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Diagram This: Victory Can Be Sweet, but Sticky

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, Nov. 5-11.

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Stop what you’re doing and listen carefully. Hear that? No, no one’s whistling in the wind—that’s the sound of a pendulum swinging back. Again. Since the 1960s, most teachers and researchers have steered sharply away from the rigid architecture of diagramming sentences, thinking such drills presented, as the National Council of Teachers of English put it in 1985, “a deterrent to the improvement of students’ speaking and writing.” Championed by a new cadre of true believers ready to pitch whole language into the overflowing Dumpster of Discredited Theories, students may now once again be heard spouting such euphonies as “predicate nominative” and “subjective complement.” Diagramming’s return comes by popular request from employers, teachers, and national studies, all of which have cited noticeable corrosion of student writing over the years. When Virginia recently revised its state standards, diagramming was specifically mentioned as an essential skill. “There’s a real hunger for grammar out there among people who care about writing,” says Arthur VanderVeen, a senior director at the College Board, which administers the SAT. But the metastasizing prevalence of standardized tests and No Child Left Behind mandates, and the hunger they create for easily assessable learning, are also at least partially responsible for reviving the diagramming movement first launched in 1877.

If only someone could map out what to do about the Orange County, California, Case of the Mystery Trustee. It’s been more than a week since Steve Rocco was elected a trustee of the Orange Unified School District, which serves about 31,800 students and has a budget of more than $230 million, but there’s some question as to whether he actually exists. Mail from the district during the campaign was returned unopened. An invitation to a PTA candidates forum, sent via registered mail, came back marked “Refused.” “We have never seen him,” says Paul Pruss, president of the teachers’ union. “I hear he’s kind of a recluse, but then that’s just hearsay,” adds outgoing trustee Bob Viviano. Trustee Kim Nichols says, “I heard he rides his bike. He likes garage sales. He hangs out at a 7-Eleven. I don’t know if any of that is true.” About all that’s definitely known about Rocco is that, without campaigning at all, he somehow beat his opponent, Phil Martinez, a county park ranger and local PTA president who was endorsed by the teachers’ union and spent more than $6,000 on his campaign. District lawyers are puzzling over what to do if Rocco doesn’t materialize for the trustees’ swearing-in ceremony December 9. They’re not the only ones interested in seeing who shows up. “I will be there,” Martinez says, “just to see who this mystery person is.”

Also on the subject of victories more confusing than sweet, many Arkansas elementary school teachers have found themselves caught in a swirl of contradictory dictates involving toothsome class rewards. Turns out that several districts interpreted a memo about a new state law prohibiting elementary student access to vending machines as a de facto ban on all sweets in school. The Pulaski County Special School District, for example, told its principals in October to ban the use of candy and ice cream as incentives or rewards. State education department Director Ken James says such directives have been proposed but not yet approved by the state Board of Education. So for now, Arkansas teachers are free to sugarcoat their praise for classroom achievement, though “we need to be conscious of what we are doing in terms of sugar content,” James adds.

The ever-bitter textbook wars are flaring up yet again. Hot on the heels of this past week’s discussion of teaching “intelligent design” ideas alongside evolutionary theory in Ohio, educators in Cobb County, Georgia, are still in sticker shock about an adhesive addendum to their biology texts. A U.S. District Court judge is hearing arguments over the district’s two-year practice of affixing a sticker to the inside cover of the books averring that “evolution is a theory, not a fact.” A group of Cobb County parents, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the school district, accusing it of mingling religion with science. The decal was added as a nod to the large proportion of conservative Christians who live in the district, including parent Marjorie Rogers. Rogers testified at the trial, which some have compared to the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” that she was stunned by the tone of certainty in the boo’s treatment of evolution. “It presented it just blatantly,” says Rogers, who believes in the Bible’s story of the origins of life. Other observers found such arguments exasperating. Says Diane Buckner, 59, a Cobb County book dealer who sat in on some of the testimony: “It makes us look like yahoos to have a sticker like that on a textbook.”

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