the father in the movie was actually a real-life character who was a devotee of Frederick Taylor’s scientific management, also known as Taylorism. Gilbreth managed his children with a stopwatch and machine-like efficiency. Taylor’s ideas focused on the primacy of the system over individuals. People must be made to fit the system, even if that meant psychological manipulation. Scientific management was quickly adopted by businesses, shortly followed by schools.

The goals of education changed under the influence of scientific management. An 1893 report from the “Committee of Ten” stated that “the purpose of all education is to train the mind.” But, in 1911 and 1918, NEA reports attacked the “bookish curricula” that gave children “false ideas of culture.” Drills were a better method of learning than reading; social studies more useful than history. According to Gatto, the latter of these reports, “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education,” now declared “that human behavior, health, and vocational training were the central goals of education. Not mental development.” Larger, centralized schools; standardized tests; students moving between classrooms for different classes; and bells signaling time to move were all products of scientific management.

The large foundations (Rockefeller, Carnegie, et. al.) come closest to being labeled as the evil behind the scenes. They financed and controlled education reform to such an extent that it became a matter of passionate discussion in Congress. The January 26, 1917 Congressional Record recalls the words of Senator Works of California who said, “These people . . . are attempting to get control of the whole educational work of the country.”

By the way, fans of standardized testing will be dismayed to know that these were created as tools to “teacher-proof” education. Teachers whose performances are judged by student test scores seldom stray far from the prescribed curricula.

Control issues are also the subject of a chapter, appropriately titled “The Crunch.” It focuses more closely on immigration and attempts to protect cultural hegemony. Some of the ugliest secrets of our country’s history stem from fear of foreigners. Gatto focuses on racism and the eugenics movement, reactions to those fears.

A host of social engineering strategies were spawned. Gatto tells us, “Besides destroying lesser breeds (as they were routinely called) by abortion, sterilization, adoption, celibacy, two-job family separations, low-wage rates to dull the zest for living, and, above all schooling to dull the mind and debase the character; other methods were clinically discussed in journals and private clubs including childlessness induced through easy availability of pornography.”

Such measures were required to prevent racial suicide. Evolutionary thought fully supported efforts to improve genetic bloodlines by encouraging reproduction of only the superior races.

Did you know that the phrase “melting pot” isn’t a recent phrase, but derived from propaganda events after W.W.I where a huge black pot served as a prop for processions of costumed immigrants to enter the pot and emerge as identically-dressed “real Americans”?

Frances Kellor, founded the “Committee for Immigrants in America,” which “proclaimed itself the central clearinghouse to unify all public and private agencies in a national spearhead to ‘make all these people one nation.’ When government failed to come up with money for a bureau, Miss Kellor’s own backers —who included Mrs. Averill Harriman and Felix Warburg, the Rothschild banker, did just that, and this private entity was duly incorporated into the government of the United States!” becoming the Division of Immigrant Education.

Gatto tells us, “Immigrant education meant public school education, for it was to compulsion schooling the children of immigration were consigned, and immigrant children, in a reversal of traditional roles, became the teachers of their immigrant parents, thus ruining their families.”

Kellor had a very large vision. In a book she wrote, published in 1916, “she called for universal military service, industrial mobilization, a continuing military build-up, precisely engineered school curricula, and total Americanization . . .” Concerned about the “Red Menace,” Kellor worked with the major employers who used foreign labor, warning them of potential revolutionaries in their midst. “Kellor proposed a partnership of business and social work to ‘break up the nationalistic, racial groups.’” One of the prime ways to do so was to weaken family life.

Gatto is remarkably broad in his inclusion of many key players in this drama, but in the next chapter he focuses in on upper class society in America, how it came into being, what its goals were, and how schools became the vehicle for its goals. Gatto paints a fascinating picture of the Anglican mindset which dominated in such circles. He explains the genesis of ideas about the Aryan race, its origins and descendants, raising some very troublesome questions about the entire notion.

A number of books were written to buttress the ideas of superior races, many of them challenging the notion that democracy was a good thing. Gatto writes of a particular book as an example: “It charged there was no connection between democracy and progress; in fact, it claimed the reverse was true. Maine’s account of racial history was accepted without question. It admirably complemented a torrent of scientifically-mathematicized racism pouring from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and virtually every bastion of high academia right through the W.W.I period and even beyond, scientific racism which determined the shape of government schooling in large measure and still does.”

The welfare state was another natural outgrowth of this mindset. The elite who controlled the major industries were naturally concerned about maintaining civic order —difficult to do when people are dependent upon jobs that can suddenly disappear when a factory or mine closes.

Welfare was a way to take care of the lower classes, meeting their most basic needs, as well as keeping them from causing trouble. Gatto quotes Alan Pifer, president of the Carnegie Corporation, who in a 1984 document wrote concerning the possibility of social rest that might endanger “the survival of our capitalist economic system.” Pifer went on to say, “Just as we built the general welfare state . . . and expanded it in the 1960s as a safety valve for the easing of social tension, so will we do it again in the 1980s. Any other path is too risky.”

If some people are considered inferior, then they probably need direction for their lives. It’s easier to get people to do what you’d like them to do if you use psychological manipulation.


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Vocabulary Cartoons – “. . . why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?”

P.O Box 511314
Punta Gorda, FL 33951



by Michael Leppert


The quote above is from a testimonial comment from an English teacher about the simple but ingenious vocabulary builder – Vocabulary Cartoons.


Vocabulary Cartoons is a series of books with cartoons on each page and here is how it works: There is a cartoon of a baseball player wearing an enormous baseball cap, for the word “Capacious”. The definition is: “Roomy, able to hold much” and the caption reads: “A SPACIOUS CAP is CAPACIOUS


Another example: There is a cartoon of a pirate captain standing on a dock with a sign “Free Cruise”. In the background is his square rigger and the word is “Accrue” The definition is: “To accumulate over time” and the caption reads “Pirates know how to accrue a crew.”


This approach to teaching vocabulary replaces memorization to a large extent and also adds an element of fun to vocabulary building.


Among the products offered are:


SAT Vocabulary Word Power I for 7th to 12th graders who are boning up for the SAT and other standard tests. This books contains 290 rhyming and visual mnemonics that have high frequency on the SAT, along with 29 review quizzes consisting of matching and fill-in-the-blank problems.


SAT Vocabulary Word Power II – 290 more great mnemonic cartoons, rhyming words and 29 review quizzes.


Vocabulary Cartoons, Elementary Edition for 3rd to 6th graders. Contains 210 words every grammar school student should know presented in an easy to read format. Also includes 21 review quizzes with matching and fill in the blank problems.


Melissa Forney’s Picture Speller for Young Writers, for K to 2nd graders – containing over 1300 colored drawings, organized by theme, to help young writers develop their skills. Also great for ESL students.


Students who have used Vocabulary Cartoons for the SAT prep have learned 72% more words than students who relied on traditional rote methods. That difference could boost one’s score considerably.


No matter what grade level your child is, Vocabulary Cartoons is a great aid in increasing his/her English skills. Visit the website,, for complete pricing and ordering   MjL


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