Do Fifth-Graders Still Learn to Read Newspapers?

Sitting in the terminal at Dulles International last week, I happened to look around me at the passengers waiting for their flights. While there were hundreds of passengers, I saw only a single newspaper among them—the one that I was reading. Later that week, while sitting in our Pittsburgh office, a co-worked passed by, did a double-take, and backtracked. “I had to stop,” he said, “because I never see anyone reading an actual newspaper anymore.” I was reading a copy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

The most practical lesson I ever received in elementary school came when my fifth-grade math teacher took it upon himself to teach the class how to read a newspaper. As he model, he used our local paper, the Providence Journal. I remember nothing about the contents of the paper on that particular day, but the lessons he taught us have stayed with me. 

He taught us, for instance, how to identify the lead story in the paper. He taught us the basic format of news stories, and how to tell who wrote them. He described the difference between a news story, an editorial, and an opinion piece. He taught us about sources and the basics of factual news reporting. He did all of this at a level that fifth-graders could understand. (He also taught us how to read the stock page, which I think was his original point, since this was, after all, a math class.) 

Since then, I have been a fairly steady newspaper reader, although there have been gaps. When I lived in Los Angeles, I read the Los Angeles Times. My local paper today is the Washington Post, but I still read the L.A. Times, part out of nostalgia, and part because I enjoy the writing. When I travel, I try to sample the local fare in news reporting, and am often surprised by how good the smaller papers are. You can learn a lot about a place by reading an issue or two of its local paper. 

The Little Man recently turned ten, and by chance, I was ten when my fifth-grade math teacher taught our class how to read the paper. It made me wonder: do schools still teach kids how to read a newspaper? Did they ever, or was my experience unique? In the intervening decades between my fifth grade experience and the Little Man’s, the Internet emerged and grew with all of its promise and problems. Still, with kids spending so much time on screens these days, the importance of newspapers can’t be overstated. I thought about how I might explain this to the Little Man. I started by considering the advantages a newspaper provides over social media, blogs, radio, and television news broadcasts. 

  1. Reading is an important skill to develop and a daily newspaper ensures that practical reading material is available every day. Some of that reading may be a stretch, but like any form of exercise, it’s good to aim high. 
  2. At the same time, newspapers provide a means for keeping up with current events. The Little Man grows increasingly curious about the world, asking all kinds of questions. As that continues, the newspaper can help feed that curiosity. 
  3. Newspaper reporting is not instantaneous. The benefit of a day’s delay allows for more accuracy in reporting. Facts can be checked, multiple sources consultant and corroborated, and in-depth analysis by experts can be brought to bear. 
  4. Editorials provide good examples of persuasive writing. They are brief, and focused. This is a skill that is particularly useful in high school and college. Whether or not you agree with the editorial writer, the model used in most papers is a good one. 
  5. Newspapers provide a mechanism for debate and discussion, correction, disagreement, and expression. If you read something that you think is factually wrong, if you disagree with an opinion piece, most papers provide a means of debate and discussion through their Letters to the Editor page. 

There are intangibles to newspapers as well. You might discover a writer you enjoy reading, and looking forward to his or her columns (always with frustration when they are on vacation and the paper puts out a re-run). The first time this happened with me was reading Al Martinez’s column in the L. A. Times. Then, too, many newspapers still have some great sportswriters, among them, Tom Boswell at the Washington Post

Although many newspapers are now available in digital format, I prefer printed editions, if for no other reason than they provide a daily reprieve from reading on a screen. 

I don’t know if fifth-graders are still taught to read a newspaper the way I was. But that single lesson stands out more than any other as one that has had a continually positive impact on my life. In teaching me to read a newspaper, my fifth-grade teacher helped me learn how to think better for myself, using what I read in the paper as both a learning tool, and a sounding board. 

I’d hate for the Little Man to miss out on that. 

Back from Pittsburgh

I have been in Pittsburgh for work since Tuesday. My days have been long (between 12-13-1/2 hours a day) and I haven’t had any time to write here. I got back home late yesterday afternoon, and was so sleep-deprived that I was completely out-of-sorts. After a good night’s sleep, however, I am feeling back to myself again. I noticed that Kelly has the new house looking completely unpacked and setup. All that’s left to unpack is the other half of my office.

I had a view of this church during my stay in Pittsburgh this week. I desperately wanted to get to a game at PNC Park. Wednesday looked like the prime night, but I ended up working late. When I got to the hotel restaurant, the Pirates were losing 7-1. But they came back and won 8-7 so that would have been quite a game to be at.

There is also a small bookstore that I meant to get to around the corner from where I was working–Desolation Books. I didn’t make it there this time, but hope to get back there the next time I am in town.

Halfway Through the Goodreads 2019 Challenge

Today I finished my 50th book of 2019, a few weeks ahead of pace. The book was On Democracy by E. B. White. It is an aptly-timed collection of White’s essays and comments on democracy and freedom, put together by his granddaughter, and with an introduction by Jon Meacham.

Last year, I read 130 books. I aimed for 100 books this year because I’d planned to read a few books which I knew to be particularly long. At this point I am 5 books ahead of pace, and I plan to gain some more ground before the end of the month with several books that I mentioned the other day. That will allow me to tackle some of the longer books in the second half of the year, including over the summer.

2019 Goodreads Challenge

4 Years of Field Notes

If you have seen me in the last four years, then you know that I am rarely without a Field Notes notebook in my back pocket. I can no longer recall exactly how I discovered these wonderful notebooks, but they have changed my life. A few days ago, I turned to the first Field Notes notebook I ever used, and saw that I started it on June 24, 2015–just about four years ago. In that time, I have become a subscriber to their quarterly notebook list, collected probably around 100 of their notebooks, and filled nineteen of them. These volumes sit on a shelf by my desk where I keep all of my important reference volumes.

My Field Notes volumes

One volume (not among the nineteen) I used as a simple index of the others. Looking at that one, you can see that it took me a while to fill those volumes at first. I filled five of them in 2016, five in 2017, and five in 2018. I’ve filled three so far in the first half of 2019, but that number is going up more rapidly these days as the way that I used these notebook has evolved.

My Field Notes index

When I started, these notebooks served as a kind of short term memory for me. I’d jot down things so that I wouldn’t forget them later. Flipping through the first volume, for instance, I see ideas for blog posts, scribbles from visits to the dentist, and bumper stickers I found amusing (“Condoms prevent unwanted minivans.”) There are some things that I no longer know what they are for. Numbers like 27.975. I think it was for some code I was writing because there’s a reference to a GitHub repo. There’s a surprising amount of math worked out longhand in the pages.

In those early volumes, I rarely dated anything, other than the date I started and finished the volume. It wasn’t until volume 7 (12/20/2016 – 3/18/2017) that I regularly started dating the pages. By then, I’d become more accustomed to pulling out my notebook without feeling embarrassed. Not only are there restaurant names, there are server names (so that I don’t forget). I even occasionally write down what I plan to order.

There are lists of all kinds, including lists of books that I plan to read so that I don’t forget. I don’t always get to the books right away, but I do eventually. Some pages have notes from meetings (before I started using Composition Books for that purpose), more math being worked out, and fairly detailed notes from historic sites we visit. (I am the one on the guided tours, scribbling in my notebook as we move through the 300 year old house.)

The two most recent notebooks have taken yet another step forward in their evolutionary development. I filled these much faster–within about a month, or a rate of 12 notebooks a year. With these, I start each day scribbling the date on the next blank page. Then, my day gets logged as it happens, and the various random lists, math, memory aids is right there among it all. A typical day now fills 2 pages. This has been a great aid for helping me with more detailed journal entries at the end of the day. Since I have been logging what I eat again, that finds its way into the mix. Here’s what today’s entry looks like, so far:

A page from 6/16/2019

I always have a Field Notes notebook in my pocket, along with two pens, one black, and one blue. On rare occasions when I have set it aside, I feel the way I do when I’ve left my wallet at home. I love the variety of the notebooks, and the themes that the folks at Field Notes come up with. Right now, I’m carrying around one of their Mile Marker editions.

Friends and family have grown used to me pulling out these notebooks to jot things down. They only make fun of me a little. But when they want to know something about what happened a few days earlier, I occasionally here them turn to Kelly and say, “Ask Jamie, he’ll know. He probably wrote it in his notebook.”

And I probably did.

Some Summer Reading

As one who likes to tempt fate, here is a list of some of my upcoming reading for the rest of June and early July. I say “tempt fate” because as I have said before, my reading is guided almost entirely by the butterfly-effect of reading. In other words, I make plans, and the butterflies laugh. That said, here’s what I am looking at:

  • Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (currently reading)
  • No Cheering in the Press Box by Jerome Holtzman (currently reading)
  • All Those Mornings…At the Post by Shirley Povich
  • The Great American Sports Page edited by John Schulian
  • The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found by Voilel Moller
  • One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon by Charles Fishman
  • Range: When Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
  • Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir by Linnie Marsh Wolfe
  • On Democracy by E. B. White
  • Ten Innings at Wrigley by Barry Abrams
  • Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide
  • The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam
  • An Army At Dawn: The War in North Africa (1942-1943) by Rick Atkinson
  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

What are you looking forward to reading this summer?

Reading Outdoors

When I lived in L.A. my apartment had a small wraparound porch. One side of the porch faced south, the other faced east. The east side was the shady side and the south side the sunny side. I spent countless hours sitting on that porch, chair propped back, feet up on the railing, and a book in my lap. I read The Three Musketeers sitting on that porch. I read 2001: A Space Odyssey on that porch. I read Carl Sagan, and Isaac Asimov, and Tom Clancy, and Agatha Christie on that porch. One of the things I missed most when I left L.A. was reading on that porch.

In the 17 years since, I still haven’t read outdoors as much as I did when I had access to that porch. The places I have lived just weren’t as conducive to reading outdoors: vagaries of the east coast weather, combined with a lack of a quiet place to read outside made it difficult. We had a small area in the back of our old house that I tried to read from on numerous occasions, but it never lasted long. On that porch in L.A., I could spend the entire day reading.

At the new house, we have the deck. A few days ago, I went out there in the late afternoon when the humidity was low and breeze rustled through the trees. I had a book with me, and my youngest daughter, and we sat out there, she watching the birds, while I read. An hour passed in the blink of an eye. It was delightful.

This afternoon, when all of my meetings were over, and the house was quiet, I went out there again. I took along one of the books I’m reading, Jerome Holtzman’s No Cheering in the Pressbox (#93 on Sports Illustrated top 100 sports books of all time). Once again, the humidity was low. A freshening breeze rustled the trees and kept the bugs away. I sat on a deck chair in the bright sun, and propped my feed up on another chair, and read. It was delightful. It might even be better than the porch in L.A. Time will tell.

Reading on the deck

We need to populate the deck with decent deck furniture, but I realized right away that an umbrella of somekind is critical. I forgot how bright a white page is when reflecting the light of the summer sun. Still, I enjoyed sitting out there. The house is situated far enough from main roads so that there is no traffic noise. With the breeze blowing, all I could hear was the wind in the trees. The sun felt warm, and the book, thus far, was excellent.

I have a feeling I’m going to get a lot of reading done out on that deck. I may even get some writing done out there. Heck, it was so nice out today that I considered taking my laptop out there and doing some work.

I still miss the porch in L.A. But I miss is a little less now, thanks to the new deck.

Writing in the Digital Age: An Introduction

Writers of old had it easy. Take sportswriters, for instance. When it came to actually sitting down and writing, their biggest decision was which brand of typewriter to use. Some of those manual typewriters could be tiring, but the stories were rarely that long. They filed their stories by wire, and then went out for steaks with the players, or each other.

Writers today have a lot more overhead. At least, this writer does. Few of us write on typewriters anymore. The Royal QuietComfort that sits here in my office has a broken A key, which would make writing difficult. Instead, I have to make a series of interrelated decisions that impact my ability to produce copy:

  • What platform should I write on (Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS)?
  • What tool should I use for my writing (Word, Scrivener, Notepad, Vim, Google Docs, etc., etc.)?
  • Where do I store my files (locally on the hard disk, in the cloud, and if so, which ecosystem to I align myself with: iCloud, Dropbox, OneDrive)?
  • How do I manage revisions to my writing?

For those turn-of-the-Twentieth-century sportswriters, these decisions were relatively easy: A Royal typewriter, paper and ribbon, a filing cabinet, and some carbon paper could handle all of this. Why have things become so much more complex?

This question has fascinated me for a while now, perhaps because I can never seem to settle on the right combination of options. I suspect this is because there is no “right” combination, and that makes things more difficult. I thought that technology made things easier, but the longer I’ve been writing, and dealing with technology, the less certain I am of this. 

In some areas technology does make things easier. It is amazing what I can do with the Alexa that sits here near my desk. But there are other areas where the choice of technology can lock you into ecosystems that may not fully align with your workstyle.

In this series of posts, I plan to explore the question of technological complexity from my own perspective as a writer. I’ll start by talking about tools specific to writing, but over time, I plan on running the gamut of tools I use on a regular basis. I want to explore not only the complexity of these tools, but look for ways to simplify. As a writer, I naturally want to spend my time writing. More and more I see tools getting in the way of writing. If that wasn’t the case, why do so many tools now add a “focus” or “distraction-free” mode? What choices can I make to simplify my writing ecosystem?

Writing is not the only area which tools add complexity. I see it in how I manage communications (email), and media (photos, books, videos, etc.). Even something as simple as contact management has grown inordinately complex.

I’ve been reading Jerome Holtzman’s classic book No Cheering in the Pressbox, and when I think about these sportswriters and the tools they used to get their jobs done, and compare them with my own, the complexity of my systems seem out of all proportion.

I’m attempting a top-down approach here starting with the choice of ecosystem, then the tools. And since I come to this through the perspective of a writer, that is the lens through which I will examine this question.

Who Needs a Scale?

Life goes on, even amidst the chaos of moving. Back in April I gave up caffeine. On May 28, I started a diet in an effort to lose weight again. For this effort, I followed the same plan that worked so well for me the first time I tried to lose weight: I limited myself to 1,600 calories a day. I took lessons I’ve learned from my first (and second) attempts at this and it seemed to be working, but I couldn’t be sure. That’s because of the move.

The fancy digital scale I’d bought a while back was packed away. I had not other means of measuring my weight to see if the diet was, in fact, working. Over the weekend, while unpacking some boxes, I located the scale–and the batteries were dead. The AAA batteries we had were packed away in other box, and I had no idea where that box was located, so off I went to the store for some AAA batteries.

But the batteries (and the scale, for that matter) failed me. Something within the scale’s digital mechanism had given up the ghost. No matter how many fresh AAA batteries I tried, the scale would not work. I decided I had to get another scale. I further decided that this one would be purely mechanical.

In the meantime, life went on. We unpacked. I worked. We attended soccer games, and end-of-year school picnics. Each time I ate or drank something, I diligently wrote it down in one of the Field Notes notebooks I carry around with me. I felt like I was making progress, but I couldn’t know for sure, not without a scale to tell me one way or the other.

Then I had to go into the office for a training session. I mostly work from home these days, but I headed into the office. As I passed through the office toward the desk I’d reserved, someone I hadn’t seen in a while, said hello, and then, tilted their head, raised and eye brow, and said, “Did you lose weight?”

A sample size of one is no indication that the diet is working, not in absence of physical measurement. But when I arrived at the training session, the person leading the training, who I also hadn’t seen in a while also asked me if I’d lost weight.

Two people, in completely separate circumstances, asking me if I lost weight was promising, especially in absence of a scale. I started to hope for three, but didn’t want to press my luck.

This did get me thinking that perhaps I don’t need a scale after all. Perhaps the best way to know if my diet is working is not to worry so much about the daily measurements. Instead, I’ll just occasionally visit with people I don’t see on a regular basis, and wait for some comment. The frequency of such comments are probably just as good as any scale’s measurement might provide. And more rewarding, too.

Bringing This Blog Back to Life

I have been struggling with what to write about on this blog for the last few years. I’ve written about all sorts of random things, more to keep the blog alive, and keep in practice than for anything else. I’d like to change that. I’d like to write something that was as impactful as the Going Paperless series I did for a few years. But so much of what is written today is echoes from elsewhere that it is hard to know what to write about.

Part of my struggle with what to write is that I enjoy reading blogs that are not necessarily centered around one theme. I prefer to read things that are like old newspaper columns, where the subject of the day could be virtually anything that piqued the writer’s fancy on that day. That is what I have tried to do here, although for a while, I’ve restrained myself on this because of the notion that I got in my head that a blog should be focused and not so scattershot. Well, I’m disabusing myself of that notion now, and while I do plan to focus on certain themes from time-to-time, I’m not going to restrain myself from writing about whatever is on my mind, regardless of how mundane it might seem.

I’ve given it some thought, however, and I am going to start by writing something new. I won’t commit to saying it will be a series yet, but it is something that has been on my mind a lot lately: being a writer in a complex digital world. I’ve sketched out at least three posts on this subject, and you can expect to see them shortly. I stopped writing about going paperless because I felt the posts started to become repetitive. Writing about being a writer in a complex digital world might also become repetitive at some point, and I hope I recognize that before repeating myself too often.

Repeating myself is something that I worry about. This blog has been around since 2005, and there are, as of this writing, 6,421 posts. I’ve written about just about everything, and it is hard to remember what I have written before. Sometimes, I’ll get partway through writing a post, and what I write seems familiar. I’ll do a quick search and found that I’ve written about the subject already four or five years ago. If I have something new to add, I’ll recast the post in that light, but more often than not, I find myself repeating things I’ve already written. So part of my goal with my renewed effort here is to touch on some things that I haven’t written about as much. If you do find me repeating myself, cut me a little slack, and know that I am now consciously trying to avoid that.

As always, I am open to suggestions. I didn’t start blogging with a master plan, but over the years, if I have any one goal, it is to write with an eye toward entertaining, to occasionally write about how I do things, with the hope that others might benefit, and to steer clear of the extremes that might generate a lot more traffic, but don’t add much to the conversation. If you have suggestions for things you’d like me to write about, drop them in the comments, or send me an email.

Sunday Morning, On the New Deck

Among the many little advantages to the new house is the deck. The deck overlooks the backyard, which slopes down into the local park—the same park our kids have been going to for ten years now. A deck wasn’t on our list of must-haves, but ever since putting the offer on the house, I’ve imagined sitting out there on Sunday morning, reading the papers.

This morning, after our youngest woke us up around 6 am, I took advantage of the unexpected wake up call to do just that: I went out onto the deck and spent nearly an hour and a half reading the Washington Post, listing to the birds, and watching the joggers and bikers descend into the park.

A picture from the new deck
A picture form the new deck this morning.

For some reason, it made reading the newspaper that much more enjoyable. I found several new books to read. Among them, Ballpark, Baseball in the American City by Paul Golderberger, and Ten Innings at Wrigley by Kevin Cook—a rare instance in which a review in the paper convinced me to add books to my reading list. Tony Horwitz, who recently died unexpectedly, has a new book out. I enjoyed reading Blue Latitudes when it came out, and have added his new book, Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide to my list.

Sitting on the deck and reading the Sunday papers may seem like a small thing. But given how hectic life has been lately, with house-hunting, packing, moving, unpacking, all on top of our normal jobs and chores, the quiet comfort of sitting out there made me feel good.It didn’t go unnoticed. When I came in to make some eggs, the Little Miss, noting my cheerful demeanor, said, “Daddy, you sure seem in a good mood this morning.” (Maybe I haven’t been a good mood lately?) I was, despite being awakened earlier than I would have liked. And I think it was due in large part to that hour out on the new deck.

New Office, New Theme

After trying out one of the newer themes here on the blog for a couple of months, I decided that I liked what I had before better. Today, I’ve reverted it back to the original theme, with a few tweaks for added clarity.

I figured that since I have a new office, the time was right for a new (old) theme. I may continue to tweak things over the next couple of days. But I don’t think the overall theme will change much again for a while.

My New Office

We moved into our new house on Tuesday and one of the first things I did was get as much of my new office setup as possible. I had to be able to work on Wednesday, and I needed my office to do that.

Our new neighbors mentioned that they were impressed with how quickly the books filled my bookshelves. I neglected to mention that, at this point, I put the books on the shelves in the order they came out of the boxes. It would be difficult for me to find a particular volume.

But the office is shaping up, with half of it—the working half—more or less functional, if not a bit messy.

The working part of my office
The “working” part of my office.

The other half of the office is another matter. I still have eighteen boxes of books to unpack, with no place to put the books as of yet. At some point, I’ll get some more bookshelves, but it will be a close call as to whether all the books will actually fit in this room. All of the pictures that hang on the walls throughout the house are also being temporarily housed in the other half of my office. It will be a while for that side to be cleared up.

The other, cluttered part of my office.
The other, cluttered part of my office.

With the new house, comes a new network, and this one is fiber, and I can tell the difference. We had good download speeds at our old house, but nothing like what we have here. We also have good coverage throughout the house, but even so, the two laptops in my office are connected via ethernet when I am in here to give me the fastest possible speeds.

Sitting at my desk, I am surrounded on three sides, which is something I’ve wanted for a long time. Now I have enough surface area for my laptops and notebooks. Nothing matches at this point, but over time I plan to replace my current desk with stuff that matches throughout the office. It is low priority. I need to be functional, and what I have rigged up in here is good enough for now.

My 3-sided desk area.
3-sided desk area

There’s so much to do I don’t even know where to begin:

  1. I need to organize the stuff on my desk to be functional. I want things that I need at arm’s reach.
  2. Organize what I have in the drawers. They are a mess right now. I purged a bunch of stuff last night, but I can do better.
  3. Hide all of the cables. I rushed to get operational, but I really want to hide as much of the cabling as I can manage.
  4. Add French doors to the entrance. It opens into the living room right now, and that has already proved tricky when I am on calls.
  5. Put all my books back into order. I may wait until the rest of the family heads to the beach for a few days later this summer to tackle that project.

All of that aside, I love this office. I love the light I get from all around. I love being able to look into the park that our house backs up to. It is a great place to work. I am hoping it will be an equally great place to write, to think, and to read.