Review of the Astrohaus Freewrite

The Astrohaus Freewrite is a beautiful, wonderful, strange, impractical, overpriced, and ultimately failed product. 

Allow me to explain: the Freewrite, essentially a typewriter with an e-ink screen that syncs your documents to the cloud, caught my eye when it was first announced. I like gadgets, and I like the idea of a dedicated writing tool that doesn't do other things (like, for example, Twitter). 

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But I'm not made of money, so I couldn't afford to drop 500 bucks on something like this. Besides, I have been writing on paper with fountain pens for the last couple of years, and notebooks also can't access Twitter, and fountain pens are beautiful objects that are a joy to use, so it's not like I really needed a tool like this.  But I mentioned it to a friend who went out and bought one.

He quickly found that it didn't suit the way he worked and was looking to unload it. So I bought it at a substantial discount. He was thrilled to get some money back from the purchase, and I was thrilled to get a cool gadget at 80%  off.

I have used the Freewrite for a little over a month. 

The biggest positive: the Astrohaus Freewrite is, like I said, a beautiful tool. It makes me want to write because it's fun to use and the keyboard is incredibly sturdy. And when it's not in use, you get a weird little portrait of a white writer on your screen (I mean, I love Poe and Shakespeare and Dickens, like Agatha Christie, and don't care much for Asimov, but it's kind of striking that everybody's white) urging you to "set your story free." 0615171503b

So far so good. The Freewrite is also ostentatiously impractical. For some people this may be a drawback, but for me it was charming. It's got a nice handle to carry it, 0615171504

but it's heavy and it doesn't have a case, so you can't really put it in your bag without risking accidentally turning it on and registering a lot of ssssln;nnn;[eeaw2 in your document. Also, the wonderfully substantial and apparently durable keyboard has a pretty big drawback: it's loud as hell. I tried to use this thing in a coffee shop and library, and both times I had to stop because I was self-conscious about all the noise I was making. 

The other major impractical part actually turned out to be a huge positive for me: there are no arrow keys. With the Freewrite, the only way to go is forward. You can get back by backspacing, but if you spot a typo two lines up, you've got to ponderously backspace and then retype in order to fix it. Best to just keep moving. 

This turns out to be a revelation. I really thought I was a "bang out a first draft and then go back and fix it" kind of writer. Turns out I was more of a "bang out a paragraph or two, reread and fix them, then move forward" kind of writer. With the Freewrite, I was generating words faster than I ever have. The Freewrite forced me to just keep going forward and fix it later, which is advice I always give about first drafts but apparently wasn't taking as well as I thought. This led to a great positive feedback loop where I would sit down and just bang out a shocking (for me) amount of words in a session, which made me feel great, which made me associate that success with the Freewrite, which made me want to use it more, which allowed me to finish the first draft of a novel in near-record (for me) time. 

So far so good! So what's the problem?

Well, there are a couple. The first is this: anybody who owned an early e-reader remembers the lag on e-ink screens. The Astrohaus Freewrite screen is a bit laggy, which wasn't an issue for me at first. I am a touch typist, and it didn't bug me to have the display lagging a couple of letters behind my fingers. But I found that as my document got longer, the lag also got longer. By the time I was over 20k words, I would type a paragraph and then wait ten seconds or more for the screen to catch up with my fingers. (Ten seconds is a really long time for something like this. Count it out, and imagine you're waiting for something you're relatively sure you just typed to appear on the screen.). So, basically, you can't draft an entire novel as a single document on the Freewrite. Well, I thought, that's an annoyance, but I can live with it.

Fortunately, the Freewrite has this convenient folder system with a nice mechanical switch to go between folders A, B and C. 0615171503c

Since my first 26k words were in Folder A, I'd just switch over to Folder B for the next part! No problem! And it wasn't at first. I banged out another 8k words in folder B, and then, just because I'm a little anxiety prone, I hit the "send" button on the Freewrite. (This is a handy tool that sends you an email with your doc attached. So then you presumably have it in Astrohaus' own cloud storage, your Google Drive or Dropbox or whatever other cloud storage thing you set it up to connect to, and your email.)

"Email sent!" the Freewrite informed me. But I never got the email. To skip ahead, I found that Folder B wasn't syncing to the cloud. Well, no problem--I hooked up the Freewrite to my computer to drag a copy to my hard drive. But the computer couldn't find anything in Folder B. I had typed 8000 words in Folder B, and it was stuck there, with the Freewrite not able to send it out or even apparently knowing where it was.

No problem! I'll just contact customer support! I got an answer to my email the following day. It was one of those "do this obvious thing and quit bugging me" support emails that everyone has gotten. I quickly sent back an email saying, yeah, I tried that, and it doesn't work. Two days later, I still haven't gotten an answer. I posted the question on a support forum where the co-founder of the company replied telling me to send an email. UPDATE: since I started writing this post, I got an answer after I forwarded my previous follow-up. The answer was, "we don't know; you might have to send it in."

So now I'm retyping the 8000 words into the computer. Not a huge deal--this is what I do when I hand-write a first draft with a fountain pen. But I realized I have a device that is designed to do only two things--allow me to write a first draft and sync it to the cloud--and it doesn't do either one reliably. 

If you're going to sell an unreliable product, you need to have VERY solicitous customer support. If you're going to have an indifferent approach to customer support, you need to have a VERY reliable product. 

So. Will I continue to use the Freewrite? Maybe. But not knowing if my documents are going to get stuck on it is going to dampen the joy I felt while using it initially. 

Would I recommend that you buy it? Almost certainly not. Here's the exception: if you're wealthy enough that five hundred dollars is not a significant amount of money for you, and you're doing Nanowrimo and want something to help you bang out a ton of words in a short time, then this is the tool for you. For everybody else, I'd say skip it unless, like me, you can find it used and cheap. (Which you totally can. Email me if you're interested.)

 

 

If you found this review helpful, maybe go buy one of my books? Check out my Amazon page here or pay what you want for this ebook, this ebook, or this ebook. Thanks! 


Bad Writing in the Arnold Arboretum

This morning, I happened upon an egregious example of bad writing.

When most people hear "bad writing," they think of writing that is unclear or doesn't follow conventions of spelling, punctuation and usage. This sign, which greets visitors to Boston's Arnold Arboretum, is clear, and, except for one missing comma, follows Standard English spelling, punctuation, and usage.

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Good writing, as your English teacher may have told you, is appropriate for its purpose and its audience, and this is where this sign fails so spectacularly.

Let's start with the purpose: I assume the purpose is to convince dog owners to leash their dogs. Now, some people will do what they want regardless of what any sign says. Others will rigorously obey every rule. And the majority of people are somewhere in the middle. So those are the people you want to convince. 

This sign's failure begins with the topmost all-caps pronouncements. First of all, the word "menace." In a document meant to persuade, you've opened with namecalling. This is unlikely to get people on your side.  Also, I don't know if it's due to the fact that it's J. Jonah Jameson's favorite word in Spider-Man comics, but calling someone a menace suggests nothing so much as slightly comical impotent rage. 

There is further all-caps yelling down below, which again serves to remind you that someone is very angry about all this. I have no opinion about whether this anger is justified. But parading it out at every entrance to the place is not helping persuade people to do their part to take care of the place. As anyone who has spent any time on the internet knows, "I AM VERY ANGRY" is not a message that has ever persuaded anyone of anything. 

My visceral reaction on seeing the sign was,  "I haven't done anything. Why are you yelling at me?" I was on my bike and not with my dog, (and I never take my dog there) but the sign did not make me want to comply with anything it says. Its assertion of angry authority made me want to defy that authority. Maybe that's more about me than the sign, but I know I'm not alone in this. If you want to change people's minds or behavior, you have to talk to them like they're people. 

If you use the Arboretum at all, it's in your interest to have it remain nice, and there's a strong case to be made here that unleashing your dog undermines that interest. But this sign isn't making it.

So, the sign is failing at its ostensible purpose. And it's failing so spectacularly that it's actually succeeding at other purposes. To wit: it's communicating that the Arboretum is beset by a VERY SERIOUS PROBLEM. (we get the word problem in all caps twice, so you know it's a big one.) It's pretty much not safe to walk or do anything in there because of the packs of rampaging dogs, or so the sign (and the absence of other signage conveying welcome) suggests.  (I biked through the whole place and saw one unleashed dog--an elderly basset hound who moved like he was under sedation.) So it is, in effect, warning off potential visitors who might be put off by its alarmism. 

It's also undermining its own message. Note that if you unleash your dog, which is a PROBLEM, you are "subject to fines and legal action including being banned from the grounds." But note, at the very bottom, if you tamper with the sign in any way, YOU WILL BE PROSECUTED TO THE FULL EXTENT OF THE LAW. So, the sign suggests, the problem the sign is supposed to address is actually less important than the sign itself remaining unmolested.

The sign's ultimate effect is simply to communicate this: THIS PLACE IS RUN BY DICKS. I suspect this was not the sign's intended purpose. I hope they will take these signs down and replace them with competently-written ones. 

The Arbortum, by the way, is managed by Harvard University, which just goes to show you that bad writing is everywhere.


My Plan To Save America: Bowie, Wyoming

So a bunch of us are about to get stuck with a president we didn't vote for and are feeling pretty frustrated that a guy could lose the popular vote by 3 million and still win the election because of the electoral college.

Ideally, we'd abolish the electoral college, but the small states that benefit from this system are never going to sign off on that change, so it's never going to happen. 

So are those of us in the majority doomed to be ruled by the minority forever?

Maybe not. I have a workaround.

This workaround requires one very rich person and a hundred thousand other people.

Now, a hundred thousand sounds like a lot, and it is, but in a country of 300 million people, it's not actually that huge of a number. (.03%, if I'm doing the math right!)  It's fewer people than currently live in Norman, OK or Denton, TX or Olathe, KS.

Since we can't change the system that gives small states disproportionate power, let's use that to our advantage! Let's take Wyoming!

Wyoming is our least populous state. I know nothing about it except this: 100,000 people could make this a rock-solid progressive state. This means only 3 electoral votes, but, hey, every one counts. It means only one US Representative, but see above. The big prize here is two Senate seats. 

In the most recent Senate race in California, Kamala Harris won by 3 million votes, getting about 6.5 million votes. In the most recent Senate race in Wyoming, Mike Enzi won by 30,000 votes, with a total of 121,000 votes. These two Senators have an absolutely equal voice in making laws in the United States.

100,000 people could change the balance of power in the Senate for generations. 

But how do you get 100,000 people to move to Wyoming, and where do they live once they get there? 

Here's my solution: Bowie, Wyoming. Which is where the rich person comes in. We need one very rich person to create some kind of artist colony/music venue/theater/whatever in some unincorporated territory. I'd like to name it after David Bowie, since naming it after a guy who let his freak flag fly for decades and played around with gender expectations would be a pretty clear signal of the kind of place it's going to be. (I'm a much bigger Prince fan, but we already have a Princeton that sucks, and Prince just doesn't sound like a city name to me, but I could bend on this issue.) 

Can you build a city out of nothing in the middle of nowhere? I dunno--can you?

Can you get artists to relocate to a godforsaken spot with dirt cheap real estate? I dunno--can you?

I mean, the idea sounds ridiculous at first, but it could actually be done.

I dream of a city with a diverse population, powered by green technology and featuring the most vibrant arts scene in the Western US. That, oh yeah, also plays a crucial role in helping the progressive majority in this country beat back the agenda of the reactionary minority.

So, if you are a progressive person with a ton of money, please consider building a state of the art arts facility in Wyoming. And found a town named after David Bowie. 


Things that Didn't Suck about 2016

This has been a hard year for just about everyone. It certainly has been for me, not only because of the election and all the celebrity deaths (Prince is the one that hit the hardest for me), but also because of a number of things that happened in my life, especially getting laid off in February.

Every time I go on Twitter, I see people talking about what a shitty year it's been. No argument from me, but I thought it would be worth my while to remind myself of some things that didn't suck this year. So here goes.

My writing retreat

Shortly after being laid off in February, I booked a couple of nights in a tiny house in New Hampshire through Getaway. I went with my dog to New Hampshire to this tiny house in order to really work on earnest on Shelter in Place, my novel about kids in a lockdown. I had about ten pages before I went up there. I think I wrote about 30 more in the two days I was away, so that when I got back, I'd gone from having what was essentially an idea for a novel to a novel in progress.

There was no wifi, and I had about one bar of 3G, so I could text home and check email if the wind was right, but basically I was cut off from everything that usually distracts me from writing. It was glorious. I was definitely ready to come home at the end of it (and the dog, it must be said, got bored), but it was probably the best thing I've ever done for my writing, and it gave me a boost when I really needed one.

No on 2

Here in Massachusetts, there was a ballot initiative backed by tons of out of state money that would have allowed for essentially unchecked expansion of charter schools, which would have killed public education in Massachusetts, or at least in the lower-income towns where rich people decide charter schools should be located. I have many thoughts about how the measure was defeated that I think can be helpful in resisting all kinds of things that must be resisted in the coming years, but that's a whole post in itself. For now, I'll say that a coalition of ordinary people managed to resist a radical measure that was backed by huge amounts of money. Though the tens of millions that the hedge fund guys spent trying to kill public education was probably pocket change to those guys, I was happy to see them lose it, and, more importantly, I was happy to see ordinary people beat big money. It was hard to celebrate the victory at the time given the shitshow at the top of the ticket, but it meant a lot to me. I did very little, but more than I've ever done before in electoral politics, and I really appreciate the people who worked tirelessly on this.

The New BPL

The renovations at the Boston Public Library's main branch in Copley Square were completed this year, and the result is a beautiful public space packed with great places to work. Whoever did the design managed to overcome the tomb-like design of the original building to create a huge open space filled with light. I went there to work several times this year. It's beautiful and free and there are outlets everywhere and you don't even need to buy a coffee to justify taking up space because the space is already yours. (though you can buy coffee across the courtyard in the other building.)  So now the main branch of the BPL has the stunning old building, the beautiful courtyard, and a fantastic modern building. We are lucky to have it.

Old Friends

And I do mean old! This year I saw my high school friends Jamie, Eric, and Daniel when they came to town, (hadn't seen Jamie in over 20 years!) and this fall, Daniel, Eric, Betsy, Rick, Karl and I had a mini-reunion in Chicago. It is just amazingly soul-nourishing to have these people in my life, and despite the fact that we don't see each other as much as we'd like, we really are able to pick right up and have fun together as if no time at all has passed. People who knew you when you were 14 and somehow like you anyway are a treasure.

Make My Funk The P-Funk

My son and I went to see George Clinton at the House of Blues. It was one of the best concerts I've ever seen. This despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact?) that George himself doesn't do very much musically: he sang, or more accurately croaked, a song or two, but mostly he just ran around the stage, pointing at people taking solos and generally serving as bandleader/hype man. The musicians and singers who currently make up the P-Funk All Stars or whatever we're calling them are all top notch: Blackbird McKnight's "Maggot Brain" was pretty transcendent.  And there were so many of them! During a slow song, I thought the stage looked pretty empty, and it did: there were only ten people on it at the time. The overwhelming feeling of the night was that there was this fantastic party happening on stage that we were lucky enough to get to watch. It meant a lot to me to share this with my son, too, but that way lies maudlin writing.

Stranger Things and TV's Golden Age

I loved Stranger Things a lot.  80's Nostalgia: check! D&D geekery: check! Amazing performances from winning actors: check! (The presence of one dud in the cast didn't even ruin it for me.) Trans-dimensional horror: check! I felt like they made this show just for me, which made it doubly thrilling that it was a hit. Usually things that feel tailor-made for me disappear quickly or are relegated to cult status. So, yeah, great show. But the thing is, there are more good TV shows out there right now than I have time to watch. The talent pool in Hollywood seems to be flocking to TV, perhaps because TV allows them to do more interesting things. When I saw Rogue One, I saw like 8 trailers beforehand, and I couldn't believe how hacky all the movies looked. Michael Bay-style explosions and sub-Two Broke Girls-level comedies were all that were on offer. I used to go to the movies and add movies to my must-see list based on trailers, but now I think there's way too much good TV to catch up on for me to waste my time seeing shitty movies. Sorry about the movies, but wow is there some great stuff on TV right now. Great TV used to be an oxymoron, and then it was a rarity. Now it's not all that rare. We're living in the golden age of this art form, which is exciting.

Your Turn to Bring the Light

We are entering what may be very dark times, which makes it doubly hard to lose so many people who brought light into our lives. So it's really our turn to bring the light. You are not a musical genius like Prince, and you may not be a fearless badass like Carrie Fisher, but you've got something to give. Something that other people are going to need pretty desperately.  A lot of our heroes are gone, so it's up to us to bring the light in whatever way we can. Or maybe to be heroes just for one day.

 


Leaving Kidlit Twitter, or Why I Unfollowed You

I've recently unfollowed some lovely people on Twitter. I'd like to explain why.

I am opting out of kidlit Twitter.

I believe that people who anger us are still human beings and deserve to be treated as such. I also believe in the freedom to read.

These are bedrock values to me, and kidlit Twitter does not share them.  I've tried to be silent when I see them violated, but it's nearly impossible for me to do so, and it's become clear to me that my speaking up is pointless.

I am aware of the concept of tone policing. What it has come to mean is that there is no such thing as a disproportionate response. So if someone does something dumb or offensive, you should immediately denounce them in the strongest terms possible. To suggest that someone who has inadvertently hurt your feelings deserves whatever vitriol you can muster just feels bizarre to me. I wonder why, if there is no such thing as a disproportionate verbal response, we stop there. Aren't acts of violence justified against people who say offensive things? I've seen people suggest that language is violence. Surely this deserves to be met with actual physical violence. Isn't cutting this option off just a way that the powerful control the powerless? 

An aside about power: if you have tons of followers on Twitter and you can mobilize them all to mob someone's mentions and say terrible things about them, you have power, no matter how you identify. Remember when Trump supporters did this to a kidlit author? It was rightly denounced as bullying. Yet when kidlit Twitter does this to one of its own, it's apparently justice.  The folks who led the charge will stand triumphant over the inactive or private Twitter account of the offender and proclaim victory.

So: is mobbing someone into silence bullying, or isn't it?

 I've said and done my share of offensive and stupid things in my life. I was and am a work in progress, and I've stumbled a lot. My friend Betsy recently told me about some appallingly misogynistic things I said in high school. I had completely forgotten ever saying these things, and I was ashamed. (Note to men who were not popular with the ladies in high school: you may want to check in with your female friends from that era to find out what you were actually like. This may cause you to revise your "I was just a nice guy who was ignored by girls who liked assholes" narrative.)

Maybe you've never said anything dumb or offensive. Maybe you've never hurt anyone's feelings intentionally or unintentionally. But I have, and it's hard for me to condemn people as less than me because they have too. This doesn't mean ignoring or enabling such things. But it means remembering that the person who did them is, like me, a flawed human with the capacity to learn. To assume otherwise is deny their humanity.

When someone spots something hurtful or harmful in a book, the conversation jumps quickly to "this publisher should pull the book." In other words, if I deem something offensive, no one should have the ability to read it.  "This book sucks" is legitimate criticism. "Pull the book" is not. I believe that literature, and indeed all art, has to have the freedom to be offensive, stupid, and dangerous.

Speak gets challenged in a single school district, and we spring into action to battle censorship even though anyone can still find and read the book. When We Was Fierce is apparently racist, and thanks to kidlit Twitter, the publisher pulled the book, it's in legal limbo, and no one can read it. Maybe it's as terrible as everyone says. I'd like to be able to make that decision for myself, but I can't.

Everyone who wants to ban a work of art believes they are doing the right thing. The people who challenge Speak legitimately believe that book poses a threat to their children, that it's so out of step with their values that it shouldn't be read. Kidlit Twitter is creating a playbook for how to censor literature, and if the forces of fascism are paying attention, they'll use the same playbook to censor something they believe is offensive to their values. They will rightly be able to point to kidlit Twitter's "successes" as precedent that when a group of people believes a book to be dangerous, nobody should be allowed to read it.

I have seen people say that they are acting on behalf of children, or fighting the good fight for diversity, or whatever, but the ginned-up nature of many of the controversies that define kidlit Twitter makes me suspect that something else is going on.  A six-month-old review in a journal very few people read is suddenly urgent? A book that's two months old with fewer than 20 Amazon reviews has already died on the vine. Why is it suddenly so dangerous that it must be censored? No, these controversies are about the exercise of power more than anything else. Which is to be expected when humans are involved, but the hypocrisy and sanctimony that attend this behavior really bother me.

Because the atmosphere of fear that prevails in the kidlit "community" right now is ultimately harmful to art. Writers will be afraid to take chances lest they get Twitter mobbed. Will agents and publishers take a chance on a book that addresses important issues but might be controversial? Or will they go for that series about the fairy princess assassin who can't choose between the fae prince she's destined for and the roguish human she's been assigned to kill? (Just came up with that. I should totally go into book packaging.)

Kidlit Twitter is a toxic place. It's bad for my emotional health.  It's bad to waste time on contrived controversy when the country is sliding into fascism and I need to figure out meaningful ways to resist. And it's bad for art to have the fear of an angry mob in your head all the time.

I'm posting this to Twitter so that people I unfollowed who I care about will see it, but I won't be discussing it there. I've also closed comments on this post. If you are a friend and want to talk to me about this, email or DM me. If you want to point out how wrong and evil I am, please do so without mobbing my mentions. You've already won: I won't be participating in any more online conversations about literature except to post reviews of books I've read on Goodreads.

I don't think I'll change anyone's mind with this, but, like I said, it's hard for me to shut up. But now I will. Goodbye and good luck.


No On 2: Students With Disabilities

Most charter schools in Massachusetts serve students with disabilities at a much lower rate than the districts in which they are located. If you are skeptical of this claim, I encourage you to go to the DESE website and check the numbers yourself. 

But those numbers won't tell you everything about this issue. Most specifically, the DESE data lumps all students with disabilities together. Which means that a child with ADHD who needs extra time in a quiet space when there's a test is counted the same as, for example, a child who requires a one-on-one aide. 

One thing I'm really proud of as a Boston Public Schools parent and a Boston resident and taxpayer is that the Boston Public Schools welcome everyone. When a non-verbal five year old on the autism spectrum applies, BPS does not say, "we can't help you." They say, "here's how we can help you."

Deaf students, blind students, students with "multiple handicaps which are physical, cognitive, and severe in nature": all are served by the Boston Public Schools. (A quick search found this document from 2013 enumerating the various populations of students with disabilities within BPS).

Charter schools are neither designed nor set up to serve these students. That's not an opinion. They simply don't have the scale to do the job. 

Serving all students, no matter what their needs, is justice at the most basic level. I'm proud to live in a city that does this and proud to live in a country where this is the law.

Serving students with severe disabilities is also very expensive, which brings us to Question 2.

Charter schools in Boston get the BPS per-pupil allotment for every student that enrolls. But, as noted above, they don't serve everyone. They were never designed to do so. And the BPS per-pupil allotment is higher because BPS serves these students. What this means is that charters in Boston are getting money that includes the cost of educating the students with the highest need without serving these students.

The students with the highest need must remain in Boston Public Schools, only now the budget is stretched thin because some students who don't need the services have left the system and taken their per-pupil allotment with them.

In other words, charter schools as they are currently financed undermine the ability of the Boston Public Schools to serve every student, including those with serious disabilities.

Question 2, then, boils down to a question of what kind of city, commonwealth, and country we want to live in. Do you believe that serving all students is a profound expression of justice? Or do you think those students are a drag on everyone else and should ultimately be left behind?  Because that is what's fundamentally at stake here. 

Are we going to open twelve new schools per year whose budgets rest on the backs of the disabled? If you look at the PDF I linked to above, you'll see that BPS serves 786 students who are classified as "severely emotionally and behaviorally disturbed." Imagine the challenge of raising such a child. (Or maybe you don't have to imagine it.)

Now imagine telling those parents that you can't help them. BPS administrators will be the ones who have to have those conversations, but we will be responsible for shutting the metaphorical door in those parents' face because it will be our votes that create the policy.

Can you live with that?   Is that the kind of society you want to help create?

I hope your answer to those questions is no. If it is, please join me in voting no on Question 2.

 

(Note: I've tried to be sensitive with how I've written about disabilites: if I've unintentionally used a term that is outdated or offensive, please let me know and I will make the edit.)


No On 2: Counseled Out

I've been trying to focus my commentary about why we in Massachusetts should vote no on question 2 and keep the charter school cap on easily-verifiable data. (Find my previous posts on this issue here and here.)

But I want to talk a little about my experience working in a charter school.

I spent 3 years working in a Boston charter high school in the late 90's/early 2000's.  Here are some things that happened during that time.

I worked in the English department, and we had two high-stakes assessments that students needed to pass in order to move on to the next grade. One was a timed writing assessment. This was given in the spring, and students had two or three chances before the end of the school year to pass it.

The other was "juries." We would give a student a poem or a paragraph, and they'd have a certain period of time to mark it up, and then they'd have to come in and face a "jury" of a staff member and some people from the community. They would read the poem, and then we would grill them with questions about it.We would score them on a rubric, and if they didn't pass, they would have to go to summer school.

This was true no matter what their grade in my class had been. Does it make pedagogical sense to have summer school hinge on a high-stakes, ten-minute performance on a task that depends at least in part on skills not explicitly taught in the class? I would argue that it does not.  But this is what we did. And we patted ourselves on the back for our awesome rigor. And also played havoc with families' schedules.

Because not only were some students who had passed English being sent to summer school, but students who planned ahead for their summers were punished. They would have to move around summer job schedules and family vacations. The school literally would put kids who had successfully passed all the work in my class in the position of having to choose between visiting family in the Dominican Republic (for example) and passing English.  

Perhaps this is one reason why our senior class always had half the number of students who had started as ninth graders. This is still true in many Massachusetts charter schools. This is why it bothers me when pro-charter hedge fund guys describing themselves as brave fighters for educational equity: charters subject their low-income students to things that wealthy parents would simply never put up with. 

As it turns out, a lot of parents agree with hedge-fund managers that charter schools are not the best choice for their own children. So a lot of students leave.

And, of course, students are also counseled out. 

Charter schools will tell you they don't do this. This is a lie. I sat in the meetings and was complicit in this happening.  It was done with this veneer of kindness and concern--"we see that you have needs that we're not going to be able to meet here. We know of a great program at West Roxbury High School [or wherever]where they can give you the support you need. We really enjoy having you here, and we don't want you to leave, but more than anything we want you to succeed, and we just feel like you'll have a better chance of success somewhere else."

This, of course, is illegal as well as unethical. It also gives lie to the charter assertion that they are better schools--charters themselves tell certain students that they will be better served elsewhere.

Most importantly, though: this damages children.  I know: I watched them cry in the meetings. Just imagine what it does to you to be told that you're very lucky to be in the best possible school, except, actually no, not you, because this incredibly awesome school doesn't serve people as broken as you.

I can't prove this happened. I don't have any records, and though I remember some names of the students in question, it would be neither legal nor ethical for me to reveal them.  

But it happened. I would swear to it in a court of law. If anyone on the other side asserts that it doesn't, they are lying. 

Please vote no on Question 2.


I Was a Teenage Bully

I don't particularly want to write this, but I keep composing it in my head when I'm supposed to be sleeping, so here goes.

I am a physically small person. I was beaten up with ease by people bigger and stronger than me a few times and threatened by people bigger and stronger than me countless times.

More importantly, my dad died when I was nine. I got screwed. Most kids I knew had two living parents.

I was also, from 7th grade on, a kid with no money going to school with the richest kids in my city.

So I protected myself with the weapons I had--sarcasm and a quick wit.

I considered any use of these weapons to be justified. After all, I was a victim in life and not popular with girls. (At the time, I blamed them for not seeing the generous, faithful heart I concealed under a snarky, indifferently-groomed exterior.)

Many years later, I look back at some of my behavior during this time with shame. I bullied people. I thought I was the underdog for all the aformentioned reasons, and yet I had the power to make people laugh, and I often turned this against people who "deserved" it.

People were afraid of me. 

Many of the people I was mean to were far more privileged than I was, and they still are: when you come from wealth, you don't have to do much to stay comfortable in life, and your family usually won't let you fall too far.

But I was not justified in being mean to them. And, in fact, in that situation, despite their numerous societal advantages, I was the one with more power, and I was indiscriminate in its use.

I'm thinking of this because of something that happened on the internet this week. I'm not going to refer to it by name because I am afraid of having a social media mob summoned against me.

But, to be brief: someone wrote something very stupid and hurtful. And they did not respond graciously to being yelled at. And a mob was summoned, driving them into social media silence and quite possibly killing their publication.

Here's what stood out to me. The first is that the offender, in a private email that was shared with Twitter, asked why they were being attacked like an enemy when they were not the enemy.

I know that the conventional internet wisdom is that whenever someone offends you, it's your right to go in guns blazing and denounce them in the strongest terms possible, at which point they must grovel abjectly or be mobbed into silence.

But the offender's question resonates: is this how you would talk to a friend? 

When someone you know and like says something a little off, how do you approach them about it? With some compassion and empathy, or by denouncing them in the strongest terms possible? 

Perhaps you've never said something that hurt someone's feelings. But if you did, how did they let you know?  

I'm not suggesting not being vigilant about injustice. I'm suggesting perhaps approaching individuals who mean no harm but cause harm anyway with empathy and kindness before rage. In other words, talking to them flawed human being to flawed human being. Treating people, even ones who have said something stupid, like they are people. (Note: I'm not talking about trolls who pop up and say outrageous and/or threatening things in order to provoke and/or silence you. I'm talking about people who unintentionally hurt your feelings by saying something ignorant and hurtful.)

I know about the concept of tone policing. I don't, however, feel that anyone has a lifetime license to be unkind to people. I thought I had one in high school. I got screwed over, so people who had more than me deserved what they got from my anger.

But here's the thing: they were still human beings. They deserved kindness and empathy because of their humanity. And I feel bad about the times I was mean to them. If you feel that someone's identity means they do not deserve to be treated like a human being, I would like to encourage you to examine that point of view closely and see if it holds up to scrutiny.

A final note: no matter how you identify, if you have the ability to get hundreds or thousands of people to angrily denounce someone who offends you, then you are the one with more power in the situation. If you have more power than someone else and you use it to humiliate and silence them, then you are actually the bully. Trust me. I was a teenage bully.


The Long Detention: Frank Dolan's Kindle Scout Campaign

In another lifetime, Frank Dolan and I were co-workers.  

And now we kind of are again, as Frank has written an absolutely first-rate crime novel set in a suburban high school. It's called The Long Detention, and Frank is launching a Kindle Scout campaign to get it off the ground. I sat down with him (on a chat client, but whatever. We were both sitting down. At least I was.) to get the scoop. The-Long-Detention

Brendan Halpin:  So, first of all, I loved the book.

Frank Dolan: Thank you. That means a lot to me.

BH: You really nailed the staff politics of a big suburban high school, which is an unexpected pleasure in a crime novel.

FD: Ha! Well, I guess I'm better at writing about the politics than navigating them.

BH: Well, you've got at least sixteen years as a high school teacher, so you must be doing okay with the politics. So you're launching a Kindle Scout campaign. What is that?

FD: It's a program Amazon runs where you submit your book through their program and people get to "nominate" the book for publication. You just go on the site and click on the book (or books) you'd like to see published. If they decide to publish the book you picked, you get a free electronic copy.

BH: So it's not like a Kickstarter or something where people have to put money down up front.

FD: Right. All you have to do is have an Amazon account and click on the book. 

BH: What's the advantage of doing it this way? Why not just self-publish?

FD: Well, the big advantage is that they pay you a $1500 advance if they pick your book. And then because they've invested some money in the book, they invest some energy in promoting it. I guess like putting it in their "if you bought this thing, you might like this other thing" emails and stuff.

BH: That's huge. What's the downside?

FD: I mean, they keep a bigger percentage of the cover price than they would if you did it yourself. But, then, if nobody knows your book exists, you don't sell any. 

BH: Tell me about it.

FD: So I guess it's like a chance at 50% of something instead of 70% of nothing.

BH: Cool. Well good luck: so if you get enough votes, you win the 1500 bucks?

FD: As far as I can tell, the votes--or nominations, whatever--are necessary but not sufficient. Ultimately if they don't like the book they won't pull the trigger, but if nobody is interested in the book, they're less likely to like the book. If you know what I mean.

BH: I do. So what's your pitch? Why should we go nominate you?

FD: Well, for one thing, it costs you absolutely nothing. Like, it feels like a pretty small ask to me. But also the book is good. I think it's good, anyway. If you like dark crime fiction--James Ellroy, Charlie Huston, that kind of thing--you'll definitely like this. 

BH: I can attest to that. I'll post the link and the cover image you sent.

FD: Thanks for your help! 

BH: My huge and devoted following is at your disposal.


No on 2: What Makes an Excellent School?

Charter school mythology maintains that charter schools are excellent. The astroturf organizations that venture capitalists fund in order to simulate popular support for charter schools have names like "Families for Excellent Schools" and "Great Schools For All." And, if you're foolish enough to get into an argument with one of these folks on Twitter, it won't be long before they compare themselves to Freedom Riders and you to an evil segregationist who opposes good schools for children of color.

In light of this, it's worth asking if charter schools are, in fact, excellent schools. There is certainly abundant evidence that they do not do as good a job of educating all comers as regular urban schools, but I'd like to take the comparison to another level. Charter backers often suggest that they only want to give people with limited means the same freedom of choice that wealthy people have. After all, if you've got enough money, you can move to any community you want and send your kids to the public schools there. 

By this logic, charter schools should be quite similar to the kind of suburban schools that affluent families choose for their children.  

So let's take a look and see if that's true!

I decided to look at Lexington High School, a public high school in an affluent community, and MATCH Charter High School, one of the so-called "Excellent Schools" that charter advocates want to open more of.

As one might expect, Lexington High School students perform very well on standardized tests. So do MATCH students, though they don't perform as well as LHS students.  

But there's more to a school than test scores.

At least in Lexington there is. 

Lexington High School offers Cheerleading, Field Hockey, Football, Swimming, Golf, Soccer, Volleyball, Basketball, Hockey, Wrestling, Baseball, Softball, Lacrosse, Tennis, and Ultimate Frisbee.

MATCH offers Basketball, Track, and Soccer.

Now admittedly, MATCH has a much smaller student body and couldn't support all those teams. But even the teams they have seem a bit half-hearted. MATCH girls' soccer plays 11 matches; Lexington High School girls' varsity soccer plays 20 matches. 

Lexington High School offers an extensive art program: they have a visual art department and a performing arts department that includes dance, drama, and music.

MATCH has no visual art teacher or music teacher. It employs one drama teacher who is also the athletic director. I am not making this up.

Lexington High School's library employs two librarians and three assistants.

MATCH does not appear to have a librarian or a library.

Lexington High School offers courses in ASL, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish.

MATCH offers courses in Spanish.

Lexington High School's principal has 18 years of experience as a teacher.

MATCH's principal graduated from college in 2008.

Now, comparing a large suburban school to a small urban one may not be fair. But this is the comparison charter advocates invite. This, they say, pointing at schools like MATCH (which I chose for this example only because they do a better job of retaining their students than most Boston charter high schools, though they still lag behind BPS), is the very best we can do for urban students.

This?

This barebones test-prep factory is the best we can do?

No: students in Boston deserve better. Students everywhere in Massachusetts deserve better.

And, in fact, they have better. 

Not only suburban high schools, but also Snowden, a small Boston Public High School where students can play soccer, football, hockey, basketball, wrestling, volleyball and softball. Where students can take courses in performing and visual arts. Where students can study Chinese, French, Japanese, and Spanish. Where there is a librarian.

Charter advocates would have you focus only on test scores, but these are not the only thing that makes a school great. The arts, world languages, athletics, libraries: these are not frills. They are, in fact, what the affluent parents of Lexington demand for their children. They are part of a complete education. And they are an area in which charter schools fall woefully short. 

This is not an accident. Charter schools have chosen to shortchange their students in these areas.  They have had twenty years in Massachusetts to establish themselves, and this is what they've come up with.

Our students deserve better and already have better. Expanding the number of charter schools will only weaken the schools working to educate the whole student rather than simply training students to take tests.